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Grigory Pasko: The Land Where You Sit

“The land where you sit” By Grigory Pasko, journalist The news was recently reported that Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is currently sitting in a cage in Chita, has decided to subscribe to EVERY local newspaper in the city. I should state right from the start that this did not require a large amount of money, because there just aren’t that many local newspapers. But this does raise an intriguing question: what possible reason would Mikhail Khodorkovsky have to know about the local realities? The answer suggests itself immediately: because this particular prisoner is interested not only in what is going on in the world, but also in what is going on just beyond the bars of his cage. He does not intend to stay in that cage forever, and has no intention of separating himself from life so far and for so long as to lose all sense of reality in the here-and-now.

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Chita hasn’t changed much in recent years – photo by Grigory Pasko

But not all prisoners have the opportunity to subscribe to dozens of newspapers and magazines. And this gave me an idea. In Soviet times, nearly all Soviet newspapers had a local news section entitled “The land where you live” (or, in military newspapers, “The land where you serve”). So, here’s my idea – why not create a new column in all the newspapers called “The land where you sit”? [Russian prisoners “sit” in the same way as American prisoners “do time”—Trans.] I’m sure you’ll agree that the nearly 900 thousand people sitting behind bars in today’s Russia have the right to know about the past and present of the places they’ve been sent to serve their sentences. They need subscribe to only one newspaper, but it should have a section like this. And for starters, I propose setting up such a column on our blog. Let’s start with some current events taking place in Chita Oblast. Inasmuch as much has already been written about the end of the investigation in the new “YUKOS case”, we won’t address this issue for now. Although a multitude of events are taking place around the “case” itself that don’t concern Khodorkovsky and Lebedev directly. For example, the hearings that took place on February 22 in Chita in the case of Sergey Taratukhin – the priest who took part in a picket in support of Mikhail Khodorkovsky on February 8 in Chita. Taratukhin first became famous last year, when he was the parish priest of the Russian Orthodox church in the city of Krasnokamensk, where Khodorkovsky was serving his sentence. Father Sergey met with Khodorkovsky, in his professional capacity, and then made the mistake of speaking kindly of Mikhail Borisovich in public, for which indiscretion he was first exiled to a small village parish in a faraway corner of China Oblast, and subsequently defrocked, depriving him of the ability to earn a living in his chosen profession. At the end of February, the local news agencies were reporting stories with such headlines as “My mother, the policewoman”, “Policemen compete in wittiness”, “February 23 – a holiday of the entire Russian people” [The Day of the Defender of the Fatherland, formerly known as Red Army Day—Trans.], and “Military financiers tally up results”… You get the impression that the whole region east of Lake Baikal is a land of policemen and soldiers. Actually, this is even true to some extent.

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Chita, photo by Grigory Pasko

Of course, it will come as surprise to anyone to learn that the local news agencies reported absolutely nothing about the trial of Father Sergey, the former priest who had once dared to speak out in defense of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and now to attend a rally in support of him. And now for some “ordinary” news, all taken from Chita newspapers in February. Chita was recently honored by a visit from Iosif Kobzon, a prominent State Duma deputy well-known as a singer of patriotic songs. Outside the country, he is best known for having been denied entry to the US because of his supposed ties with the Russian mafia. Personally, I am perplexed by this prohibition, because it’s quite difficult to determine in today’s Putinite Russia just who ISN’T connected with the Russian mafia, or even what exactly the “Russian mafia” is, if mayors, members of parliament, generals and officers, and so-called “werewolves in uniform” from the ranks of the police are routinely being thrown in jail. So why was “Russia’s Frank Sinatra” visiting Chita? The local media write that the meeting between Kobzon and his entourage and the inhabitants of Chita had been organized by the “United Russia” party and had been held under the slogan “United Russia” For A United Region. Iosif Kobzon appeared before activists of the Trans-Baikal region with a call to take active part in the referendum of March 11, 2007 on merging the Oblast with the Aginsky Buryat Autonomous Okrug [see my February 5, 2007 article “Chita – A Little Island of the Soviet Union”]. A few words about the “merger”: According to the local newspaper “Chitinskoye obozreniye”, the difference in time between the arrival of the Russians and the Buryats in the Trans-Baikal region comprises a mere 40 years. Until that, many generations of Buryats were seeking for their ancient homeland. And they found it – in Iraq. So Russia has now found justification for considering Iraq part of its own sphere of influence, and not just that of the US. Also in February, the director-general of one of the local power companies conveyed holiday greetings to Trans-Baikalians on the occasion of the lunar new year (known to the local Buryats as “Sagaalgan”, and in the Western world as “Chinese New Year”). In the opinion of this director, the holiday has great significance not only for adherents of Buddhism, but for the entire Trans-Baikal region as a whole, and helps “rally the people and beautify life”. Let me put in my own two kopecks’ worth here: I recently visited Chita and the Trans-Baikal, and didn’t notice any particular indications of any “rallying of the people and beautification of life”. The only “rallying” by the locals is done, in the main, with the aid of a bottle of vodka. And the only “beautification” that stands out is the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God Cathedral and the ice city, built by Chinese hands (I will hold my tongue about the architecture of yet another “beautifying” institution, the local SIZO investigative isolator prison). Other news… It has been decided to revive the system of “camps of labor and rest” in the Trans-Baikal region. This news story carries a great deal of meaning for Russian people who remember the days of the USSR. Camps of labor and rest were not merely places to occupy children’s time in the summer months. They also taught collectivism and obeying orders, quashed individualism, and were, in their own way, a first step on the path into the army. By the way, this story is definitely from the “ordinary” category. Many old Soviet institutions have already been reborn in one form or another in Putin’s Russia – the Komsomol, the “druzhinniki” (voluntary helpers of the police), the “Zarnitsa” war games (part of the regular curriculum for schoolchildren), etc. As Chita prepares of the trial of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev (it’s being said that the trial will take place right there), the Chita garrison’s military court has issued a verdict against colonel Nasimi Nazarov. According to the decision of the court, the defendant has been sentenced to one year of deprivation of liberty, suspended. The colonel had been charged with real estate fraud, unlawfully setting his wife up in a non-existent job on the base, unlawfully leasing military equipment to outside organizations, as well as assigning the soldier Rudenko into exploitation (read: slavery) for money to a Chita businessman. A one-year suspended sentence for slavery. In the land of policemen and soldiers. And speaking of Russia’s Defenders of the Fatherland, on February 23, the Day of the Defender of the Fatherland, a lecture took place in the Chita Railroad Workers’ House of Culture on the subject of “Buddhism today”. It was read by a disciple of the Lama Ole Nidala. The lecture took part within the framework of a journey across Russia by a group of Buddhists. As we can see, Chita Oblast, which after the March 11 referendum will no doubt be renamed Zabaikalsky [Trans-Baikal] Krai, leads an active life: it gets visits from parliamentarians and Buddhists, tries and convicts colonels gone bad, and likes to celebrate New Year several times a year… In short, if journalists decide to come to Chita for the YUKOS trial, they’ll find plenty here to keep them from getting bored. And prisoners too, if they regularly read the “Land were you sit” column in the newspaper.