Kulekhov bases his argument for independence on three pillars: the geographic, economic, and cultural uniqueness of Siberia. Irkutsk, he notes, is farther from Moscow than New York is from London, and Russian involvement in Siberia is analogous to the British colonization of the New World. "We're so far away, it's easy to see that we're a different country," he said. Economically, he argues, Siberia has more trade with Asia than it does with the European part of Russia, and too much of the income from this region's vast natural resources ends up in Moscow.
What's more, Siberians have unique "national characteristics. We are very skeptical, don't trust anyone, we're difficult to negotiate with, and we do things the way we want them to be done. We're individualists." While ethnic Russians everywhere are Orthodox Christian, in Siberia they have a syncretic bent, incorporating some elements of the Buddhist and shamanistic traditions of the indigenous peoples of Siberia. (The green-and-white OAS logo nods to that ecumenism, incorporating a cross as well as a circular form that refers to Buddhist chakras.)
The OAS is claiming its place in the long history of Siberian political independence movements, from 19th-century intellectuals who first posited the existence of a Siberian identity distinct from Russianness to a short-lived anti-Bolshevik Provisional Government of Autonomous Siberia in the chaotic days after the Russian Civil War. Every year, OAS members make a pilgrimage to the grave of one of the early heroes of Siberian independence, and during my visit, the group's newspaper ran a front-page feature on the police force of the post-civil war autonomous government.
Kulekhov claims solidarity with other secessionist movements, which, he says, are everywhere in Russia. But at least for now, Russia is heading in the opposite direction. Regional governors used to be elected by local voters, but in 2004, then-President Vladimir Putin changed the law and decided to appoint the governors directly, greatly increasing the Kremlin's authority over Russia's far-flung regions. This would become a running theme throughout my trip: how distant Moscow rules Siberia imperiously, with little regard for the wishes of the people here. The word colony came up again and again in conversation.