Five projects for the future: conversations with national decolonial activists

media resistance group14/12/23 22:44811

 The project, in a nutshell

We are four people in the working group of this project, all with russian citizenship, three AFAB-persons and an AMAB-person. It’s hard to resist the pun and not say that all of us have ACAB-views, and all share the principles of anarchism, anarcho-feminism, and grassroots organizing of collaborative work. Two of us have mixed ethnic identities (russian-Uzbek and russian-Evenki), and two are ethnically russian. The document that follows is written by Nina Nodirova, with conferment and approval from the three other colleagues who choose to remain anonymous.

I spoke with five representatives of decolonial activism from russia. It is important to say that they either explicitly position themselves as feminist activists or integrate close-to-feminist ideas in their practice and everyday life.

I had closely known two of my interlocutors before the project started; they work in the cultural sector, as I do, which was the basis for our acquaintance. I obtained the contact information for the three remaining interviewees through a network of connections of activists/interviewees. This exposes a limitation of this study: my interlocutors' views on gender politics and on the importance of connecting national, ethnic, decolonial activism with feminism were similar to mine.

These conversations happened thanks to the trust enabled by the basic verification principle in activist circles — the network of personal contacts. The interviewees were aware of our activities both within and outside of public spaces, and common projects and trustworthy groups were also important.

One prospective interviewee refused to participate, critiquing some of the project’s positions and working methods. These include the length of the interview, which they found excessive for burnt-out and tired activists, as well as the non-representation of indigenous activists within the project creating a risk of «speaking for others.» The co-participants of one of the initiatives I interviewed were also unable to participate due to workload and burnout, also citing the length of the interview as a barrier to participation. This is not the first time in my practice that qualitative methods of work, which require not only the researcher’s but also the respondents' engagement, participation, compliance, and time commitment, reveal their privilege [or lack thereof].

This problem remains unresolved in the current project, yet we present digital ethnographic methods as a viable alternative. These include: (1) participation and observation of communication in the project’s social media (if they are accessible), (2) participation in public discussions in the digital environment; and (3) analysis of public statements, projects, and interviews of participants of theorganized  movements (of interest to the researcher). In this project, a significant part of the questions concerned non-public processes, emotions, and working methods, all hidden from the outside eye. Therefore, a semi-structured interview seemed the most appropriate approach which, of course, does not exclude the need to reconsider its limitations and possibilities — for the reasons voiced by the activists who refused to participate.

Anonymization of the interviewees was also subject to critique: I suggested full anonymization of both the speaker and the initiative they represent, following the safety considerations adopted in academia. However, decolonial activists who live outside of russia and who publicly represent the organized movements they have founded are, on the contrary, demanding greater visibility.

We decided to leave the choice and the degree of anonymization to the project participants. This important  contradiction, in my opinion, between the need to conceal names and vice versa — the need for publicity and visibility — does not have a standardized solution. As a result, this project has both participants who obscure their identities and those who use their real identities.

In order to avoid speaking for others, I keep extensive quotations from the interviews, almost unedited, grouped according to thematic blocks. Nevertheless, the informants’ selection, the questions’ choice and the processing of the interview transcripts as texts, are subject to my optics and my standpoint. The same holds for the final framing of the entire text and its dramaturgy.  I believe this is an irreducible part of qualitative research methodology, therefore engaging with it has to include autoethnographic elements. My personal affiliations  and the networks I am a part of should be spelled out in the text. I have been supporting decolonial movements from russian regions as an ally. I can relate to the lived experience of racism as a person from a mixed family and with a migrant background in russia; while in some cases I can use the «white pass» privilege: as long as people do not see my full passport name, I can be read as conventionally «russian,» or at least not read as Asian. 

I’ve been living and working in Germany since the summer of 2022. After russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, I started working more in media activism and culture analyzing and criticizing russian imperialism and colonialism. Previously, I think I had been involved in translocal projects mostly as a feminist researcher and curator. To my mind, positionality in a politicized environment is built on trust in particular projects and individuals: this is how one recognizes one’s place in the political spectrum and the possibilities for collaboration. Thus, the intersection of feminism and decoloniality is a common ground for these conversations, a source of mutual interest and trust.

On the methodology and the research process

As I mentioned above, my interlocutors are quite close in their political views, which, in addition to the small number of participants, makes this study poorly representative of decolonial activism from russia. I spoke with activists from the movements «Free Kalmykia» (G.), «Free Yakutia» (Raisa Zubareva), «Voices of nations held captive by Moscow» (Elza Ochir and Maria Ochir-Goryaeva), the League of Free Nations and the Congress of the Oirat-Kalmyk people (also Maria Ochir-Goryaeva), and an anonymous independent activist from Bashkortostan.

One will not see here a spectrum of fundamentally different positions regarding the ways of decolonizing russia, or a range of views from conservative to radical liberationist. Generally speaking, I am quite skeptical of qualitative research’s ability to present a «comprehensive picture». Yet such a study allows one to recognize and focus on the differences. All of the initiatives my interlocutors represent, with the exception of Congress, emerged following russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine; their most active members reside outside russia. The only interlocutor still based in russia is an anonymous activist who is not a member of any association or initiative. This is the first and, to my mind, the most important difference: all my interlocutors, except for them, talk about the difficulty and the necessity of maintaining contact with activists, acquaintances, and relatives in russia and, in particular, in the national republics. The degree of closeness to the local context is also strongly impacted by how long ago the activists emigrated and how often they visited the republics after their departure. 

In all the interviews, the future emerges as a theme: imaginary, desirable — the future towards which the activists' current efforts are directed. Narrative differences concern the way the activists see this future and the methods they think they can use to bring it closer. Yet the premises of their imagined future also differ. These often depend on the significant events of the past that the speakers believe are connected to the current situation of the peoples and lands colonized by russia and the political course chosen by Putin’s regime.

Thus, my interlocutors referenced the referendum on the independence of Tatarstan in 1992 and its non-recognition by the federal government; the declaration of independence adopted by the Supreme Soviet of the Kalmyk ASSR in 1990 and its non-recognition by the federal government; the russian-Ichkerian wars; the outbreak of war in Ukraine and the occupation of Crimea in 2014; the collapse of the russian empire and the emergence of early soviet national policy, the subsequent turn to centralization and racialization in the Stalinist period, and the collapse of the USSR and the independence of the former soviet republics. 

The experience of post-soviet independent countries, in particular Ukraine, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, as well as interaction with activists and researchers from these countries, are also important for the future vectors that activists see for the colonized lands within the russian federation after secession and independence.

Another important context is the transnational movement for the decolonization of peoples, particularly indigenous peoples in Australia, North America, and the government of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria in exile and other representative political structures of the Ichkerian Republic outside the russian federation. Other important contexts include their participation in European political life and their experience of diaspora self-organization and solidarization.

The activists and their initiatives are addressing several different audiences. First and foremost, these are the communities of their home republics. To a lesser extent — the entire russian society. The aforementioned translocal solidarity networks include both decolonial and ethnic initiatives from other regions of the country, which have already formed a dense network of mutual support, mutual influence, and decolonial and leftist organizations from other countries.  Another important addressee is the structure which I might conventionally call the «Western political system»: it includes international legislation and international organizations like the UN, the general practices of representative democracy, human rights discourse and human rights activism as they have developed since World War II in Europe and other countries of the Global North.

Among the forms of political struggle, activists are engaged in and support volunteering, media activism and awareness-raising, and «investigative» work such as gathering evidence of the brutality of russian colonial policy and crimes against colonized peoples. They distinguish «proper» political work — creating organizational structures and political programs, finding allies — from existing political forces in the russian opposition and within the European political landscape (e.g., «left-wing parties» that see russia’s war against Ukraine as a «hybrid» or «proxy» war between NATO countries and russia).

While preparing the interviews and analyzing them, I have identified thematic blocs of questions 

and topics. I invite the readers to explore the activists' direct speech on these topics.

Identities and goals

Raisa («Svobodnaya Yakutia»): My name is Raisa Zubareva. I am 46 years old. In the past, I worked for many years as a journalist in the newspaper «Yakutsk Vecherniy». At first, back in the 2000s, it was one of the most independent newspapers in the Far East. Then, the stronger the repression became, [the more] newspapers and media were shut down. Yet at that time our newspaper was still independent, and somewhere by the mid-2010s, in 2014-15 maybe, we became one of the most independent newspapers in Russia. Now, of course, that’s not the case anymore. In 2015, unfortunately, I came to conclusion that journalism — free journalism — no longer exists in Russia, by that time there was no journalism. That’s why I left the newspaper in 2016 […]. Anyway, after Crimea, yes. My husband and I made up our minds, packed up everything we had, all our nothing, sold it. And at the end of the year we left.

I identify myself now as a Sakha. Many people are now reconsidering their ethnicity. […] The problem is that we have all been russified. I have a big misfortune in fact, I didn’t know Russian until a certain time, until a certain period in my childhood. Later I stopped speaking Yakutian and started speaking Russian.  I did so in order to convince everyone that I am actually Russian, I perceived myself that way at that time and broadcasted it to everyone. Today I, like many others, am rejecting it.  I am just about to start learning my native language. Of course, I understand it, I can speak certain phrases. It was actually a childhood trauma, the reason why I stopped speaking Yakutian.

We got organized very spontaneously, we got our first video from the co-founder of the foundation, Lana Kondakova. She released an anti-war video. Then we suddenly wrote to each other and each of us almost immediately suggested: «Let’s record videos like this too.» So we got acquainted, released one big video at first, and then decided that since there was an example of the Free Buryatia Foundation, we should also start a public anti-war movement. That was at the end of August, and then mobilization started, it was announced on September 21st. The Vesna movement announced an all-Russian protest that evening. We checked to see how many people had gathered. There were 14 people who came to the square, and all 14 people were detained.

The protest was not very successful. We then looked at how many people came out in Moscow. Of course, it was not like that here. And we decided that we would hold a big protest rally on the 25th. It all happened very quickly. We didn’t sleep for several days. We worked very hard, collected a methodology, published it: what to do, how to go out, where to go, what to have on you. And we wrote some slogans, shouts for women to shout. It was a very good idea to do it in the form of our traditional dance, the Osuokhai. Then we realized that we are a threat to the authorities, to the political power in the republic. We already need to officially register the organization. Well, it’s easier. We will be officially registered, we will be able to receive, let’s say, some money, probably, apply for grants. So, somehow we registered it here in Poland.

G. (» Free Kalmykia»): I position myself as an artist, activist, feminist. Initially, I was mainly concerned with feminist issues. Now, I switched to decolonial activism because I think it’s a more neglected topic. It’s important to me personally. There are many people to do feminism, but not enough to do decoloniality. I started getting interested in decoloniality in 2020. But I began to be involved in the activist movement in September 2022, when we had some kind of action against mobilization.

Maria Ochir-Goryaeva (Voices of nations held captive by Moscow, League of Nations, Oirat-Kalmyk Congress): I can tell I am not a typical, as you say, activist, because I am an old person: I am 64 years old. As far as I know, mostly young people are involved in activism, at least in my circle, they are mostly young. They are even very young for me, between 20 and 30 years old. In this sense, I am a little bit, so to speak, out of the ranks. But on the other hand, I’ve been doing science, archaeology, all my life. And I am a doctor of sciences, author of four scientific monographs. At one point I moved to Germany because I had received an Alexander von Humboldt scholarship and came here for two years to write a book. It was my first monograph, and it was published in German. At that time I was still a «young scientist», under the age of 40, then I got married and stayed here. <…> Before coming to Germany, I worked at the university, taught as an associate professor and at the same time was the director of the National Museum. <…> I opened a home office back in 2004. Since then, I worked that way, until the very day of the war. And I was organizing different expeditions in Kalmykia while my husband was working, two or three weeks of traveling, yet often. Then when he retired, we started traveling together. And so we generally would go away twice a year, almost eight weeks at a time. We spent practically four months a year in Kalmykia doing excavations.

My identity, of course, is fine. My first language was my mother tongue, Kalmyk, Mongolian, Western Mongolian. Before school, we didn’t speak any other language at all. Then they taught us, and I, as a good student, of course, quickly learned [Russian]. Now I am just observing young people, many have grown up without their national language, traditions, customs, and that’s why it’s difficult for them. They feel a kind of longing for who they are. It is as if something is missing from their identity.

When the war started, of course, the world turned upside down for me. All these years, from 2004 to 2022, I always traveled to Kalmykia, spared neither myself nor my money, even my personal savings. We traveled there ourselves and brought to the expedition everything that was extra in the household. All my expeditions and projects, I was doing it all for my homeland. Somehow from the very beginning I have always known that I have only this land, my homeland. And when the war started, you know, there is also this thing… After all, I have to say that I have developed a little differently than, perhaps, others. Once I had already gone to study in St. Petersburg, our Leningrad University was the most anti-Soviet one. When I moved there, I would read every day, I would go to a newsstand, would buy the newspaper «Pravda» and read it, because I was a lecturer of international relations. Incidentally, my subject was the US military-industrial complex and they were training us. And I always read «Pravda» out of habit. And then my classmates in St. Petersburg noticed I was reading «Pravda». And so they started telling me and explaining that there is never any truth in «Pravda», that it is all propaganda. Now we say propaganda, and then we said it was not true. So I made friends with my classmates, and of course, I quickly changed my mind.

So when the Soviet Union collapsed, of course, I rejoiced a lot for the Kazakhs, for the Ukrainians, and for all [residents of the republics that gained independence]. I was in postgraduate school at that time in Leningrad. And, you know, it was a terrible thing when the republics began to secede: even in the Hermitage — my supervisor worked there — so much was said… especially badly they spoke about the Ukrainians, about «Khokhls», as they used to say. And I remember, once I had already finished postgraduate studies, I was already working. And I came [to St. Petersburg], and as usual, you know, I bought some good cognac. I bought a good cake at the «Sever» cafe which was prestigious in St. Petersburg at the time. And I went to visit my scientific director. And you know, I arrived with this cake and this cognac. At that second she started pouring mud on all these nations. In her youth she worked in Bernshtam’s expedition in Central Asia, in Kyrgyzstan. And she was talking about the Kyrgyz… she said so many bad things about them, among other things. I remember she said: «Let them get rid of the lice first, then they can be independent.» So I was sitting there listening. Well, what to do?  She couldn’t help it, she kept on talking, talking, talking. And I’m sitting there, silent. At that time I wanted to separate from my husband and I wanted to ask her for advice. Actually, I wasn’t  very happy already. And then all of a sudden this happened. So I said, «All right, I’m going home.» I got on the subway, I’m on my way. And suddenly I realize I’m on the subway and I’m crying. And since then… I always thought: I studied in St. Petersburg, and everyone received me so well, and I learned a lot, I became a scientist, wrote my PhD thesis, defended it. I came back home as a doctoral candidate. And I always thought that I had two homelands. Yes, I took this St. Pete’s  so deeply to my heart. I always used to say: «When I come to St. Pete’s, every stone is happy to see me, and I’m happy to see every stone.» That evening, everything fell apart for me.

And after that, you know, I didn’t go to St. Pete’s  for more than 10 years, I didn’t want to. I realized then: no, you will never become mine. Now many people say: «the empire does not forgive love». And I sometimes think that on my own personal level, I had discovered this rule myself, that empire does not forgive love. No matter what kind of [other] you are, if something is not right, you will be reminded of everything, you know?

The collapse of the Soviet Union, however, made me very happy — the fact that nations became independent. It seemed to me: we remained imprisoned, and they got out.

When the war started, all this pain suddenly flared up again, because I was thinking — oh gosh, people have already gotten out of prison, let them live. And for a whole month I remember, you know, I was in pain. I kept walking and crying not for the Ukrainians, not for myself, but for all of us together. I was crying for this situation in whole, for why for centuries some nations cannot get out.  They just cannot, that’s all.  And when they do, when the history itself has already made a step… But why this again? How to get away from it, from this misfortune? Why are they always stronger? Why do they always defeat us? It’s been going on for centuries.  A month later, I wrote a statement that I would not do any projects [in Russia] anymore. I abandoned science. And then I read all this stuff. I would fall asleep and wake up with news from Ukraine, from the warfront, I already knew everything. And it actually started, already back in January, with events in Kazakhstan, I was worried too. I watched everything every day. I already knew all of them by name.

All my efforts were on the side of Ukraine. Finally, in the fall, when mobilization began, we put together this movement. At first we were called Voices of indigenous people of Russia, because we were so far away from politics, we didn’t know that we should not use term indigenous people. We are not indigenous people, because we are a federal subject, we have our own flag, we had states, we had the Kalmyk Khanate until 1771. All the peoples who had states cannot be called indigenous, because it is different: indigenous is basically a tribal level. They never had statehood, they never reached that stage, and in the present day there is no statehood either, only cultural autonomy. And after that we changed our name. Now we are called Voices of Nations held captive by Moscow. We emphasize that this is a [temporary] status. I became a member of the League of Nations and our Oirat-Kalmyk Congress, and I am already writing and giving interviews there.

Anonymous Activist: My name is… I am 41 years old. I guess, yes, I position myself as a decolonial activist, as a feminist. I am a professional… filmmaker and multidisciplinary artist.

The national movement [in the republic] has existed for a long time. I have long supported some initiatives to the best of my ability. Together with other feminists, we started the fem-movement around 2015-2016. Yet for a long time it was running independently. Fem-activism was on its own and national activism was on its own, we even had some conflicts, because the national activists were very traditionally-minded, they were always against feminism and LGBT. We were at odds with them all the time and it never occurred to me that we could bring these things together. Only in recent years, when decolonial feminism reached us, I got very happy. I realized that we could take over national activism, because traditionalists don’t have to be in charge of everything..... and it was a relief.

Elsa Ochir («Voices of nations held captive by Moscow», «For the Right to Resist — Linke Ukraine-Solidarität Berlin»): I am an Oirad-Mongol (Kalmykia). I have always identified myself as an Oirad-Mongol and found it ignorant and even insulting when people called me Russian based on the fact of my citizenship.

We started our movement after the beginning of the disproportionate mobilization [for the war in Ukraine] of men of non-Russian nationalities. We can compare this to genocide, as our peoples are not so numerous after 200-500 years of brutal colonization.

When this news reached us, we created Voices of Nations and immediately organized a protest in front of the Russian embassy [in Berlin]. Since then, I have also been part of For the Right to Resist — Linke Ukraine-Solidarität Berlin, because it is important for me not only to actively participate in the decolonization of Russia but also to support Ukraine.

Limits of the «political»

Raisa: Actually, we have a big goal, of course. Even though we say that we are not a political organization, we do not support any political organization, any political party within the republic. We are not engaged in politics. It is specified in our mission. But in fact, of course, most definitely, we are a political organization, and we are the only opposition initiative and the only opponents to the existing authorities in the republic. Therefore, we are engaged in politics and will still be engaged in politics when the country falls apart. We have already talked on this subject several times and came to the conclusion that people will be waiting for us, as we are the only existing opposition. And some of us will have to go to the republic and engage in politics. There are people who are ready to do this.

Maria: The name speaks for itself: we are called Voices. The movement is mostly made up of people who have long held European passports. Yet we are from there [colonized lands]. And so we are the voices for now: since they are not allowed to say anything there, we speak for them. We do not engage in any subversive activities. For a long time I did not agree to open any NGO, yet now I have been convinced. We are going to do it, we have already started. But mostly it is awareness-raising work, an opportunity for the voices of our peoples to be heard.

Anonymous activist: I think we need a movement of our own, but I wouldn’t want to be part of a political movement.  I think we could just do an art project or an alliance of like-minded people on the basis of common interests and views. So that we would not be a political, but a visible force that has its own opinion, nad like  that the traditionalist movement would not be completely monolithic. Of course, they have enough internal contradictions, and yet… For me to engage in politics… They [BashNatsPolit] want to seize power within the «beautiful Bashkortostan of the future». In my opinion, they are seriously going for it. I don’t have that goal.  Lately I’ve been in a somewhat decadent mood, well, not exactly decadent… I stand for independence with all my heart, yet it seems to me that it is somewhat utopian in general… We really don’t have such attitudes… There are some movements, there are romantically-minded Bashkirs who want secession, they unite with activists from other regions, with Tatars on the basis of common interests. But it is not like the society is buzzing. And if it was like in Tatarstan, when 62% voted for secession [in 1991], there is no such thing now…unless Putin is overthrown, then this movement may emerge and intensify, but right now it is not the case. The only thing is that power can only be seized by force, I think that’s what they’re going to do, they seriously want to storm the White House, they’re writing about it. It seems terrible to me, I would not want such a free Bashkortostan, which has emerged as a result of a violent seizure. I don’t want a senseless swap, violence for violence. I’d rather choose the status quo, I’d rather stay as it is, I’d rather wait for the next convenient moment to secede through a normal referendum, that’s the only way.

Elsa: After founding Voices of Nations, at some point our strategy changed. In the beginning we wanted to tell the world about us, about the peoples from 21 Republics and 4 Autonomous Communities, about our cultures, languages, customs and history. Yet now we are more political and try to build solidarity among all existing non-russian organizations, decolonial and linguistic activists.

Members of our movement also take part in the Free Nations Post-Russia Forum, which takes place every two months. 

The West must finally see that the existence of russian imperialism will always be a security threat to the entire world. The victory of Ukraine, the disintegration of russia and the independence of the non-russian peoples will bring peace.

Resources and scarcity, challenges and joys of activist work

Raisa: We have very few activists who are still in the republic, they are literally two, maybe three but they are already leaving, we are helping them with documents. Many are in Kazakhstan, and actually Kazakhstan is not that safe. There is a risk of being deportated to Russia. Among the risks we have: physical and health harm, risk of deportation, criminal prosecution on the territory of the Russian Federation, the Republic of Sakha. […] I recently talked to people who had left, our volunteers, who are safe now. They said that Federal Security Service officers beat up a man, and our volunteer’s husband was also beaten — because both of them had been in contact with us. In any case, these are not very pleasant situations. And for those who are outside [of the Russian Federation], what are the risks? I think there are actually no risks. The main thing they worry about is their relatives being persecuted. And then, even persecution of relatives is no risk for a person who has left the country and is in a safe and secure place. The persecution of a relative cannot silence a person. Well, I assume so, right? Only make them speak louder. Louder, more fiercely and more frequently, and pervasively. 

In fact, as we have stated from the start, there will be no hierarchy. There will be no leader, we will have full democracy, reaching sometimes to anarchy. […] But it actually feels good to me.  Everyone can express their point of view, and it is easier not to fight, it is easier keep the same initiative for as long as possible.  While there are people who do leave, some of them justify it by lack of time. Totally cool, totally understandable. Some people do not withstand the psychological load. We have, from what I can tell for sure, we have two people who have contacted a psychologist, because it is a very heavy load. Well, the work is hard. It’s just hard.  

I am confused [about what I feel] — responsibility, guilt. Responsibility for what is happening. And yet I still feel extremely sorry for people like this, in this situation… who cry writing their last letters from the battlefront. Their deathbed letters. «I should not have come here, please don’t come.» They make videos. We have so much content like that. Or also those mothers who write: «I did not let him go, but he left anyway.» And now he is dead. [I ask myself] what am I supposed to do and how awful is that? I feel very bad for people like that. No matter what, I am very sorry and we try to support them anyway. These are our people, these people will live in our new state. We still need to do something about it.

G.: It’s very important [to keep in touch with activists in Kalmykia]. We live in other places, and I’m very worried that I’m getting alienated and will not understand Kalmykia well and will colonially impose my opinion, just because I have left and things have changed in my head. The ideal, of course, would be that the people in power are mostly people who have lived there all their lives.

Maria: Well, I actually wanted to write a post like that, you know, and I even started writing it. I came up with this slogan: «weak on the outside and strong inside», because we are really weak on the surface. We don’t have Khodorkovsky, the oligarch <…>. We don’t have the Navalny Foundation <…>. National activists have nothing because we are descendants, children of those who were exploited, colonized and had everything taken away from them. National activists have nothing because we are descendants, we are children of those who were exploited, colonized and had everything taken away from them. That’s why we are all poor. And yet, the wind of change is with us. We are only weak on the outside and strong on the inside.

​​Anonymous activist: When I see a new media, I immediately follow it. It is clear that there are some new media initiated by Khodorkovsky and funded by him. Other forces, too — it’s very obvious. Yet in general I like the fact that there are certain activist groups.  They have become visible because of all this, and I really don’t like it when people say, «oh, the nations are finally waking up!» And yet we have always been here. National movements have existed everywhere. However, thanks to this consolidation, we began reposting each other, supporting each other. Indeed, a collective movement is now taking shape, people are uniting with one another, and one can say it exists despite the disagreements. The main disagreement is about independence or federalization. Altogether, I love it, because I didn’t know about many national movements until recently. Though the occasion is not joyful, the very fact of unification is joyful.

Elsa: Thanks to our Berlin organization, I personally learned a lot, especially about decolonization. I have also met many interesting people and made important friendships. The only problem I see is that there are almost no platforms where our voices and opinions are heard. Meanwhile creating our own platforms requires time and financial support.

Strategies and tactics, goals and tools

Raisa: The most important goal is self-determination. Then there is the anti-war goal, so that there is less…so that people would not go to war. I am aware that there is a federal agenda. A law that forces people to go to war. Yesterday we published a post on that too. How to deal with it, how to avoid mobilization in the current situation. 

Now our long-term goals. As an entity, as a non-profit foundation, we will be working for a very long time. I have met here representatives of the Kyrgyz opposition, journalists, investigators. You’ve heard of Kloop, right? They have been working here for a very long time, almost 20 years. Following this organization’s model, we are likely to be working very hard as well. We will also be engaged in investigations, building civil society in our republic. All the same, we will do it. I hope very much, these are our dreams. 

Our first initiative is an investigation. We have already started an investigation on Ingush oligarchs who live in the European Union and still have assets in the Russian Federation. The second initiative is a project I would like to undertake.  I want to collect historical documents that would confirm that our territory — the Sakha Republic — was conquered 400 years ago. I need to have it all formalized and confirmed by lawyers. With these documents, I would like to appeal to the UN. Such document, I think, is necessary — its time will come anyway. If this document is adopted, if we are recognized, on the basis of these documents, as a historical colony, a conquered territory, then we will be able to stand up and walk out of the Russian Federation quite calmly, and with no regard to anything — we can do it even now, yet it seems to me there must be an official basis. 

We will measure, we will see the fruits of our activity after the referendum. And I hope that these results of our activities will be like seeds, they will finally grow. The seeds we are sowing in people’s minds, will give their sprouts after all. When that day comes, we will see that people will make the right decision for everyone.

G.:… in 2020, if you used the word «decoloniality» to refer to Kalmykia, 99% [of people] would be like, «what the hell are you talking about?». And now I think at least a thousand of Kalmyks are reading and liking us. We have a total of 2500 subscribers. Some of them read just out of interest, but they seem to be mostly Kalmyks and Kalmyks and residents of Kalmykia. They are liking certain things, writing about imperialism, and things are already underway. And overall I can tell from communicating with my parents that they are familiar with the idea of decoloniality, I’m even trying to explain to my pro-Putin father more… explain the principles. He agrees.  I tell him that the Soviet Union forced us to become sedentary, but he himself has experienced it all, he understands it all. Putin has propagandized him, Putin is pushing this agenda, like as if he is a decolonial warrior against the West. In general, many people have the potential to understand this about Kalmykia specifically, they feel that something is wrong… as to why they are so poor. The potential is great, and perhaps for an average Kalmyk it is even easier to understand decoloniality than to some educated Muscovite. Kalmyks have the potential to understand from their lived experience.

Hypothetically, if there is a referendum on independence, there will be a time when it will be necessary [to conduct] some kind of political campaign, to agitate people, to explain that independence is necessary, that it is no big deal. And if possible create some kind of parties. Now, obviously, we will not even pass the registration, some of us cannot even come back to Kalmykia. If we come back, if we get good, decent conditions, then we would love to… We all have a dream to live in Kalmykia and help the republic, we have politically active and educated people. It would be strange not to even try to influence politics. We do have a very political team. Maybe we could pick up one candidate from among us and promote her. We were even thinking that we should start writing programs, so that they would already have an understanding that Kalmykia is that kind of views. People often say that we criticize others, yet it is unclear what we are for. Against colonialism, against the Muscovite government, against corruption. And yet what kind of society are you for? We thought that we should start writing a program, create a platform so that people understand it, and then this social capital should be transferred to a political party. And maybe someone will vote for our candidates.

Anonymous activist: I have a very diverse audience reading me, which I am happy about and very proud of. From very radical Islamic people to… I just think it is important to write what I think, I do not feel that I will be persecuted [for that]. Now they are persecuting those who have been consistently engaged in political activity for a long time, like Lilia Chanysheva, Ramilya Saitova, and other people, who are not politicians, they do not touch them. There are people who write much more harshly, they call everything by its name, yet they are left alone, because [authorities] are afraid of stirring up trouble among the Bashkirs. And so I think that many national activists are tolerated, so I have a carte blanche, which I use to my advantage.

Elsa: Our goal is decolonization of our peoples from centuries of propaganda, solidarity not only between the nations and peoples of russia, but also with our neighbors, whom we shared a common history with as part of the USSR and the russian empire. 

Sure, I would like to see all republics and regions become independent and develop their own states after Ukraine’s victory. That would be perfect. But only time will tell what will come out of this. However, I see the role of Voices of Nations in fighting for these ideals as much as possible.

Conflicts and political opponents

Raisa: …we have no positive experience of communicating with the Russian liberal opposition here in Poland. Perhaps at the very beginning, I wanted to do something together. I even had a training course with Free Russia, I think. But over time, the relationship changed.  Last time, when I was at the meeting on the 20th of April, I asked them, maybe in a heat of the moment, but I asked them to not invite me to any more meetings with Russian imperialists.

The first time I went to a meeting, it was the Ark. […] I had been told before that the Russian liberal position doesn’t support us. It does not support not so much our activities, but our views. Like, not our activities, but our views.  And when I asked them a single question… I explained that we are one of the richest republics of the Russian Federation, and yet we are very poor, extremely poor. […] I then asked: «Are you, dear people from Moscow and St. Petersburg, ready to be left without salaries? And are you, your parents, ready to be left without pensions?» For when the time comes to pay reparations, you will be pulling it all out of us, out of the national republics. And we do not agree with this, and, in fact… they looked at me with judgment. I felt that the question hit the very core.

And then I also had a few meetings at the Helsinki Foundation. I met Russian activists. And all the things that we have been saying, that we want self-determination, that we have a certain decolonial agenda — all of this is met with resistance. […] They are saying, «We have whole projects to decentralize power, to build a real federation.» I said that it’s kind of late, not even that it is late, but we no longer want to have this conversation with you. We will decide for ourselves what to do and we will not ask anyone.

Recently I watched an interview with Gordon, I think it was German Sterligov. And he was saying that Russia and Russians should live in the original Russian territories. That is Moscow and the agglomeration territories. Maybe, I don’t recall exactly, he was saying something within some kind of a Golden Russian Ring, something like that. And  the rest of the territory south and east of the Urals, they should be gotten rid of. Roughly speaking, they should be let go. He said: «We Russians must have our own Russian state.» You said that Russian nationalists are also talking about decoloniality. And so that is actually decolonialization too. And I realized that I agree with Russian nationalists on that issue. I support them. Russian nationalists are great! In fact, those vigorous Russian nationalists who say that Moscow is for Muscovites and Russia is for Russians, are actually very good. I’m not like that per se. I am not saying that Yakutia Republic of Sakha is only for the Sakha people. It is for anyone who wants it to develop and prosper, regardless of their ethnicity. But if Russian nationalists say, «Russians, let’s unite and live in our own state», why not? I was talking to Vlad, who is now in Ukraine and fighting. And he also says that the Russian Volunteer Corps consists of exactly the kind of Russian nationalists who want Russia to… and they are ready to liberate Russia from Putin’s nominal command with weapons in their hands. And to live, and to lead Russia to the point where Russians live in their own nation-state. And we have talked about this subject with him as well. Yes, why not? A brilliant idea, a wonderful idea. 

G.: I do not feel good about this possibility [of cooperation with the Russian opposition]. There are always videos popping up, recently Pevchichykh said «Ufa» with such disdain, even though Bashkortostan is one of the richest regions now. Still, she said: «they will never make it without Russia.» We are just conversing with some of them, although they are totally far from all our ideas. And there is this attitude, right, as if we were some kind of enemies, who shout and resent all the time, who are dissatisfied with everything there is. I don’t know, I just have negative feelings about them. I think they will never be able to be an ally.

Maria: Back to our Russian colleagues. All these Khodorkovsky, Ponomarev and all the rest, they behave as imperialists. They know that there is a terrible history, how nations were conquered, the uprisings and everything else. Just like the Chechen war. Khodorkovsky came out of prison. And immediately afterwards, do you know what he said? <…> I have a direct cutout in Voices where he threatens with death: «the scumbag national-patriots will have to die.» And Ponomarev kept saying, «first all the regions and republics will be dismantled, and then we will gather to decide on the terms on which we will put the country back together.» It was not a bad message. Yet as soon as I said to anyone, «Ponomarev said very good things,» everyone would reply, «Wait, wait, wait.» And in his last interview, you know what he said? First, there should be two referendums. The first referendum, for example, in Kalmykia. The people of Kalmykia should decide, right? And if the people of Kalmykia decide to start seceding, then there should be a referendum in the whole of Russia. Do the Russians want Kalmykia to secede…? I wrote in my article that it reminds me of an open palm turning into a fist. How can we have referendums when we have a fascist population…? And anyway, as long as the empire exists, as long as this state exists, as long as people are not given freedom, will they voice their true opinions? They’re afraid. Everybody wants to keep their jobs and their lives.

Anonymous activist: It appears to me that the relationship between russia and colonized peoples is the same as the relationship between patriarchy and feminism. In other words, it is impossible to seek support from the patriarchy, just as it is impossible to seek support from the russian opposition. The same Navalnists are known for their attitudes. The same Pevchikh said that it would cost independence and money and that would be enough to «shut them up». It was so colonial, so blatant, they do not even question it because they assume it. At the same time they want to be allies so we support them. Yet there is such disregard and it happens all the time and I don’t think there is a movement in russia right now that we want to ally ourselves with. The same thing in the U.S., when they have congresses there, they are happy to draw new borders, and I do not trust that either, because they want to make us a bargaining chip. It seems we can only trust each other, unite all of us on the basis of common goals. And even though not all of us have common goals, because we have the Idel-Ural movement, which wants us together with Tatarstan to become one republic and to end up with one big Tatarstan… I really don’t like it…  At the same time, some people are constantly trying to save us from a big colony and make a small colony so that we remain in the same condition. Maybe there is a hope for other countries, the Turks have the support of Turkic countries, though not Turkey. Maybe Kazakhstan will offer help at some point.

Elsa: In the so-called «good» Russians, I see a threat both to Ukraine’s victory in this terrible aggressive war and to us as well. This liberal opposition elite from Moscow unfortunately only wants to come to power and end the war, while making no other changes.  They ignore both the feminists and the LGBTQ+. They completely ignore political activists from the regions or even threaten them with death for their views.

Allies and conflicts within politically related movements

Raisa: We are working in one bundle with all of them. We work with Buryats, yet not with the Free Buryatia Foundation, unfortunately we have different goals. We work with those who have left the Free Buryatia Foundation. Victoria Maladaeva, they also organized their own [movement]. We are working with them. Chechnya, Kalmykia, Tuva, and the Buryats. These are the main ones with whom we work together in one group, in one bundle. And this whole decolonial agenda was developed by all of us together. The Bashkirs, unfortunately, are not part of it. They could have been, of course. They have a public association. These are completely different Bashkirs than those in the League of Free Nations. They are also human rights activists, and it would be possible to work with them, of course, while there were some connections. And yet, in my opinion, there is no close contact with them. Well, there is Chechnya, Buryatia, Kalmykia, and Tatarstan.

The League of Free Nations could, of course, expand this circle, right?  We cannot yet declare ourselves as… And probably, most likely, we will not declare ourselves as an organization that is ready to defend the independence of the republic with arms in our hands. We are, after all, pacifists, anti-war activists.

G.: At the moment we have activists who are against the authorities, yet they are all men, they are all quite old, and they are so patriarchal and traditionalist. Personally, I think I definitely need to be a part of this team, because even in «Kalmykia» there are not so many women, unlike, by the way, other movements. And yet, as usual, women carry a lot of the work. It’s important for me to be a part of [the Free Kalmykia movement], to bring a female point of view to the table, to explain feminism. Men, even if they think they are pro-feminists, are often mistaken and do not understand much. That’s why it’s important for me to keep this thread going. If I don’t, I’m failing women. A conservationist will come and start doing something stupid.

Among activists, we got friends with different decolonial movements.  We have a connection with the Kyrgyz, we are in touch with some of them, even offering help. There is a relation with Kazakhs, because we brought out [those fleeing mobilization] mainly to Kazakhstan. The Kyrgyz, on the other hand, have a good channel on YouTube called Bashta. A podcast, they invite guests. We keep in touch. So that’s about it, allies. And from the republic, I don’t know… There was an idea, we had a comrade reading about the Basques, how they made cooperatives and with their help they got political power… they collected money in a common fund, they gave money to other initiatives… We also discussed trade unions… it seems to me that maybe we need kind of agricultural workers [in allies]… In my family’s experience, farmworkers live in very poor conditions, they can’t demand anything from the local government. Half of the subsidies are taken from them through kick-backs, they give you the leftovers, they say you spent all the money… they are treated terribly. We had a big die-off… we had a drought, no rain. And there was no help from the republican government. I think there’s a lot of potential in this area to organize ourselves into a union of some kind.  Yes, there are a lot of workers, they have a similar interest. If, I think, they would realize that they want help, that their interests would be protected… I even think my father would support this idea.

Maria: The Baltic States are very supportive to us. Ukraine supports us. The European Organization for Security also supports us, as a matter of fact. If Russia is an empire, we are a colony, what kind of referendums can there be? All of Asia and Africa freed themselves without any referendums: they recognized that it was a colony. And colonized peoples and countries have the right to self-determination. It is written in the resolution adopted by the United Nations in 1960

There has not yet been repentance for the two Chechen wars, but there was at least symbolic repentance for the deportation. The resolution was issued in Yeltsin’s times. It is very precious. According to Russian documents, the deportation of the Kalmyk people is genocide. This is a very important first step. With this you can already go to the United Nations and at the international level to the Court in The Hague to have the genocide recognized by the tribunal. I was born in my homeland in Kalmykia. I am the only one of four children in the family [born not in exile]. I am the only one who was not repressed. The rest are all repressed. Grandfather, grandmother, parents, brothers, sisters. Recognizing deportation as genocide was at least something. There was no repentance for the Chechen wars. And there was genocide in Chechnya. Do you know how they carpet-bombed there? We, Kalmyks, were near — wolves were running to us. The beasts were fleeing from these bombings. All the rich people fled to Moscow and abroad. And the poor, ordinary people fled to us in Kalmykia. We had a lot of Chechens. Many of them left later, yet many stayed. <…> That’s the recent Chechen war. How do the Russians answer us? They don’t even raise an eyebrow, because it is as if they did not kill people in Chechnya. There is no repentance, and without repentance there is no future. That’s why Russia has no future.

Anonymous activist: The very same Ruslan Gabbasov, he was very much against feminism and LGBT. And now he is reposting feminists and Feminist Anti-War Resistance on his channel. I don’t know how sincere it is. On the one hand I sympathize with many things he does, because he and his Bashnatspolit are the only formalized movement now, but on the other hand, they are disgusting homophobes and I don’t want to solidarize with many things and I will not heartily support them.

I follow a bit all the Bashkir activists and the eco-movement. We have an interesting eco-movement, too, and I think it has a future. If something happens in our country, if there is ever a movement for independence, it will start with eco-activists. On Kushtau there was an association of different political forces, when feminists stood side-by-side with Muslim traditionalists and everything went well, on Toratau it was the same. This thing generates a sacred anger, because nature has nothing to do with politics and everyone knows that nature must be protected. It is an ultimate, children must be protected and nature must be protected too. Therefore, everyone came to Kushtau and the authorities became scared, for they tried to make it look like only bearded Wahhabis gathered there, they frightened people with various scares, but people came there and saw that literally everyone was there.

Elza Ochir: At the moment we work mainly with the «Congress of the Oirad-Kalmyk people», the «League of Free Nations» and a few political activists from neighboring countries such as Kazakhstan and Georgia. Unfortunately, for most other organizations we are too radical and too political.


Raisa: …different activists, various, geographically different, are in different cities, live in different countries. The only thing we are unanimous about is that the Sakha Republic should be an independent state. We have no questions in this regard at all.

Independence, independence, only independence, only self-determination. And, of course, everything according to the norms of international law. According to the regulations, according to the laws.

And on the other hand, you know, there are certain issues. If you secede from the Federation, you will thus divide the Federation into two halves. The Far East and Russia, and we’re sort of in between. Would it not be easier for you to merge with the Magadan Oblast and Chukotka? In order to withdraw from the Federation? You’ll be a Far Eastern republic, as it was in the past. Well, I do not know, we shall see. We are only at the beginning of the road.

Decolonization means that the colony ceases to be a colony and becomes an independent state with an independent economy, with independent political organizations, with independent, proper elections, a democratic state and with proper elections. Just in general, with everything on its own. With its own constitution, with its own army, with everything that we mean by the concept of an independent democratic state.

All those people who live in the territory of any nationality, they are all our compatriots. They are our compatriots. Russians and ethnic Ukrainians, we have many of them, the whole south of the republic is populated by ethnic Ukrainians, they may suffer even more from the Kremlin’s colonial policy than we do. They are definitely the victims of the regime, because they get the same low salaries, right, they live in the same living conditions for northerners, they live on the unreachable suburbs and get that miserable northern import. And they live in the same barracks, they are deceived by [the regime]. I would not like to see the same distortions as in the 90s, when the Sakha people viewed Russians very negatively. And there were, as we know, numerous examples of clashes between Russians and Sakha. We would not want that to happen. We must realize that after all, this is our common home, we have to live there. I would like there to be one Sakha nation. Just like a Polish person is someone who lives in Poland, has Polish citizenship, he is a Polish person regardless of his ethnic origin. Just like Ukrainians live in Ukraine, a nation, despite their different ethnic origins. I wish that in Yakutsk, in Yakutia, in our Sakha Republic, despite our ethnic origins, we all become one nation.

G.: …there are people who want, for example, to unite different regions, non-Russians from Russia, for example, a union with Tyva, Buryatia, Yakutia… We are still separated from them territorially. They are a bunch, and we are separate. We are closer to the Caucasian republics. That’s the opinion. There are those who say that it is not up to me at all, only if our people decide. And of course, no one will forcibly impose this opinion. There are people who say, «Well, I don’t want secession so much.» And there are people who say, «I’m not really in favor of secession at all, and yet I want more autonomy.» Still, more people, I would say, are for [separation].

Certainly, we would like the people to have power, to have changeability and transparency. We now have a big problem with the center, we give our resources to the center, but have no possibility to develop independently. Thus, we need to keep the money and invest it more effectively. And ideally, we need to give  more power to the people. I personally believe that we need to strengthen regional government, because they[the center] have destroyed our villages, freedom of speech and assembly…

There are some ideas to unite the Oirats all over the world. «Kalmyks» is a colonial name. We used to call ourselves Oirats. And we have relatives among the Mongolian people.  They are even more numerous there than in our country for some reason. Our people are very numerous around the world and, supposedly, there are quite few of us left there, in Russia, and a lot of people are dying out. Yet we have potential. Maybe people will come to us, there will be some kind of international connection.

Maria: We have to create conditions, we need to make the economy work, so that Kalmykia can stand on its own. Let us be poor. Independence does not mean that we will have a good life, it will be just as bad. The point is that we already have a bad one. It won’t get better, you know? But at least we will live on our own. We will save our culture, we will save ourselves as a nation. We will try.

We must first give everyone freedom, I believe. <…> Regions need freedom. Imagine an empire. Divide and conquer. Man is an enemy to man. That is how it feels. For example, the Ukrainians, when they raise money, they, you know, how they donate, — our people do not, even if they have money. They are not used to it. There are no horizontal ties. That’s why we need independence. Independence is not a whim. No, it is a condition for the survival of the people. We cannot survive otherwise. First of all, we will disappear. And second, our lands will be only a colonial extension, resources, see? And our culture will be lost, and our language will be lost, because culture and language are supported only by living people with economic potential.

We just want to achieve more. In the future, there will still be a possibility [of independence and secession]. You see, the wheel of time is turning already. I believe so. One can stop it now, yet in some time it will happen anyway, there is no turning back.

Anonymous activist: It looks like there is a chance for a happy outcome. If suddenly all of Russia starts to fall apart and we find ourselves, just like with the keys to the apartment, with independence in our hands. It could be like that when, let’s say, the USSR collapsed. And why not? What if it could happen? I suppose.

If we have to go out tomorrow to defend the town of Bashkort, I will go to defend it even with some of the most radical Bashkirs. Either for Kushtau or against gold mining. Another thing is that they will berate me there for my beliefs. That’s why I’m very interested in how all this will go on, here, internally. I would like to find my own people on the basis of common views and at least communicate and represent them. That’s why I started this new project — The Beautiful Bashkortostan of the Future. I want people to write about how they imagine the Bashkortostan of the future, what will be there and how.

I have a few ideas. I know for a fact that there will be same-sex marriage, that there will be a government made up equally of men and women. And the rest we have to think about. It’s very interesting for me to think, to dream, to imagine. I feel that the possibility to just half-jokingly imagine it all — is what is missing especially now, when everything is so hard and bad. 

Elsa Ochir: Perhaps my view of the future is too optimistic, yet the more I learn about the situation in the republics, the more I see the disintegration of Russia as the only solution to many of our problems related to the preservation of culture, language, and even the survival of peoples.

Nina Nodirova



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