A derailed tanker train is on fire. Bombing of the military recruitment office. A masked figure ran into the night, leaving behind a flaming Molotov cocktail at the base of Lenin’s bust. These photos are not from Ukraine, but from the little-known republics of Russia.
In a series of videos—from Bashkortostan, Buryatia, Kalmykia, Sakha, Tartarstan, and Tuva—speakers implore their various compatriots to defect from the Russian army, return home, and fight for the independence of their native countries.
Made by Ukraine’s UATV Freedom, six 30-minute videos highlight how Ukraine’s war is creating yet another headache for President Putin: a potential second front for separatist movements across what is, by region, the world’s largest country. This happens while the Russian mercenary chief is calling for an armed rebellion against the country’s defense minister.
During the Cold War, Moscow was happy to dismantle the British, French, and Portuguese empires by arming and training African liberation movements. The rulers of Europe’s last empire now confront various national and religious minorities who speak the language of decolonization.
“The Russian Federation is not a federation but a colonial state,” Tufan activist Shulbani Kulyar said in a video released yesterday. Emphasizing that the probability of death of a floodman in Ukraine is eight times higher than that of a man from Moscow, she says: “Putin is waging war with the hands of the indigenous population.”
From Tatarstan, political scientist Leyla Tatipova, He says: “This is a completely criminal colonial war against a sovereign Ukraine… We must not forget that we are also a colonial nation.”
From Bashkortostan, activist Aigul Lyon, He says: “This is not our war … Putin is killing two birds with one stone. He is destroying us, while trying to expand the Russian Empire into Ukraine and into Europe. “
This extremist rhetoric appears to be driven by four factors: An unpopular project targeting national and religious minorities. a demographic shift as Russians became a minority in many republics; the feeling that the resource-rich republics support Moscow; and the widespread belief that Ukraine’s resistance to Russia offered the best chance in a century for Russia’s many republics to win independence.
The national draft announced by Putin last September came as a shock to many people who live thousands of miles away from Ukraine. Maya Vasilieva, Evenk from the city of Sakha, He remembers That military helicopters landed in remote villages and kept the young men from sleeping and carried them away.
So large were the women’s protests in Yakutsk, the capital of Sakha—and the local police deemed unreliable—that National Guard troops were pouring into Moscow to put down the protests.
“Russia is an empire fighting the forces of its colonies,” Buryat activist Evgenia Baltarova He says. “They don’t dare touch Moscow. They don’t dare touch St. Petersburg.” Buryatia, Kalmykia and Tuva are the three historically Buddhist republics of Russia. Kalmyk activist Daur Durzin He says: “We are a peace-loving country.”
Three of the mentioned republics are net contributions to the budget of the Russian Federation. Bashkortostan and Tatarstan are major oil producers. The city of Sakha, with a population of just one million spread over an area four times the size of Texas, produces coal, gold, and diamonds.
“Moscow lives at our expense,” says Sargilana Kondakova, co-founder of the Free Yakutia Fund.
The trauma of the military draft led to the kinds of teaching and radicalization that the Vietnam War sparked in America in the 1960s, though the similarity is only in form. In the case of the Russian Federation today, activists willing to appear in front of the camera seem to be the tip of the iceberg of discontent, instigated in part by the informal teaching of an editorial history of the 17th-century invasions by “Muscovites.”
In an apparent response to minority discontent, the Russian Duma approved a bill allowing the military to conscript prisoners, offering an amnesty in exchange for military service.
With Russia’s military cut in half due to the invasion of Ukraine, many hardliners say the time is right to sever ties with Moscow. Many say their republics should have revolted in the 1990s, when Chechnya fought two wars for independence.
“If we had agreed with Chechnya, with Tatarstan, Moscow would not have had enough power against three republics,” a young activist from Sakha, Nurgon Antonov, told a Ukrainian interviewer in the Project of Nations series. Another Sakha activist, Dmitry Pavlov, agreed: say: “We should have left, we should have supported Ichkeria (Chechnya).”
In the republics’ underground revisionist history, teachers warn that Moscow will always pursue a divide-and-rule strategy and will inevitably reneged on promises of autonomy.
“If one day he criticizes Putin, Bashkiria will not gain independence in peace” He says An exiled activist from Bashkortostan, Ruslan Gabasov. “Repression will continue, unless a revolution comes from within and Russia collapses.”
Each video in the series ends with an appeal to the soldiers to join the Ukrainian army from the Russian army. The goal would be to learn military skills that could be used to liberate the republics from Moscow’s control. For the would-be independence fighters, viewers are told that a kind of underground railway transports the men through Kazakhstan, Turkey, and Ukraine.
We will create guerrilla groups and fight the occupiers of Moscow. He says “Deputy Prime Minister of Tatarstan’s government-in-exile”.
“Stop fighting against Ukraine,” said Kalmyk activist Vladimir Dovdanov He says. “Ukraine will be victorious in any case … We will form military units with which we will enter Kalmykia and liberate it.”
For skeptics, talk of independence might seem fanciful. However, in 1959, President Eisenhower signed into law the Captive Nations Week, a time to remember the 22 countries controlled by communist governments.
Of Moscow, Eisenhower said: “Of course they do not recognize the existence of any captive nations.
At the height of the Cold War, the outlook for these people seemed hopeless. Thirty years later, 14 countries were freed from Moscow’s control. This year, Captive Nations Week is set for the week of July 11th.
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