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Monday, 17 November, 2003
Exploring Russia diary: Singing conductorsAs campaigning starts for the parliamentary elections in Russia, the BBC's Steve Rosenberg has embarked on a trip across the country to find out the changes the country has undergone in the last 15 years. Exploring Russia diary :: 17 November, Taiga
"Ice creams! Ice creams! Come and get your ice creams!" It was -10C and the wind was piercing my nostrils. But at the train station in Taiga, 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometres) from Moscow, a young lad with a big fur hat and a huge tray of ice creams round his neck was running up and down the platform peddling lollies. Our trans-Siberian train had stopped here for 20 minutes. Ice cream man had been waiting for it all day. Mind you, there's nothing much else you can do in Taiga - a town where telephone numbers only have four digits. I didn't want an ice cream - a steaming hot cup of coffee, maybe, but not an ice cream. "Why on earth are you selling ice creams when it's so cold?" I asked naively. "We like ice creams in Russia, any time of year - try one". I got back on the train without an ice cream. Marina, our new carriage conductor was looking worried. "Oy!" said Marina, which is Russian for "oh". "I thought we were going to have to leave without you."
Stranded As the train pulled away from Taiga, Marina told me the story of how once she really did mislay one of her foreign passengers. He'd gone walkabout at some Siberian station and the train had chugged off without him. Marina had gone spare, eventually though the runaway passenger managed to catch up in a taxi. Marina has been a carriage conductor for nearly 30 years. She is a real pro. She can bring you a cup of tea without spilling a drop, even when the train is lurching from side to side and you're guaranteed service with a smile. I was about to discover though that there's much more to a Russian carriage conductor than meets the eye. Marina scurried off down the train. Something was going on. Ten minutes later a different conductor poked her head round our compartment door.
"Ready for the show," she smiled. We were ushered down the train to another carriage and there was Marina packed into a compartment with five of her fellow conductors and they were about to sing us a song. It was a lovely song, full of emotion and all about Russia. About how big and beautiful this country is, about how it's suffered but always won through. It nearly brought tears to my eyes. I'm sure there were tears in Marina's eyes - maybe that's because she was hemmed into the corner of the carriage with someone else's knee poking into her tummy. By now, you couldn't actually see how big and beautiful Russia was, it was pitch black out of the window.
Russian pride In our carriage we bumped into an American family - Eric and Elizabeth, brother and sister - they were on their way to Beijing. "There's a lot of excitement when the train makes a stop," Elizabeth told me. "We get off and see what kinds of food you can get - what the babushkas are selling. It's a great way to amuse yourself." Further down the train we found a group of Russian conscripts on their way to a military base. One soldier, called Kostya, told me that every time he looked out of the window (in the daytime) at the forests and the snow, he felt enormous pride. He was sure, he said, that Russia would once again become a great country.
Stalin menu By now I was feeling a little peckish. So I popped into the restaurant car. The waiter seemed surprised to see me. Maybe it's because I was the only customer. He recovered his composure and brought me the menu - I almost fell of my chair when I read it. The menu had been printed in... 1951! That's when Joseph Stalin was still running the country. It was in Russian, German and a kind of English. It was packed full of exotic sounding dishes like "beluga belly flesh" and "back of sturgeon". Unfortunately, the waiter informed me, they didn't have any of that. So I ordered chicken and chips. That date, 1951, had me worried. I had visions of a Stalin-era freezer covered in cobwebs and the waiter forcing it open to get out a 50 year-old chicken fillet. But when the meal came, it was delicious and it filled me up in preparation for our next major stop - eastern Siberia, home of the Russian lumberjacks.
EXPLORING RUSSIA DIARY
Siberians talk about their attitudes to the English over a glass or two or vodka.
The contrast between imperial city and bleak village.
Hopes for the future at Russia's oldest military cadet school
Fond farewells and a wintry welcome to Siberia
Coping with strict railway rules - and arriving at the gateway to Siberia
Leaving Moscow - and thoughts on the journey ahead
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Monday, 29 December, 2003
Inside Putin's Russia: State within a state
Inside Putin's Russia is a series looking at life outside Moscow. In the fourth part of the series, Bridget Kendall travels to Tatarstan a republic inside the Russian Federation whose distance from Moscow means it is the local leaders who hold the most sway. But then President Putin took office and changed the rules, once again putting Tatarstan's status under the spotlight. So is Tatarstan an integral part of Russia or not? It is a key question in the sometimes tense negotiations going on at the moment between Moscow and Kazan as they endeavour to clarify what Russia's federal system should mean in practice. This, after all, is one of the perennial paradoxes about Russia. It is true that everything ultimately depends on the federal authorities in Moscow.
But on the ground, it often seems that it is the local mayor or governor or in Tatarstan's case, president who is the feudal overlord, holding court and dispensing favours, too far away ever to be really under Moscow's thumb, however tightly the Kremlin tries to keep a grip on what is happening. According to President Shaimiev's political adviser, Dr Rafael Khakimov, Tatarstan's independence has already been curtailed. "Take the police," he said. "These days they take their orders from Moscow, so do all the security services. There used to be parallel ministries, so we could also have a say. Now they want to run everything from the centre." 'We live in paradise' But ask the women who invited us to break the Muslim fast of Ramadan with them in a Tatar village and they will say it is President Shaimiev who rules them. As the former local Communist party chief and an experienced political survivor, he knows the wisdom of keeping the broad mass of the population happy. Hence the Acqua parks, and the newly asphalted roads and the gas pipes being run out to villages to give them instant hot water. Not a bad perk for Tatarstan's citizens. In many other parts of Russia, villagers still traipse through the snow to the well to get water.
"We remember times just after the war when we were eating nettles and green potatoes," said our hostess, as she finished prayers and invited us to a table laden with steaming bowls of soup, newly baked pies and piles of fruit. "Now we live in paradise." But the economic relationship with Moscow is only one part of Tatarstan's story. The other is the revival of a language and culture which 15 years ago Tatar intellectuals were afraid was in danger of extinction. Language laws Across Russia as a whole, the Muslim Tatars are the largest ethnic minority at least five million strong. But in Tatarstan, they account for just 50% of the population and mixed marriages are frequent. I well remember visiting Kazan in early 1991 and being impressed by the sense of urgency among Tatar writers who were driving the nationalist movement. In those days their immediate goal was to harness the new power of computers to their cause and launch a concerted programme of Tatar desktop publishing. "If we don't do something soon to save the language and literature, it will be gone. Everyone will speak Russian," they told me. A decade later, new Tatar grammar schools have been opened in Kazan, Tatar language has an equal status with Russian in the republic, and Muslim Tatar women have sued and won a court battle with Moscow to be allowed to wear headscarves on their passport photos.
At the parliament in Kazan, we were told of plans for a new law to require local businesses to pay 15% bonuses to workers who could speak both languages; or, in other words, to pay less to those Russians who do not speak Tatar. Not a move that Moscow is likely to tolerate. Already, the Russian parliament has overruled one Tatar law aimed at switching the written language from the Russian Cyrillic alphabet to the Latin script. The Tatar Government has quietly postponed the move, concerned not to jeopardise negotiations with Moscow. But outraged Tatar nationalists say the Russian ban infringes their constitutional rights, and warn they will go all the way to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to fight their corner if necessary. Meanwhile, sitting in his lavishly restored Presidential Palace in the Kazan Kremlin, President Shaimiev smiles his benign grandfatherly smile and tells us there is no conflict with Moscow. "When Putin said he wanted more vertical control, I was one of the first to support him," he said. "Had I been president of Russia, I'd have done exactly the same."
But surely what this wily former Communist chief means is that firm control over his own people is something he also needs, in order to pursue his delicate negotiations with Moscow. So he keeps the lid on dangerous dissent whether from Islamic radicals, or Tatars nationalists, or disgruntled Russians. "Of course we have freedom of speech here. The press criticise me all the time." But he adds: "They just have to show responsibility." Another paradox: of all the places in Russia we have visited so far, this seemed the least open. Little Tatarstan, positioning itself as a beacon of democracy in Russia, a test case for Moscow's tolerance. Yet, on our journey at least, where local political control seemed most in evidence. Unless stated, all images by Teresa Cherfas, who also produced the series.
Monday, 15 December, 2003
Inside Putin's Russia: Ancient heartland
Inside Putin's Russia is a series looking at life outside Moscow. In the second part of the series, Bridget Kendall visits the rural Vologda region, where the population is on the wane, but the few who remain are determined to soldier on. In a charming wooden house surrounded by cabbage patches and birch trees with bird-boxes hung on them, hidden away in the tiny village of Volokoslavino, lives one of Vologda's last remaining traditional accordionists, a red-cheeked old man called Anatoly Ptitsin. He and his wife are ailing. She groans as she feeds logs into the huge curved Russian stove that heats the water. He tends his bees, carrying them down to the cellar to hibernate during the long cold winter, and in the summer chasing off bears who come lumbering out of the forest in search of honey. He finds it hard to play the old accordion tunes he learnt as a boy 70 years ago without getting breathless. In those days young people would promenade for miles from village to village. Nowadays there's no one to play to. The village only has nine permanent residents, most of them elderly. "In a word, the village is dying," he told us as we sat in the kitchen drinking tea and trying his homemade honey. Ruins A few miles away, the ruin of an imposing church towered over a handful of ramshackle dwellings. We stopped to examine it more closely and were shooed away by a woman in rain bonnet and gum boots. She had stopped her muddy motorcycle with laden sidecar and was eying us suspiciously. "How do I know you aren't spies?" she asked. Clearly, foreigners are a rarity here. Like many of the churches we came upon as we drove through the countryside in Vologda region, some 400 kilometres north of Moscow, this one had been pulled down by zealots at some point after the Bolshevik revolution. Later it became a factory, mass producing accordions. Anatoly Ptitsin used to work in the tuning department. Then, after the factory closed, someone set fire to it. So now it is a ruined church again.
Not all churches are in such a bad way. Further on we came to the monastery of St Kirill, once one of the largest in Russia, now slowly being restored to its ancient glory. The massive metal gates and new wrought iron fret-work round the windows are the work of a local blacksmith. His story, far from being about decline, is a tale of uplifting revival. Nikolai Mitin spent his life as a mechanic in the local bus depot, but always longed to be a blacksmith. When private enterprise was legalised, he could not find any blacksmith to hand on the tricks of the trade, so undeterred he taught himself by trial and error. Now he has built his own forge and does a profitable business in restoring churches and in building security gates. Not only religion is on the upsurge in Vologda, so is burglary. "Forging metal is spiritual work try for yourself," he said. And for 20 minutes I pounded the red hot metal alongside him, an impromptu blacksmith's apprentice. A struggle to farm As we drove on through Vologda's outlying regions, past endless rolling fields, golden leaved birch glades and deep dark pine forests, it was hard to decide: is rural Russia really in terminal decline, as the statistics seem to indicate? Or is there something else at work here, a spiritual rebirth, or at least the dogged resilience of a people used to making the best of hardship? Farming in Vologda is certainly a struggle. Private farmers are unusual. A staggering 95% of agricultural holdings are still collectivised, "kolkhoz" farms, run and owned by the workers more or less as they were in Soviet times. "We were offered the choice of registering as a share holding company or going back to being a collective farm, so of course we chose what we knew," said one kolkhoz economist, reflecting a general reluctance to risk anything new, in case it brought yet more turmoil.
Some farms are coping. But unlike Soviet times, today the state can no longer be relied upon to bale out those that are losing money. They're on their own, left to grapple with the problems of drunken workers, rising running costs, and a fear that any economic revamp might tip them over into failure and condemn their community to destitution. As for those rare individuals who have braved the odds and become private farmers, the man we met was a former pawn broker. He found himself in possession of a loss-making farm when another private farmer who went bankrupt. Yet his plan to turn it round by breeding goats and selling organic milk to the lucrative health food market in Moscow was, he said, being thwarted by corrupt local officials. Bitterly he said he only kept going "out of downright stubbornness". Rising death toll A refusal to give up is the key to people here. Where you least expect it, in this ancient heartland of Russia, you find individuals whose sheer persistence keeps themselves and their communities going.
In the village of Sudarushka, it was the former teacher Sofia Anatolievna. She greeted us at the door with home-baked apple tart and cabbage pies, as she bustled to and fro, seating the three dozen or so elderly folk she had invited to a party for the Day of the Elderly, organising singing competitions between them and doling out prizes of Tupperware and coloured headscarves. Other villages might be threatened with extinction, but while this formidable woman was around, you could tell this would stay a vibrant little society. Elsewhere was more bleak. Semigorodnaya is a sprawling community built around a now declining lumber yard. Here it was the local administrator, the straight backed, impeccably dressed Olga Fedotovskaya, who seemed to keep the place going. Outside her office, goats grazed on weeds among the railway tracks, tired women queued at standpipes to fill their buckets with water. Here and there were the black silhouettes you see everywhere in rural Russia: charred shells of wooden houses, burnt down by some careless drunk, or perhaps deliberate arson. Unperturbed, Olga strode through the muddy wasteland, patiently explaining the extent of her problems: no money to clear snow, or replace broken down ambulances, let alone build roads through the swamps to reach the remote communities left stranded when the local railway network closed down unexpectedly.
And in her immaculate book, next to the ticked list of pensioners whose birthdays she always tried to remember, was a telltale list of deaths six times higher than the number of births, a death toll inflated by alcoholism and increasingly suicide. There's little doubt Russian village life is in decline. Many young people are leaving in search of jobs in towns, those who stay behind feel increasingly abandoned. But this is a region that prides itself on being 100% Russian, too far north ever to have been overrun by Mongols, or invaded by the armies of Napoleon or Hitler. And that seems to breed a serenity, a firm belief that Russia has survived worse than this in its long history, that in time Russia will be prosperous, so long as they grit their teeth and somehow survive this difficult period.
Images by Teresa Cherfas, who also produced the series.
Monday, 22 December, 2003
Inside Putin's Russia: Frozen North
As campaigning starts for the parliamentary Inside Putin's Russia is a series looking at life outside Moscow. In the third part of the series, Bridget Kendall visits Vorkuta in the desolate far north. It felt like stepping into a Christmas card. There on the edge of one of Vorkuta's outlying settlements, just visible against the unlit black tundra stretching behind them, were a dozen reindeer harnessed to three laden sledges. It was gently snowing. A white film dusted their shaggy coats and nestled in the branches of their antlers. Some of the reindeer rested their noses on each other's backs, as though to share the weight of their heavy headgear. Others settled down in the snow, patiently waiting. The Nenets herdsman with them, Gavriil, was smoking a cigarette. He was dressed in embroidered furs and hand-sewn boots of reindeer skin, thigh-high and double thickness. He had come 40 kilometres four hours' ride across the snowy plains to pick up the family's monthly child welfare cheque and spend it on provisions.
His wife and niece were holding plastic bags of oranges and apples. In the furs on the sledge lay two large bottles of fizzy orange Fanta. Gavriil spoke a bit of Russian with a thick accent. It sounded almost like Japanese, all staccato intonation and no distinction between "l" and "r" sounds. He told us he'd lived all his life in the tundra, herding reindeer and hunting. His home was a "chuma", a reindeer-hide tent. He shared it with his wife, baby daughter and his brother's family. He also had two small girls among 70 Nenets children who were spending the winter in a local boarding school. It was set up by Russian villagers to ensure the kids got regular health checks and food through the long harsh winter and to give them basic reading and writing skills in Russian. There's nothing like that in the tundra. These Nenets children can now help fill out forms or act as translators if their illiterate parents ever need Russian hospital treatment. We visited the school a little later. They were shy children. They stared at us with solemn eyes as they sorted through jigsaw puzzles and played chess.
But best of all, their Russian teachers said, they liked the toys they made themselves: peg dolls fashioned out of wild ducks' beaks, toy sledges whittled from wood, and droves of reindeer, modelled lovingly out of plasticine. Their favourite book was a photo album of the endless flat landscape where they roamed with their nomadic families in the summer. "What station is your radio programme on?" asked Gavriil unexpectedly. It transpired he had a radio out in the tundra. "I'll try and find it," he said optimistically, as he turned to rouse his herd and head back into the snowy darkness. The nomadic Nenets were the original inhabitants of this icy wasteland, long before the first Russian encampment. Our encounter left me wondering how soon they'd find themselves alone again. Sacrifice Way up in the Arctic Circle, perched on the 67th parallel in the far north of Russia, Vorkuta has always been a quintessentially Soviet creation.
Millions passed through its prison camp system in the Stalin years, first digging through the ice to lay its railway line, then working under armed guards to extract the rich seams of coal from its basin of mines. On the single ring road that loops round the town but goes nowhere, there is one small cemetery of crosses to remind you of that early sacrifice. Many of the names are Polish and German. A mournful Baltic queen stands guard in her stone canopy, erected by Lithuanian gulag survivors. But the countless Russian prisoners who passed through here have been eclipsed by more recent history. Today, most inhabitants will tell you they or their parents first arrived in Vorkuta in the 1950s and 60s. They were drawn by high wages and brave Soviet claims that this proletarian enterprise coupled with Communist enthusiasm would push back the frontiers of civilisation. But that ill-founded optimism has run its course. In the past 10 years, half Vorkuta's coal mines have closed. And though the remaining mines are under new private management that has promised investment, all the talk is of leaving.
After all, who would want to make their home in this desolate barren spot if they no longer had to? Why chance your health and safety by descending daily into darkness, to choke on coal dust and trudge for miles through badly maintained tunnels? Why submit yourself and your family to 10 months of snow, no daylight at all in midwinter and temperatures that regularly drop to -40C? "It's only really bad when it drops to below -60. Then the petrol freezes in your tank," said one miner, full of bravura. Others were more circumspect. "They say if you can get away by the time you're 30 or 35, you can save yourself," said Nail, a soft-spoken miner with an intense gaze who invited us home to meet his family. Otherwise, he told us, your body adapts to the thinner oxygen. There are plenty of scare stories of those who hung on until retirement, only to move to a warmer climate in southern Russia and fall dead of a heart attack in a year or two.
"Nothing grows in this place," added his wife Lyuda. "It's solid ice if you dig two feet down, permafrost all year round. Our boys only see flowers and trees on television. I want them to grow up in a place where they can run around outside, like normal children." In fact there are trees in Vorkuta, a few stunted bushes in the park in the town centre. But they are rare survivors of a dispiriting planting project. Every autumn an expedition of volunteers takes the train south to where the Russian forest starts and selects saplings to bring back for replanting. But every year two out of three young trees are killed by the savage frosts. So every autumn they set out again to dig up new saplings. Unreality Such harsh conditions breed character. Warmth and good humour abound here. And many in Vorkuta say they are determined to keep their town alive and flourishing. "You should be here on New Year's Eve, when the whole town gathers to view the ice sculptures lit up in the main square. You should see the bewitching colours of the Northern Lights when they flicker across the skies. Come back in the summer and we'll take you fishing," they told us.
We caught the end of Vorkuta's annual Polar games, an extravagant sporting jamboree, a sort of mini-Olympics of the Russian Arctic. It had all the Soviet pomp and ceremony of prizes and fanfares which elsewhere in Russia has gone out of fashion. But there was another typically Soviet quality to these home-grown celebrations: their absurd unreality. A frank conversation with the deputy mayor revealed that Vorkuta is so broke that the mayor's office cannot even pay for street lighting or snow clearing, let alone foot the bill for a sports festival. The town is bankrupt. No wonder Moscow wants a radical rationalisation. Already several outlying communities are in the process of being abandoned. On some stretches of the ring road, you pass settlements where roofs have fallen in, doors and windows are missing, buildings have collapsed into snowdrifts. And here and there, like a ghostly monument to an era that is passing, an uninhabited tower block has frozen solid and turned into a white block of ice. Many saw the writing on the wall a few years ago, packed up their belongings and got out of here. Now the Russian Government wants to persuade thousands more to sell up and resettle elsewhere. Those who remain will hunker down in the city centre to save on lighting, heat and transport costs. Who knows for how much longer Vorkuta's six swimming pools, two theatres and the only covered ice rink in the Russian Arctic circle will receive funding? Who knows for how much longer this improbable town will continue to glow like a Las Vegas in an arctic desert? Images by Teresa Cherfas, who also produced the series.
|Monday, 8 December, 2003|
Inside Putin's Russia: The great divide
Saturday, 10 January, 2004
Inside Putin's Russia: Outside world rushes in
In the final part of the series, Bridget Kendall travels to Tomsk in Siberia, and finds that even in the most isolated places there are connections to the rest of the world unheard of in Soviet times. It was lightly snowing, a freezing raw afternoon with the sun already low in the sky. Lined up in two long rows in the snowy yard, dozens of girls stood stiffly to attention. Each one was wrapped in a thick woolly shawl, padded cotton jacket and long black felt boots to keep out the cold. They looked small for their years, even stunted. "Zdravstvuite," they roared in unison. "Hello-o-o."
This was Tomsk's Second Penal Colony, a detention centre for girls from all over Siberia. A recent amnesty had released those convicted of all but the most serious crimes. As soon as the guards gave permission, they clustered round the rare foreign visitors. Suddenly I was engulfed in a sea of lively, chattering girls. The braver, cockier ones jostled to the front. It was hard to remember they were teenage murderers. "Have you been to a prison in Britain? How does it compare?" And then, just like kids the world over: "What's your favourite film? What's Prince William like? Do you like football? Have you met David Beckham?" How different from the Soviet Union I remember from 20 years ago when the whole country was in a sense a jailhouse, isolated and cut off. Now even in a Russian penitentiary in Tomsk, deep in the middle of Siberia, there were connections to the world outside. Iron fist, velvet glove We moved on to the Third Tomsk Penal Colony for adult males. Here, too, the world beyond Russia had left its mark. To satisfy the Council of Europe's demand that prison should be about correction, not punishment, the facility had been transferred from the Interior Ministry to the Ministry of Justice.
"See: new arm badges," said one cheerful prison guard, pointing to the Justice Ministry badge on his sleeve. At first I suspected that it was only a superficial change of name. Like most of his colleagues, he'd spent his life with Interior Ministry Troops. Many of them were battle-scarred from serving in the wars in Chechnya. One senior prison officer openly lamented the collapse of the Communist regime and gruffly asked if we agreed that the death penalty should be reinstated. But around the iron fist there did seem to be a softer velvet glove. Some new reforms even made us smile. For example, this year's first ever beauty pageant to select Miss Prison Guard of All Russia, (or "Miss UIS", as it is in Russian.) It turned out that the Third Penal Colony's very own Larissa Zelentsova had got through to the finals. A tall, beautiful blonde, she was summoned to describe to us her triumph: how she'd scored high marks in shooting from a pistol, correctly answered questions on the penal code, and proved her creativity by playing Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata on a synthesizer. There was also a beauty parade.
"No bikini, only evening dress," she said. "A sort of steely gray. Very austere," she added hastily. There was something homely, too, about the layout of the prisoners' dormitories. We found several in a deep slumber after nightshifts, the heavy tattoos on their arms a reminder these were all criminals, convicted of murder, robbery and theft. But curled up with them was a little tabby cat. Many of them, it turned out, had cats or other creatures as pets. Outside, high metal fences topped with razor wire surrounded the compound, a watchtower on each corner. In the prison yard there were also features reminiscent of any Soviet facility: a wall of merit and a wall of shame to identify the best and the worst, newspapers encased in glass for all to read, and brightly painted slogans to urge discipline and order: "Fulfil the norms 100%" read one slogan, and "Hard work will make you free." In the prison workshop they were enthusiastic about the conditions. They were making furniture tables and chairs, cradles and even fitted kitchens to be sold straight from their warehouse, or sent to Tomsk furniture shops. "In here there's proper quality control and they actually follow health and safety procedures," said one brigade leader, serving a nine-year murder sentence. "You won't find that on the outside."
A time warp of security and predictability features that have all but vanished from the harsh chaotic world beyond the prison gates. The business of stolen metal A few miles away, we tracked down a junkyard to see how Russia's truly desperate are making ends meet. Down and outs, alcoholics and drugs addicts and the very poor they come here to hand in scrap metal they've saved or stolen, in return for a few roubles. The old Tatar man on duty took us round. Sacks of old kettles, pots and pans, rusty hair curlers, old car parts, and bags of stripped copper and aluminium wiring, all waiting to be melted down, part of a lucrative and dodgy business in stolen metal. At the railway depot round the corner, Lyudmila Petrova, chief investigator for the transport police, told us the theft of precious metals reached its peak a year or two back. Stripping copper wires off the railway tracks could give a thief a nasty electric shock, but that did not stop them. In response the government posted more guards and stopped using copper wiring. So now the thieves had turned to other targets. A whole section of metal track had just been spirited away from under the railway guards' noses. And trains parked in the depot were now regularly stripped of their light aluminium seats and window frames. "It's pathetic," said Lyudmila. "We arrest suspects in the morning for questioning and they are back at it again in the afternoon. We've one lad at the moment who's been arrested eight times already."
His name was Alexei. He was 21-years-old and admitted everything, gesturing listlessly to the evidence of his crime, the aluminium benches propped against the wall behind him.It turned out he was a drug addict, hooked on opium since the age of 12. The police told us the opium was being smuggled in from Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and was for sale in the basements of tower blocks where Russian young people congregate all over Tomsk's poorer suburbs. It was a growing problem which they did not have the resources to handle. Alexei had been in prison before and did not seem to mind the idea of going back again. "I need to steal to feed my habit," he said. "What's the point of working? Most factories can't afford to pay you." Cottage industry
Outside the city, across the frozen river Tom, in the picturesque village of Taktamyshevo we found just such a factory, making "valenki", the felt boots which Russian villagers wear all winter. It was a true cottage industry, a small business that had endured for over 100 years, barely surviving. It would have closed down altogether if the village women working there had not pleaded with the director to keep it open. Amidst the relentless clank of machines teasing the wool, and the dank sweaty horse-like smell of wet felt, they worked without complaining. The felt was fashioned into giant boot shapes and then beaten with wooden paddles and boiled over and over again to shrink it to size. Back-breaking work for just a few roubles' reward, but for these villagers it was better than the alternative of no employment. All of which, perhaps, paints a grim picture. Resources And yet Tomsk is not the worst place in Russia to end up in by any means. In fact on our short itinerary it was probably the city I liked best and where I could most easily sense the great wealth of Russia's resources and its creative potential, if only it can surmount its problems. As we learned from the vast map in the governor's office when he received us, Tomsk region is an area the size of Germany, rich in reserves of timber, oil and other precious minerals, and yet with a population of only one million.
But what makes this city especially unique is its educational powerhouse. Originally a place of exile, home first to tsarist rebels, and then Soviet free thinkers, it has always prided itself on its intellectual capacity. Now it has evolved into a centre of learning that boasts six universities, providing employment or a place of study for some 40% of the population. And away from the poorer outskirts, it feels like a student town, crammed with internet cafes, bars, and parks where university professors and students alike rush out, bundled up against the freezing cold, to play "winter football", as they call it. At the Polytechnic University the emphasis is all on harnessing technology. In conjunction with Edinburgh's Heriot Watt University, a state-of-the-art centre is training a new generation of Russian oil specialists. A centre devoted to distance learning is pioneering new techniques to enable students in outlying Siberian settlements to take university courses over the internet. And every student and teacher is being encouraged to learn to operate in their field in at least two languages. We visited one seminar where a professor and students in higher mathematics were making their way painstakingly through an article in English on the Theory of Relativity.
The Siberia of the future will no longer be a place of exile where you are cut off from rest of humanity. Modern technology means distance is no obstacle. Linked by the internet, Tomsk, like anywhere else in Russia, will bypass Moscow and collaborate directly with external partners. But there's a catch. All this depends on the attitude of the central government in Moscow. One of the major educational benefactors in Tomsk is Yukos, the very oil company which now finds itself at the centre of what some see as political power struggle between Russia's oligarchs and the Kremlin over who should control Russia's wealth: private business or the government. Many in the town fear they have lost an important patron. Lessons for Putin Beneath the surface in Tomsk you sense nervousness about the future. Local journalists worry that they might be about to lose the relative freedom they enjoyed up till now by virtue of being well away from Moscow's scrutiny. The governor refused to discuss politics with us. Even before our meeting he sent a nervous message to warn us that questions about Yukos would not be answered.
And even the students of Tomsk, well informed, well travelled, impressively fluent in English, and too young to be hampered by memories of the Soviet era, are wary about the future. "You won't get a good job without connections, you're stuck unless your parents know someone who can help you," said 21-year-old Katya. "It is a hard time for our country and no one knows how it will be," said 20-year-old Lydia. "Unfortunately everything depends on Moscow." And, most thoughtful of all, 21-year-old Pavel: "I feel myself free, but when I meet people abroad I understand I am not like them. They are totally free, you see it in their eyes, their inner freedom. But I'm not optimistic. Somehow we are coming back to signs of Communism and that scares me. I don't think I'll stay if it changes radically." And therein lies a lesson for President Putin. In the past 20 years Russia has indeed begun to shake off its shackles. Even in Siberia, even inside Russia's penal colonies, the global information revolution has transformed attitudes and possibilities. And it is, above all, educated Russians, liberated from ignorance and misguided ideologies, who are the country's most important resource. But if, like Pavel, those who have enjoyed opportunities their parents never dreamt of, conclude that the only way of keeping these gains is to go abroad, the best hope for Russia's future will disappear with them. The challenge for Mr Putin's government is to shape a society that the next generation will not feel the need to escape from.
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