On November 20, 2012, Moscow Times reporter Howard Amos arrived in the Siberian city of Chita for a planned one-month sojourn along the Chinese border to Russia’s far-east outpost of Vladivostok. He was to report on the life and times of the region, where Chinese influence grows by the day.
Less than ten days later, Amos was on his way back to Moscow, hopes dashed and dreams destroyed in classic Russian fashion. His adventure offers penetrating insights into the true nature of Vladimir Putin’s neo-Soviet state.
Amos described his first morning waking up in Siberia this way:
After a bad night on a lumpy bed … I couldn’t stomach the watery breakfast of pale, congealed eggs – a so-called “omelet.” The cold pancakes with fluorescent yellow jam, though, were edible.
His last morning, nine days later, started out like this:
At 6:50 a.m. there was a loud banging on my door. I was instantly awake. But it was one of the hotel cleaners. She said that I needed to show my passport at reception before I checked out.
After the passport was checked, Amos was called before the authorities and told that he didn’t have the right stamps to authorize a reporter to conduct journalism activities. He was informed that for this crime he could be expelled from the country for three years.
The local authorities had been tracking the reporter, reading his blog entries on the Moscow Times website, and had determined they didn’t care for his depictions of their region. They told him he had to stop publishing and could continue his journey only as a tourist, not telling anyone he was a reporter and not collecting the news. Upon learning that its reporter wouldn’t be allowed to report, the Times cancelled the trip and ordered him back to Moscow.
Two days before getting the kibosh, Amos had made his closest visit to the Chinese border and had been arrested by the KGB (now the FSB) for his trouble. He entered the town of Zabaikalsk without realizing that foreigners are not permitted there except in transit, unless they have special permission from the government. Amos wrote:
The car I was in was tailed as we drove around the town in the morning. And as I was sitting down to my first real Chinese meal of the trip so far, two border guards appeared and asked for my documents. They escorted me out of the restaurant and into their green van, parked alongside two other vehicles. They explained that I was in the area illegally, and fined me 300 rubles ($10). Then I was interviewed by a black-coated FSB officer who had scars around his mouth. He looked at the photographs on my camera and asked me a range of questions: from where I had learned Russian, to which university I had attended, and the details of my employment history. They let me go after about 40 minutes.
A glance at Amos’s reporting from the region around Zabaikalsk makes it readily apparent why the KGB was unhappy:
The swimming facility in the military town of Yasnaya was closed in the 1990s, but after the army pulled out last year, the doors to the sports complex were smashed in, the colorful notice boards were torn down and the empty pool began to fill up with garbage. An unused residential building nearby is being dismantled from the top down by locals who sell its bricks for no more than 60 kopeks (2 cents) each. The signs of decay in Yasnaya are the beginning of a familiar process in the Zabaikalsky region. As troops are moved away from the Chinese border, the civilian residents of towns once entirely oriented toward the military are left to survive amid abandoned apartment blocks. Fearful for their homes and bewildered by change, a few elderly inhabitants of Yasnaya are attempting to halt what they see unfolding before their eyes. “We are like [expletive] in the eyes of the administration,” said Mikhail Shagirev, 63, who moved to Siberia 34 years ago to work on the Baikal-Amur Mainline railroad.