International Herald Tribune
Bowring: Living on the edge of Russia
Monday, June 9, 2008

CHITA, Russia: The Russians have been here since 1653 when the Cossack adventurer Pyotr Beketov extended the czar's empire deep into Asia by founding this and other settlements out here.

It remains a small city (pop. 300,000). In many ways it has typical Russian urban characteristics - grandiose public buildings in the center surrounded by dismal Soviet-era housing blocks and a fringe of wooden houses in varying degree of distress. Its main street is named after Lenin, whose statue still dominates the main square.

But for all its outward Russian normalcy and eastern Siberian obscurity, Chita's history encapsulates much of the flux of the past 200 years and could well be a focal point in the future.

This is the last Russian city before the trans-Siberian railway enters China. Mongolia lies even closer to the south.

Indeed it was the Mongolian Buryats who had the earlier claim on the territory. There is limited sign of them in the city, least of all in the higher income jobs. Despite living side by side for more than 300 years, unofficial discrimination against Buryats is endemic, claim some educated urban Buryats.

But the further one goes from the city, the more apparent it becomes that they are still very much a large minority presence here as in the neighboring semi-autonomous Buryatia Republic with its capital at Ulan Ude.

They herd cattle, cut timber, run little roadside restaurants, turn prayer wheels at lamaist temples - and carry photos of the Dalai Lama. Another Buryat autonomous area has recently been merged with Chita to become the Zabaykalsky krai (region), extending to the Chinese border.

But Buryats have been marginal to Chita's Russian history for many reasons. The region's growth in the 19th century owed much to the misfortunes not of Buryats, but of others: Decembrists - the liberals who plotted to overthrow the czar in 1824 - were exiled to this remote spot.

Then came Jews encouraged to leave western Russia and find more freedom in the east in return for securing Russia's presence and securing the route to the Pacific coast. The Jews stayed and built trading businesses, boosted by the 1905 completion of the railways. Most left after the Russian revolution, many settling, for a while, in Harbin, Shanghai and Hong Kong before moving on.

Chita was even capital of the short- lived (1920-23) Far Eastern Republic, a semi-autonomous pro-Bolshevik state created in the chaos of the Russian civil war. Its first capital was Ulan Ude, but that was occupied by the Japanese who backed the Whites and used the war to try to extend their domain.

Nowadays it is the Chinese, not the Japanese, who are source of concern and profit for Chita. When Beketov claimed Chita for the czar, China was under Manchurian rule and Han Chinese were not permitted to live in Manchuria. Now China's neigbboring Heilongjiang province alone has 36 million mostly Han people, more than Siberia and the Russian Far East combined.

Relations with China may be much improved since the Soviet Union collapsed and Chita ceased to be closed to foreigners, but Russian military installations are conspicuous in city and countryside alike.

Yet if the collapse of the Soviet Union and deep cuts in military spending brought a period of decline to the region, China's economy has reversed that trend. Wagonloads of timber, much of it illegally cut, cross the border every day.

Likewise, mining is booming and mineral prospecting is in full swing as private companies, local and foreign, seek to build on geological studies done in Soviet times and find commercially viable deposits of gold, tungsten, molybdenum and other metals.

China's proximity is a commercial attraction - and a strategic worry.

The decline in the ethnic Russian presence seems to have halted as prosperity increases. But fear of Chinese informal settlement - so evident in the Russian Far East after the collapse of the Soviet Union - adds to the problems of the Buryats.

Ethnic Russian consciousness of being a "white" tribe on the borders of Mongol and Han Asia is too strong for their comfort.

Chita is prospering and history may leave it alone for now. But if the past is any guide, surprises lie ahead.