By Paul Goble
Russian politicians and religious leaders surveyed by a Moscow news agency are overwhelmingly upset by and critical of calls by Siberian regionalists for those living east of the Urals to declare “Sibiryak” as their nationality in the upcoming Russian census, even though census officials allow for such declarations.
The Regions.ru news agency has asked six Russian parliamentarians and eight religious leaders and specialists for their reactions to the “Real Siberian” virtual community’s call for people living in the Russian Federation east of the Urals to declare themselves Siberians by nationality in the census (www.regions.ru/news/2312221/ and www.regions.ru/news/2312196/).
According to Regions.ru, dividing up the Russian people “into particular ethnographic groups” and even identifying the results as separate nations “has a long history,” one that some but far from all would say includes the earlier emergence of the Ukrainians and Belarusians out of “a single Russian people.”
And the agency adds that there have been other more recent efforts to divide up the Russian people, including Cossack nationalism and Siberian regionalism, efforts that most Russians as well the Regions.ru commentator as well believe are artificial, promoted from the outside, and doomed to failure.
But the comments the news agency has assembled in this case suggest that many of Russia’s leading politicians are clearly disturbed by any manifestation of regional identities but that at least some religious leaders and specialists believe that Moscow has only itself and its policies to blame for this trend.
Viktor Orlov, who represents Kamchatka in the Federation Council, says that calls for people to identify themselves as Siberians promote “separatism” in that region and “could become a dangerous precedent that in the final analysis will lead to the splitting up of the Russian people into petty units.”
Anatoly Lyshkov, a senator from Lipetsk oblast, agreed, saying that the call for identifying a Siberians was “destructive,” could lead to “the establishment of a new social group,” and ultimately “lead to the destruction of the state,” which “would not lead to anything good.”
Valery Sudarenkov, a Kaluga senator, denounced the whole idea. “It is necessary to unite the nation, not divide it,” he said, adding that “the census must not be used for political goals.” Aleksandr Chukhrayev, a Duma deputy said that the whole business was “the most complete absurdity.”
And KPRF Duma deputy Yuri Afonin denounced the Siberian appeal as “a stupidity and a provocation,” “the latest attempt to raise doubts about the territorial integrity of the Russian state.” And he predicted that the call would not receive any support beyond the visitors to the “Real Siberian” websites.
The religious leaders and experts with whom Regions.ru spoke were equally worried about and critical of the call to have Siberians declare themselves to be of Siberian nationality but more inclined than the politicians to seek an explanation for why people living far from Moscow might be inclined to take that step.
Archpriest Vladislav Sveshnikov, a Moscow pastor, said that there is “no danger of the further splitting of the Russian people at the present time” and dismissed the Siberian appeal as “egotistical” and “paranoid” behavior on the part of “a few participants of this Internet community.”
But Archpriest Maksim Kozlov, pastor at Moscow State University’s church, said that such splitting “threatens not so much the Russian people as it does Russia as such.” He added that in his view, what is taking place is not so much the formation of a separatist movement than a growing sense among people beyond the Urals that Moscow is ignoring them.
Such feelings, he said, should be a matter of concern, even if they are not predominant anywhere or found in all Siberian regions. And he added that overcoming this will require more than just car journeys, like the one Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made recently that attracted enormous media attention.
Archmonk Tikhon of the Moscow Theological Academy said that this threat to the unity of the Russian people is “one of the most serious challenges of the current period at the strategic level.” And he added that “if Russians are divided up in this way, then Russia has no future as a united state.”
Ismail Berdiyev, the head of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MDF) of Karachayevo-Cherkessia and Stavropol kray, said that Siberians must be reminded that they are citizens of Russia. They should identify themselves as having “the super-national self-consciousness” that that status required.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Zinovy Kogan, the head of the Congress of Jewish Organizations and Groups in Russia (KEROOR), suggested that “a Siberian national movement” is “a dangerous game” and that efforts to promote a separate Siberian identity will “inevitably lead to separatism,” whatever the organizers say.
Valentin Lebedev, the chairman of the Union of Orthodox Citizens, said that any movement promoting separatism was dangerous and that the country needs to scrap the national republics as a dangerous survival of the Soviet past in order to ensure its survival as an integral state.
Irina Dergacheva, a language professor at the Moscow City Psychological-Pedagogical University, dismissed the Real Siberian virtual community’s appeal. She said that she considers “the initiative of the Siberians as simply a means of attracting attention” to that group and nothing more.
But Viktor Lega, a philosophy instructor at the St. Tikhon Humanitarian University, said that he understood why many Siberians feel as they do. Moscow often acts for itself and against the other regions, and this naturally generates a response. Indeed, “the separatist attitudes among the Siberians are increasing” because of Moscow’s mistakes more than for any other reason.