Independence is a necessity: a historian from Kalmykia about the future of the republic
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Independence is a necessity: a historian from Kalmykia about the future of the republic

Independence is not only real, it is long overdue. This is a necessity. This is important for all the peoples in Russia, including Russians.

Maria Ochir
Maria OchirJun 14, 2023

With the outbreak of war in Ukraine, a new impetus was given to national regional movements advocating separation from Moscow. Over the past year, six forums of the peoples of post-Russia have already taken place, new associations have been formed, and several militia groups of representatives of the Caucasian peoples are fighting on the side of Kyiv. At the same time, a number of analysts speak of a quite probable scenario for the collapse of Russia in the event of a turning point in the course of the war.

About the national movement in Kalmykia, the theses of the Kremlin propaganda, last year's wave of emigration and why the collapse of the empire is needed by the Russian correspondent Kavkaz.Realii spoke with Professor Maria Ochir-Goryaeva, Doctor of Historical Sciences, Corresponding Member of the German Archaeological Institute and Honored Scientist of Kalmykia.

In 1999, she won the competition and became a fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, and as a guest researcher continued her scientific research within the walls of the Eurasian Branch of the German Archaeological Institute. The first of four scientific monographs was published in German. Every year, the archaeologist returned to her homeland, conducting excavations in her native Kalmykia.

Today in Russia it is customary to speak negatively about the support that Western non-profit organizations and scientific foundations provided in the 1990s to Russian scientists and the field of education in general. Like, through grants and training programs, they planted their values. Tell us about your experience and what such programs have given to Russian science.

The rhetoric of Russian propaganda in general, and in this matter in particular, can only be called xenophobic. In the 1990s, when many state employees, including employees of the Russian Academy of Sciences, had not been paid for months, grants allocated by Western foundations literally saved them. In addition to the material side, they demonstrated the significance of these specialists and their research. Only thanks to that support of Western and, later, Russian foundations, a number of scientists, including myself, remained in science.

As for "planting" one's own values, this is a distorted understanding of the purpose of such structures. Each foundation has its own goals and values; if they are scientific, then they remain so, regarding the fact that the West is imposing its own values. For example, I have been living in Berlin for 24 years and I know that here they don’t “implant” anything on anyone, but give them the opportunity to think and choose for themselves. Reality shows that people like freedom of speech and the opportunity to choose, it works: everyone is eager to live in democratic countries, and not in Iran, Afghanistan or Russia, from where they leave at the first opportunity. Planting is carried out not by Western funds, but by the imperial approach of Moscow. The same Putin and his supporters who are unable to adapt to the ever-changing world and are trying by brute force to change the whole world to fit themselves, to fit it to their outdated stereotypes.

Unfortunately, such inertia in thinking is demonstrated not only by the top of the country, but also by many Russians, including those who disagree with Putin.

Agree. The wave of migrants from Russia, regardless of nationality, is no different from the population that remained there, in Russia. Just like there, only a small percentage of them are active. They organize protests and various events. At the same time, many of them are very afraid for themselves, so they put masks on their faces and hide their names. The rest are either simply indifferent or support Putin. Many have moved simply to maintain their level of well-being and continue to travel around the world. Of course, these are mostly Muscovites with a good income. That is, migrants here fully reflect society in Russia.

Two things disappoint me about migrants from Russia. First, few of them follow the news from the front and worry about the Ukrainians. Feelings of shame and guilt seem to be unfamiliar to them. So it turns out that in their conversations there is no topic of this at all. When I say something about the bombings or the front, they immediately say, we do not follow this and turn the conversation to something else.

Maria Ochir. Anti-war rally in Berlin

Maria Ochir-Goryaeva (left) at an anti-war rally in Berlin

Secondly, this is xenophobia. Walking through the streets of Berlin, I have already heard more than once from Russian-speaking people who are indignant, and why the Germans tolerate that Muslims walk around in their headscarves, etc. . Another fact, my friends asked me to help them find an apartment in Berlin, but only in the area where they don’t live, as they said “blacks”, meaning the local residents of Arabs and Turks. They said even if it would be several hundred euros more expensive. As an Asian, this shocked me.

Therefore, unfortunately, many here do not assimilate the moral values of democracy and tolerance. They are simply transporting Russia with all its stereotypes and ideology to Berlin. Russians, with rare exceptions, are unable to understand the logic and value of democracy. Otherwise, neither Putin, nor these decades of trampling on freedoms in Russia, nor a terrible war would have happened.

At the same time, Putin and his entourage say that the West is trying to rewrite and distort history.

Frankly, I think it's too much honor to comment on propaganda. From the school curriculum, everyone knows that in the early Middle Ages there was a state of Kievan Rus, the center of which was the city of Kyiv, that is, the territory of modern Ukraine. Then, three or four centuries later, the Muscovite Principality was formed, gathering land around Moscow. This name was the most accurate and reflects the essence of both the territory and its population. Theoretically, it could be called Muscovite Rus'. After the conquest of the peoples in the north and east, south and west, it would be more correct to call this formation the Muscovite Empire. This state has its own history and traditions, like any other. The cities of the Golden Ring alone are worth something. There is no need to neglect so much, not to value your Moscow-Russian identity, your own statehood. We must study, preserve and be proud of the rich history of Muscovy.

Until a certain time, the Muscovites did not seek to ascribe Kievan Rus to their history. This happened later after Peter I declared himself emperor. Then there was a temptation to occupy not only the territory, but also the past of a foreign state.

Most of the space of modern Russia - lands forcibly attached to the Moscow principality and kingdom: the Volga region, Siberia, the Far East, the North Caucasus, they have nothing to do with Kievan Rus. These are the empire's colonies. So it is the inhabitants of the Kremlin who are engaged in the distortion of history for the sake of political ambitions and propaganda.

In 2022, representatives of national movements from different republics condemned the war and emphasized that this conflict was not in the interests of the country's small peoples. There were sporadic demonstrations in Kalmykia, but there was no mass protest here. Was this reaction expected?

Attitudes towards the war in Kalmykia, according to my data, are similar to the average Russian sample. Why should it be otherwise? If the empire has been pursuing a policy of Russification and unification for centuries, leveling national differences? There are critically thinking people in every republic, as well as regions, territories, but they are few. And almost all of them, especially actively in 2022, left the country.

It is clear that if the Oirats in the distant past had reached the shores of the Atlantic and stayed here, they would probably have been part of a democratic Europe. But since our ancestors founded their Khanate of Torgud on the banks of the Idzhil-Idel-Edel-Volga River, they shared the fate of the other peoples of the evil empire.

One can talk for a long time about the pros and cons of the arrival of the Oirats in Europe, the foundation of their khanate, the departure to Dzungaria, the peasant colonization of the lands of the khanate, the civil war ... But history, as you know, does not tolerate the subjunctive mood. And the Kalmyks have to live in those conditions, and, therefore, to be a cross section of the society in which they live today.

In general, how realistic are the hopes for the independence of Kalmykia today. What will it depend on? Are the Kalmyks themselves ready for this?

Independence is not only real, it is long overdue. This is a necessity. Leveling processes are always taking place within the framework of large states, therefore all regions of Russia, not only the republics, but also the territories, regions, must become independent, and then function like the European Union. This means that everyone has their own state, orders and administration, but in common issues - for example, environmental protection, future projects, such as artificial intelligence - to act together. And it's not about the size and number of the population. Montenegro, for example, in terms of territory is 5 times smaller than Kalmykia, a third of the territory is occupied by mountains, the population is 600-odd thousand, and neither Serbs nor Montenegrins make up the majority of the population. Since 2006 they have become a sovereign state, in 2008 they joined the EU.

And this is important for all the peoples in Russia, including Russians. After all, the interests and problems of Russians living in Siberia or the Far East are clearly different from the interests and problems of Muscovites. Moscow is currently ripping off all regions, not just national republics. Therefore, the Kremlin has so much money to wage a large-scale war and seize foreign lands, such as Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea, Donbass. And if the money of the regions remained in the regions, then Moscow would not have such huge resources, and people in the Russian outback would live much better. All sectors of society suffer from this centralized system. The same regional governors who are 100% dependent on Moscow, this also humiliates them. They turn out to be puppets in the hands of the Kremlin.

As for the national republics, they are constitutionally considered subjects of the federation, but in reality they are colonies. Moscow not only robs them, just like the regions, but also pursues an openly colonial policy. For example, it redraws the borders, selecting the best lands. For example, the lands of the Buryats were divided into three administrative regions. Two districts were taken away from Kalmykia and the Astrakhan region was created from them. As a result, Kalmykia lost the entire coast of the lower reaches of the Idzhil-Volga River, only one village has access to the river. And industrial facilities are built anywhere, but not in the national republics. Accordingly, the economy of the republics is not developed, there are no jobs, specialists are leaving, the population is overburdened. I will give a few examples from those that I encountered as an archaeologist leading rescue excavations. In 2008, it was planned to build a gas processing plant in the village. Artesian. All research and development work was carried out: ecologists, biologists, signalmen and archaeologists conducted a survey and prepared all the documents. The project was closed. And a couple of years later they built it in the Astrakhan region. The project for the construction of the Iki-Burulsky water conduit from the Levokumsky reservoir was imposed from Moscow in order to increase the republic's dependence from outside and force the Stavropol Territory to pay for water. Although it was easier for the republic to stretch a branch from its village of Tsagan-aman and pump water for free from the river. Idzhil-Volga. For those big ones spent on the Levokumsky water conduit, it was even possible to develop a deep-well extraction of fresh water from a huge underground reservoir in the village of Gojur, located in the very center of the republic. The Tengiz-Novorossiysk oil pipeline is the longest in Kalmykia, but the Krasnodar Territory receives the rent money. And that's millions of dollars a year. People from the government complained that they could not change the terms of the contract, they went, went to Moscow, but they were adamant there. How can it be called? Robbery in broad daylight. The list goes on...

The population of Kalmykia, as well as the entire population of Russia, does not understand that Moscow is robbing them. Therefore, as elsewhere, there are different opinions. Not everyone sees the economic side, but, true, everyone sees that total Russification leads to the loss of language, identity, and traditional culture. Everyone sees this. I have never met a Kalmyk, either in Kalmykia or abroad, who did not want to develop his own Kalmyk.

I remember that in 1991, not all the population of Kazakhstan, Ukraine and other republics were for independence, and now all these peoples have appreciated their sovereignty, and Ukrainians are giving their lives to live without the dictates of Moscow. So it is not necessary that all polls in the republic were of the same opinion.

In your opinion, why did the population of the republics, not only Kalmykia, but also others, so easily renounce the institutions of sovereignty and even independence obtained in the early 1990s?

Easily retreated - you said it well! And what about two terrible wars against independent Chechnya? Kalmykia is close to Chechnya, we have not yet forgotten how not only people fled from the war to us, but even wolves and feral dogs. Seeing and hearing this, who would expose their people to such a risk? And how did they twist Tatarstan's arms? President Mintemir Shaimiev Putin and the KGB officer were not allowed out of his office for four days until they signed everything they needed. And here, in Kalmykia, back in Soviet times, what happened to Gorodovikov? (Basan Gorodovikov - Soviet military leader and statesman, in 1961-1978 the first secretary of the Kalmyk Regional Committee of the CPSU, under him Kalmykia achieved significant success - Note Ed.) He, an old general, a hero of the USSR, was taken out of the congress meeting room by the arms of the KGB officers The CPSU was immediately removed from his post, because he dared to hint at the return of the two selected regions. That is why after him, until 1990, only envoys from Moscow were the first person in the republic.

During archaeological expeditions, I traveled all over Kalmykia, the most remote settlements, my heart bleeds to see in what conditions and how ordinary people live in my homeland. The desire for independence among the conscious part of our people has never faded away.

Returning to your question, the curtailment of the independence of the subjects took place against the backdrop of two Chechen wars, all this happened very close. Moscow forcibly and harshly revived the imperial approach, any protest was severely suppressed. Nobody wanted a second deportation, to end up in Siberia again, so the Kalmyks actually had no choice.

Practically in all socio-economic ratings, Kalmykia occupies the last places among Russian regions. So it was under Ilyumzhinov, and under Orlov, and under Khasikov. In your opinion, why did none of the heads of the republic manage to achieve a breakthrough in its development? Could they do it?

Because colonial policy has never stopped, it is by definition impossible to make a breakthrough under such conditions. A colony is a colony, and construction, infrastructure, and the social sphere in it will be worse than in the metropolis. On its territory, only resources and specialists are being pumped out, total Russification is being carried out in all areas - from the language to the rewritten history. This is also imperial policy, when peoples are not allowed to study their own past, imposing only that interpretation of it that is beneficial to Moscow.

By the way, the regional elites are also well aware of this. Governors and heads of republics are forced to go to Moscow to bow, begging for money, which they themselves send in the form of taxes to the federal center. So the question of disintegration is ripe not only below, in the minds of the activists of national movements, but also among the local elites. It is also necessary for the Russian outback to understand that Moscow takes advantage of their political naivety and forces them to live in unworthy poverty. The consequences of the war with Ukraine may just be the match that will ignite this inevitable process.

Maria Ochir. Anti-war rally in Berlin

Maria Ochir-Goryaeva (left) at the archaeological site of a Bronze Age settlement with colleagues from the Protection of Monuments Center from Schleswig Holstein (Germany). 2012

There is an opinion that Russian society massively supports this war. In your opinion, as a person from the outside - is it so? What should and can be done to open the eyes of the supporters of the aggressive policy of the Kremlin?

Of course, they provide massive support – people need to survive somehow, this is a top priority. Everything is decided by the state system and what values it promotes. During the Third Reich, the Germans massively supported the war. But when the system changed, the same people became democratic and repeat like a mantra "Nazis will never be repeated forever and ever." The same change can happen to Russian society, for this it is necessary that the system change. And the people in the masses easily change their minds and habits. I'll give you an example. For 8 years I have been excavating on the border of Kalmykia and the Rostov region, and dug two fortresses from the era of the Khazar Khaganate. They lived for months in a small village, where the entire population is Russian. Local men were taken to the excavations. And they don't just swear there, they practically talk obscenities. But I forbade them all to swear at the excavation site and make jokes on gender topics, otherwise I will kick them out of the excavation site without a daily salary. And they worked for me for months, all day long and did not swear. I'll say more. In this village, they are all nationalists to one degree or another, in the sense that they do not like Kalmyks. But since I treated them with respect and paid my salary every evening, they treated me and all the employees very cordially, although we were all Kalmyks. That is, the people are everywhere, even Russian, even German, they are masters of survival. So I don't think it's necessary to convince them verbally. The conditions will change, the people themselves will figure out how beneficial it is for them. There is no need to condemn the people, we must love them and create conditions for a decent life, regardless of nationality.

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Maria Ochir

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Maria Ochir

Maria Ochir is a PhD of History, archeologist, author, corresponding member of the German Archaeological Institute and a specialist on Eurasian Nomads of the Scythian era.

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