We met in a basement coffee shop across Sakhyanova Street from the Khrushchev-era complex of dank hallways and dingy offices where he works. Nikolai Tsyrempilov, the 31-year-old chairman of the Buryatia Young Scholars Union, lowered his voice and leaned across the table.
"The secret police are very active in Buryatia," he said. "People get together to discuss problems, and there is a resistance movement, but it's limited to the Internet. I don't think it will be easy for anyone to openly express political views in the coming years."
When I asked Tsyrempilov if he was sure that he wanted me to quote him talking about these things so candidly, he replied: “Yes, yes. They can’t control everything. And we know the only power that can stop or even soften the oppression here is the West.”
That's from an Ottawa Citizen Special I wrote from Ulan Ude, the capital of Buryatia, the last major stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway before Ulan Bator, Mongolia. It's related to this. In the photograph above, that's Nikolai, with Radjana Dugarova of the Buryat Human Rights Movement. You should recognize the guy in the background. What he had to say about these things is here.
Don't be surprised if you've never heard of Buryatia, or the Altai Republic, or Koryakia, or Tuva (it wasn't called the "Iron Curtain" for nothing). But you might not have a chance to know about these places much longer. They're among the 60-odd republics, krais, oblasts and okrugs that Vladimir Putin intends to wipe from the map.
I see Wikipedia's map still shows Koryakia. It won't be there for long – it's about to be merged with Kamchatka. And notice how big Krasnoyarsk is? That's because it recently swallowed up the ancient territories of the Evenks, Nenets and Dolgan peoples. The Altai Republic is still there though (it's right beside Kazakhstan). If it weren’t for a popular, non-violent uprising, it would have been gone by now.
It's probably a good idea to merge many of Russia's regions and districts. Many of the citizens of these places seem to think so. But in the case of the dissolution of the orphaned Buryat districts I mention in the Ottawa Citizen report, it was hardly a free choice.
Russian authorities reported a 90-per-cent voter turnout in the Aginsk referendum, and 94 per cent of ballots in favour of abandoning self-government, while in Ust-Ordynsky, 98 per cent favoured dissolution in ballots cast by 99 per cent of eligible voters. Buryat human rights activists say the votes were a sham of disinformation, harassment, press-muzzling, intimidation and ballot-rigging.
When I was in Ulan Ude, I talked about these things with Stepan Efimov, a beefy, rosy-cheeked apparatchik who serves as the deputy chairman of the Buryat parliament. I caught up to him on his way out of the Council of Europe meeting at the presidential palace. “Everything is done according to the constitution," he said. "The Buryats have no limits on their freedom of expression. Our situation is quite democratic. People can even come here to this meeting and say what they want. This is evidence that all Buryats can speak their minds.”
Well, no, they can't, Mr. Efimov. They can't form their own political parties. The Buryat People's Congress has been banned. Newspapers get shuttered, pamphleteers get arrested, and autonomists are fired from their jobs. As Radjana puts it: “You even need a licence to publish a newspaper here, and if the people protest and complain, the secret police take pictures of their faces. In the state newspaper, they say we are spies. It is like the 1930s all over again.”