Grigory Pasko: Chita – A Little Island of the Soviet Union

[To our readers: As you know already, at the end of December of last year, ex-YUKOS head Mikhail Khodorkovsky and former MENATEP manager Platon Lebedev were delivered to Chita at the behest of the procuracy-general of Russia. The investigative group headed by senior investigator for particularly important cases of the procuracy-general Salavat Karimov explained to their lawyers that Khodorkovsky and Lebedev are suspected of “legalization of monetary funds within the composition of an organized group”. By “legalization”, the procuracy-general has in mind “realization of stolen property – the crude oil of OAO «Tomskneft», OAO «Samarateftegas», OAO «Yuganskneftegas», receipt of proceeds and transfer thereof to the account of ROO «Open Russia» in the bank «Trust» on the basis of donation agreements”. The lawyers assume that the corresponding charges will be filed against Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev on February 5. Journalist Grigory Pasko has just returned from Chita, and offers our readers a series of exclusive reports on the city and why the power has chosen it for conducting “investigative actions”, filing new charges against the already convicted Lebedev and Khodorkovsky, and perhaps for conducting their next trial.] Chita – A Little Island of the Soviet Union By Grigory Pasko, journalist The girl at the airline I’d never heard of assured me that the flight I had chosen to Chita was non-stop. So you can imagine my surprise – and not only mine, but that of many of my fellow passengers – when the plane landed in Bratsk and only took off again for Chita after two hours on the ground. chita1.jpg Local residents discuss the arrival of the plenipotentiary representative (Photo by Grigory Pasko) In Chita, the arriving passengers were greeted by a severe frost – twenty below zero – and an incredible number of policemen lining the roads. There were so many that I couldn’t help thinking there must have been some incident taking place. It turned out that the city was being visited by the plenipotentiary representative of the president of Russia in the Siberian federal district, Anatoly Kvashnin. As I was told by local residents, the former general, who had distinguished himself in the Chechen “war”, had come to see how preparations were going in the region for the referendum on March 11 – on the question of the Anschluss of Chita Oblast with the Aginsky Buryat Autonomous Okrug. These same residents said that they couldn’t care less if the “merger” will take place or not. They honestly don’t understand who needs it and why. But they do know one thing for sure – the Evenks and the Buryats, the native peoples living in the Okrug, are against such a merger. But they are just a bit over ten thousand in number, these Evenks and Buryats, so who is going to listen to what they think? Kvashin even said as much: “The division of regions must take place not on the principle of nationality, but on the economic one”. And so it is that the unification is taking place – in the name of some kind of economic needs that nobody can understand. Another surprise awaited me at what I had been told was the best hotel in Chita, the «Daurii». It turned out that the room I had booked two weeks earlier was already occupied by someone. The hotel manager explained: “You see, the plenipotentiary representative came, and brought a whole entourage with him… And then these other Muscovites came too, from Zurabov’s agency [the Ministry of Health and Social Issues—Trans.]… And so we gave them rooms. We’ve only got doubles left” [It is not considered unacceptable for total strangers to be forced to share a double room in a Russian hotel—Trans.]. I said that this all reminded me of the Soviet Union. “Yes”, the manager unexpectedly agreed with me. “Exactly. The Soviet Union”. I decided to explore the city and hired a taxi. (At this time, plenipotentiary representative Kvashin was viewing a children’s polyclinic that didn’t have any medical equipment and a confectionery factory 50% of whose raw material inputs were imported. I learned all this in detail from a local television show). Almost immediately, right in the center of the city, I saw what is what was perhaps the only decent building in Chita – the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God Cathedral. The only other structure that was pleasant to look at was an “ice city” – which had been built by the Chinese. sobor.jpg Mother of God Cathedral – Chita (Photo by Grigory Pasko) To be perfectly honest, I had expected to see a large, modern city, not a huge village of former exiles. Everything about the city reeked of the Soviet era and called attention to just how far away Chita is from civilization. Much farther than the 6 thousand kilometers from Moscow. By the way, I didn’t see any major construction going on, even thought the city’s coat of arms features eight sharpened posts of a stockade wall, characterizing precisely the construction arts. Chita%20coat%20of%20arms.jpg Chita Coat of Arms In reference books about Russia, Chita is invariably indicated as a “large Siberial cultural center”. The only cultural facilities I saw was the Chita Dramatic Theater and the city library. While I was in town, the Theater was playing Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya”. The Oblast museum of local lore was featuring an exhibition on “The Saga of the Shumovs”. (In these days, local television was playing a clip about how the local administration of the FSB had invited Shumov’s relatives to come take a look at the building – the former mansion of the merchant Shumov, who exported Felix Dzerzhinsky’s “eagles” during the years of Soviet power [Dzerzhinsky was the founder of the NKVD, the first Soviet “secret police”, the precursor of today’s FSB—Trans.]. The mansion they’d forgotten to return to its rightful owners. And so now, sure, they showed the building to the relatives, but somehow never got around to actually returning it to them. In a big store with the grandiose name «Trans-Baikal Crafts», virtually all the goods on sale were from either Moscow or St. Petersburg. Local articles included only a few paltry cups and saucers produced by a measly local factory and some kind of tacky ovesized sports medals. The main local newspaper, «The Trans-Baikal Worker», was writing in those days about how the overall volume of capital investments in the first stage of the «Shipment of crude oil to China» investment project will comprise on the order of 13 billion rubles (around 500 million dollars). The project assumes an annual increase in the volume of shipments of oil products between the two countries. The lion’s share of these funds will go towards the reconstruction of the Trans-Baikal Railroad. The paper also wrote that Platon Lebedev, who is currently in the SIZO [investigative isolator prison—Trans.] of Chita, had refused to participate in investigative actions and had demanded of the procurator-general that the latter open a criminal case with respect to several procuratorial workers. A whole column in the newspaper was devoted to the activities of the Russian Defense Sportive-Technical Society (ROSTO), which, in the opinion of the author of the article, is “an important link in the process of rearing patriots of Russia”. I asked my youthful taxi driver what young people do to make money here. He replied that there were almost no large enterprises left anywhere in the Oblast. The main employment is in the sphere of services and trade in imported goods. Many dream of leaving to live and work in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The local colleges have more places available than applicants. For many of the city’s inhabitants, the railroad is their “feeding trough”. (I didn’t quite understand how you can “feed” from it, but several days later, when I traveled from Chita to Vladivostok – by train – I understood that in the Far Eastern part of Russia, pretty much all human life lies huddled along the railroad tracks. The railroad provides work for law-abiding citizens, while criminals simply steal goods from the trains as they pass by). What else do we know about Chita and its environs? Well, the entire Oblast is 431 thousand square kilometers in area (that’s 5 Austrias, or 4 Bulgarias, or 10 Switzerlands), it’s population is 1 million 200 thousand people (Austria alone has 8 million), and it is rich in non-ferrous and precious metals, coal, and iron ore… chita2.jpg Mosaic at the Chita railroad station (photo by Grigory Pasko) One can judge to some extent about the standard of living from the prices for basic foods in Chita’s stores. A loaf of bread, for example, costs an average of 13 rubles (50 cents). A package of butter – from 15 to 30 rubes. A liter of milk – 30 rubles (a bit over a dollar). (For comparison, in Moscow, a liter of milk costs 20 rubles). It is interesting that as far as liquor goes, Chita shows a very strong preference for vodka: there is simply a huge quantity and great variety of vodka available. The prices of certain products went up a bit in Chita after the New Year. Sugar, sausage, and milk got more expensive by two or three rubles. According to the locals, such price increases take place once every half-year. In general, it seemed to me that the city of Chita is a typical Soviet city. A bit better or a bit worse than others in this or that way. I would venture to say that its only real distinction from many other Oblast capitals is the fact that it is very far from Moscow – 6 thousand kilometers. I think that they shipped Khodorkovsky and Lebedev here precisely because it is far from the center and from the central press journalists. And one more detail: only one of Chita’s hotels – and this one is located on the outskirts of the city – offers internet access.