Chita is the capital of Siberia’s Trans-Baikal Territory or Transbaikalia, the land to the east of, and beyond, Lake Baikal. Early in the morning, men drinking beer are to be seen in sporting cafes. This is not necessarily because they are the stereotypical hardcore Siberian blokes drinking alcohol instead of water, simply that, in this time zone, European football matches, both club and national, are broadcast live between five and six in the morning. On the days, or rather nights, of these matches, the owner of one such café, himself a football fanatic, extends the ‘working day’ for his staff until eight a.m. Today, for instance, he is making his sleepy waitresses serve customers who are watching the final of the UEFA Champions League.
Chita oblast. Image (cc) Ezhiki
The men watching football have no time for conversation, though they sometimes argue in the evenings. Their main topic of discussions is whether they should leave Chita, or if there is any future for them in the Trans-Baikal Territory?
“There’s gold in them there hills”
The colonisation of Siberia was very simply accomplished: the Cossacks – usually adventurers who had been hired by a merchant – sailed along a river. When they came to a hamlet, they asked the local tribe, ‘to whom they paid their tribute?’. They then killed the local ruler, who was collecting the tribute, and told the locals that from now on they would have to send to the Tsar in Moscow three or four sable furs a year. In payment for this ‘service’ they appropriated several furs themselves. Having made tribute arrangements with one tribe, they then sailed on, up or down the river, in search of the next village. Finally, they arrived at the Amur River, the border between Russia and China, and the Pacific Ocean.
Transbaikalia was an exception: the colonisers were chiefly attracted by furs; and they moved around by sailing the full-flowing rivers, but this region was covered by relatively sparse forests with a minimum of fur animals, and the mountain rivers were shallow, so sailing along them was very difficult.
Then, deposits of silver ore were discovered. In the seventeenth century, Russia had no silver of its own, acquiring it only as a result of trading furs, hides, timber and other natural products. But foreign mercenaries and engineers would only accept payment in silver coins. So, when Moscow learned it could produce silver from ore mined near the Argun River, it immediately sent specialists to its distant province to dig mines, extract the metal and produce the silver.
Gold mine in Chita region. With reserves largely exhausted, only a few private mining companies remain. Picture (c) RIA Novosti / Dianov
There was a shortage of workers for hire, but for the government of Peter the Great that was a problem easily solved: they began commuting death sentences to forced labour.
Silver was mined in Transbaikalia until the beginning of the 19th century, when the silver deposits were exhausted, and gold mines were being opened up, still using forced labour. In the 20th century the gold deposits were in turn largely exhausted; today, only a few private companies are mining it. Then, deposits of uranium were discovered, not far from the town of Krasnokamensk near the Russo-Chinese border. It was in one of the numerous prison camps near this town that Mikhail Khodorkovsky served his first term of imprisonment. He wasn't mining uranium, however, but sewing gloves.
Chita became a city full of retired officers
The land of civil servants and generals
Three centuries ago the capital of Transbaikalia was not called Chita, it was Nerchinsk, a wooden stockaded town built to withstand the raiding nomads. Most of the four hundred inhabitants received their wages from the state – Cossacks, officials, priests, executioner... For many years Transbaikalia was literally the back of beyond. Then, with the arrival of the Trans-Siberian railway, built at the end of the nineteenth century, Chita developed into an important railway hub, and the biggest town in Transbaikalia.
The local Buryat tribes served in the border cavalry regiments, hunting down fugitives from forced labour. In the middle of the ninetheenth century even the local peasants were reclassified as Cossacks, meaning all the men were obliged to serve in the army.
In addition to its Cossacks, Transbaikalia has a long Red Army history: Chita was one of the main Siberian military centres, where the Trans-Baikal Command troops were stationed. Only under Putin was the Trans-Baikal Command disbanded, when war with neighbouring China seemed less likely. Thousands of officers and non-military personnel were made redundant. This mass unemployment coincided with the reform of the Penitentiary Service when thousands of prison warders were also pensioned off.
Chita became a city full of retired officers. In the local 'United Russia' office the standard greeting is military rather than civilian. Chita, however, cannot shake off its military past. Almost a third of land in the city belongs to the Defence Ministry, though the barracks and training grounds have gone, and housing is now being built on the land.
A region in crisis
Transbaikalia has many economic problems: when the old Soviet planned economy collapsed, many local agricultural and food industry enterprises went bankrupt. The difficult climate has always meant that agricultural is difficult to sustain here; and this is why the 200,000 inhabitants in Chita live mainly off imported food products.
The Trans-Siberian Railway is still a major employer, as is the Defence Ministry, and then there is uranium extraction, timber exports and the subsidies from central government. New high-rise buildings, commercial centres and markets are under construction, but, in general, the region cannot compete with other Russian regions and its mighty Chinese neighbour, so many small towns are in a state of economic depression.
Anyone wishing to prove that Chita is a region in crisis will not find it difficult to adduce evidence..
Anyone wishing to prove that Chita is a region in crisis will not find it difficult to adduce evidence: Transbaikalia has the third highest number of murders in Russia. Of any five news items going out on TV channels, four will be related to a murder or other crime.
Many of the prisoners who have done time in the Territory’s many prison camps are not able to leave Chita for other regions in Russia. Some of them beg in the streets and drink adulterated spirits, while others steal and sometimes kill. In most small Russian supermarkets there is a guard on duty; in Chita there are always two. Petty theft from shops is common.
Taken from Chita, Made in China
Chita residents have their urban legends. One of these has it that when Krushchev quarrelled with Mao Tse Tung, Moscow developed a secret plan to drop an atom bomb on the Chinese forces when they invaded Transbaikalia. In view of the impending total destruction and irradiation, there was little capital construction in Soviet Chita.
In fact, there are quite a few major buildings from the time of Khrushchev and Brezhnev, but the legend lives on because it chimes with the mood of the locals: ‘The land where we live was to be handed over to the enemy, so we were forgotten.’
Now that sense of doom has been updated; today, Chita residents have a new saying: ‘We were expecting a war, but the Chinese came without weapons and took everything.’ Currently, thousands of Chinese are living in Chita. They sell goods in the markets, two or three times cheaper than in the Russian commercial centres – clothing, counterfeit watches, and iPhones which cost thirty euro and break down in a month.
Squads of Chinese construction workers get paid very little on building sites, and refurbishing apartments, but they are prepared to work day and night. Foreign-language advertisements with no Russian translation may be banned, but Chita has several Chinese cafés and shops whose signs are only in Chinese.
In the criminal business world, the Chinese export herbs and the meat of wild animals. Chinese customs officers have caught smugglers with hundreds of frozen bear paws; Chinese medicine holds that bear paws contain miraculous properties, so they are fifty times more expensive in China than in Transbaikalia.
Not every Chinese person in Chita trades in the markets or works in construction. Other Chinese often buy up property in the towns and villages, so while some locals fear that Chinese workers will do a bad job on their apartment, others dread turning up at work to find that their organisation now belongs to a citizen of the Chinese National Republic.
The Buryat people are the aborigines of these parts. They are proud of their past, remembered as the best warriors in the army of Genghiz Khan, though they were subjugated by the Russians without any particular resistance. By the time of the 1917 Revolution, the Buryats were already a settled people.
The Bolsheviks arrested Buryat elders, collectivising their lands and herds. Nevertheless, the Buryats kept their traditions better than the Russians themselves. They held on to their religion – Buddhism – and celebrated their national holidays, when they remember their heroic ancestors.
Villages with a majority of Buryat inhabitants are socially stable; there is minimal alcoholism or crime, and politically there is fairly strong support for the ruling party of ‘United Russia’ in elections at all levels. Chita itself has many Buryat students trying to better themselves.
The political game
Not everyone in Russia knows exactly where the Trans-Baikal Territory is. Everyone knows Lake Baikal, the biggest freshwater lake on the planet. They know the Far East for its tigers, but Chita, its mountains and steppe are known to very few. This very remoteness has allowed the Moscow authorities to act with impunity.
For seventeen years, Ravil Geniatulin was governor of the Chita Oblast and then the Trans-Baikal Territory. A soft-spoken official, he supported ‘United Russia’, though he never joined the party.
In March 2013, Geniatulin was removed from his post by Vladimir Putin who appointed Konstantin Ilkovsky (a Duma Deputy from the ‘Just Russia’ party) as Acting Governor. On 8 September an election will be held, and Ilkovsky will either become Governor proper or fail, which is not impossible.
Ex-governor of Trans-Baikal Territory Ravil Geniatulin, meeting with Vladimir Putin. The election for Geniatulin's successor on 8 September may not be as simple as Kremlin strategists first hoped. Picture: premier.gov.ru
Some people think that Putin is running an experiment in the region to see if an unpopular governor, a Kremlin shoe-in, can win an election. Mikhail Prokhorov, however, the leader of the ‘Civic Platform’ party has already promised to beat ‘United Russia’ in the Territory. He is relying on one of the ministers of the former governor. The election for the Legislative Assembly of the territory will also be held on 8 September and here too ‘Civic Platform’ is hoping to triumph, or at least to corner 25% of the vote.
Other Russian politicians have also shown interest in the Trans-Baikal elections. The LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky is personally heading his party list. With all these heavyweight contenders, the outcome is not at all certain for Putin.
Transbaikalia is yet another pawn in the endless game of Russian political chess
What is clear is that Transbaikalia is yet another pawn in the endless game of Russian political chess; unable to escape its past, unable to build a functioning economy, unable to prevent its natural resources being sold off to the Chinese. In such a situation, watching football at six in the morning seems understandable.