Last summer I had a dream about Vladimir Putin. I woke up, pulled myself together, left the flat and made for the lift. The buttons were old, Soviet and plastic. I pressed “Ground” all the way in. I hummed as the lift-cage clanked into place, but what the tune was I can’t remember. Then I pushed open the front door. It’s bright outside, but Putin is there, three steps back. His hands are in his pockets and he has something to tell me. He is wearing a light-brown trench coat and he is smiling — his unmistakable smile.
I woke up with a start. But I was not the only dreamer. Dreaming about Putin is a mounting phenomenon. One friend told me Putin repeatedly asks her to fire a gun at a crumbling estate. Another, that Putin comes at night to tell him to get in shape. A diplomat admitted he had recurrent dreams that he has learnt Putin’s secret — but forgets it the moment he wakes up. A dissident activist confessed he has nightmares in which Putin tells him, quite earnestly, that he is the soul of Russia. He wakes up with his heart racing. In Moscow, the opposition-inclined magazine Bolshoi Gorod has picked up on the fact that almost everyone working in politics, big business, journalism, affairs of state, has dreamt about him.
Last summer all the news channels were being pumped with reactionary, Sovietophile propaganda, presenting the ideal Russia as something that consisted of the Red Army, an absolutist patriarch, undercover KGB agent Stirlitz (Russia’s answer to James Bond) and Orthodox biker-priests, all tied together by the new Nordstream gas pipeline to Germany.
It was a sticky, oppressive summer full of cockroaches, the summer they banged up Pussy Riot, and I was no longer sure what I was doing in Moscow. It was already clear the anti-Putin protest movement that broke out in December 2011 had failed. Its leaders had lost their nerve at the crucial moment, failing to unite or speak in a way that could resonate beyond Moscow, barely bothering to leave the city to agitate against what they called “the party of crooks and thieves”.
This made it all too easy for the Kremlin to cow them with a crackdown: its leaders were harassed, their flats searched and criminal charges opened against them. More than a dozen activists were facing jail, supportive MPs were expelled or punished in the Duma, and any big business thinking about donating money to the opposition was warned this could result in a “tax inspection” — or worse.
Power was scaring the public away from the opposition by saying that without Putin the country would shatter. Kremlin-produced videos showing China seizing Siberia, Nato grabbing Kaliningrad and an Emirate being established in the North Caucasus went viral. Fears from the 1990s of the break-up of Russia resurfaced. The opposition was becoming equally apocalyptic. “I really, really hate this regime,” seethed Alexey Navalny, the pop-star-famous protest leader. “They are leading this country into a catastrophe. It is not the opposition that will make the country collapse. Putin will make the country fall apart.”
Could Russia really collapse? To find out I had to get out of Moscow, to go to the borderlands that might break away. But where was farthest from the Kremlin? In Russia this is not geographical — the Caucasus crawls with military men and political police. Kamchatka on the Pacific is oil-subsidised and growing rich off oligarch tourism. The only towns in deepest Siberia are just there for oil or gas. I found a chart with every region of Russia coloured according to its poverty: in dark red was Tuva in southern Siberia. It was 3,700 kilometres east of Moscow on the Mongolian border.
In Siberia the first thing you notice is the air. Colder and cleaner — no taste of exhaust, nor smell of diesel. It feels different on the skin. Tuva was not in the Russia I was used to but in a poor and tense frontier area, deep in the continent, still with the feel of the Russian empire or a Soviet republic. Back in Moscow, I kept hearing that Siberian psychics were regularly flown in to service cranky oligarchs or new-age billionaires. In Russian literature, this remote region is sometimes written about like a Soviet Shambhala: a half-mythical Buddhist federal republic known for its shamans and eerie-sounding throat singers.
I realised almost immediately that Tuva was closer to the Russian equivalent of a Native American reservation. The capital, Kyzyl, is not a real city but a large wooden village hidden behind faintly utopian concrete boulevards. There is no railway. Most dwellings are clapboard cottages. The unpaved roads belong to wild dogs. The streets are filled with bedraggled beggars, thieving urchins and staggering drunks.
Kyzyl is a city scared of the dark. The locals are too frightened to walk the streets at night. Native Siberians, like the Australian Aborigines, have been disfigured, left almost demented, by Slavic drinking patterns their genetic make-up cannot cope with. They live with chronic “white fever”, the violent, semi-hallucinogenic state which vodka stirs up in Siberia’s indigenous tribes. It sends them into a trance completely unlinked to reality. Normally frigid and unable to show their emotions, “white fever” makes Tuvan men suddenly undress in the -30˚C snowdrifts, and blinds them to who they are with. Men knife their lovers and kill their best friends in a trance, only to sober up and howl. This is why nobody goes out after dusk.
This is a nation drinking itself insane. Tuva is blighted by the worst epidemic of alcoholism in Russia. At every corner lie collapsed men, sweating or talking to themselves. Alcoholics scream out insane demands — ”Take me to California!” There are constant stabbings and anthrax outbreaks. This is not only the poorest but the most violent part of the country. Male life expectancy hovers around 55, about the same as central Africa. The dusty streets lack cars, there are no supermarkets, the liberal Moscow dailies are impossible to find, and one of the very few recent buildings is the prosecutor’s office, an outpost of federal power, but built like a plastic Chinese Tiananmen gate.
In Moscow, I loved getting dragged into arcane debates about whether Russia is still an empire. In Tuva it was suddenly obvious to me that in some corners it undoubtedly is. The population is almost entirely Asian, more than 80 per cent ethnic Tuvan, a Mongol people who speak a Turkic language. It felt as far from Moscow as Rangoon does from London.
Stalin was an imperialist. In Europe he used the war to add the Baltic states, eastern Poland and parts of Finland and Romania to his imperium. In Asia he annexed Tuva in 1944. It had previously been one of the world’s most obscure and remote independent states. Before Han administrators were expelled in 1911 it had been part of the Qing Empire. To this day Chinese online “chat room nationalists” claim Tuva, as does Taiwan on its official maps of “the true China”.
Stalin was also a racist, whose prejudices designed most of the internal borders of the USSR. He divided the empire into nations that were “creators of culture” which deserved constituent republics (Georgians, Armenians, Ukrainians) and those that were merely “carriers of culture” that did not merit them (Chechens, Tatars, Yakuts). The 40,000 nomadic Tuvans were considered so primitive they were turned into a mere Autonomous District of the Soviet Russian republic, therefore Tuva was never legally a union republic of the USSR. This meant Tuvans did not have the constitutional right to secede in 1991. Yet between 1990 and 1992 there were waves of agitation in Kyzyl whipped up by the Tuvan National Front demanding “national exit”. Hopes of copying Georgia or Estonia turned to rage when they were informed independence was not an option. Rioting ensued. Russian riot police were flown in from Novosibirsk to quell it. Out in the countryside Tuvan horsemen raided the villages of Russian colonists, setting fire to the collective farms. Slavs were raped and beaten up in the villages. So even if Tuva didn’t leave Russia, the Russians who lived there began to pack their bags en masse as if it had.
They never came back. In 1959 the autonomous district was 40 per cent ethnic Russian but today local experts estimate it is below 10 per cent. The more I wandered round Kyzyl the clearer it became there are fewer Russians than in Tashkent or Samarkand, even Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan. But the closer I looked the more Chinese characters I began to see: on fridges, cars, clothes, everything. It was these mandarin invaders that had terrified the Tuvans into not copying Chechnya in the 1990s and dreaming of independence today. “Better be part of a weak empire, than a strong one,” murmured one former official. “The Chinese would swallow what Russia could never digest,” sighed one canteen owner. “We are more frightened of the Chinese than the Russians,” said just about everyone I met.
Yet the Tuvans are also scared that Russia might collapse. They have nightmares about being swallowed up like the Uighurs in Chinese Xinjiang a few hundred kilometres to the south. They know Estonia and Moldova can be independent as the rise of the EU means there are no German, Romanian or Polish armies on the march. “But this is Asia,” say the locals. The age of empires is not over here.
I looked for Chinese colonists in Kyzyl but there are none; they exist only in people’s heads. I ate in cheap canteens with widows who looked like Brezhnev. I wandered the streets with a happy-go-lucky nationalist, twice jailed. I visited the semi-underground newspaper, which printed out blog posts onto cheap yellow paper, almost like the samizdat in the Soviet Union. I discussed the meaning of “Tuvaness” with a heavy-smoking throat singer in a baseball cap. But I still couldn’t stop thinking about Moscow, or more accurately, the question that nagged at Moscow, and me. For four years the question had been simple. Would Putin or Medvedev be president in 2012? Now the question was cruder still. With the protest movement disintegrating, will Putin rule for life? Is he so strong, or Russia so weak, that he might die in the Kremlin? Will the decades ahead be the same old story, with him swapping roles with cardboard dauphins?
Nobody knows the answer. And that is what makes the question so unbearable: it shows that nobody really knows for sure how close to a dictator (or a CEO) Putin really is. If you ask the question straight, the think-tankers waffle, the investors dodge it and the intellectuals agonise over it. Maybe this is why parts of the Russian elite are becoming ever more superstitious. The Putin years have seen a boom in quack healers and Tibetan cures. Ministers want to be seen kissing icons. Freudian, Lacanian and Jungian psychoanalysts thrive. And in 2007 to make sure the country secured the right to host the Winter Olympics at Putin’s command, government officials are said to have flown out deep into the taiga to ask the most powerful shaman in all Siberia to invoke the spirits to sway the International Olympic Committee.
Uncertain countries have a need for soothsayers. In Moscow, oil executives consult “trend forecasters”, the expensive economist Nouriel Roubini or “risk analysts” to know what the world will look like in 2020. In ramshackle parts of Russia, the ethnic, imperial provinces where it is clear this “federation” is actually an empire, people still consult the shaman. Everyone in Kyzyl goes to see the shaman.
The collapse of the Soviet Union was also the collapse of the welfare state. It meant the freezing of wages, the closing down of hospitals and a breakdown in medical supplies. In Tuva, the flight of the Russians also meant the flight of the colonial professionals: doctors, nurses and teachers. Kyzyl is so poor that people have turned back to a belief in magic. In shacks all over Kyzyl, coloured Buddhist rags hang from holy ropes outside the shamans’ practices. In this sad place, they are both psychotherapists and soothsayers. Tuvans go to the shaman as we go to the doctor; there are shamans for baldness, fungal infections, weight loss, depression or communicating with dead ancestors.
Even Russia’s leaders have consulted the shamans. When Boris Yeltsin came to Tuva he was dressed in ceremonial purple robes and a conical hat and blessed by the shamans. He blew on holy embers with a powerful seer for the good of all Russia. Putin often comes to Tuva, in the company of his defence minister, Sergey Shoigu, who is half-Tuvan and lays on lavish trips into the taiga for the president to hunt lynx. It was in Tuva that the photographs of Putin swimming in a river, on horseback, and stalking through the woods with a gun were taken. The last time Putin came to Tuva, on the way to a summit in Beijing, local officials gathered dancers, throat singers and seers to perform for him in a forest encampment. Three female throat singers serenaded him, and I was told that as the music rose Putin jumped up and grabbed the shaman’s magic drum. Laughing, he began to bang it himself.
I pushed open the door to the witch’s hut. She was the seer the locals were most frightened of. They waited outside in line and told me the same thing: this witch sees the future and she heals the sick. Even though she was a Russian Tatar she was seen as stronger, purer and more powerful than the shamans. Unlike them, she never asked for money. They swore by her visions, but were petrified of her curses too.
In front of her hovel hung a stuffed black eagle to ward off evil spirits, while on the ground were traced the embers of a burnt offering. Inside it smelt of damp, cigarettes and teabags. In the gloom the witch told me how the visions had started when she was a girl, “at the time of Gorbachev the fool”, and that she had become a practising witch “during Yeltsin’s time of troubles”. Her eyes had the cloudiness of cataracts. She stared at me. “What is it that you want to know?”
There was only one question I wanted to ask: “Will Putin rule for the rest of his life?”
She whispered: “The end will come. Then there will come civil strife. It will not be the kind where brother kills brother . . . It will sweep all away. It will sweep away power. Then there will be anarchy. Tuva will not always be a part of Russia.
“Angels and spirits, demons and souls surround us. The end will come. This is only the beginning. It will be bad. There is no way to avoid it. There is no exit from it now.
“Russia is no longer going anywhere. The nation is exhausted. The country and its potential are exhausted. We have no future . . . There is no more future for Russia.”
Then she moved into the darkness at the back of the cabin to find something she wanted me to see. The most important thing, she said. “This icon is from the 15th century. This is God.” She stroked it. “This is God.”
She stroked the face of Christ, took my hand and pressed it to his face. “Be careful,” she said, pressing a magic charm into my palm, “there are people watching you.”
After a few days I decided to drive into the Siberian forests to the north — or as the locals said, “Back to Russia.” I took a shared taxi to Abakan, a dented Chinese people carrier with a flashing panel on the dashboard displaying mandarin that nobody knew how to turn off. The passengers were unnerved I had dared ask such a powerful witch about Putin. They saw it as a bad omen. The people carrier rounded the hills at a worrying speed. The countryside was bare, with piles of stones left for ancestors on hilltops densely planted with holy ropes and bushes hung with green, red, blue and yellow Buddhist prayer rags — offerings to the spirits of the place.
The people carrier trundled on. The steppe hills were magnificent and bare, rolling towards the horizon like a giant yellow duvet, empty as the desert. An hour or so outside Kyzyl, perhaps at the regional boundary, the car was flagged down to general groans, and an officer swaggered up to the car demanding documents. The passengers’ faces, which had been so expressive minutes earlier, turned into masks. Everyone showed their passports — for the Tuvans their internal Russian passport, and for me a British one. This was what he was looking for. I was taken out of the car — the driver was ordered to stay where he was — and into a building that was plain on the inside, but was actually a small police station.
At first I thought the officer wanted a bribe. I behaved dismissively as I lugged my bags into the building; I may even have been rude. The room was bare. There were three chipped Formica tables for inspections, on one handcuffs lay in the evening sun. Confused and irritated, I was made to sit down on a small stool as the man in charge settled himself in a proper chair.
“This is the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation. Do as I say. This is an anti-terrorist operation.”
It was only then it hit me: I was being interrogated. These were serious people and they set to work professionally, in a style that was almost courteous. My interrogator was never rough and never raised his voice, at least to me. But I will always remember his face — long, with a drooping lower lip and a desk-bound pallor. “Open your bags. Take out all your books, your credit cards and all the business cards given to you. Open your computer. Let me copy everything on it.”
My interrogator was from the North Caucasus, working for the federal FSB, the security police, not the local branch. He was a quality cadre: English-speaking and keen to tell me he had travelled frequently to Holland. Three or more armed underlings came in — rough, tough men with six o’clock shadows, rifles and a Kalashnikov. One was in police uniform, the second in a military outfit and a third had FSB insignia on his vest. They laughed and sneered as they began to work, picking through my books and clothes. “Why are you writing anti-Putin material? Why are you asking questions about Putin? Are you a fool not to realise — Putin saved us. Putin saved Russia from collapse?”
The interrogator laughed, fiddling with a cigarette scavenged from a colleague. He put it unlit in his mouth. You could feel how suffocating boredom must be for these men. The outpost felt as if it had been waiting a long time for a “spy”, that it had almost given up on catching anyone but Tajik heroin traffickers and Tuvan hashish dealers. The computer screen displayed an advanced session of “Bejewelled”, a free online MSN stacking game.
The man in charge stayed civil and gave me a few smiles, even an apology. Then he found Tuvan opposition newspapers in my suitcase. His face darkened. A piece of paper was placed next to the handcuffs and I was told I would have to write a “confession”. They began photocopying every notebook, then my bank cards, before downloading every file on my computer. It was only then, as I saw the FSB man flicking through interviews with Alexey Navalny, the opposition leader, that I realised what potential danger I was in. Suppressed fears surfaced.
I was denied the right to call the embassy. The questioning continued. Did I work for MI6? How was he supposed to know I didn’t work for MI6? Wasn’t this exactly what MI6 would be doing — investigating how stable Russia was at its edges? After about an hour we returned to the people carrier. I was instructed to pick two witnesses for my written confession, “to see that we did not beat this man, break this man, break any laws of the Russian Federation or dictate to him what he will now be signing on his activities”.
I chose an old woman, an ethnic Khakassian schoolteacher, and a dozy young Tuvan man in the front seat. At first, the woman refused to go and was curtly told, that since this was an FSB search, she was legally obliged to comply. We were taken back inside. Two armed men came in, then drifted back outside. One of their rifles had jammed. They tried firing it without bullets in fits of laughter.
I was sat down again on the low stool. My interrogator ordered me to write in my broken Russian the answer to each question. Then we both signed it. So did the witnesses. Suddenly the Khakassian woman screwed up her eyes behind her glasses and shrieked: “I remember this time perfectly clearly! Do not do this to this young man! Do not force him to make a confession. I remember this time perfectly clearly!”
The FSB agent shouted back: “This is the Federal Security Services of the Russian Federation. Without hysterics you are required to observe as a witness that we are not beating this man, that we are not forcing this man to make a confession.”
It was only then I began to see how terrified the locals were. He looked at me closely and wrote down the next “question”: “List the names of every single friend or person you have met in the Russian Federation.”
“In the war, you would have been a member of the Gestapo,” shouted the Khakassian woman.
I love war films, and this was a scene when the British officer, my childhood hero, now captured, is told to betray the Resistance. I realised to my horror I was probably a coward. All it would take was one punch, maybe not even that. Then I had a stroke of genius. I began shouting out the names of senior officials I knew.
The FSB man looked at the armed guards hovering by the door. They nodded. “That will be fine. Lots of . . . interesting people.”
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.”
It was this fear, the fear of the petty careerist manipulating the system, which frightened me. It was an interrogation by something venal, dysfunctional and un-ideological-Tsarist rather than Soviet Russia. This was far more chaotic, far less predictable than the old KGB, no different to a provincial African official.
The Khakassian woman, still upset, passed me a tiny piece of bread. “It’s not food. I blessed this crumb with the spirits of this place. Eat it. To keep that thing away from us, those evil people away from you.”
As the car drove through the forests I began to see Putin’s smile again. The Siberian forests were now so dense it was as if we had driven into another slice of geological time. They swallowed the horizon like oceans. They seemed pristine like the land before time. But I kept thinking of Putin and his impenetrable smile. Then the voice of the witch, the stare of Navalny and the lips of the Chechen interrogator — and it suddenly hit me. They were all telling me the same thing: Russia is in grave danger.