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Moscow Diary: Restricted access

Russia has been paying public relations consultants to portray its role in international affairs in a positive light, but the BBC's James Rodgers fails to see anything but the negative after being detained for visiting a greenhouse in the north.

His diary is published fortnightly.

SHUT UP IN A CLOSED CITY

It was the roses that got me into trouble.

I had gone to talk to the owner of the greenhouses for an environmental story I have been working on.

What I did not realise was that the greenhouse was within the administrative boundary of a city which was closed to foreigners.

I believe that there is a shipyard which makes submarines, or a naval dockyard, in the town. To be honest, I don't know. That is not why I was there.

James Rodgers's hands after being finger-printed by Russian police
James Rodgers was hand-printed after being held by police for three hours

I did not want to know about submarines. I wanted to know about the flowers, tomatoes and cucumbers which were growing in the greenhouses outside the town and inland from the coast.

By the time I realised I had broken the law, it was too late.

My crime was not just to be within the town - to be honest, I did not realise I was, because the greenhouses were well outside the built-up area - but to be a foreigner within the town.

The traffic police stopped the car in which I was travelling. They called a plain-clothes official.

With a brief flash of his identity card, he identified himself as an employee of the interior ministry, although I suspect he may have been an agent of the FSB. The FSB is Russia's Federal Security Service, and the main successor to the KGB.

He got back into his car and told us to follow it. We drove into the town of Severodvinsk, and to the police station.

There, I was told to sit and wait on a bench outside the local office of Russia's Federal Migration Service.

'Foreigner'

A lengthy bureaucratic process had been set in motion and I was going nowhere until it had run its course. The man from the interior ministry or wherever else had taken my Russian government press card.

I was held there for around three hours, made to sign the written explanation, ordered to pay a fine, and forced to divulge personal details such as family status and salary

I had to give an official explanation of what I was doing in the greenhouses.

The officials did allow me to put in this explanation that I had not known that I was entering a restricted area, and that I had never intended to break any law.

So, did I get a telling-off, and a warning not to stray again?

No. I was held there for around three hours, made to sign the written explanation, ordered to pay a fine, and forced to divulge personal details such as family status and salary.

I thought that was it.

No. I was then finger-printed, or actually, hand-printed, by one of the officials.

When I said that I would only agree to having my fingerprints taken if a refusal would mean a breach of the law, he appeared impatient.

"He's a foreigner - speak more calmly," said the young man from the interior ministry.

Negative coverage

On the way back to the next town, where I was staying, I did see a road sign warning of restricted access to the town.

Map

I had not noticed it on the way in. It had not occurred to me that I was actually entering the town.

I enjoy working in Russia. On the rest of this trip, everyone I spoke to for interviews, advice, or assistance was extremely friendly and helpful.

I find the country fascinating - even if sometimes, as here, frustrating.

My experience is a trifle compared to what some of my Russian colleagues suffer.

Russia sometimes complains of negative coverage in the foreign press.

For the last three years, it has been spending a generous sum on a team of well-heeled public relations consultants based in Brussels. Their job is to promote Russia's role in international affairs in a positive light.

The PR company send emails to explain why Russia is right to send troops into South Ossetia; why Ukraine was to blame for cutting gas supplies to Europe last month.

I fail to see a positive side to being detained for visiting a greenhouse.


Send your comments on James Rodgers' diary using the post form below:

In most cases a selection of your comments will be published, displaying your name and location unless you state otherwise in the box below.

Thank you for a very good article describing how tolerant and respectful to human rights Russia has become.

A foreigner entered a restricted military area. He was detained for just three hours, finger printed and released the same day. Few countries can boast such a level of liberalism.

If you suddenly decide to visit greenhouses in Norfolk, Virginia, USA (where US air carriers are built) I'd strongly advise you to make sure you are not in a restricted area or you'll risk being detained for few days and deported. And yes, fingerprinted.
Anton Poliakov, UK

I recall the hysterical Greek response to some British plane spotters a couple of years back. They were detained for days not hours. You're lucky you didn't wind up in an espionage show trial!
Carlos, Minneapolis, USA

Visiting a greenhouse to look at the roses and cucumbers? Pull the other one!
Tim, Cincinnati, USA

So much for 'freedom' within Russia. Not that Russia is much more restrictive than many other countries but that is hardly a compliment. Some people may have become more savvy as to the media, but evidently there are still some old Soviet-style habits! Of all the silly things - to seal off a city, as if satellites cannot pick up enough detail of whatever they may be doing there. And real spies surely wouldn't do anything like our author!
D. Fear, Heidelberg, Germany

As frustrating as your ordeal must have been, I can't help but see a correlation with the United States' policies. Of course every single foreigner has been hand and fingerprinted upon entry for years now, their photograph taken, and highly personal questions about professional and personal details being extracted from you, as if you're on trial for a crime.

I commend you for travelling throughout the world in search of original insights. I hope this does not deter you from continuing in bringing new insights to our eyes. I look forward to your report on the actual greenhouse. Thank you.
Tom Bosschaert, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Dear Mr Rodgers, I would like to point out that your experience in Russia resembles closely the experience of foreigners in the UK with one exception, Russia at least waits for a foreigner to break the law before fingerprinting him.

I also find you excuse rather hilarious: "I did not want to know about submarines. I wanted to know about the flowers, tomatoes and cucumbers" - as if anyone who actually came to town for its submarines would openly say so!

And your second excuse: "I had not noticed it [sign] on the way in" - was even more entertaining; is that what you tell police in UK: "I didn't see the sign so I didn't break the law?
Alexander Sonin, London

For a Russian person to get a visa for the UK it is required to leave fingerprints, go through lengthy bureaucratic procedure and pay a fee of 100 Euros. To what extent is then the UK different from a closed town in Russia?

Sergei, Toulouse, France

With all due respect, it is very suspicious what you were doing in a small restricted area in the middle of nowhere in Northern Russia. It is a well known fact that near Severodvinsk, Russian submarines are made. Visiting a greenhouse in that area sounds absurd even for a cover up story. Consider yourself lucky that you were in the police department only for three hours. Let me assure you that if you were in such an area in the US, you would be long sent to Guantanamo.
Mike Kot, Toronto, Canada

The journalist in question was held for a few hours and had his fingerprints taken. Big deal! By his own admission he was in a restricted area. It's not the Russians' fault that he didn't see the signs warning him that he was entering a restricted area. I thought journalists were supposed to be observant!
Martin C, Chippenham

You are living in foreign country. Therefore you must respect and abide by its laws. You are not supposed to question them.

I am a Russian living in Finland. Some of the Finnish laws and EU regulations seem very strange to me. However, if I want to have a normal life here, I do not question the laws, I simply abide by them.

It's up to Finns to decide what laws should be in Finland. And it's up to Russians to decide what laws should be in Russia.
Rinat, Finland

Poor Russia. They still have the mental attitudes of 200 years ago. They are so conservative and afraid of the outside world. They'll never come out of it. Unless there is another revolution. In their minds that is. A pity. I feel for you journalists, good work though.
Robet Elkins, WR. 11792

Now come on what did you really expect? If you were caught trespassing on a British military base you would get the same sort of treatment, especially if you where a foreigner. I am a pretty vocal critic of Russia (I have to be, my wife's Russian!) but this is just petty moaning; you trespassed and you got caught. You were only asked a few questions and had your fingerprints taken.
Jamie Ferguson, Edinburgh/Amsterdam

A similar thing happened to me while walking down the street of Ekaterinburg. I was on my way to go ice skating and was carrying my skates. I was stopped by the police and ordered into their car. I spent at least two hours at the police station being interviewed and fingerprinted and generally being treated like a real criminal. In the end I was let go with no explanation.

One has to accept these things as part of the adventure of being in Russia.
Timothy Applegate, Ekaterinburg, Russia

Whilst it seems terribly unfair that a person would be detained and fingerprinted for being in the wrong area, it's also important to remember that Russia is a very big country with a powerful government.

I'm so sorry that Mr Rogers got into trouble but I think that in this new world, being reborn every day, we must look to others with a deep understanding of where they're coming from. Russia has a hell of a history.
Kristen, Moorhead, Minnesota, USA

Why are you complaining about being fingerprinted after you clearly broke the law? If I even want to visit your country I have to give up my fingerprints.
Vladi, Moscow, Russia

I live in Russia and it would never occur to me to go to a closed town. There are many, especially in the Urals and Siberia. The reason I wouldn't go is that they are top secret. Similarly, I would never break the driving laws on European roads or drive on the right-hand side in the UK.
Tatiana, Moscow, Russia

Do you think if a Russian journalist was found wandering around an RAF base that he'd just "get a telling-off, and a warning not to stray again"?
Dave Galbraith, Kildare, Ireland

Throughout history, Russians are very suspicious of foreigners visiting them. The obsession of seeing foreigners as spies is so deeply rooted that it will take decades before Russia can become an open society. That is the key challenge for every foreigner visiting Russia.
Christopher , Stockholm, Sweden

Ignorance is no excuse for breaking the law. If Mr Rodgers did not see the sign post before entering the town, it is not an excuse for a Russian official to fail to execute what he is being paid to do. We can point at similar processes all over the world including Britain. Mr Rodgers was not abused in any form.
Selasi, Accra, Ghana

I come from a closed-off Russian town and they are not that different from other towns, except for one thing: In most cases they have some industry which is associated with the military and most inhabitants are employed there. If you have some business there you can get a pass, otherwise going there would be like hanging around a military base - I don't think any country's goverment would be happy about it.
Anon, Russia

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