Grigory Potanin bust, Tomsk

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Grigory Potanin (1835-1920) is still another of those figures, an ethnographer and natural historian, who had avoided my obviously inadequate efforts to learn Russian history and culture. When I was last in Tomsk I lived across the street from this small but imposing bust of Potanin that stands in a wooded area in front of Tomsk University, and alongside the Tomsk University Research Library and Archive. The plaque  proclaims him an honorary citizen of Siberia. I would never have thought anything of that until the story behind it was told to me by several Tomsk residents, including Pavel Rachkovsky and Valentina Golovchiner. You see, the notion of a “citizen of Siberia” implies an autonomy for Siberia that it has never had. It has never been a nation and it has never had the right to confer citizenship upon anyone. In other words, to some people, these are fighting words. And indeed, as I learned, there have been several movements throughout history when elements in the vast Siberian region have talked about or actively sought independence from European Russia. It is an idea, as one might imagine, that has never gained traction in Moscow (or in St. Petersburg, when it was capital). I first heard this in April and – lo and behold! – the news the last few weeks has been full of reports about demonstrations and political actions being called throughout Siberia to proclaim the desire to renew the discussion of potential Siberian independence. Encouraged by Vladimir Putin’s willingness to receive Crimea when it “seceded” from Ukraine and his support for “separatists” in Eastern Ukraine, numerous regions in Russia are rethinking their attitude to the central, but very distant, government. If Putin so readily supports secession of Ukrainian lands, why shouldn’t he support their desire for autonomy? Right? Well, not so fast… As it has done every time in the past, the current Russian government is doing everything possible to at least dampen, if not douse, the rising fervor. The tools are typical: bans, threats, harassment, arrests and such. The prominent opposition politician and former Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Boris Nemtsov tells on his Facebook page about an August 17, 2014, march for independence planned in Novosibirsk.
“I have repeatedly said that the war in Ukraine will lead to centrifugal tendencies and a growth of separatism in Russia,” Nemtsov writes. “The boomerang always comes back.”

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Potanin is a prominent and respected figure in Tomsk, one of the great Siberian cities. He was one of the founders of Tomsk University. But even in death he has had to remain on the run, so to speak. The bust pictured here was kicked out of another place where it was not wanted and then hastily moved to this kind of no man’s land at the university. Professor Golovchiner told stories of people at the university chafing about Potanin’s presence on their territory, and there have been efforts to run him out of here, too. The situation is complicated by the fact that, indeed, this is more than just a bust on a pedestal in the woods, it is actually Potanin’s resting place. Not everyone knows this, apparently, but his body is buried here, also having been unwelcome elsewhere in the past. If the current secessionist movement in Siberia gains any momentum, we can expect to hear much more about Potanin. His name will surely be held high on someone’s banner.

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