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Last Updated: Saturday, 10 January, 2004, 15:08 GMT
Inside Putin's Russia: Outside world rushes in
Bridget Kendall
By Bridget Kendall
BBC diplomatic correspondent

Inside Putin's Russia is a series looking at life outside Moscow. In the final part of the series, Bridget Kendall travels to Tomsk in Siberia, and finds that even in the most isolated places there are connections to the rest of the world unheard of in Soviet times.

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It was lightly snowing, a freezing raw afternoon with the sun already low in the sky.

Bridget Kendall (centre) with teenage prisoners in Tomsk
The girls asked the same questions as children the world over (image: Tomsk correctional facilities)
Lined up in two long rows in the snowy yard, dozens of girls stood stiffly to attention. Each one was wrapped in a thick woolly shawl, padded cotton jacket and long black felt boots to keep out the cold. They looked small for their years, even stunted.

"Zdravstvuite," they roared in unison. "Hello-o-o."

This was Tomsk's Second Penal Colony, a detention centre for girls from all over Siberia. A recent amnesty had released those convicted of all but the most serious crimes.

As soon as the guards gave permission, they clustered round the rare foreign visitors. Suddenly I was engulfed in a sea of lively, chattering girls. The braver, cockier ones jostled to the front. It was hard to remember they were teenage murderers.

"Have you been to a prison in Britain? How does it compare?"

And then, just like kids the world over: "What's your favourite film? What's Prince William like? Do you like football? Have you met David Beckham?"

How different from the Soviet Union I remember from 20 years ago when the whole country was in a sense a jailhouse, isolated and cut off. Now even in a Russian penitentiary in Tomsk, deep in the middle of Siberia, there were connections to the world outside.

Iron fist, velvet glove

We moved on to the Third Tomsk Penal Colony for adult males. Here, too, the world beyond Russia had left its mark. To satisfy the Council of Europe's demand that prison should be about correction, not punishment, the facility had been transferred from the Interior Ministry to the Ministry of Justice.

Miss UIS finalist with Bridget Kendall and series producer Teresa Cherfas
Larissa Zelentsova (l) had made the finals of Miss Prison Guard (image: Tomsk correctional facilities)
"See: new arm badges," said one cheerful prison guard, pointing to the Justice Ministry badge on his sleeve.

At first I suspected that it was only a superficial change of name. Like most of his colleagues, he'd spent his life with Interior Ministry Troops. Many of them were battle-scarred from serving in the wars in Chechnya.

One senior prison officer openly lamented the collapse of the Communist regime and gruffly asked if we agreed that the death penalty should be reinstated.

But around the iron fist there did seem to be a softer velvet glove.

Some new reforms even made us smile. For example, this year's first ever beauty pageant to select Miss Prison Guard of All Russia, (or "Miss UIS", as it is in Russian.)

It turned out that the Third Penal Colony's very own Larissa Zelentsova had got through to the finals. A tall, beautiful blonde, she was summoned to describe to us her triumph: how she'd scored high marks in shooting from a pistol, correctly answered questions on the penal code, and proved her creativity by playing Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata on a synthesizer.

There was also a beauty parade.

"No bikini, only evening dress," she said. "A sort of steely gray. Very austere," she added hastily.

Map showing Tomsk
There was something homely, too, about the layout of the prisoners' dormitories. We found several in a deep slumber after nightshifts, the heavy tattoos on their arms a reminder these were all criminals, convicted of murder, robbery and theft. But curled up with them was a little tabby cat. Many of them, it turned out, had cats or other creatures as pets.

Outside, high metal fences topped with razor wire surrounded the compound, a watchtower on each corner.

In the prison yard there were also features reminiscent of any Soviet facility: a wall of merit and a wall of shame to identify the best and the worst, newspapers encased in glass for all to read, and brightly painted slogans to urge discipline and order: "Fulfil the norms 100%" read one slogan, and "Hard work will make you free."

In the prison workshop they were enthusiastic about the conditions. They were making furniture - tables and chairs, cradles and even fitted kitchens - to be sold straight from their warehouse, or sent to Tomsk furniture shops.

"In here there's proper quality control and they actually follow health and safety procedures," said one brigade leader, serving a nine-year murder sentence. "You won't find that on the outside."

A time warp of security and predictability - features that have all but vanished from the harsh chaotic world beyond the prison gates.

The business of stolen metal

A few miles away, we tracked down a junkyard to see how Russia's truly desperate are making ends meet. Down and outs, alcoholics and drugs addicts and the very poor - they come here to hand in scrap metal they've saved or stolen, in return for a few roubles.

It's pathetic. We arrest suspects in the morning for questioning and they are back at it again in the afternoon
Lyudmila Petrova
Chief investigator, transport police
The old Tatar man on duty took us round. Sacks of old kettles, pots and pans, rusty hair curlers, old car parts, and bags of stripped copper and aluminium wiring, all waiting to be melted down, part of a lucrative and dodgy business in stolen metal.

At the railway depot round the corner, Lyudmila Petrova, chief investigator for the transport police, told us the theft of precious metals reached its peak a year or two back.

Stripping copper wires off the railway tracks could give a thief a nasty electric shock, but that did not stop them. In response the government posted more guards and stopped using copper wiring.

So now the thieves had turned to other targets. A whole section of metal track had just been spirited away from under the railway guards' noses. And trains parked in the depot were now regularly stripped of their light aluminium seats and window frames.

"It's pathetic," said Lyudmila. "We arrest suspects in the morning for questioning and they are back at it again in the afternoon. We've one lad at the moment who's been arrested eight times already."

I need to steal to feed my habit. What's the point of working? Most factories can't afford to pay you
Alexei, metal thief
His name was Alexei. He was 21-years-old and admitted everything, gesturing listlessly to the evidence of his crime, the aluminium benches propped against the wall behind him.

It turned out he was a drug addict, hooked on opium since the age of 12. The police told us the opium was being smuggled in from Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and was for sale in the basements of tower blocks where Russian young people congregate all over Tomsk's poorer suburbs.

It was a growing problem which they did not have the resources to handle.

Alexei had been in prison before and did not seem to mind the idea of going back again. "I need to steal to feed my habit," he said. "What's the point of working? Most factories can't afford to pay you."

Cottage industry

A felt boot before it has been shrunk to size
Back-breaking work: The felt boots have to be shrunk and reshrunk
Outside the city, across the frozen river Tom, in the picturesque village of Taktamyshevo we found just such a factory, making "valenki", the felt boots which Russian villagers wear all winter.

It was a true cottage industry, a small business that had endured for over 100 years, barely surviving. It would have closed down altogether if the village women working there had not pleaded with the director to keep it open.

Amidst the relentless clank of machines teasing the wool, and the dank sweaty horse-like smell of wet felt, they worked without complaining.

The felt was fashioned into giant boot shapes and then beaten with wooden paddles and boiled over and over again to shrink it to size. Back-breaking work for just a few roubles' reward, but for these villagers it was better than the alternative of no employment.

All of which, perhaps, paints a grim picture.


And yet Tomsk is not the worst place in Russia to end up in by any means. In fact on our short itinerary it was probably the city I liked best and where I could most easily sense the great wealth of Russia's resources and its creative potential, if only it can surmount its problems.

As we learned from the vast map in the governor's office when he received us, Tomsk region is an area the size of Germany, rich in reserves of timber, oil and other precious minerals, and yet with a population of only one million.

Winter football in Tomsk
Professors and students rush out to play "winter football"
But what makes this city especially unique is its educational powerhouse. Originally a place of exile, home first to tsarist rebels, and then Soviet free thinkers, it has always prided itself on its intellectual capacity.

Now it has evolved into a centre of learning that boasts six universities, providing employment or a place of study for some 40% of the population.

And away from the poorer outskirts, it feels like a student town, crammed with internet cafes, bars, and parks where university professors and students alike rush out, bundled up against the freezing cold, to play "winter football", as they call it.

At the Polytechnic University the emphasis is all on harnessing technology. In conjunction with Edinburgh's Heriot Watt University, a state-of-the-art centre is training a new generation of Russian oil specialists.

A centre devoted to distance learning is pioneering new techniques to enable students in outlying Siberian settlements to take university courses over the internet. And every student and teacher is being encouraged to learn to operate in their field in at least two languages.

We visited one seminar where a professor and students in higher mathematics were making their way painstakingly through an article in English on the Theory of Relativity.

Yukos' largest shareholder and former boss, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is facing tax fraud charges
Yukos finds itself at the heart of what some see as a struggle for Russia's wealth
The Siberia of the future will no longer be a place of exile where you are cut off from rest of humanity. Modern technology means distance is no obstacle.

Linked by the internet, Tomsk, like anywhere else in Russia, will bypass Moscow and collaborate directly with external partners.

But there's a catch. All this depends on the attitude of the central government in Moscow. One of the major educational benefactors in Tomsk is Yukos, the very oil company which now finds itself at the centre of what some see as political power struggle between Russia's oligarchs and the Kremlin over who should control Russia's wealth: private business or the government.

Many in the town fear they have lost an important patron.

Lessons for Putin

Beneath the surface in Tomsk you sense nervousness about the future. Local journalists worry that they might be about to lose the relative freedom they enjoyed up till now by virtue of being well away from Moscow's scrutiny.

The governor refused to discuss politics with us. Even before our meeting he sent a nervous message to warn us that questions about Yukos would not be answered.

Somehow we are coming back to signs of Communism and that scares me. I don't think I'll stay if it changes radically
Pavel, student
And even the students of Tomsk, well informed, well travelled, impressively fluent in English, and too young to be hampered by memories of the Soviet era, are wary about the future.

"You won't get a good job without connections, you're stuck unless your parents know someone who can help you," said 21-year-old Katya.

"It is a hard time for our country and no one knows how it will be," said 20-year-old Lydia. "Unfortunately everything depends on Moscow."

And, most thoughtful of all, 21-year-old Pavel: "I feel myself free, but when I meet people abroad I understand I am not like them. They are totally free, you see it in their eyes, their inner freedom. But I'm not optimistic . Somehow we are coming back to signs of Communism and that scares me. I don't think I'll stay if it changes radically."

And therein lies a lesson for President Putin.

In the past 20 years Russia has indeed begun to shake off its shackles. Even in Siberia, even inside Russia's penal colonies, the global information revolution has transformed attitudes and possibilities.

And it is, above all, educated Russians, liberated from ignorance and misguided ideologies, who are the country's most important resource.

But if, like Pavel, those who have enjoyed opportunities their parents never dreamt of, conclude that the only way of keeping these gains is to go abroad, the best hope for Russia's future will disappear with them.

The challenge for Mr Putin's government is to shape a society that the next generation will not feel the need to escape from.

Unless stated, all images by Teresa Cherfas, who also produced the series.

Your comments:

From 1981 to 1983 nearly 100 British Engineers worked in Tomsk on the construction of the world's largest Methanol Plant (and another at Gubaha, near Perm in the Urals). We lived in a block of flats on the edge of town and within a limited area, were free to shop, socialise (several of our engineers married Tomsk girls) and went to the concert hall and ice hockey stadium. We skied in winter and swam in the River Tom in summer. The old wooden buildings with their "wooden lace" decoration were most impressive.

There was a top secret area (Tomsk 7) where there were many research institutes (probably the basis for today's several universities. Although we saw signs of prison camps Tomsk even under soviet rule was an interesting and friendly place.

We shopped in the market, and were honoured guests on the podium for the October Revolution parade. Our coldest day was -42c!

All in all an amazing experience to go deep into the heart of closed territory!
Charles Hallifax, Haslemere, Surrey

The West must encourage links with the people in areas like Tomsk as they have the natural resources that we will need in the future. We need to work together with them and encourage them to progress democracy as only this will prevent a return to a repressive state. We in the UK need to trade with the outside world or our own way of life is threatened.
Chris Brown, Cleobury Mortimer, England

Most fascinating story, it begs for a TV presentation. It made me also look for the first time at your website. Well done.
Isabella Jurewicz, Cardiff, Wales

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part 5 of Inside Putin's Russia

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