Khabarovsk, the largest city in Russia’s Far East, is known for its classical architecture, winter ice sculptures, and now, the country’s longest running protest. For more than a hundred consecutive days, thousands have taken to the streets waving flags, holding pickets and staging marches.
The protests were sparked in July by the arrest of the region’s former governor, Sergei Furgal. A charismatic businessman and local politician, Furgal scored a surprise electoral victory over his predecessor Vyacheslav Shport, the Kremlin’s preferred candidate, in 2018. In dramatic scenes earlier this year, he was pulled out of his car and arrested by federal officers, who had been flown in directly from Moscow. He stands accused of involvement in a series of murders of business rivals in the region in the early 2000s.
The incident has since become a focus point for frustrations in the Far East. While protestors initially demanded Furgal’s release from the Moscow jail where he is being held and for his case to be tried locally, their chants are now more often broad criticisms of both President Vladimir Putin and Moscow. Many commentators have been quick to speculate that these protests – in a region where they had previously been unheard of – mark the beginning of an organized, moderate alternative to Putin’s Russia. However, the reality is far more complex.
The Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, to which Furgal and his allies belong, is far from that moderate movement. In reality, it has tended more toward ultranationalism than liberalism, calling for Russian expansion into Ukraine and Belarus. In 2013, the Party’s representatives in the State Duma proposed a bill banning the use of foreign loanwords, which would have fined politicians and the public for using English words when there is a Russian alternative. The initiative failed to gain support.
Instead, while those taking to the street have vented frustrations at the Kremlin, their complaints appear to be less about domestic policy than regional autonomy. The scion of a prominent Khabarovsk family, Furgal’s local credentials were key to his popular support. As one protestor pointed out, “normally the governors are sent to the region from Moscow… But Furgal was different. He helped us.” His arrest – and the appointment of Mikhail Degtyarev, a Moscow politician, as his interim replacement – created a narrative that the Kremlin was interfering in local affairs from afar.
Russia’s expansive east, beginning at the Urals and stretching through Siberia to the Sea of Japan, has long had an uneasy balance with its western center. Since the days of Imperial Russia, its towns and cities have been seen as a mere extension of the European nation – an Asian frontier to be settled and tamed. As part of the Soviet Union, mass deportations eastwards and its status as a destination for gulag prisoners reinforced that notion. But now, as the protesters in Khabarovsk show, Russia’s Far East might be forming its own identity.
One major point of contention is that while eastern Russia holds much of the country’s natural resources – including oil, gas, and rare earth metals – the proceeds from their extraction are widely seen to line pockets in the west, rather than enriching local communities. A series of environmental catastrophes in the Far East, such as a petrochemical spill that led to the mass death of sea life in Kamchatka in October, angered locals who feel like they are being left to pick up the pieces.
While Russia is often stereotyped as ethnically homogeneous, around 10 percent of Siberians are from minority ethnic groups, and the Far East is home to more than 25 distinct cultures. Unlike the rest of the country, Protestant congregations far outnumber those belonging to the Moscow-based Orthodox Church. In the 19th century, Ukrainians were encouraged to settle along the southeastern limits of the Far East, from the border with China to the Sea of Okhotsk. The scheme was so successful that, after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Ukrainian-majority areas centered on Khabarovsk attempted to declare their independence as “Green Ukraine.”
Siberian regionalism or oblastnichestvo, as it is known, has a long history, but in recent years it has faced a new source of opposition. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia’s regions enjoyed unprecedented levels of local autonomy, with the federal government either too weak or ineffective to impose its will on their administrations. However, since 2001, Putin has embarked upon a personal mission to strengthen the vertical power structures leading from places like Khabarovsk to the Kremlin. His hand-picked governors, like the candidate that Furgal defeated in 2018, have been the linchpins of that plan.
Historically, Moscow has used the precarious geography of the Far East against those who sought to distance themselves from its power. With China’s eastern borders beginning just across the river from Khabarovsk, the threat of expansionism and the need for protection was a compelling argument against going it alone. But now China’s presence in the Far East is being felt in an altogether different way. Beijing is behind billions of dollars of investment in the region, fueling both the stagnating economy but and tensions with the local population.
Russian media has repeatedly claimed as fact a narrative that Chinese investment has been accompanied by mass Chinese migration to the Far East, creating fears that the region is within Beijing’s sights. The reality that the Chinese presence is not growing, but declining has done little to assuage those concerns. One internet documentary, “China – a Deadly Friend,” went viral in 2015 with claims that Chinese tanks could roll into central Khabarovsk in under 30 minutes. In granting a series of concessions to Chinese firms, Moscow has itself become a focus of anger, with locals fearing their home is being offered up as “a raw materials supplier for the People’s Republic of China.”
Regional elections in September gave a clear sign that those tensions are coming to the fore. Elsewhere in Siberia, opposition candidates handed rare defeats to the ruling United Russia Party, with allies of poisoned opposition politician Alexei Navalny gaining seats in the Central Asian cities of Tomsk and Novosibirsk. While Navalny’s blend of ethnic nationalism might have made him an unlikely figure for young Russians to unite around, his prominence as a critic of the Kremlin made his bloc the de facto choice for a protest vote.
While some in Russia’s Far East do occasionally speak of an independent “United States of Siberia,” the idea lacks prominent supporters or any realistic prospect of success. However, the tensions behind it and the growing resistance to being directly governed from another continent will continue to define relations between Russia’s center and its extremities. For those in Russia’s Far East, Moscow might seem like a world away – with eight time zones and a five-day train journey dividing them. Now though, the distance between the two looks to be growing.
Gabriel Gavin is a writer and political consultant living in London. His reporting and analysis on Central and Eastern Europe has been featured in print and online for outlets including The Independent, UnHerd and The Kyiv Post.