20 years under Putin: a timeline

Recent protests in the Russian Far East region of Khabarovsk reignited the discussions about separatist tendencies in the country and the tense relations between Moscow and the regions. The highly centralized government system constantly breeds local grievances and fuels resentment, with local identities in some regions becoming stronger than national or ethnic ones. The centrifugal forces in some parts of Russia are indeed strong, but scenarios of Russian disintegration become plausible only if Moscow’s grip on power is weakened.


July 18, 2020: At a mass protest in Khabarovsk people hold posters that read: “Freedom for Khabarovsk region's governor Sergei Furgal” (right) and “Moscow, get out from our rivers, our resources, our taiga” (left). Photo: Igor Volkov / AP.


The course of history is largely unpredictable, and often runs counter to what was foreseen by observers of the age. After the collapse of the USSR, the era of “globalization” was proclaimed, with the expectation that in the long run all countries would integrate into one political body. And if not all countries, then at least Europe. Almost 30 years later, it is clear that the opposite has happened: separatism is spreading even in countries that were unified centuries ago. Scotland wants to be independent from the UK, and Catalonia from Spain, despite the fact that the former entered the union with England in early 18th century, and the latter became part of the unified Spain in the 15th.

Russia is no stranger to such trends. Following the collapse of the USSR, the centrifugal forces that drove disintegration gained momentum. They were observed not just in ethnic enclaves, such as Tatarstan, but even in areas populated by mostly ethnic Russians, such as Sverdlovsk Region, who expressed a desire to establish their own states and maintain only loose connections with Moscow. What they envisioned as an ideal model was likely a Russian version of the Holy Roman Empire—the medieval Germanic state, where the emperor, the symbol of a central government, was no more than a figurehead.

When Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, he focused on taming separatist attitudes in the Russian regions. Still, as time progressed, these attitudes re-emerged and become increasingly visible in recent developments in Khabarovsk.


Far Eastern separatists

The ongoing protests in Khabarovsk Krai in Russia’s Far East showcase this continuous separatist sentiment within the Russian state. It is not entirely surprising, since a nominally independent Far Eastern Republic did actually exist not so long ago—in 1920-1922, following the Russian Revolution and Civil War. It was subsequently occupied by the Red Army and merged with the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.

After the Soviet Union ceased to be in 1991, the region developed deep resentment toward Moscow, mostly due to economic reasons. This sentiment was seen, for example, in 2008 during mass protests over increased car tariffs, or in 2010, when a group of young Russians, who became known as the “Primorsky partisans,” got so enraged with police brutality that they took up arms and declared a guerilla war on law enforcement officials. Their actions were overwhelmingly supported by Russians who saw the group as modern-day Robin Hoods.

The recent protests in Khabarovsk also exhibit strong separatist overtones. Originally, the rallies were sparked by the arrest of the popular governor Sergei Furgal on murder charges (that many observers deem as bogus). But the fact that Furgal was brought to Moscow for trial instead of standing in his city of Khabarovsk outraged protesters even more. They saw it as another sign of Putin’s authoritarianism and disregard for local interests. The sense of power abuse, violation of the rule of law, and local grievances soon blended into a general condemnation of the Putin regime laced with separatist strive. 

The arrest of Sergei Furgal showcases the hollowness of the Kremlin’s party system

One can see this sentiment expressed not just in the waving of Khabarovsk flags, but also hear it in protesters’ speeches. These regular demonstrations have created an opportunity for people of different political philosophies to speak freely at local meetings. The leftists, for example, predictably blast capitalism and evoke Soviet nostalgia, but even they project separatism toward Moscow, which they perceive as a conduit of capitalism to the Far East and as the reason for the destruction of the USSR. Clearly, their conclusion is that the Far East should distance itself from Moscow as much as possible.


Ural Republic

The Russian Far East is not unique in its separatism. Similar feelings are widespread in the Urals, particularly in Yekaterinburg—the fourth largest Russian city, which the author of this piece has visited many times. During the Yeltsin era, in 1993, local governor Eduard Rossel decided to promulgate the so-called “Ural Republic” and even printed currency for a future state—the Uralian franc. The project led nowhere, and Rossel soon lost his job. Still, the separatist idea remained rather popular, as Moscow was still treated by locals with suspicion.

In May 2019, a plan to build a church in the place of a small park led to protests that caused a great stir. Two Russian metal magnates—Andrei Kozitsyn and Igor Altushkin—pledged to invest in the construction, despite 74 percent of local residents being vehemently opposed to the destruction of their beloved park. Their indignant persistence resulted in the Yekaterinburg City Duma unanimously voting against the project. But YouTube videos of protesters interacting with negotiators for the authorities reveal the depth of the hostility toward anyone from Moscow.

May 14, 2019: Residents of Yekatrinburg protest against the church construction in the local park slated for destruction. Photo: Leonid Makarov / Wikimedia Commons.


Yekaterinburg’s separatist feelings have also been encouraged by a peculiar vision of Russian history. It is well displayed in the Yeltsin Center, a large building erected to honor Russia’s first president in the city center. The first floor of the center is dedicated to Soviet history. Before entering the museum, visitors are invited into a hall to see a short movie about Russian history—from the beginning of Russian statehood to the Yeltsin era. According to the narrative, the country’s major enemies were not the numerous foreign invaders, even those as devastating as the Tatar-Mongols or the Nazis, but Russia’s own government. For centuries, it made the lives of its people miserable.

This narrative leads to a simple logical conclusion: if the rule of tsars and general secretaries was so evil, then how is Putin’s—or more broadly, Moscow’s— rule any better? It also suggests that the disintegration of the USSR was a positive development or, at least, not “the greatest catastrophe of the 21st century,” as Putin called it. I have personally watched young Russians visit the exhibition, which displays the agony of the USSR, and observe it with such indifference as if it had told the story of the Roman Empire.


Local identities

The regions’ assumption that Moscow is either irrelevant to their fate or hostile to them gave rise to local identities, which became, in some cases, stronger than national or ethnic ones. This trend has a long history.

One example is the Siberian oblastnichestvo (from the Russia word oblast, which means “region”)—a concept that is over a century old. Its proponents claim that Siberians are distinctly different from Russians residing in the European part of Russia (west of the Urals). They dismiss the notion of a common language, arguing that linguistic and cultural roots do not make Americans and British one nation. The elements of these regional identities already existed in the Soviet era, but were rather vague, mostly due to the centralized nature of the totalitarian state. During the post-Soviet era they reemerged and are still present today.

Similarly, in Yekaterinburg, which is located on the border between Europe and Asia, the sense of local identity has overcome ethnic affiliation. Several years ago, when I visited the city, I heard a taxi driver praise Rossel. Playing devil’s advocate, I reminded him that Rossel was an ethnic German—a foreigner to Russia. “So what?” he snapped back. “He is our man, he is from the Urals.” This strong local identity might have helped residents of Yekaterinburg overcome the latent anti-Semitism typical of Russia—at least in the form of suspicion toward Jews—and elect Yekaterinbug native Yevgeny Roizman, a Jew on his father’s side, as their mayor.


Russians after Russia

The idea of Russia’s disintegration is sometimes discussed in intellectual circles. The question of what will happen, if it does, is explored by Yekaterinburg political analyst Fyodor Krasheninnikov in his 2008 book After Russia. The narrative of this quite provocative book focuses on several people who spoke the same language, but whose interests, problems, feelings, and worldviews were so different that they were essentially foreigners to each other. The book implied that these different identities could be easily forged, which is what had happened in the Urals.

In the book, a major economic crisis has led to the collapse of the government in Moscow. Russia’s ruler—Putin or one of his successors—could no longer retain power. This leader, so recently adored, becomes a hate figure overnight, his portraits are trampled. Russia falls apart, and the Ural Republic emerges.

Since its leaders are anxious to develop the ideology of the emerging state, they find a Urals philosopher to do the job. This philosopher has previously studied the work of Nikolai Berdyaev, a well-known Russian émigré thinker, who said that “the Russian soul is feminine, and she always looks for a groom from the West.” The philosopher is quite successful as a young scholar; however, over time his academic position loses prestige and his wife leaves him. Musing about Berdyaev’s vision of Russia as a woman, he concludes that Russia is a whore and begins to publish Russophobic articles on the Internet.

It is around this point in the philosopher’s miserable life that the leaders of the new republic propose that he create the ideology of “Uralianism” (Ural’stvo). The man eagerly agrees. At the end of his endeavor, he decides that Russian people residing in the Urals and Moscow speak absolutely different languages, represent different cultures, and their similarities are entirely artificial. “Uralianism” also professes that Moscow is Uralians’ worst enemy, with the latter’s liberation from the Muscovite yoke comparable to that of the American patriots from the British Crown.


The roots of separatist feelings

Why does separatism in Russia persist? One of the key reasons is the centralized tax system: all taxes first go to Moscow, which then distributes them back to the regions. This imposed authority surely breads deep resentment in the regions. It is not surprising that many believe that Moscow-based corporations ruthlessly exploit natural resources without giving back to the regions where these resources are located. The growing inequality fuels the perception that Moscow is stuffing its coffers at the expense of the provinces. But there is another reason. Top local businessmen are often elected as local government officials, since their connection to their region is somewhat feudal, often much stronger than similar ties in the West. Like feudal barons, they are often at odds with the central government, wishing to limit the king’s power.

Still, these separatist tendencies do not mean that Russia is destined for disintegration. As a matter of fact, the Soviet Union could have survived to this day if Mikhail Gorbachev had not slackened control over the state. The same can be said about present-day Russia. It can exist in its current form if Moscow continues to exert control over regions. But should its power diminish, the state could fall apart at the same speed as the Soviet Union. If this were to happen, the local identities, even in the regions populated by ethnic Russians, could crystallize as separate entities. And, if we are to believe Krasheninnikov’s foresight, the locals would be convinced that not only do they have nothing to do with Moscow, but Moscow is their “historical” enemy. 

However, one should also bear in mind that, while the prospect of an independent Urals or Far East, with their separate identities, might seem attractive to some thinkers, as did the possibility of an independent Ukraine or other Soviet republic just a few generations ago, the present-day crises facing these newly created states are the real-life consequences to separatist fantasies.