Thursday, January 7, 2016

Signs of Coming Civil Strife in Trans-Baikal Region?

By Richard Arnold

The Trans-Baikal Region is not generally known for its contentious politics or social disharmonies. But a recent open letter from the Public Chamber of the region to the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan of Chita suggests one could be in the offing.

On December 30, the Trans-Baikal Public Chamber—an organization created in 2010 to resolve social and political problems and defend civil rights in the region—addressed a letter to the head of the city of Chita’s Orthodox Church, criticizing the suggested transfer to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) of a building now housing a museum dedicated to the 19th century “Decembrist” movement. The open letter stated that “the mere posing of the question to transfer the building to the ROC has become one of the most talked-about in the region, caused a wave of indignation, and actually promised to split the society, threatening to develop into civic strife… the pretensions of the Chita Metropolitan might become the start of a dangerous split in a territory marked by peace, stability, and unity in the Trans-Baikal region of which we are proud. We reckon that today it would be a sign of positive historical memory, a sign of respect for people-patriots of Russia, local pride in our region as a place of kindness and knowledge, for the securing of social unity and peace, to preserve the Decembrist museum in its present form” (, December 30, 2015).

The museum commemorating the Decembrists was opened in 1985 in Chita, the location of the first cooperative community they had organized in the region. The Decembrists were originally a group of liberal officers from the Russian army who were encouraged by the reforms of Tsar Alexander I to demand further change and modernization in their society. The group was made famous in the 1825 revolutionary uprising against Tsar Nicholas I, an event interpreted by some observers after the fall of Communism as proof of Russia’s democratic heritage and aptitude for democracy.

At the Christmas session of the local legislature in Chita, Metropolitan Vladimir petitioned for the transfer of the building used to house the Decembrist museum to the ROC. Deputy Roman Shcherbakov supported the transfer, as did the leader of the Zabaikalsky Cossacks, Ataman Gennadi Chupin. Similarly, the consul of the Australian branch of the Zabaikalsky Cossacks called on his followers to mobilize in defense of the church of the Archangel Michael. Activists from the regional branch of the Russian Union of Architects have opposed the conversion of the building into a church; and regional authorities recently prohibited the construction of a church on the site of a local sports stadium. Reportedly, the activists have also contested the claims of Chita’s 140-year-old Cossack organization to a building dating back some 300 years (, December 30). It remains to be seen how the issue will resolve itself, but the contest is a microcosm of one of the larger social debates in Russia today.

The debate over whether Russian national identity is an ethnic or civic category—the Russki/ Rossianie debate—has been in existence since the fall of the Soviet Union (Valery Tishkov, “Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Conflict After the Soviet Union: The Mind Aflame,” 1997). The Decembrists are a symbol of a liberal, civic, and inclusive sense of Russian national identity; the ROC’s attempt to impose control over sites of popular memory symbolizes a conservative, ethnic, and exclusive sense. Some analysts have claimed that this debate is behind the spate of race riots in Russian cities over the past several years, including the 2010 riots on Moscow’s Manezh Square (see EDM, March 5, 2014; Vera Tolz and Steven Hutchings, Nation, Race, and Ethnicity on Russian Television, 2015) as well as calls to establish a segregationist regime with the North Caucasus. Debates over Russian national identity—and the need to undermine the appeal of ethnic-Russian nationalists by assuming elements of their agenda—are also behind Russia’s annexation of Crimea as well as the Kremlin championing the interests of ethnic Russians in Donbas (see EDM, October 23, 2015). Therefore, if not handled tactfully by the authorities, the fate of a relatively minor museum in a remote Russian province could boil over into the kind of social conflict warned about by the Trans-Baikal public chamber.

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