Now when the Putin regime is waging war with Ukraine, it is not easy to talk about anti-colonial sentiments in various federal subjects of Russian. Any open criticism is immediately regarded as “aiding the enemy.” The fog of war, described by Karl von Clausewitz, has spread over the whole country. The fog is so dense that even some of the regime’s critics who have left Russia peer into it and can’t see any glimpses of hope, which makes them interpret the situation as the majority’s tacit or even explicit support for the war. Some even refer to opinion polls. Yet they can hardly be considered reliable in contemporary Russia.
If not polls, what then? What can one rely on to understand what is happening behind the dense fog? To answer this question, we will use the example of the Komi Republic.
Environmental Activism as a False Bottom Box
One can begin by scrutinising pre-war anti-colonial sentiments and their causes. If these voices do not sound as loud and as often as they used to, this does not mean that the war started by Putin instantly scorched everything. Anti-Moscow sentiments in Komi were caused primarily by extreme inequality in the distribution of wealth between Moscow and most federation subjects, and it is impossible to believe that the current difficulties have made past grievances obsolete.
Secondly, one has to remember the protests that took place in Russia in recent decades. The biggest and most successful ones were the fight for a park which was set to be cut down in Yekaterinburg, rallies against the construction of a landfill near the Shies railway station in the Arkhangelsk region and protests against the development of a limestone deposit in Kushtau, Republic of Bashkortostan. As one immediately sees, they all deal with environmental problems. It may create the impression that Russians are very concerned about the environment. This, of course, is true, but it is far from the whole truth. Take any major environmental protest, and you will see a lot of neophytes who previously expressed dissatisfaction only in private conversations with friends. Environmental protest is less scary for people, as it is not seen to be directly about politics: it is about protecting their land and their children’s health, which immediately gives these actions a lot of legitimacy in the minds of those who engage in it.
On the other hand, all major protests are instantly politicized, and their participants, who have started speaking out, cannot help recalling their old grievances. At the first rallies against the construction of a landfill in Shies (on the border between the Arkhangelsk region and Komi) in late 2018, speakers were already mentioning Moscow’s colonial approach to the federation subjects: “we give them oil, coal, gas, timber, and all they return to us is garbage.” Activists started collecting signatures for the resignation of the governors. Soon, first in Komi, and then in the Arkhangelsk region, demonstrators began to call for Putin’s resignation. In June 2020, in Syktyvkar, a rally gathered from 7,000 to 10,000 people (by various estimates), and they voted en masse for a resolution demanding the resignation of President Vladimir Putin.
This is not simply an invitation to remember the glorious milestones of protest history, but rather a reminder that one has to closely monitor how the protest is channeled right now. The war is blinding in its globality, and it often hides numerous small protest hubs burning all over the country. For example, Kuzbass is protesting against coal mines, while Syktyvkar, the Komi capital, is fighting against another landfill. Many of these protests are still motivated by environmental issues, one of the reasons being that those dissatisfied with what is happening in the country and abroad find it safer and easier to blow off steam through an environmental protest. By the way, that is why the Ministry of Justice, like the Eye of Sauron, has recently turned its attention to environmental activists.
Cracks have long been spreading from the Power Vertical which dissects Russia. This system of vertical relationships largely boils down to all funds being extracted from federal republics, and the feds giving out from the general pile a little bit to everyone. For example, the Komi Republic, which has been suffering from oil spills for many years, has not seen oil revenues since the 1990s. And in 2009, the feds shaved off the remaining 5% of the tax on the extraction of minerals left to the republic. The lion’s share of mining taxes goes where the head offices of companies are located, that is, most often in Moscow. Thus, a resource-rich region finds itself in the role of a freeloader with a begging bowl. To understand this problem, a local does not need to be an economic expert.
In Russia, the phrase “The capital has blossomed under Mayor Sergei Sobyanin” has already become a meme, and Muscovites themselves put irony into it. However, the situation looks different in the perspective of those who live eslewhere: Moscow is flourishing against the background of the rest of the country’s impoverishment. To see how the capital has blossomed, one does not need to understand economic reports and consult statistics: the difference between Moscow and other places is obvious. The very comparison of the standard of living in Moscow and utside demonstrates the vampiric nature of the Putin regime.
Soon another difference will become apparent, which has nothing to do with the economy: the mobilized will begin to return from the front and the fact that the rich have been hiding behind the poor in this war will become much more salient and obvious to the majority. It is important to realize that this fundamental divide was initiated by the federal government, which subsequently did everything to expand and deepen it. The point is not even how likely the centrifugal process is in the foreseeable future, but whether it can be somehow avoided.
Dissatisfaction with the Kremlin Protégés
In September 2021, state employees in Komi were forced to take part in parliamentary elections. Oleg Mikhailov from the regional fraction of the Communist Party and Olga Savostyanova from United Russia ran for the State Duma. It was assumed that state employees, as usual, would provide support to the ruling party. However, they seem to have favored the opposition candidate. Mikhailov, who by then was known as an opposition figure who supported the environmental protest in Shies, called at rallies to stop “feeding Moscow” and advocated the replacement of worn out oil pipelines in Komi.
The fact that state employees came to the elections with tongue in cheek was discussed literally the next day after the voting. In a region with a small population, where everyone is in plain sight, it is virtually impossible to hide such sentiments.
Two unpopular politicians were exiled to be the republic’s leaders twice in a row. The feds had to remove Sergei Gaplikov from office ahead of time, as he failed the fight against COVID-19 and became notorious for stage dancing, friendship with the odious Archbishop Pitirim (Volochkov) and a rough treatment of subordinates.
His successor Vladimir Uiba was initially positioned as an intelligent doctor but was able to win the 2020 election in the Komi Republic by only competing with shill candidates. Unwanted Mikhailov was then denied access to the elections for unsubstantial reasons. Uiba managed to outdo Gaplikov when he said “I am your Putin” in response to a complaint from the residents of the Usinsky district about another oil spill. Another scandal burst in April 2021, as Mikhailov, leader of the Republican committee, accused Uiba of a fraudulent election victory. The latter, already on the sidelines, swore at his opponent and called him a horse. The president’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov had to stand up for the governor.
The public reaction in Komi was quite unambiguous: the behaviour of the Kremlin protégés caused outrage, and Mikhailov scored political points. After winning the elections to the State Duma, he gave an interview to North.Realities, where, once again, he expressed his anti-colonial position: “We aim to fight the colonial system. The situation when taxes go from the subjects of the federation to the federal centre is absolutely abnormal: up to two thirds of the wealth leaves the Komi Republic. We are in fact a colonial appendage of the Russian Federation. This is wrong.”
Uiba, appointed by the feds, became widely known for owing a business in the Czech Republic and being involved in corruption scandals around the construction of the Vostochny cosmodrome. Such a background is not surprising for Komi; governors are believed to be sent here not so much for feeding as for exile.
After his recent trip to the Donetsk region, Uiba again became an object of ridicule, boasting that he deftly dodged six HIMARS missiles. The war has not rallied people around the local government; the governors sent from Moscow are still perceived by many locals as an insult.
At the same time, local telegram channels are a constant reminder about the feds’ appetites and the failed economic policy of the local government. One of them, with the telling name New Republic, analyses the local budget for 2023-25 and reports that “Moscow will take more and give less.” On January 31, Oleg Mikhailov published a post on his official page saying that after an accident at a sewage treatment plant Uiba should either declare a state of emergency in Vorkuta or resign. The dramatic struggle with Moscow’s henchmen has not subsided since 2016, when the former head of Olympstroy, Sergei Gaplikov, became the head of the republic.
It is worth mentioning that besides environmental issues, social problems cause outrage as well. Ethnic tensions remain very painful too.
According to the 2010 census, 23.7% of the residents of the republic are Komi. In the 2022 census, their number may decrease significantly, not so much because they have become fewer, but because the census takers did not ask people about their ethnic identity. Some of the participants complained that their ethnicity was recorded only if they asked for it themselves. Some noticed that they were put down as Russian, although they identify as Komi. Demographer Alexey Raksha called this latest census crooked because of its poor quality.
Suspicions of the authorities artificially diminishing the indigenous population arise against the background of continuing rumours about the merger of the republic with the Arkhangelsk region, or about the abolition of national republics as such. As is now widely known, they appeared after the 1917 October Revolution and owe their birth to Vladimir Lenin. A year ago, Vladimir Putin used this as a justification to question the statehood of Ukraine and start the war.
Naturally, this causes constant anxiety and suspicions that the national republics may share the fate of the Uighur Autonomous Region of China, now known as Xinjiang.
After the compulsory inclusion in the school curriculum of national languages was abolished in 2017, a wave of protests swept through Komi. In 2021, Alexey Ivanov, whom the court fined for participating in a rally in support of Alexei Navalny, demanded that the case be considered in Komi and refused to speak Russian, which outraged the judge. This case has become widely known outside the republic.
In 2022, Viktor Vorobyov, later designated a foreign agent, and Nikolai Bratenkov, both deputies of the Komi Parliament from the Communist Party, openly spoke out against the war in Ukraine on social media. The anti-war position is shared by many channels that cover Komi culture, history, and language, for example Komi Daily.
The ethnic tensions in Komi have become so painful that any pressure from the centre can cause a fierce response.
Can the anti-colonial rhetoric in Komi lead to the republic’s separation from Russia? In theory it is possible, as the republic has a formal state structure, including its own constitution. However, geographically, it is more likely to become an enclave state. In addition, the internal demand for their own statehood is rather marginal. But will the republic demand greater federalization and greater economic and political freedoms? I have no doubt it will. As soon as the federal government begins to weaken, the republic, like many other republics and regions, will actively fight to regain their rights.