Staunton, May 30 – St. Petersburg police have arrested Artem Chebotaryev, 36, of the northern capital and charged him, the leader of a small splinter group called “Free Ingria,” with exacerbating hatred toward other nations and said that he had in his possession archival materials on the Nazi SS.
Three things are intriguing about this apparently minor arrest: First, the authorities say Chebotarev is leader of a movement committed to the independence of the area around St. Petersburg but have chosen not to charge him with violating the Russian law on challenging the territorial integrity of the country, perhaps fearful of attracting more attention to that issue.
Second, this represents yet another move by Moscow to repress regionalist movements of all kinds, either by driving the leaders of such movements into exile as is the case of Vadim Shtepa of Karelia who is now in Estonia or by frightening Russians who might be interested in such movements by bringing trumped up charges against some of their members.
And third, the Russian authorities by this action have unintentionally increased the attention that the Russian media are paying not only to the question of Ingria and its future but also to that of other regions in the Russian Federation. Not only was Chebotaryev’s arrest covered in major central newspapers but in many Russian news outlets as well.
Perhaps the most prominent of this kind of coverage was offered by Stanslav Kovalsky of “Nezavimaya gazeta.” Writing today, the journalist not only recounts Cherbotaryev’s arrest and the fact that other Ingria supporters don’t know who he is but also tells a great deal about the history and current state of that issue (ng.ru/regions/2016-05-30/2_krest.html).
Ingria or Ingermanland, the “Nezavisimaya gazeta” journalist notes, “is the territory which Peter the Great after victory in the North War called the Intermanland gubernia and built Petersburg. He says that the media reports that Chebotaryev supposed is the founder of “a certain organization ‘Free Ingria’ which dreams of separating Petersburg and Leningrad from Russia.
The “Ingermanland theme” has been “popular among some Petersburg residents” for decades, the journalist says. One hotel in the city bears its name, there is a song club called Ingria, and even “a cocktail in one of the popular bars” that is called “the Ingria.” Moreover, the theme is popular online.
“In social networks,” he continues, there are more than a dozen communities” which focus on this theme. The most popular, “Ingermanlandia,” has more than 10,000 members. There is also one on the VKontakte network, with 3600 participants. The latter is the one Chebotaryev has posted in.
“The common theme for all these groups,” Kovalsky says, “is not ‘ethnic’ but territorial attachment to Ingria.” And that sense of regionalism in the northwestern part of the Russian Federation is far broader and in some sense more intensely held than even among those who take part in online discussions.
The Ingria flag often appears at liberal meetings, and the aspirations of the Ingermanlanders with regard to uniting St. Petersburg and Leningrad oblast and boosting the status of the region against Moscow are widely shared. Among popular slogans in the northern capital is “’Stop feeding Moscow!’”
According to Kovalsky, Chebotaryev has been charged with exacerbating hatred toward Muscovites. That is a sore point because Russian officials usually equate Muscovite with Russian but supporters of Ingria and other regions says that “Moskaly” are not the same thing as Russians and are a political rather than ethnic group.
(On this point, see the declaration on the Ingria. Info site from December 2012 in which the regionalists make this point very clearly, not only to avoid charges of inter-ethnic hostility but because this view animates their worldview (ingria.info/component/content/article/7-interview/741-2012-12-23-10-14-58).)
Some regionalists in the northern capital have already decided that they need to disown Chebotaryev lest they be charged as well. To that extent, the Russian arrest is working as Moscow intends. But the attention it has attracted to an issue that is seldom discussed beyond social networks gives the trend a boost – and that is hardly in Moscow’s interests.
By Attacking ‘Free Ingria’ Leader, Moscow Highlights Regionalist Challenge to Itself in Russia’s Northwest