The other Russia: Siberia as a model

Some call Siberia Russia’s blessing, others its curse. But this vast region’s real buried riches can be found in its political culture. The Siberian values of individual freedom and political autonomy have so far not been overcome by Russia’s statist centralism.

A map of Siberia
Siberia has managed to maintain a certain independence from Moscow, allowing it to develop a distinct political culture. © macpixxel for GIS

In a nutshell

  • Siberia is the true ‘core’ of Russia
  • Throughout history, it maintained some independence from the central authorities
  • Siberia’s version of democracy would be based on freedom as a core value
  • This could serve as a model for Russia’s future political development

Siberia is frequently regarded either as Russia’s curse or its blessing. Both claims have a certain validity (interestingly, the facts behind each interpretation are virtually the same). Like almost any two contrary judgments, however, this dichotomy is false. The real meaning of Siberia for Russia and its global partners lies elsewhere.

The discussion does not even have defined geographical limits, apart from Russian’s southern border. When moving from west to east, Siberia begins soon after the Urals and peters out somewhere beyond Lake Baikal (Chelyabinsk and Yekaterinburg are not yet Siberia; Yakutia and the whole Far East are no longer Siberia). To the north, close to the Arctic Circle and beyond, somewhere between the taiga and tundra, Siberia almost imperceptibly fades into something else – an inhuman, almost extraterrestrial terrain.

Even its administrative borders are dubious: all of Western Siberia (Tyumen Oblast, as well as the Khanty-Mansi and Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrugs), contrary to logic and tradition, have been placed in the Ural Federal District and not the Siberian one. (Federal Districts are not mentioned in the Russian Constitution, and their creation in 2000 became President Vladimir Putin’s first major political reform. They are a tool of political control used by the central government for managing Russian lands; it lowers their self-reliance to a degree uncommon in federative states.) This decision was made, apparently, because otherwise the Siberian Federal District would have been disproportionately huge compared with the other seven districts, taking up more than one-third of Russia’s area. This would only make it clearer that Russia is, essentially, Siberia.

New image

Despite its hazy borders, Siberia exists as a fully autonomous entity with its own identity and way of life – socially, economically, culturally, even politically. Under certain conditions, this way of life might form the basis of a new image of Russia as a whole. That is why it merits attention.

In Siberia, almost any political impulse coming from the hopelessly remote capital inevitably fizzles out.

Siberia is the deep heartland not just of Russia, but of Eurasia. To an external observer, the region is mostly interesting because of its colossal natural resources – not just the oil and gas that everyone knows about, or other mineral resources, but also its forests and fresh water (which might turn out to be more important in the 21st century). There are also people living in Siberia, about 23 million of them. Their lives are very curious as well.

Most Siberians are concentrated in the southern part of the region, along the Trans-Siberian Railway. This urbanized belt stretches all the way to the Pacific, and comprises industrial, administrative and cultural centers. For centuries, it has represented the main, and at times only, communication channel between the country’s capital (either Moscow or St. Petersburg) and the trans-Ural periphery.

The string of towns traverses the whole country, ensuring its continuity. (As for the major oil and gas pipelines that run from Western Siberia to Europe, their role is also important but different – they form a digestive tract rather than a nervous system.) This “arrow of power” is thin and fragile – at some points (Omsk, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk) it is dependent on just two bridges – one for rail and another for automobiles – thrown across the great Siberian rivers a few kilometers apart.

Around this belt stretches a vast Zomia – a term that, thanks to James C. Scott’s book The Art of Not Being Governed (2010), has become a synonym for a “stateless order.” Such outlaw societies organize themselves spontaneously without any centralized political power, which tends to make interactions with the hierarchical structures of the centralized state uncomfortable for both sides. In the vast, sparsely populated Siberian space, nearly devoid of transportation and communication infrastructure, things cannot go any other way: under the tsars, under the communists and now, almost any political impulse coming from the hopelessly remote capital inevitably fizzles out. Here the definition of the late 19th century Russian statesman, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, seems especially apt: “Russia is an icy desert roamed by a reckless man.”

Actually, the Russian Far East is closer to the pure Zomia type; there, Moscow is perceived as if it were Mars, and the tools of state coercion like Martian fighting tripods – hazardous but clumsy (see the works of Leonid Bliakher, probably the best Russian expert on the Far East). In Siberia, the advanced strongholds of central power and the surrounding alternative civilization are not mutually antagonistic; rather, they are symbiotic. “Big Russia” cannot exist without Siberia; but Siberia, without its own gateways to the global world, cannot – and does not wish to – exist without “Big Russia.” Its identity is a melting pot: it is not ethnic or religious, it does not have any wellsprings apart from purely Russian ones. That is why there have never been any separatist movements. The oblastniki (“district people”) of the 19th century and the interregional association “The Siberian Accord” founded in 1990 and still around (though dormant) today have always striven only to achieve fairer conditions of symbiosis with the central power.

Cynical exploitation

Currently, this symbiosis is far from fair. Siberia has always been a fail-safe source of natural resources, which enabled the Russian state to overcome even the most difficult crises without modifying its economic structures. This is exactly what some people see as the Russian curse, or others as the Russian blessing. Siberian furs accounted for the bulk of lucrative foreign trade in the 17th and 18th centuries; “Siberian divisions” saved Moscow from being occupied by the Wehrmacht in 1941; Siberian oil and gas slowed the collapse of the inefficient Soviet economic system and became the financial lifeline of the Russian Federation.

Ulan-Ude, the capital of the Republic of Buryatia in Siberia
Cities like Ulan-Ude, the capital of the Republic of Buryatia, have had to tighten their belts as tax revenue from hydrocarbon and mineral extraction is diverted to the federal budget. © dpa

However, in the past 10 to 15 years, the exploitation of Siberia by the federal center has become especially cynical and one-sided. Siberian enterprises and lands are increasingly being gobbled up by financial and industrial groups that are tax residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg, thus radically slashing the revenue of local governments. Meanwhile, fiscal centralization is going full steam ahead, diverting most income to the federal budget, only part of which comes back as subsidies and grants.

That particularly applies to the tax on the extraction of mineral resources. The victims are resource-rich regions, which must now tighten their belts. They briefly tasted the fruits of autonomy and prosperity in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but now are growing increasingly frustrated; this mounting dissatisfaction is not concealed even by Siberia’s otherwise quite loyal regional elites. Those who obediently toe the federal line are increasingly perceived as compradors who assist the predatory policy of foreign colonizers for their own profit.

The only vision of Siberia’s future offered by the central authorities is its transformation into a landlocked transportation corridor connecting the markets of Europe and the Asia Pacific, as an alternative to ocean routes. Here, the symbiosis between the “arrow of power” and Zomia collapses completely – a handful of the local population is recruited to join the service staff, while everyone else is simply left out in the cold.

This vision for Siberia is unlikely to be realized. Not because Russia’s relations with much of the rest of the world are in tatters, though that is true. The problem is that as a development strategy, it is unprofitable and uncompetitive, as independent experts have convincingly shown. With no other options on the table, however, it will probably be pursued – particularly because it offers huge scope for corruption.

Siberian ‘core’

Now, let’s imagine a different situation. Changes would not necessarily come in a radical or catastrophic way – though even in that case Siberia would remain the core of Russia, reliably insulated from any external shocks. Back in the early 1990s, when even the preservation of Russia’s political unity seemed in question, the political scientist Emil Pain confidently predicted: “In a worst-case scenario, Russia might only ‘crumble’ from the edges, but it will not break up.” Obviously, Siberia would never be an “edge” to crumble.

Nevertheless, it could happen that when current Russian policies reach their limit (they are almost there), they would be replaced by very different ones. Both Russia’s political trajectory and its political culture would change. The easiest alternative (at least of the homegrown variety) would be the political culture of Siberia, which has more right to call itself Russia’s true “core” than any other region.

The level of political competition in Siberia is among the highest in Russia.

This role would not be available to the unpopular (to put it mildly) capitals of Moscow and St. Petersburg, which have used up their opportunities and exhausted the patience of Russia’s silent majority. This role also cannot be played by peripheral regions that are, along with the capital, Russia’s gateways to the world: Kaliningrad, the Far East, the Muslim republics (which most of the world sees as potentially belonging to a global caliphate). The historic lands of central Russia – Novgorod, Tver, Tula, Kaluga, Yaroslavl, Nizhny Novgorod, etc. – are completely dependent on the capitals; they have lost their own identity and can no longer be a source of political energy or provide a political alternative. They simply do not possess the necessary human capital.

All these regions could come up with their own development schemes, but they cannot offer a general framework for the whole country – Siberia can. Interestingly, this scenario has already been tried out in the “alternative future” subgenre of science fiction that is so popular in Russia.

‘Other Russia’

So, what features of Siberian political culture could this “alternative Russia” adopt?

Most likely, the result would more closely resemble generally accepted ideas of democracy. Even now, there are elements of political competition and autonomy in Siberian local elites that the central authorities’ best efforts have failed to uproot. For instance, the 2014 Novosibirsk mayoral election was won by the communist Anatoly Lokot in a freewheeling and honest campaign – he was the candidate of the united opposition.

In Krasnoyarsk Krai, the local businessman Anatoly Bykov remains hugely influential. He has frequently been accused of criminal connections, and due to prior convictions was disqualified from running for public office. Mr. Bykov nevertheless remains quite popular and still controls the powerful political machine that he set up in the 1990s.

In 2017, the gubernatorial election of that same Krasnoyarsk Krai was won not by a standard young technocrat of the “Putin cohort,” as in most other regions, but by a veteran local politician named Alexander Uss. Mr. Uss’s first election victory (for a set in the upper chamber of the Russian parliament) was 25 years ago.

This democracy will be less like the ‘soft’ European version and closer to the harsher American one.

In general, Siberia’s local politics are among the most competitive in Russia. “Electoral anomalies,” in which candidates from the national ruling party win by margins beyond any statistical probability, simply do not occur there.

A polity on the Siberian model will be a good deal less dependent on the fear that dominates today’s Russia and defines its political climate. Fear is not typical of “frontier people,” as Siberians are often called. They are far less prone to panic attacks and hysterical reactions to external challenges.

A Russia that looked more like Siberia could become a predictable and reliable partner (the principle pacta sunt servanda – “agreements must be kept” – is also part of the frontier ethic). It would not be possessed by a mania for expansion and acting like a great power. Instead, it would focus on internal improvements and modernization. Siberia has many of the prerequisites of rapid development: it is Russia’s most urbanized region, with the highest level of social mobility. Siberians are not prone to meddle in others’ affairs, and certainly do not take kindly to anyone meddling in their own – but those affairs will not be the kind that call for an external intervention.

Harsh democracy

Of course, one should not romanticize a “Siberianized” Russia. If it comes about, this type of democracy would differ from the “soft” European version and more closely resemble the harsher right-wing American version, with conservative politics of the Tea Party variety. Young democracies are typically more brutal than mature ones, and Russia is a young democracy.

This kind of Russia would be much less statist and paternalist and much more geared toward individual initiative and private enterprise – even when their virtues as a cure-all may be questionable. The rights of minorities would be respected, but only within the limits of the right to individual privacy, without endowing them with any collective or public significance; the idea of “affirmative action” would certainly not be popular.

The state would be very strong within its designated spheres of competence, but these would be narrowly defined – and would not even necessarily cover citizens’ physical safety. In typical Siberian fashion, it has the largest share of Russians wishing to legalize possession of firearms along the lines of the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment. As a Siberian friend of mine once related: “My neighbor constantly complains about getting fined by the river police. So I ask him why doesn’t he go ahead and register his boat? And he says, ‘Give me a break, the next thing you’ll be telling me is that I have to register my gun, too!’”

A Russia modeled on Siberia would not be an idyllic paradise. But at least its key value would be freedom – which is not a bad start.

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