Globe

In the land of the Cossaks, a dream of independence

September 09, 2012

By NORITO KUNISUE/ The Asahi Shimbun GLOBE

There is no such category, but that didn't faze the 6,000 or so Russians who listed "Siberian" as their nationality in the 2010 census.

Intrigued that there is even a budding separatist movement, I visited Siberia's largest city, Novosibirsk (population: 1.4 million), to learn more.

Local artist Konstantin Eryomenko, 35, champions the cause in an unusual way. When I arrived at his studio, he was putting the finishing touches on an installation titled "The Power of Siberia."

It was a rust-bucket from the Soviet era, which Eryomenko had spray-painted in brilliant green, red and orange.

Eryomenko said it would take two days to transform the vehicle, and he would post photos of it on the Internet.

"I'm hoping that in the future it'll be used as the official car of the president of Siberia," he said.

Two themes run through Eryomenko's art: a Siberian identity and expanded autonomy for the vast region.

His approach is to address these issues with humor.

As for Russians stating they were Siberian in the national census, Eryomenko said: "It started out as a bit of a joke. But when the Internet caught a hold of it, more and more people expressed their support."

I left with the impression that I had witnessed performance art rather than a genuine bid for autonomy.

"The act of declaring our nationality as Siberian comes from our pride in being residents of Siberia," says local entrepreneur and Eryomenko's supporter, Aleksander Bakayev, 34. "I don't want this movement to be regarded as a just a bit of fun."

Although Russia's inflation-adjusted economic growth rate was minus 7.8 percent in 2009 due to repercussions caused by the collapse of U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers in 2008, it has exceeded 4 percent in every other year since 1999. This growth has been bolstered by soaring prices for natural resources.

Most of these resources--oil, natural gas, coal, lumber and marine products--originate from east of the Ural Mountains, namely Siberia and the Russian Far East. However, most of the wealth they generate is absorbed by Moscow, St. Petersburg and other major cities in western Russia.

People and businesses concentrate in western Russia, while Siberia and the Russian Far East are plagued by severe depopulation. In Novosibirsk, incomes are around one-half to one-third less than in Moscow, but commodities are not correspondingly cheap.

Some elderly people who live off their pensions survive on just 2,000 rubles (about 5,000 yen, or $63) a month.

Infrastructure development is lagging and roads between Siberian cities are inadequately maintained; hence the reliance on Trans-Siberian Railway to move cargo.

"Siberia receives very little in return for producing vast quantities of natural resources," stresses Bakayev. "I want to shake up this state of affairs."

Together with three like-minded individuals, he produced a 40-minute documentary in autumn 2011 titled "No Compensation for Oil" to convey the realities to his countrymen and people overseas. It was screened in theaters in Moscow, at a university in Sweden, and elsewhere.

"The response was mixed, but it at least aroused people's interest," Bakayev said.

The documentary's director, Evgeny Mitrofanov, 36, says it is not independence that he and his colleagues are seeking. Their ideal is the establishment of a federation along the lines of the United States in which each state has sovereign taxation rights.

Mitrofanov, a trained lawyer, says he intends to take the demands for Siberian autonomy to court.

There are also more extreme groups in Siberia whose aim is separation and independence from Russia.

According to political reporter Aleksey Masur, 44, of local Internet publication "Taiga," Siberia is home to many descendants of exiles and Cossack settlers, who once formed a semi-independent military colony.

He says they have a strong aversion to toeing the government line, adding that anti-authoritarian tendencies are ingrained, and support for the Putin regime is relatively low in comparison to western Russia.

Another catalyst is the burgeoning growth of neighboring China. The thinking is that if China can do it, why can't Siberia?

"A startling number of Siberians think Siberia should be better off than it is," says Masuhr. "This movement toward greater autonomy is beginning to express that sentiment on their behalf."

FROM URALS TO SIBERIA: 3,300 KILOMETERS TO NOVOSIBIRSK

From Yekaterinburg, I headed for Novosibirsk and Irkutsk across the vast Siberian plains on the No. 44 express train that travels between Moscow and Khabarovsk.

Unlike the Rossiya, the smell of dust hung in the air. The light switches and luggage racks were several decades old, and looked as if they would fetch a decent price in an antiques auction.

The No. 44 express is operated by the Far Eastern Railway in Khabarovsk, where all of its crew members live.

Russian trains and railway equipment are invariably antiquated. The percentage of decrepit machines that had exceeded their serviceable life reached 60.9 percent in 2002. Since then, Russian Railways has moved away from constructing new lines to concentrate on updating its fleet of trains. However, those that are operated by regional rail authorities are as old as ever.

Conductor Irina is 24 and in the sixth year of her job. After graduating from high school, she attended

a railway technical school for one year before landing her current job.

At first, she was excited about the prospect of travel.

When working during the New Year holiday, she and her colleagues celebrated on the trains and sung songs together. The job was still enjoyable.

"From then on, it began to grow stale," she says.

Dealing with cranky passengers put a damper on her spirits.

As well as her work, she is now studying law at university level by correspondence.

"I want to change professions and become a lawyer someday."

By NORITO KUNISUE/ The Asahi Shimbun GLOBE
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Konstantin Eryomenko, one of the key figures behind the movement calling for people to declare their nationality as “Siberian” in the national census. Photo taken in Novosibirsk, the largest city in Siberia. (Photo: Yoshinori Toyomane)

Konstantin Eryomenko, one of the key figures behind the movement calling for people to declare their nationality as “Siberian” in the national census. Photo taken in Novosibirsk, the largest city in Siberia. (Photo: Yoshinori Toyomane)

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  • Konstantin Eryomenko, one of the key figures behind the movement calling for people to declare their nationality as “Siberian” in the national census. Photo taken in Novosibirsk, the largest city in Siberia. (Photo: Yoshinori Toyomane)
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