On November 15, an important event took place in Latvia involving Russian émigrés. A conference was held for the “Free Ingria” movement, where participants met to collaborate on a plan to separate St. Petersburg and the Leningrad Oblast, or Ingria, from the Vladimir Putin regime (Gubernia.media, November 20; Facebook.com/Konferentsiya_Svobodnaya_Ingria, accessed November 29). Dozens of speeches were delivered that discussed various projects pushing for the region’s independence. Advocates emphasized the region’s historical and cultural ties to Europe and characterized its independence as crucial to fighting against the Kremlin’s imperial ideology (Region.expert, November 15).
In recent years, emigration from Russia has increased significantly. Even before Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, the number of Russian émigrés numbered in the millions and has since grown (DW.com, October 7, 2021; Forbes.ru, October 4, 2022). Well-known opposition figures (e.g., Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Garry Kasparov, and Alexei Navalny) are consistently identified as representatives of the political interests of the Russian émigré community. They regularly lambast the Kremlin’s repressive actions for driving citizens out of the country. Some regionalists are often critical of the “federal opposition” for claiming that Moscow politicians do not represent their interests. These individuals, however, only strive to replace one “Kremlin tsar” with another to preserve Russia’s imperial identity.
Various émigré movements promoting more autonomy or complete independence for Russia’s regions have been gaining momentum. Over the past year, organizations such as the Free Nations of Post-Russia Forum and the Free Nations League (Freenationsrf.org; Freenationsleague.org, accessed November 29) have emerged as public platforms for regional representatives to discuss their goals for a post-imperial Russia. The Free Ingria conference represented the elevation of the regionalist agenda to a new level. Ingria is a Russian-speaking region, which breaks with the Kremlin’s claims that “all Russian speakers support Putin’s imperial policy.”
At the moment, it is impossible to say if a majority of Ingria’s residents want independence from Moscow. The region’s population totals about seven million people, which is comparable to many European countries. Kremlin propaganda has been rather effective in pushing the narrative that the region’s residents are wholly supportive of Putin’s unitary approach to governance. One event 30 years ago, however, demonstrated that, at the time, the region had inclinations toward greater autonomy. Officials in Moscow conveniently “do not remember” the referendum held in April 1993, in which most residents of St. Petersburg voted to grant the city and surrounding area the status of an autonomous republic within Russia (Livejournal.com, April 25, 2018). Back then, Russia’s republics enjoyed almost full sovereignty and were more powerful politically than they have become in recent years, when Putin’s “vertical of power” effectively returned them to the state’s control.
Ingrian regionalists have provided compelling evidence to refute the Kremlin’s assertion that Ingria cannot survive economically if it becomes independent of Moscow (Region.expert, November 6). The region has developed strong economic potential in most modern industries, and Moscow has used it as a “donor region” due to its rapid technological development. In this sense, Ingria’s economic approach appears closer to that of its European neighbors, Finland and Estonia. At the conference, participants voiced that an independent Ingria would become a logical “land bridge” between these countries and promote increased regionalism throughout Russia.
Regional ideologies opposing the Kremlin’s imperial mindset have gained more traction in recent years. Putin and his inner circle, natives of St. Petersburg, constructed Russia’s modern neo-imperial model. As the Kremlin’s neo-imperial tendencies have grown, the regionalist movement has become increasingly popular in St. Petersburg. Historical flags of Ingria have become a common sight at almost all of the city’s political processions (Facebook.com/Grazhdanckoye_dvizheniye_Svobodnaya_Ingria, accessed November 29). Originally, regionalists advocated for an expansion of St. Petersburg’s economic self-government to protect its unique cultural heritage. Gradually, their message radicalized and demanded the region’s full independence. Ingrian regionalists appeal to the European traditions of their city and region, which conflicts with the Kremlin’s anti-Western propaganda (Region.expert, September 13). Today, the Russian authorities openly persecute supporters of this regionalist approach, imprisoning them for discrepancies between their views and Moscow’s official historical narratives (Region.expert, November 17).
Putin’s suppression of regional autonomy underscores his worry that the emergence of independent Russian-speaking regions could compromise the Kremlin’s neo-imperial project. In a past interview with Ukrainian media, Jamestown Senior Fellow and well-known regional expert Paul Goble noted, “Putin’s biggest fear is the emergence of another country where the main language will be Russian. He cannot accept the idea that somewhere there may be a country where people speak Russian but is not part of Russia” (Apostrophe.ua, July 23, 2017). In his speech at the Free Ingria conference, Goble declared that he considers the movement has grown more promising in facilitating the de-imperialization of Russia (Region.expert, November 15).
Under Putin’s direction, Russia’s regions and republics have effectively been transformed into powerless colonies. This, in turn, has triggered increased calls for full de-imperialization and decolonization. The adoption of “declarations of independence” by some regional figures in exile, however, looks more like wishful thinking, as these documents have not had any real impact on the political realities in Russia (Idelreal.org, October 28, 2022; Fortanga.org, January 9). Russian political scientist Vadim Sidorov notes that such documents can only be adopted in the event of a complete political victory over the Putin regime (Region.expert, September 20). The organizers of the Free Ingria conference seem to have taken Sidorov’s words to heart: they have not proclaimed independence for the region but have opened a public discussion on the topic. This approach will likely attract the attention of many St. Petersburg residents and perhaps foment further public discussions of these “forbidden” issues in today’s Russia.
The Free Ingria conference provided a platform for Russian émigrés to publicly discuss the region’s status and the central role it might play in the future de-imperialization of Russia. The event in Riga stopped short of addressing the practical implementation of these regionalist ideas. The success of that approach will likely require the election of new city and regional authorities to replace the current Kremlin appointees. As free elections remain an illusion in Russia, little formal progress can be made on this front in the near future. Nevertheless, the Free Ingria movement and other related organization can continue to discuss regionalist ideas publicly to consolidate the Russian émigré community around their cause and galvanize more Russians within the country to support their ideas.