One of my favorite regions on Earth resembles nothing so much as another world. Perhaps that’s why I like it so much.
Kosh-Agach, the driest inhabited spot in Russia, is some 50 kms from the Mongolian border and surrounded by mountains and infinite stretches of twisting gravel roads. Getting here entails a 10-hour-or-so drive along the Altai Republic’s Chuysky Trakt, a mostly deserted federal highway through an increasingly desolate landscape. The highway also passes through Inya, a tiny mountain village that boasts possibly the world’s most dramatic setting for a Lenin statue.
During my last visit to Kosh-Agach, I was momentarily startled to see a poster of Putin and Medvedev pasted up outside a shop. “What are they doing here?” I thought, before I realized I was still in Russia. It’s an easy thing to forget. Especially when you’ve been driving though a barren landscape that, as my driver Kayrat noted, “most people say reminds them of the moon.”
Russians are the minority here, with ethnic Kazakhs and Altai accounting for over three-quarters of the settlement's population. Indeed, there is not even a Russian Orthodox Church in town, the sound of the call for prayer from the local mosque only serving to accentuate Kosh-Agach’s physical and cultural distance from mainstream Russia.
As soon as we’d arrived in town, Kayrat warned me not to stray too far from my hotel, the Hotel Tranzit, a small ramshackle hostel for truck drivers on their way into Mongolia. “People have been going missing recently,” he said without elaborating. Indeed, there is something about Kosh-Agach, and in particular the Hotel Tranzit, that suggests the setting for a cheap slasher-type horror movie.
However, the truck driver with whom I found myself sharing a room was inordinately fond of playing the shoot ‘em up game on his mobile phone, and so I decided to ignore Kayrat's warning and took a wander through Kosh-Agach’s two or three streets.
As night fell, Kayrat dropped by to take me to meet his friends and relatives. They quizzed me about life in Moscow, and then one of them, Nikolai, a border guard who serves in Ust-Koksa, some 400 kms away on the Russian-Kazakh border, told me about his only visit to the Russian capital.
“I and three other border guards had a day in Moscow before taking a train to St. Petersburg. That place is so huge. We tried to get a taxi from one train station to the other, but the prices...insane,” he said, shaking his head. “Anyway, we decided to walk, but it was too far. We looked for a bus but couldn't find one, and then someone told us about the subway system. We didn't even know what that was.” He looked at me, eyes wide open, as he recalled his journey into the depths of the Russian capital. “Turns out there is a subway system. We went down the escalators, and tried to go through these gates. Then this loud beeping sound started.”
“You know,” he continued, “you have to buy a ticket, stick it into the machine, it comes out at the top and you can go through. We got onto the platform, and thought...what now? But, well, there are maps on the walls, and you just follow them.”
Humorous as Nikolai's account of getting lost in the Russian capital was, it also illustrates a feature of life in Russia that has long been a problem for central government. All over the Russian Federation, in the Far East, throughout Siberia, there are isolated towns and cities like Kosh-Agach, settlements remote from Moscow in every way. The problem is not a new one - after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian authorities feared the disintegration of Russia itself into even smaller states as a series of republics and regions made bids of varying intensity for independence. The most famous of these secessionist-minded republics is, of course, Chechnya.
Russians have traditionally cited their country's size as one of the main sources for all of its woes. The country is simply too vast to control, the logistics of governing the largest nation in the world is a hindrance to progress, claim proponents of the theory. The theory was especially popular during the “bad ol’ days” of the Yeltsin years, as living standards dropped dramatically to the backdrop of economic collapse.
However, post-oil boom, Russia’s size has created another problem. While the oil dollars have begun (very) slowly trickling down to even the country's most far-flung outposts, the inhabitants of these towns remain socially and culturally remote from mainstream Russia.
“See,” said Kayrat, as we sat in his car outside his house later that evening, “there really is nothing for the youth to do around here.” The comment could have come from any bored twenty-something all over the world, yet stuck in the middle of Kosh-Agach's lunar landscape, darkness encroaching from the steppe around us, his words carried more weight. As a mainly Muslim town, Kosh-Agach has fewer alcoholics than others in similar remote areas, yet, the best-stocked shops are those selling vodka, wine and beer. Kosh-Agach may be dry, but not in every sense.
The next morning we drove out towards the Mongolian border, turning back when we enter a “border pass” only zone. Russia's FSB (the KGB's successor) was handed control of Altai's borders in 2007, and Kayrat told me that security service helicopters often fly in to pick up foreigners without the correct documents. Heading back to Kosh-Agach, keeping an eye open for FSB agents all the way, we made a stop at the town's welcome sign: a Soviet-era relic depicting two workers and their suited boss framed by a hammer and sickle. Naturally, I found the sign curious, and took a photograph. Kayrat, however, saw nothing unusual in it, shrugging when I asked him if he perhaps considered it a touch odd that his hometown greets its visitors with a depiction of Soviet life and ideology. In Moscow, a similar sign would be unthinkable, sheer kitsch, but here, in the heart of Asian Russia, time has, in a sense, stood still since the break up of the Soviet Union. Indeed, the only real sign that the Soviet system is no more are the foreign cars, most of them picked up cheaply in Russia's Far east port of Vladivostok, that whizz around the town.
All of this may suggest that the area is ripe for a secessionist movement, but the options - joining Kazakhstan, Mongolia or China - are simply not attractive enough. For now then, social and cultural isolation is Kosh-Agach's – and the Altai’s - only real option. At least the view is good.
From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.
Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, The Times, and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).