Vienna, July 18 – Ninety years ago this week, Siberia declared its independence from Russia, an event that Moscow officials much like their Soviet predecessors have sought to minimize but one that many Siberian regionalists today celebrate as a source of pride in their enormous land and point to as a model for their own actions in the future.
In an extensive article posted on the Irkutsk-based Babr.ru news portal yesterday that has already attracted dozens of enthusiastic comments, Dmitry Tayevskiy, an analyst who both tracks and supports Siberian regionalism, describes some of the reasons why July 17 is now a special day for those who share his views.
In 1818, exactly a century before Siberia declared its independence in the wake of the collapse of the Russian state after the October revolution, Nikolai Novikov, a publisher and journalist, pointed to the uniqueness of Siberia – it had never known serfdom or tight imperial control – and argued that Siberia should eventually be an independent country.
Remarkably, Tayevskiy says, St. Petersburg did not take his proposals seriously, writing them off as “the inventions of Siberian bureaucrats” who wanted more power for themselves. But almost a half century later, in 1865, the Imperial government uncovered what it said was “a conspiracy of Siberian separatists” who wanted to create a country modeled on the United States.
The subsequent trial of Grigoriy Potanin, Nikolai Yadrintsev, and Afanasiy Shchapov, however, did not have the effect St. Petersburg hoped for. Instead of wiping out Siberian regionalism — or oblastnichestvo as it is called in Russian — the trial, Tayevskiy says, it had the effect of promoting its further spread and development.
People living beyond the Urals recalled ever more frequently that “Siberia was conquered by force by Imperial Russia, that de facto it was a colony and de jure was not an inalienable part of the Russian empire.” The only link in fact was through the person of the Russian emperor who also had the title of Siberian tsar.
Consequently, when Nicholas II abdicated and his brother Mikhail refused to take the throne, Tayevskiy says, “Siberia lost any basis for remaining in this unity and received the right de facto for exit from the Russian Empire alongside Poland, Finland and other parts” of that country.
Over the next months, residents of all the major cities of Siberia held meetings to discuss the future of their land. They agreed that it must be democratic and live under the white-green colors of the Siberian flag but were split between those who wanted a confederation analogous to the United States and those who wanted a confederation with the Soviets.
By mid-1918, most of Siberia had been cleared of Bolsheviks, and on June 17, a Provisional Siberian Government issued to the world “a declaration on the state independence of Siberia,” establishing Omsk as the capital of the new country and democracy as the basis of its political system.
“Unfortunately,” Tayevskiy continues, the Siberian government did not have the chance to realize its goals. “The ideal variant would have been the immediate separation from Bolshevik Russia and the declaration of an
independent confederation.” But regrettably, “the Siberian government was drawn into the Russian civil war on the side of the whites.”
And when the Siberian government was subsumed by the dictatorship of Admiral Kolchak, “who was little interested in Siberian independence” but very much concerned with satisfying the Entente powers, “this ended sadly for Siberia” which thereby missed an historic chance to become a state like Poland or Finland.
If during “the extremely difficult (for the Bolsheviks) summer of 1918, the Siberian government had proposed to Moscow peace [and] neutrality” in exchange for “the independence of Siberia,” Tayevskiy says, “the proposal would have been accepted,” freeing the Bolsheviks from the weight of empire and giving them “a friendly political and economic partner.”
But that didn’t happen, Tayevskiy notes, and the “fault” as so often happens lay in “the lack of that political will about which we continue to speak so much about even in our days. Even today “the separation of Siberia on peaceful and legal foundations is a question of political will.”
That is because, the Irkutsk analyst says, “the contemporary Kremlin regime has neither the forces nor the desire to support and develop this territory. Contemporary Siberia is worse off than a colony since in exchange for the wealth [Russia takes away], Siberians now receive only poverty, illnesses, and the absence of any perspectives for the future.”