Friday, 18 February 2011

Yekaterinburg: The Thawing of the Cold War Reveals A Deadly Secret. (Russian Urals Federal District)

In April of 1979 the city of Sverdlovsk (now known by its original name of Yekaterinburg) in Russia's Urals Federal District was struck by a frightening anthrax epidemic. Official Soviet documents reported sixty-four human deaths resulting from the ingestion of tainted meat sold on the black market, but U.S. intelligence sources implied a different story, and the lack of documentation left unresolved questions. In her account of an investigation by a team of US scientists in 1992 - "Anthrax: The Investigation of a Deadly Outbreak" - Jeanne Guillemin addresses the mystery of what really happened during that tragic event in Sverdlovsk.

Anthrax is a virulent and deadly bacteria whose spores can remain in soil for as long as seventy years, killing grazing animals and putting humans in jeopardy of eating infected meat. Contemporary concern is more centred on anthrax as an airborne biological weapon whose inhaled spores can result in ninety percent mortality for those infected.

As part of a team of doctors and researchers, Jeanne Guillemin travelled to Russia in 1992 to determine the cause and extent of the epidemic. Her affecting narrative transforms a case of epidemiological investigation into a politically charged mystery. What helps here – and I must admit that I was worried that this hefty book might prove to be heavy going – is that Guillemin is an anthropologist, rather than a biologist. Her concern in the investigation is to talk to the survivors of the outbreak, to build up a picture of the movements of the victims and also their daily living in order to identify any patterns. Thus, through her interviews with residents of 1990s Yekaterinburg, we gain a fascinating insight into the lives of ordinary people from before and after “Perestroika”.

She also creates a vivid sense of immediacy and drama with her insider's account of the team's investigative work—the analysis of pathology photos and slides, meetings with political and public health officials, the retrieval of essential medical data—and candidly reveals the subjective side of science as she conducts interviews with afflicted families, visits sites, and interacts with those suspected of clouding the truth.

And indeed, there are many of the ‘old guard’ of the Communist era here who toe the official line of tainted meat as the source of the outbreak – rather than the more controversial possibility of an accidental emission from a nearby military compound (Compound 19). This despite, the seeming contradiction of then President Boris Yeltsin - who was party official of Sverdlovsk during the outbreak - awarding pensions to relatives of the victims in the 1990s.

Guillemin however, is even-handed in her accounts of these former Soviet scientists and their motives. As she says of one: “Burgasov is completely of the old Soviet order, an anachronism, an old bear hiding in the woods. Whether or not he really knew what was going on at Compound 19, he did not break rank…. When he... presented the official Soviet explanation of the outbreak, he probably believed everything he said.” Guillemin displays none of the potential arrogance she may have shown as a Western scientist coming to examine a bacterial disaster in a former Cold War enemy. Indeed, she is equally open in acknowledging both the lack on concrete understanding of anthrax in the West, and also the Western nations’ own frequent flagrant disregard of international law regarding biological weaponry research.

It is this scientific impartiality, coupled with her anthropologist’s focus on the human element of this outbreak, that makes this such a fascinating account. Whilst expounding on the necessary scientific detail of the outbreak – crucially the difference in symptoms between gastrointestinal (i.e. through tainted meat) and inhalatory (i.e. through airborne spores) - Guillemin is always concerned about the human and the social context of the outbreak: both in the 1970s and in the 1990s of the investigation. It is here that we get a sense of what life like for ordinary people (many victims were factory workers or small holders) in this major Russian city – both in the Soviet-era 1970s and the early 1990s of “Perestroika”.

Often the tale is of people living simple but harsh lives, and whose emotional pain at the loss of loves is balanced by a sense of impotence in the face of the government machine. Guillemin and her translator are often reduced to tears during these accounts.

Perhaps one of the most poignant elements of this book is a series of photos, taken from the graves of outbreak victims (it is traditional in Russia to add photos to gravestones), The black and white images of these individuals stare out from the page, one by one, frozen in time yet actively reminding us that this is no dry academic investigation. This is an attempt to find out who or what is responsible of over 60 deaths of individuals by a deadly virus, leaving a generation of bereaved relatives without answers. Guillemin proves an excellent narrator to guide us through this process: “I think of the 1979 anthrax outbreak as an obscenity, the deaths themselves brutal and unnecessary, the handling of them a ritual of degradation for the families and friends of these victims”.

Ultimately - as Guillemin herself acknowledges – conclusions are reached, but there is no sense of victory here. From what pathological evidence remains from the KGB purge in the 1970s, and through triangulating the pattern of victims’ whereabouts with wind dispersal during the outbreak period, the evidence that an accidental outbreak of airborne anthrax virus from the military Compound 19 is the cause. Yet it is apparent that there is no official appetite to hold anyone to account for this – and it is notable that the one place that the scientists are unable to gain access to is Compound 19 itself. Even Yeltsin’s offer of pensions to victims’ families remain unpaid at the time of writing.

And so, a pyrrhic victory of sorts – although in publishing her account Guillemin at least gives voice to these victims. For the purposes of my journey, she also casts light on a little known, yet still contentious, part of the former Soviet Union.

Whilst normally I would describe my onward to journey to my next destination at this point, there is no need in this case; for I am already here, in Yekaterinburg. The next step of my trip is actually a journey across the vast expanses of Siberia, which will take me from the Western fringes of the Urals (commencing in Yekaterinburg) through to the Far Eastern outposts of Russia, courtesy of Colin Thubron’s acclaimed travelogue: “In Siberia”...

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Transnistria (again): Further Education from the ex-Siberian Community

I now find myself, for a second time, in the tiny – and contentious – state of Transnistria. So why, amongst the hundreds of other, larger and more established countries, am I gracing this place with a second visit? After all, this is a breakaway territory located mostly on a strip of land between the Dniester River and the eastern Moldovan border to Ukraine. And it is only recognised by two other states (themselves, of limited international recognition – Abkhazia and South Ossetia).

Well, the reason for this is twofold – firstly I was a little unsatisfied with my last visit there. Not that the book I read: "This is Radio PMR" was not enlightening and interesting, but it was primarily a photobook interspersed with individual interviews and as such I felt that I only scratched the surface of this complex - and contentious - nation in my last visit. Also, since my visit, a book has been published which presents a first-hand account of contemporary life there, by a native of Transnistria. This book, “Siberian Education” by Nicolai Lilin recounts his life in the criminal underworld of the city of Bender, and promises to be a very different perspective than my previous trip there.

However, before giving my account of this book I should add a caveat – in fact the caveat is that of the author himself. At the outset of the book he states that: “certain episodes are imaginative recreation, and those episodes are not intended to portray actual events.” This broad statement leaves us, as readers, with the dilemma of not knowing what IS fact or fiction in the following account… I can understand the complaints of certain reviewers that they cannot therefore, treat this book as a serious social commentary, however for the purposes of my trip I am satisfied. After all, most of the books I have chosen for countries are fiction, and even if this IS a wholly fictionalised account – it fits my criteria well in being by a native author and set within my timescale in an actual location in Transnistria (the city of Bender).

As far as the book itself goes, veracity aside, I found this to be an interesting and enjoyable read. Nicolai describes his upbringing in a close knit community of ex-Siberian criminals in the ‘Lower River’ area of the city of Bender; from his pre-teen (but still prolifically criminal) youth until his forced eviction from the city in his early 20s. This eviction is as a conscript in the Russian Army – sent to the frontlines of the Chechnyan conflict (a conflict which only merits a few pages here, but which has already been described – from the Chechnyan perspective – previously on my journey). The book’s cover informs us that Nicolai subsequently lived in Ireland before settling as an Italian citizen – although the circumstances of this are never covered in this book (and have added to the scepticism surrounding the validity of his account of his criminal past…)

Still, I found this to be a gritty and visceral account of criminal life in an enclave of Transnistria (and certainly an interesting counterpoint to the rather clinical accounts given in my previous visit via “This is Radio PMR”).

The timescales of this account run roughly from the 1980s to the late 1990s, and mainly focus on his teenage years as a fledgling ‘criminal’ (a term of honour in his community). Life in this criminal society is a strange mix of ancestral pride, social etiquette (the elderly must be respected, fellow criminals must be greeted in an elaborately formal manner etc) and extreme violence – especially against rival criminal communities, who are often seen as degenerate by the Siberians. Perhaps one depiction that typifies this almost schizophrenic society is Nicolai’s account of how the family weapons are kept within the religious shrines of the household. No irony is acknowledged here.

Similarly, Nicolai’s progression from boy to man is a mix of increased social responsibility (within his community) and increased criminal activity. He is given his first ‘pike’ (knife) by a respected Siberian criminal at the tender age of 12 – and promptly gains an elevated status amongst his peers as a result.

Another element of Nicolai’s rite of passage is his first criminal conviction and incarceration in a juvenile prison. Here, divorced from the ‘Low River’ society, Nicolai has a degree of protection through fellow ‘Siberians’ but is nevertheless constantly in close proximity with other gangs. The atrocities carried out by these other gangs within the confines of the prison (including a particularly disturbing account of a prolonged gang-rape) are both nightmarish and, if one is honest, take one back to the author’s caveat that certain “episodes are not intended to portray actual events”.

Another important element of criminal society that Nicolai encounters whilst in prison is the socially-important culture of tattoos. Apparently tattoos play an important role in the criminal subculture - both in telling the story of a criminal’s life and enhancing his reputation as a result. Given this pivotal importance, skilled tattooists are also highly regarded within the criminal fraternity and enjoy an almost shaman-like status.

Nicolai determines to become a tattooist, and succeeds, and this is largely portrayed as a step on the road, in his life, to his escape from a criminal community that he portrays as both potentially fatal and in terminal decline. Certainly in recent interviews he has stated that the Siberian criminal society that he depicts in this work no longer exists – which seems odd given the tight-knit structure that he portrays as existing only a decade or so ago.

Another event that – more forcibly – extracts him from his criminal surroundings is his conscription (a virtual kidnapping by the authorities) into the Russian army to fight rebels in Chechnya. Most of Nicolai’s graphic account of his time in the army fighting the rebels (or “saboteurs” as he refers to them) comes, a little confusingly, in a chapter at the start of the book, and provides an interesting alternative perspective to that provided by Chechnyan surgeon Khassan Baiev in the earlier Chechnyan book “The Oath”.

Upon his enforced conscription the book abruptly ends, leaving us hanging as to the story of Nicolai’s time in Chechnya and subsequent escape to his current life as an Italian citizen. Perhaps this is intentional and another book is in the offing.

If my account seems a little cynical, I would say that that is inevitable. His opening caveat, along with a lack of explanation of how Nicolai came to be accepted as an Italian citizen despite his long criminal record – as well as his convenient attestation that the Siberian criminal community that he describes no longer exists – all make me question the amount of fact over fiction here. That said, taken at face value, I found the book to be pretty well written and an interesting account of criminal social mores in a post-Soviet Mafia-like community (and certainly, there is no denying that these Mafia-type gangs are thriving in the post-Soviet region, as previous books on my travels have shown).

As I mentioned in my last blog: there are no civilian flights into or out of Transnistria, so I retrace my inward journey from Bender to Chisinau via a Marshrutka. I have my exit papers so no issues at border control.

The next step of my journey returns me to Russia, specifically to Yekaterinburg, a large industrial city in the Urals Federal District, some 900 miles east of Moscow. To get there from Chisinau I take a 4.00pm flight on Siberian airlines from Chisinau’s International Airport. This takes me to Domodedovo airport in Moscow 2 hours later. Fortunately this is one of Moscow’s more salubrious airports: there are a lot of amenities including a clean lobby, secure waiting area, good cafes and restaurants, and a business centre. Author’s note: a few days after writing this description, on 24th January 2011, a suicide bomber detonated a 7kg explosive device at the airport, killing 35 people and injuring 110. Early news reports stated that “Militant groups from the North Caucasus are suspected of planning the attack.” (BBC News). This is a grim reminder that the conflicts and dangers described in some of the books on my journey have a very real impact upon the lives of ordinary people, and demonstrates how, in virtually the whole of this planet, ‘peace’ is an aspiration rather than an actuality…

At 10.00pm I take another flight directly to Yekaterinburg (flight announcements refer to it as Ekaterinburg/Sverdlovsk) which touches down at 02.10am (although this is largely due to time difference – the actual flight is just 2 hours 10 minutes). The price? £242 one-way, including taxes etc. Not bad for such a vast distance…

Thus begins my latest excursion – with “Anthrax: The Investigation of a Deadly Outbreak”, an account by anthropologist Jeanne Guillemin of her visit to Yekaterinburg in 1992 with a team of US scientists to investigate the causes of a deadly outbreak of anthrax there back in 1979; at the height of the Cold War…