As real as the Yeti - Western propaganda tries to invent Siberian Nationalism

Bryan MacDonald
Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist, who is based in Russia
© Ilya Naymushin
Siberia is not about to separate from Russia. Recent reports in Western media are typical of anti-Russia hysteria.

Britain was late to the Lottery game. I’m unsure whether it was a romantic attachment to the Football Pools or the last remnants of stoic, Protestant values. Anyway, the UK didn’t ‘enjoy’ its first National Lottery draw until 1994.

Nobody does light-entertainment TV as well as the Brits and the BBC took to the format with gusto. Soon, a Lancashire lady called Mystic Meg was a household name. Meg’s slot was good fun. The pseudo-psychic would attempt to predict facts about the future winner. Of course, Meg was usually very wrong. Her repeated failures became something of a national institution and the butt of countless jokes.

Not being a fan of 14 million to 1 bets, I haven’t followed the Lottery too closely since. Nor Meg’s career. However, I’ve long suspected that the hapless clairvoyant might have inspired a lot of the commentary one reads on Russia in the Western media. Some of the predictions over the years have made Mystic Meg look entirely believable.

Hardly a month goes by when somebody isn’t predicting Russia’s imminent demise. The conspiracy theories usually vary. However, regular suspects are the collapse of the government, a Chechen war redux, a demographic implosion or an invasion by China.

The daddy of them all came back in 1999 when Anders Aslund predicted ‘Russia’s Collapse’ in a seminal Foreign Affairs article. This groundbreaking piece pioneered the, then innovative, use of complete nonsense to scare the living daylights out of people in the West. It frightened investors, students and anybody who had any intention of discovering Russia at that time.

A Swedish Oxford graduate, Aslund had worked as an adviser to Boris Yeltsin’s notoriously incompetent 1990’s administration in Moscow. The ‘shock therapy’ prescribed by Aslund caused untold misery across Russia. Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz described the policy as “a failure.”

Nevertheless, in ’99, a year after an economic crash had sidelined Aslund’s protégés at the Kremlin, he twisted the knife. Amazingly, some still take Aslund seriously as a Russia analyst. Earlier this year, he predicted that Russia’s economy would contract by 10 percent in 2015. The World Bank estimates 2.7%. On the basis that a stopped clock is right twice a day, Aslund has been trying to advise Ukraine, through the opinion pages of the Kyiv Post. Ukraine, frankly, has more than enough problems already.

Aslund’s continued presence serves as proof that nobody ever went hungry from being continuously wrong on Russia. This surely warms the hearts of editors at the Economist magazine, where Mystic Meg may, or may not, work these days. Due to the fact that its articles aren’t deemed worthy of by-lines, this is unclear.

As Business New Europe’s Ben Aris pointed out last year, the Economist has “an institutional hatred” of Russia. “Those who cover and invest in Russia have long ago cancelled their subscriptions to the Economist; in Moscow at least it has a reputation for bias and selective reporting that makes its coverage next to useless,” the experienced Moscow correspondent wrote.

Not content with weekly digs at Russia, that extend from the subtle to the crude, the Economist finally ran the full gamut of A to Z last week and hit rock bottom. In an article titled “If Russia Breaks Up,”  they took the biscuit to the extent that the proverbial Cheesecake was denuded. Attempting to conflate the Ukrainian civil war with the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese war, the anonymous Economist author made the magazine look even more silly than usual.

© Ilya Naymushin

The Economist’s supposition centered on the ill-informed notion that there exists a groundswell of support for Siberia separatism. Even more ridiculously the magazine alleged that the dominant Far Eastern cities of Vladivostok and Khabarovsk are “more economically integrated with China and South Korea than they are with the European part of Russia.

This is inaccurate on so many levels. In fact, the precise problem with the Russian Far East is that it’s not integrated enough with east Asia and far too reliant on Europe and the rest of Russia for trade. Aside from a few ramshackle ‘Chinese markets’ and the odd Korean restaurant, Khabarovsk is as European as Galway or Lisbon, despite being over 6,000 km from the Ural Mountains. Recognizing the problem, the Kremlin has recently designated sections of the Far East as “special economic zones.” If Moscow feared a breakaway, it would hardly make sense for it to encourage integration between the region and its Asian neighbors.

The Economist is not alone in the sudden, rather bonkers, obsession with the notion that the Russian state might disintegrate through Siberian separatism. Of course, it hardly needs mentioning that the periodicals own home nation, the UK, is much more likely to combust as Scottish nationalists become increasingly dominant in Edinburgh and Ulster's demographics point to a United Ireland before long.

In the past month, both Quartz and the Wilson Quarterly have been beating the same drum. The former, headquartered at Washington’s iconic Watergate, is owned by Atlantic Media, which specializes in government-targeted publications. Meanwhile, the latter is controlled by the US capital’s Wilson Centre. Incidentally, Aslund has been associated with the institution.

The Wilson Quarterly’s Elizabeth Peet, a newcomer to Russia-focused journalism, based her entire argument on a Eurozine report by Stanislav Zakharkin. In turn, Zakharkin seems to have been inspired by a 2011 rally in Novosibirsk, titled ‘Stop Feeding Moscow.’ According to local sources, the protest was attended by the grand total of 100 people. Straws. At. Clutching. That was 100 folk in a city of 1.5 million souls. I’ve seen longer bus queues in Russia.

Not to be outdone, Quartz went for the jugular. Written by one Bradley Jardine, the article asked, “Could surging Siberian nationalism break up Russia?” When I stopped laughing, I realized that the author had interned at the US propaganda outlet, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The same RFE/RL that fired a Russian journalist last year for attempting to tell the truth about Ukrainian war atrocities. Perhaps, if Andrey Babitsky was still employed, he could have advised Bradley Jardine on the ridiculousness of his argument.

Jardine hilariously invokes ‘tensions’ and ‘hostility’ between Moscow and Siberia. He describes the 100-person march in Novosibirsk as a “major rally.”

Now for the reality: there is more chance of Texas separating from the USA than Siberia suddenly shunting away from Russia. For starters, historic Siberia is 77 percent of Russia’s total land area. The Siberian Federal District is 30 percent. Hence, even in the very unlikely event of Russian collapse, it would be the rest of the country separating from it.

© Ilya Naymushin

There’s also the fact that Siberia & the Russian Far East are more uniformly Slavic (95 percent) and Orthodox Christian than most ‘European’ Russian regions. This includes Moscow, which allegedly has a 91-percent ethnic Russian population, but that doesn’t account for the vagaries of Russia’s registration system. Furthermore, Asian Russians are generally more integrated than Caucasus Muslims, for instance.

This is not to say that Siberia’s demographic make-up is the sole reason for its continued loyalty to Russia. Aside from cultural ties, Siberia needs the protection of the Russian state. Alone, its more densely populated Asian neighbors would overwhelm it.

However, natives never discuss such concerns. For one simple reason - Siberia is as Russian as Balalaikas and Seld Pod Shuboi (a famous herring-based salad). There’s no desire in Novosibirsk to exit the Russian Federation and most locals would guffaw at the suggestion.

There’s also no danger of Yorkshire departing from the UK, Provence leaving France or Colorado separating from the USA. Quite correctly, the Economist, Quartz and the Wilson Quarterly don’t even entertain such crazy notions. Why then do they ignore reason when it comes to Russia?

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.