At the beginning of this year a small group of unidentified people from Russia’s smallest region met in Istanbul.

In the relative safety of Turkey they did something they could never do at home: they called for the independence of their republic, Ingushetia in the northern Caucasus.

Their announcement did not exactly make world headlines. The Ingush have long been overshadowed by their larger neighbours, the Chechens. And it is hard, impossible, to gauge how much backing they might have.

Organisers remain anonymous. They know the dangers of supporting what the regime of Vladimir Putin would call “separatism”: supporters of independence for Russia’s minority nations are mercilessly persecuted. 

Yet organisers of the event declared their republic - part of an area conquered by Russia in the 19th century - to be “occupied”. 

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The unnamed Ingush of Istanbul are not alone. Since Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year - and cracked down on remaining freedoms at home - there have been a few such pro-independence campaigns launched or highlighted abroad by various groups. Pro-independence Chechens from the Caucausus, Kalmyks from the steppes between the Don and the Volga and Buryats from Siberia have all tried to raise their profile.

Some have secured vocal support in Ukraine. One Kyiv-based politician, Oleksiy Goncharenko, declared Ingushetia to be “on the path to independence”. This from a Moscow-educated politician who until 2014 was relatively well-disposed to Russia.

There are Ukrainians who talk of nascent and embryonic autonomist and sovereignty movements inside Russia with relish. They see Putin’s war of conquest against them as a continuation of several centuries of imperialism. And they think of some of the hidden nations inside Russia as potential allies. 

The Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, has, for example, declared Chechnya to be “occupied territory”. It did so even as Chechen fighters loyal to local strongman Ramzan Kadyrov killed Ukrainians.

Read more from David Leask on Russia's invasion of Ukraine:

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The theme is getting picked up in western Europe and America too. Some pundits reckon the current Russian Federation - exposed, in their view, as militarily, politically and economically weak by the Ukrainian war - could break up in the way the USSR did 30 years ago. A few think it should do so, perhaps with independence referendums of the the kind held in Scotland in 2014.

Ukrainian security chief Oleksiy Danilov has talked about “dismantling” Russia after the war. That makes some figures in the West nervous: they fear the consequences of Russian disintegration as much as they do Russian expansionism. The British expert Keir Giles this week tweeted that he had heard Nato officers warn of “catastrophic success” by Ukraine.

There are real differences of opinion over how desirable the break-up of Russia would be, especially if this was imposed, or encouraged, from the outside as some sort of punishment for invading Ukraine. But is such thinking even realistic? Or is it just an attempt to troll Mr Putin and wind up his nationalist base, with its anxieties about “separatism”?

"A frankly terrible misreading of the actual power dynamics that have evolved in Russia."

Ethnic Russians probably make up at least three quarters of the population of the current state - though doubts are being cast on census figures produced under the Putin regime. There are fewer than a dozen sizeable areas where ethnic Russians are not in the majority. It is hard - especially under war conditions - to measure pro-independence sentiment in these places. But minorities can and do identify with the Russian state - even if they are not Russkiye. 

The buzzword for the future of Russia is “decolonisation”. For many people this means a challenge to the current state’s imperialistic mindset, in respect of both its neighbours and the minority nations inside its borders. For others, the term has come to mean dismemberment.

Alexander Clarkson, who teaches European studies at King’s College, London, reckons the former makes sense - and the latter does not.

“I think decolonisation is an enormously useful, important intellectual exercise that, hopefully, over the next 20-30 years, will bring reflective discussion of what Russia is,  the diversity of Russian experiences, and the extent to which minorities are part of a shared Russian experience, but also distinct,” he said. “Where I think it goes completely askew is when people start saying “let's decolonise Russia” and equate this with territorial and political breakup, as a replay of what happened to the USSR in 1991. This seems to be a frankly terrible misreading of the actual power dynamics that have evolved in Russia.”

For Clarkson, foreigners are trying to “staplegun” a framework on to Russia. “It’s barmy,” he said. “Nuts.”

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Vladimir Putin

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Russian invaded large parts of Ukraine on February 24 2022

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Ukrainian security chief Oleksiy Danilov

His colleague Gulnaz Sharafutdinova, a professor who heads King’s Russia Institute, has sympathy for decolonising the way academics think about the region.

For too long, she thinks, the world, including experts, have tried to understand the entire former Soviet Union through a Russian prism. This, she and others argue, strips agency from many peoples.

“Central Asian scholars will tell you their countries have been looked at like small poor nations that are sandwiched in between China and Russia, and so they are viewed as objects of history, not subjects,” she explained over the phone from Washington.

“So decolonising is about empowering subjects, political subjects, communities, countries, that have been in unequal power relationships.”

Sharafutdinova’s home of Tatarstan in the early 1990s led what became known as “the parade of sovereignties”. 

An interactive map of Russia's federation of nations

The leaders of some national republics inside Russia successfully pushed hard for more autonomy - and secured devolution beyond anything Scotland has achieved, including the right to forge bilateral treaties with Moscow. But Mr Putin in his more than two decades in charge has stripped local leaders of powers, re-centralised Russia. 

The Kremlin, Sharafutdinova stressed, does not reject diversity altogether and recognizes Russia’s multi-national and multi-confessional nature. 

But the Putin regime has also stepped on Russia’s multiculturalism and raised the status of Russians within the state in a way that is hard to explain to a foreign audience. 

Back in 2020 the constitution was amended to say that Russian was the “language of the state-bearing people”. In other words the basic law of the current federation regards ethnic Russians as the founders of the state. It also claims the various peoples of the federation are equal. 

What does this mean on the ground? That minority national languages and cultures can feel second-class. And get treated that way. Back in 2019, before the constitutional amendment, a 79-year-old from Udmurtia, one of the Volga republics, burnt himself alive in protest against the suppression of his language.

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Volodymyr Zelenskyy alongside Ukrainian soldiers

So could Russian “decolonisation” simply come to mean more respect for national minorities, a return to devolution and wider de-centralisation, an end to Putinism?

But what does Sharafutdinova make of wider talk of dismemberment? Of potential breakaway movements?

"The rhetoric right now reflects the intensity of conflict, the reality of the war that we are living in,” she said. 

The war, and the crackdown on free expression it has brought, has made it harder for marginalised, minoritized peoples inside Russia to have a say, or even come to a private view, she argued.

Read the rest of De-Colonising Russia by David Leask:

Inside Russia's 'prison of nations': A guide to the nationalities

Scotland, independence and its role in de-colonising Russia

“We cannot really know what people are thinking because they could be put down as traitors to the state,” she said. “There is no space even for the public formation of opinions.

“The context of war right now makes things so unstable and fluid. We need to understand that what's happening on the front is going to bring out a potentially very different situation. 

“So it all depends on how the war will end.”

There are Russian voices, independent ones, who warn against any settlement imposed or encouraged from without.

Ilya Budraitskis, a left-wing Moscow writer and historian, in a paper last month argued that decolonisation as a form of punishment for a defeated Russia was dangerous.

“It is assumed that a ‘decolonised’ Russia will finally give up its imperial ambitions and cease to be a threat to its neighbours,” he wrote. “It is difficult not to notice that the outcome of such a “decolonisation” process risks leading to the opposite, resulting in the growth of imperial revanchism and the desire to overcome the externally imposed political forms as a product of ‘national humiliation’.”

"Identities are treacherous. They are made and broken through cataclysmic events."

Budraitskis - and others - have stressed that any process pushed from the outside risked depriving minority peoples of their agency. 

There are also other practical considerations - not least the prospect of conflict between new states formed if Russia breaks up - which make some observers uneasy.

The current Federation has some 190 or so ethnic groups, and most are not settled in homogeneous communities.  Only a few have titular republics and embryonic quasi-national institutions. But even these have far less capacity than the 15 old union republics, including Russia, which split apart in 1991.

Some national republics - most obviously Tatarstan - have a history of state-building and a relatively strong economic base. Others are seen as peripheral and rely on the federal government for subsidies. The gap between the rich and poor in Russia is not just for people, but for peoples.

Jeremy Morris is a Russia analyst at Aarhus University in Denmark who is skeptical about the emergence of new states. “The problem with Russia is that you have this incredible regional inequality,” he said. “Tatarstan is an exception. Most of these other places are dependent on Moscow, just as they were in the Soviet period. And they have an incredibly mixed population, as a result of Russian colonisation: but you cannot put that genie back in the bottle.”

Could people’s loyalties, their sense of nationality, change with circumstances? Maybe.

“Identities are treacherous,” summed up Sharafutdinova. “They are made and broken through cataclysmic events.”