By Anna Woudstra Pardoen
One often tends to forget that Russia, in whatever iteration of its existence it was in, has been a colonial empire. Whereas other colonial powers journeyed overseas to find, claim and exploit new lands and territories, Russia expanded over land, northwards into the lands of the Finnic and Sami peoples, eastwards and southwards into the Khanates of Central Asia, and westwards into Eastern Europe. Then further southwards into the Northern Caucasus, and eventually ever further eastwards, colonising Siberia, the Russian Far East, ending in Alaska on the American continent.
Not all lands that were conquered by Russia have remained Russian. Famous is Russia’s disappearance from the American continent following the 1867 Alaska purchase. Here, Alaska was bought from Russia by the United States of America, therewith not taking into account the presence and wishes of its local native peoples – nothing unusual for the time. Later Russia lost its sovereignty over Finland following the 1917 revolutions, and would lose many of its satellite states and dependencies in Eastern Europe and Central Asia following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Nowadays, Russia is left with “just” two regions that could arguably be seen as colonies: the North Caucasus, and trans-Uralic Russia. Unlike analogous colonies of other European powers – the United States from Britain, Indonesia from the Netherlands, Algeria from France – these colonies have not seceded from their colonial overlord. In order to understand why, we have to consider what these colonies mean to Russia, and remember one important factor: without these colonies, Russia would lose most of its power.
Siberia, settled along the Trans-Siberian Railway by Russians in lands historically and currently native to various Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic and Ainu peoples, is Russia’s economic powerhouse. Home to only a fifth of its population yet covering close to four-fifths of its territory, Siberia and the Far East produce around 70% of Russia’s oil and gas. The North Caucasus, not overwhelmingly settled by Russians and home to a mix of small native ethnic groups, though itself producing only 1.1% of Russia’s oil and gas, lies close to the Volga-Ural Oil and Gas Province, providing nearly 23% of Russia’s production. Russia needs these natural resources to maintain its position of power in Europe, and needs the territory to maintain its geostrategic and geopolitical dominance over well over a tenth of the world’s landmass. Without these colonies, the political centre of Russia with its loci around Moscow and Saint Petersburg, would have no geographical defences and no world-dominating amounts of natural resources – it would be, with the greatest of respect to Belarus, just another Belarus.
Russia’s dominance over these regions, however, is slowly dwindling. Whilst insurgency in the North Caucasus against Russian domination has been present essentially ever since Russia conquered the explosive and ethnically diverse region in the 18th and 19th centuries, Siberia is also now rearing its head. Natalia Kurnaeva, a Russian vlogger from the Far East, summed it up best in her video on Vladivostok: all profits made from the region flow to Moscow, and barely any of it is reinvested in the region.
Looking at Siberia, some will see the analogy to the socioeconomic situation in the British colonies in North America that eventually led to the creation of the United States. The North Caucasus, meanwhile, could be seen as analogous to the African fight for decolonisation in the second half of the 20th century. But whether these colonies will ever actually secede from Russia remains to be seen.
The Kremlin maintains a strong grip on Siberia, and so do the Moscow-based corporations that exploit most of the natural resources of the region. Insurgencies in the North Caucasus have been consistently put down by the Russian military, and the Caucasus mountains used as a geographical advantage in projecting its influence over Transcaucasia, as it did during the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. Moscow would not want to lose its economic and geostrategic assets.
For now, Siberia seems unable to secede, and Moscow has cracked down on the North Caucasus. For the foreseeable future, these two colonies are likely to remain Russian. But with trans-Uralic discontent and an ever-present conflict brewing in Ciscaucasia, with Chinese inroads being made into Siberia, the long-term future of Russia is increasingly uncertain. Should these colonies secede, Russia collapses, and one of the four major powers in today’s multipolar world will have fallen. A process which may take decades, but is not unlikely to occur during our lifetimes. With all the consequences to the global balance of power that come with it.