Polarization in Siberia: Thwarted Indigeneity and Sovereignty
March 4, 2023
  • Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer

    Georgetown University,
Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer updates her monograph Galvanizing Nostalgia?  to explore why many in the republics are against Russia’s war in Ukraine.  Drawing on long-term fieldwork in Sakha, Tyva and Buryatia and with diaspora communities, she outlines an uneven legacy of revitalization and grievances in relation to the Kremlin and its policies.
As we rethink our approaches to Russia, its colonizing history, and its current leaders’ aggressions against Ukraine, we must also consider vast parts of Russia’s eastern lands that are understudied and too often misunderstood. A Sakha (Yakut) engineer explains that most of his mining friends abhor Russia’s war in Ukraine. A creative gaming company founded in Yakutsk has decamped to Thailand with hundreds of its IT workers’ families. COVID crisis call centers in some republics have switched to mobilization information, fielding calls mostly from frantic women trying to save their husbands and sons. Women protesters in Yakutsk braved cold and jail to stage an antiwar dance chant (ohuokhai) in the main square; many were arrested.

Such narratives challenge surveys and publicity asserting that most “Russians” (Rossiyane) patriotically support the war or are not courageous enough to oppose it. Resistance, including arson against military recruitment offices, has diversified. Are non-Russians inside the republics, given their disproportionate mobilization, the exception to generalizations about citizen support for Putin’s fatal regime? Could Russia’s faltering “Federation” fall apart? These and other hot issues regarding the peoples of Siberia are explored in my Galvanizing Nostalgia? Indigeneity and Sovereignty in Siberia, featuring long-term anthropology fieldwork in three republics, Sakha, Buryatia and Tyva. I argue that Northeastern territories, disproportionately influenced by climate change, hold important keys to Russia’s wealth, development, and stability.

One theory about the timing of the invasion of Ukraine suggests that Putin hoped for a diversionary victory that could unite Russia’s multiethnic peoples against an artificial outside enemy, staving off domestic political, economic and ecological discontent. Instability and dissent have been building in the republics since Putin came to power and abrogated Yeltsin’s 1990s negotiated bilateral treaties. Polarization has grown, although secessionist claims were rare until the Ukraine war, and today are expressed mostly by diaspora politicians without relatives inside who could be punished.

Sakha: Resource Rich and Pivotal

The Sakha Republic, said to contain most of Mendeleev’s table, is crucial for Russia’s war economy. Its Putin-appointed yes-man leader Aisen Nikolaev has conformed to central pressures, including at a Northern Forum conference in late 2022, where a Soviet-style panel celebrating “100 years of republic sovereignty within Russia” lauded a history of mutually beneficial federal relations enabling “massive investment projects, social programs, increased infrastructure, resource innovation, spiritual development and the growth of unique culture.”
But this paternalistic propaganda is belied by resentments against resource extraction without environmental protections and by economic recentralization that has robbed the republic of their cuts of diamond profits."
Sakha citizens use an old Sakha word “Il Darkhan” (Elder-Leader) for their head of government to cleverly avoid the forbidden term President, and are proud of their Turkic language. The Sakha have regained a slim majority in the republic over the plurality Russian and Ukrainian population, in addition to Even, Evenki and Yukaghir Indigenous minorities. Many republic citizens, sometimes calling themselves Yakutiane, dream of greater negotiated sovereignty and hide their sons in disgust against a war they refuse to gloss as a righteous “military operation.”

Buryatia: Gerrymandered and Struggling

Buryatia, impoverished and gerrymandered, has a legacy as a once powerful Mongolic Buddhist state on the border with Mongolia. The dismemberment of “Greater Buryatia” began in the early Soviet period precisely because Russian central authorities perceived Buryat-Mongols as a serious threat. Today the Buryat constitute about a third of the Republic of Buryatia. They lost under Putin two satellite regions, Ust-Orda and Aga, sequentially amalgamated by rigged referenda in 2006 and 2008 into neighboring Irkutsk and Chita (now Zabaikalsk Krai) regions. Powerless to resist, many Buryat nonetheless resent land claims, privatization, non-negotiated development, and propaganda since 2014 that has proclaimed them “Putin’s Militant Buryats.” While Buryatia is known for high education rates and pervasive Russification, Buryats have fought for their language rights and the ecology of Lake Baikal together with some Russian allies. Their first President Leonid Potapov in the 1990s was a Buryat-speaking Russian. The initial post-Soviet period enabled conditions for successful revival of shamanic and Buddhist spirituality in the republic, and also for an influx of Chinese and other outsiders.

Tyva: A Borderline State with Demographic Advantages

Tyva (Tuva), nestled in the Altai-Sayan Mountains, came into the Soviet Union as a mere oblast at approximately the same time as the Baltic States. From 1921-44, the country of Tannu (Taiga)-Touva had its own monetary unit called aksha, and collector-worthy stamps. With longer borders than the current republic, it had been a protectorate of Mongolia in the early twentieth century. It became a republic inside Russia (RSFSR) quite late, 1961. Empowered by demographics but not mineral wealth, the republic is well over three quarters Tyvan. Many Russians fled its territory after anti-Russian unrest as the Soviet Union dissolved. In the early 1990s, a party called “Khostug Tyva” (Free Tyva) advocated separation from Russia, but cooler heads prevailed, such as that of activist Kadyr-ool Bicheldei, and Tyva accepted its economic dependency on Moscow. It is native son Sergei Shoigu has become Putin’s friend and Minister of Defense. Many of its impoverished unemployed youth have become soldiers on the front lines of the Ukraine war, despite their Buddhist backgrounds. Sadly, some became targets of seemingly racist Donetsk republic militias’ brutalization.
Soviet-style repressions and Revitalization

Cultural and civilizational ties among citizens of the eastern republics have been alternately ignored or considered threatening at various levels of government. Practicing divide and rule strategies, Soviet authorities repressed pan-Turkism, pan-Mongolism and homegrown Eurasianism without valuing their potential influence in defusing chauvinist types of more narrow nationalism. All three of these crossover ideologies have blossomed in the post-Soviet period with horizontal contacts, fluctuating degrees of official support, attempted cooption and understanding. People are nostalgic for various pasts, differentially interpreted and used in leaders’ rhetoric in various ways. Multiple and situational identities have flourished as many Siberians have become increasingly cosmopolitan. Particularly fascinating have been cross-republic revivals of shamanic and Buddhist activism, enabling all three republics to open themselves to mutual cultural pilgrimage, tourism and international spiritual seeking. The popular movement of shaman Alexander represents an example of the Putin regime’s return to Soviet-style repression of dissent using punitive psychiatry.

The China factor

A controversial aspect of politics and economic dependencies involves the degree of China’s influence in Russia’s eastern territories. While the Chinese presence is significant, it is crucial for analysts to be geographically nuanced, differentiating regions from sub-regions, republics from oblasts, and Siberia from the Far East, two separate mega-zones in official Russian conceptions. China has historical claims on certain territories north of the Amur River, but is far less interested in occupying all of Siberia in the Western sense. The presence of seasonal Chinese traders and workers in the Sakha Republic hardly makes it a target of territorial expansion. A Power of Siberia pipeline running to China does not give the Chinese territorial rights, nor does their observer status in the Arctic Council.

Ethnonational fault lines

Further interethnic complexities are built into Russia’s legal definition of “Indigenous people,” which diverges from international usage. Russian law defines its “Native” (korennye, from ‘rooted’) peoples as only “small-numbered” (under 50,000), while United Nations definitions incorporate larger non-state ethnonational groups with long-recognized homelands, such as the Sakha, Buryat, Tyvans, Khakas and Altaians. While recognition as Indigenous can be beneficial in the international context, it is less commonly used by peoples with named (titular) republics. A two-tiered system exists within the republics for “small-numbered” peoples, such as the Even, Evenki, Yukaghir, Todja, Akha and Soyot, some of whom complain of dual assimilation pressures. These are compounded by restrictive 2022 registration procedures, and new decrees that mobilize previously exempt Siberian Natives into the war in Ukraine. Many groups claim victimization with discourses raging along ethnonational lines. This influences how non-Russian elites in the republics think about their relationships with the federal center.

Russia’s valiant but dispersed opposition and its multinational “matryoshka doll” composition reveal fault lines in Russian society. While wide-ranging protests have been repressed, hopes for cultural, personal and societal dignity have not. Each republic within Russia valorizes different legacies, and has had various relationships with Moscow in the past century. Some are more polarized than others, especially those in the North Caucasus. Russia’s society is more fragile than many analysts realize. Whether Russia eventually will fragment along the lines of its republics, or hold at least partly together in a real federation through negotiation and nested sovereignty depends on its peoples pulling back from dangers of violence that result from mutual polarization. Siberians merit being on the map of international awareness, for their striking multiethnic histories and their strategic significance for Russia’s survival.

As the most enterprising and morally attuned of Russia’s multiethnic intelligentsia and workers abandon the country, recovering intertwined cultural, societal, political, ecological and economic conditions that could heal Putin’s authoritarianism becomes increasingly unrealistic. Russia may spiral out of any single leader’s control.
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