Residents of the Russian Federation are increasingly identifying not as Russians but as Siberians not only because they feel themselves different than ethnic Russians in terms of mentality but also because Moscow treats them like a colony and because they have closer ties to China and the Pacific Rim countries than to European Russia.
Indeed, according to some Siberian activists, 25 to 30 percent of the population there would welcome complete independence, 60 to 70 percent want greater autonomy from Moscow and “only about 10 percent are satisfied” with the current federation arrangements.
Moreover, these activists say, separatist and autonomist attitudes are growing rapidly. A decade ago, many who now identify as Siberians described themselves as ethnic Russians, but today they not only see themselves as Sibiryaki but are thinking about the future of an independent country or at least radically autonomous region.
Re-identification as Siberians is most widely found in Tyumen, Omsk, Novosibirsk, and Kemerovo, these activists say, and the most advanced thought about what an independent Siberian economy would look like is on display among students at the Siberian-American faculty of Irkutsk State University.
A major reason for this shift, they add, is that since 1991, “a generation has grown up which has never seen and probably never will see” Moscow, hasn’t travelled to Europe but goes to China or Japan. And that pattern is re-enforced by the fact that now Siberia’s economic ties with Asia are “better than with Moscow or St. Petersburg.”
Siberian activists have revived the green and white Siberian flag from the brief period during the Russian Civil War when Siberia was independent, organized into groups like the Regionalist Alternative for Siberia, the Siberian Movement, the New Roads of Siberia group, and the Sibiryaki movement, and hold an annual Free Siberia Day on July 17.
That date has an interesting history. The Provisional Siberian Government declared independence on July 4, 1918, to underscore the Siberian vision of having much in common with the United States where July 4 is independent day. Because of the 13-day difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendar, this anniversary is now marked on the 17th.
The Siberian regional movement, which was born in the middle of the 19th century, has typically flourished when the central Russian government is in a weakened position. Thus, the Siberian Government came into existence during the Civil War, and various Siberian organizations emerged between 1990 and 1995.
But when the Moscow government is stronger, it has suppressed such groups and aspirations, something that was typical of the first two terms of Vladimir Putin’s administration. But now, Siberian regionalism is making a comeback, an indication some in the region think Moscow is overextended and will weaken, allowing it to re-emerge from the shadows.