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He smiled, then pushed his face close to mine. "I am a Chechen," he began. This made me even more trembly. The opposition rumour in Moscow is that Putin keeps a personal retinue of loyal Chechen guards. "I am from Grozny. There was a war there. Many of my brothers died. I understand how this makes you feel intimidated. I feel your unease. It's horrible to feel this uneasy, isn't it?" 

He growled. "Look — Tuva is a border republic. The Tuvans are Turks. They are all Turks. The Bashkirs and the Mongols and the Kazakhs. And they are all part of one big nation. Fools like you don't realise there are terrorists that want to start a civil war among the peoples of the Russian Federation. Russia can collapse again into a bloodbath and civil war without us to stop it. We have to do this!" 

His face tried to make me feel sorry for him, sorry for him as the interrogator. Another hour passed, then another. The prospect of being arrested seemed to become ever more real. Then he suddenly decided to let me go.  

He moved to shake my hand. I hesitated. He glared. I shook it. I was free, but the real panic started in the people carrier. The passengers argued, cursed and harangued one another for the next few hour of what was now a night drive through unlit mountain roads. They told me never to carry opposition newspapers, never to meet the opposition, that it was too dangerous for me to ever come to Tuva and that I was a fool.

"We are like Chechnya. The republics are all like this. Don't you see? They are frightened Tuva will break away. Don't be a fool. You were asking about Putin, meeting the opposition — don't do that. You have anti-Putin newspapers. Please throw them away. We will stop the car and you will throw them all away. The FSB can do whatever it wants. It's not like the big cities where they can't control things any more. In the depths of Russia this is how it works.

"They are following you. That man is a careerist. He's a damn Chechen. He wants to make a case against you to develop his career. He wants to be seen as the guy that catches the spies. They are trying to exploit this for money. Please, stay away."

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February 28th, 2013
8:02 PM
"The Putin years have seen a boom in quack healers" Not true - if anything, they've seen a decline. The final years of the Soviet Union saw a mass explosion of psychic healers, etc. The trend continued steadily through the Yeltsin era.

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