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.
Life in Siberia is bleak, and getting both bleaker and more Chinese. Russia’s population is rapidly dwindling, especially in Siberia, while China’s is furiously expanding. Chinese expansion into Russia’s Far East is inevitable, and made all the easier by Russia’s neglect of its Siberian population as it tries to revive the Cold War and to establish a new oligarchy in the West. Siberia’s dire straits are an extremely sore spot with the Putin Kremlin, and the last thing it wants is further light shed on the topic.
If the Kremlin is willing to be this brazen with a foreign reporter employed by an English-language publication, you can imagine the lengths it might go to if it were dealing with a Russian. Until recently, there was hope: although Putin was liquidating both television and print reporting with gusto, a free Internet might counterbalance his dictatorship. But Putin’s recent moves have clearly shown that he is ready, willing, and able to muzzle the runet as well.
Russians have shown that, just as in Soviet times, they won’t stop their leaders from crushing the press and freedom of speech. They continue to support Putin, and recently allowed him to return to office essentially as president for life. So the only remaining hope for Russia is the United States and its allies. The U.S. Congress has taken a helpful step by overwhelmingly passing the Magnitsky Act, which bans known Russian human rights criminals from contact with America and its resources. Russians are breathing fire over this move, and that’s a good sign.
But ultimately, there must be presidential leadership if there is any hope of turning the tide against anti-American dictatorship in Russia, and there’s little hope of getting any from Barack Obama.
Though he has said he will sign Magnitsky, he opposed its passage.
He has pursued a policy towards Putin that can only be called appeasement since his first moments in office. If he doesn’t confront Putin the way Reagan confronted Gorbachev, Putin will take Russia back into the world of totalitarianism, and America will find itself enmeshed once again in a Cold War.