Paul Goble reports:
For the first time in more than a century, a Moscow-based politician and scholar from the Altai says, Russia’s central government has “cast aside” Siberia, a region that is not only rich in natural resources but whose unique spirit is critical for reform, thus putting the future of Russia as a whole at risk. In an interview in Baikalskiye Vesti yesterday, Vladimir Ryzhkov, currently a professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that “Siberia, which for the course of a century was celebrated not only for its natural but its human wealth has been converted into an ever poorer kray, forgotten by God and Moscow.”
The region’s population is not only declining, he says, but its level of education and culture is falling as well, trends that mean “if the political elite does not recognize fully the seriousness of the situation, it will soon become too late to engage in any talk about ‘the fates of Siberia.’” Ryzhkov says that he is talking about Siberia as “a geographic term,” the two federal districts that extend from the Urals to the Pacific that constitutes 80 percent of Russia’s territory, 22 percent of the country’s population, and is responsible for 30 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
But the population is declining. Since 1990, five million of its residents have died or left. As a result, the population of Chukotka has fallen by more than half, of Magadan by 40 percent, Kamchatka by 18 percent, and so on. And this is happening despite the wealth of the region and security considerations with regard to China with its enormous population next door. What is surprising, Ryzhkov says, is that this trend reverses the one that the Russian government had promoted in the past. “From the beginning of the conquest of Siberia,” he notes, “that is the region to which came the strongest, most progressive, and most freedom-loving people.”
Until the 1980s, the average income of Siberians was higher than in Central Russia, the share of those with higher education was greater, and the fraction who subscribed to newspapers was also larger. “In a word,” he says, Siberians were “a highly educated, cultural, dynamic and urbanized” people.
Ryzhkov acknowledges that some of the current problems of the region reflect the fallout from Soviet economic development strategies, strategies that promoted the company towns whose basic industries are failing without their managers or workers having any other economic options in the same place.
But now the collapse of these cities has been accelerated by Moscow policies which mean that it is cheaper to fly from Moscow to Western Europe than it is to fly from the Russian capital to Vladivostok. As a result, Ryzhkov points out, “six of the ten poorest regions of the Russian Federation are Siberian.”
Asked whether there is any “way out” from this situation, Ryzhkov says that there is but that the political elite in Moscow, which he notes includes “few Siberians” besides Sergey Shoygu, must begin to focus on the region and recognize that Moscow must “leave a greater part of the taxes collected there” to Siberia.
In addition, he argues, Moscow must come up with a special program to transform company towns, something that does not exist at the federal level, so that the people who live in them will not flee but redirect their energies to new purposes for their benefit and the benefit of the country as a whole.
Moreover, he says, Moscow should intervene to make sure that no private company has a monopoly on air travel so that Siberians don’t have to pay such high prices for tickets. And he suggests that the Russian Federation should “restore the Soviet system” of quotas for students at higher educational systems so that those from areas far from Moscow will get a chance.
But Ryzhkov’s most important comments concern what he called “the special qualities” of Siberians. Unlike Russians in the European portion of the country, “in whose blood is the memory of serfdom,” Siberians never knew landowners, and consequently, they are “more brave and direct in politics and in life.”
Moreover, he says, “they are very entrepreneurial, show initiative, and are businesslike. It is no accident that an enormous number of businessmen [in Russia] are Siberians.” And Ryzhkov concludes, if everything else were equal, “the first who would run ahead [in that sector and presumably many others] would be the Siberians.”