Staunton, July 9 – William Faulkner famously observed that “the past isn’t over. It isn’t even past,” words that apply with particular force to a society like Russia which is obsessed with the past and thus cannot escape the possibility that things some thought had been safely confined to earlier times will reemerge now and in the future.
Twenty-four years ago this month, Sverdlovsk Oblast proclaimed itself to be the Urals Republic and then asked neighboring regions to join it in a Greater Urals Republic, a project that lasted only until November when Moscow, having suppressed the Russian parliament, demanded that the oblasts return and the republic disappear.
But in the years since that time, Pavel Luzin argues, this idea “has lived its own often fantastic life far from real politics … a form without clear content” but one that arises from the desire of the people of the region to be linked into the broader world in a more effective way than now (afterempire.info/2017/07/07/bur/).
The Perm State University researcher and columnist says that “the main problem with the Urals Republic was that it did not offer or operate on any universal values or political principle. Its single goal was to occupy a position the Sverdlovsk oblast elite could use in trade with the Kremlin.” In other words, it was “more about money than about real federalism.”
But while that was true, Luzin continues, “the idea of a Urals Republic expressed resentment toward Moscow and that is how it has remained in the consciousness” of people in the region, who very much want to have closer ties with one another through the development of adequate transportation networks.
And because Moscow was concerned about that and even saw it as a danger, when the Kremlin created the federal districts in 2000, it “ignored both the constitution and the economy and the objective interests of the residents of this large region” by excluding things that should have been in it like Perm oblast and including others like Tyumen, Khanty-Mansiisk AO and Yamalo-Nenets AO that shouldn’t.
Nonetheless and “despite all these efforts” by the center, “the idea of a Urals Republic hasn’t died.” Urals residents feel a common bond not because of geography but rather because of their historical and cultural experience as “a Russian frontier” to which people fled or were exiled and “where arose its own ‘melting pot’ of a multitude of cultures.”
In short, “the unity of the Urals was formed by the political policy of Moscow toward this large region,” and especially Moscow’s constant redrawing of borders and failure to develop adequate transportation infrastructure. “This in general is the paradox of colonialism,” Luzin continues. The metropolitan center plays a key role in the formation of unities under its control.
“Of course,” the Perm scholar says, “one should not exaggerate the significance of regional identity: it is only the consequence of objective reality.” Instead, one should focus on “the material preconditions which make the unity of the Urals vitally necessary for people living there.”
In the first instance, that means the cities there because they are where the economy could grow and the need to link them together via good roads and rail lines so that communication among them can be made easier and quicker. But it especially requires societal agreement on the value of a republic as a link to the larger world.
In “post-Putin Russia,” Luzin says, the people of the Urals must take the following steps: ensure freedom of inter-communal and inter-regional associations, improve transportation among them, and guarantee that this transport network will be tied in “with the Baltic ports, other Russian regions, and Europe.”
Even if all that is achieved, Luzin concludes, there is no guarantee that a Urals Republic will arise overnight. But such steps “will give residents of the Urals a chance to remain and make the spirit of the frontier their already not within a colonial but rather within a republican paradigm.”