17 May 2007

My Life as a Criminal

Here's hoping that the FSB doesn't have English-speaking agents trained on my blog, or I'd better start hiding the evidence. Why? As it turns out, Slavyanka, and in fact all of the surrounding area, Khasanskii region, is in the 'border zone,' officially off-limits to foreigners lacking special permission to visit.


(If you're wondering, the FSB is the Федеральная Служба Безопасности – the Federal Safety Service, the successor agency to the KGB.)

What's this about a 'border zone?' Well, I'm glad you asked. The 'border zone' is a nebulous, shifting entity that consists of any area the FSB deems close enough to important borders of the country and/or important enough for national security to be a restricted area. According to the very interesting person I had dinner with last night, a friend of an acquaintance of my mother's (I'll call her Sofia), last summer a lot of Primorskii Krai (our administrative unit, kind of like a state), including Khasanskii Region and Lake Khanka, both popular tourist destinations, mysteriously became 'closed,' even to citizens. After a lot of complaining from the populace, they opened back up for Russians, but they're still on the restricted list for foreigners.

So, what's the deal with the border zone? An American acquaintance who's doing conservation research here once mentioned that it's a means of keeping nosy people (like scientists) out of places where the state (either directly or as the thinly veiled agent controlling "private" interests) is destroying the environment in the name of economic development. Sofia had this to say about it:

"It's because Putin was FSB. Once you're in, once you're one of those people, it's for life. You're like a zombie. He's given them too much power. Before, their position wasn't really respected, they didn't have that much power, but now... they do anything they can just to show their importance."

For the record, Sofia reassured me that getting caught there probably would have resulted in detainment, document-checking, and the payment of fines or bribes, but not imprisonment. (The scariest thing that could happen, I think, is that I could end up with a FSB file that would make getting visas to Russia difficult for the rest of my life.) But that's if the police had both a) noticed us and b) cared that we were there. The enforcement of these restrictions is, like the enforcement of many laws in Russia, spotty at best, and it was actually only because of her job that Sofia even knew about the regulation. The woman who sold us our boat tickets appeared to either not know or not care.

Sofia also gave me the lowdown on many places in Primorskii Krai, thus feeding my new minor obsession with local history, politics and economics (unfortunately, not a good obsession to develop three weeks before departure). When I asked about the socioeconomic situation in Slavyanka, I found out that people there, as well as in nearby Artyom, Spassk, Partizansk and most of the other small towns in Primorye "just survive. They have dachas, they grow vegetables, go to China and buy things to bring back and sell at markets, petty trading, things like that. They do anything they can to make a little money and survive." Slavyanka has a shipyard and a port that fell into separate hands during perestroika, thus (somehow – I didn't really understand this part) greatly diminishing production. If I've remembered everything correctly, Spassk and Partizansk had coal mines and Artyom had a well-known furniture factory, all of which were similarly ravaged by sloppy privatization. Vladivostok, Nakhodka, and Ussuriysk are all prosperous exceptions, as is Bol'shoi Kamen' (Big Stone), which is closed – even Russians need a special invitation from the town to visit – because they build nuclear submarines there, and have some kind of nuclear waste treatment plant.

Ok, I think this post has enough alarms to attract the authorities by now, so maybe I should stop writing.

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