One needs a lot of time and patience to reach the remote Russian settlement of Mirnaya. It takes almost four days to cover the 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles) from Moscow to Lake Baikal in Siberia. Another 1,000 kilometers brings one to the regional capital of Chita, an old Cossack center. Mirnaya is still another 300 kilometers by car to the southeast, in the direction of China.
The name Mirnaya means "The Peaceful One." But these days there is little evidence of peace and security in Mirnaya. Stray dogs roam the streets among collapsed houses. The long winters have torn holes the size of sinks into the asphalt. And apathy is reflected in the eyes of the town's few remaining residents.
Mirnaya was once a thriving garrison town with a movie theater, a kindergarten and a park. The Soviet army maintained a base here to keep an eye on neighboring China. Then the Soviet Union collapsed and the military left. To survive, those who stayed behind gradually dismantled and sold off what was left, piece by piece. First they removed the windows from the prefabricated buildings where the officers had once lived and sold them in Chita. Then they ripped radiators and pipes from the walls and sold them to scrap dealers, who then sold the metal in China. The buildings now stand like skeletons in the steppes, evidence of a ruined country.
"My brother Vadim died in one of those buildings when he was 32," says Irina, "and so did six others." Vadim eked out a living by breaking stones from the ruins, selling them for one ruble, or 2.5 cents, apiece. The last stone was one stone too many. When Vadim removed it, the ceiling collapsed.
Tea, Vodka and Beer
Irina, who is from the neighboring village of Besrezhnaya, works as a waitress in the Café Mariya, which is just past Mirnaya on the road to China. Her customers spend much of their time drowning their sorrows in tea, vodka and beer.
Her friend Galina penned a letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the beginning of the year. "I'm not asking you this for myself," she wrote in her appeal to the president. "I would like you to pay more attention to our region. We have no doctors, no pharmacy and no work. There is nothing here!" Her village has a population of 713. Last year, 27 people died but not a single child was born. "If nothing happens here, we will have to go to China as guest workers," says Galina. "Or slave away in our country as coolies for the Chinese."
China is at the center of many conversations in Mirnaya. But shouldn't the Kremlin be deeply concerned over what is happening beyond Lake Baikal? The border between the fallen superpower Russia and the People's Republic, which is gradually becoming a superpower, measures 3,645 kilometers, one of the longest borders in the world. And perhaps this border, where Europe's last offshoots encounter 1.3 billion Chinese, and where Christianity collides with Buddhism and Confucianism, is also one of the most important in the power struggles of the new century.
Could an alliance develop in this region between two powerful countries that would finally put an end to American dominance of the world? One of the two has the raw materials that the other one needs so urgently. Or will the land of Vladimir Putin become a bulwark against an increasingly self-confident China, and thus become the natural partner of the West? Or will neither of these scenarios come to pass, when overpopulated China simply swallows up depopulated Siberia?
A look at Mirnaya suggests that the third scenario could very well come to pass. Now that the planned economy no longer exists, few Russians are moving to an area where the temperatures remain below freezing for more than half of the year. They lack the incentives to do so, now that the government no longer pays fringe benefits and offers generous vacation entitlement to those willing to settle in the region.
Forgotten by the Kremlin
Siberia, which covers three-quarters of the landmass of Russia, is home to only a quarter of the country's population: 38 million people. This is the equivalent of the population of Poland, except that Siberia is 40 times the size. It is a situation that many fear could once again spark the eternal rivalry between Russia and China, a rivalry that last produced military clashes in the 1960s.
Chinese investors have already bought a former tank factory in Chita, where they are now producing trucks. They already control the markets in Russian border towns, where they are the richest private business owners. "China invests more in the Russian Far East than our own government does," writes the Moscow newspaper Niezawisimaja Gazieta.
The people in Mirnaya also complain that the Kremlin has forgotten them. The poet Maxim Gorky described the region, where Moscow's former rulers frequently exiled opponents, as nothing but a "land of chains and ice." Beginning in the 16th century, Cossacks and settlers began to claim the land on behalf of the czars in the biggest land grab in history. In those days, the fur trade was the region's biggest attraction, while today oil and gas are its main draw. Russia's wealth lies in the ground beneath Siberia -- and is frittered away in glittering Moscow.
But the Moscow elite is only too aware of its failures in the region -- and the gradual expansion of the Chinese generates fear in the corridors of the Kremlin.
New Balance of Power
Years ago Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's eloquent NATO ambassador, said half-jokingly that the Chinese would soon be "crossing the border in small groups of five million." And Vladimir Putin, shortly after being elected president, warned: "Unless we make a serious effort, the Russians in the border regions will have to speak Chinese, Japanese and Korean in a few decades." This hardly seems an exaggeration, given that there are six million Russians living in Eastern Siberia, compared with the 90 million living in China's northern provinces.
The new balance of power is particularly conspicuous at the Zabaikalsk-Manzhouli border crossing, an hour's drive from Mirnaya.
Russian tourists heading to China to buy inexpensive goods are forced to wait up to 12 hours in their cars. These people, who work for distributors and are popularly known as "silk worms" or "camels," travel to China several times a month to bring goods to Russia: jeans and blouses, electric shavers and children's toys, athletic shoes made by a low-wage manufacturer called "Adidos" and chainsaws labeled "Stihl." They are pirated products, and are manufactured in southern China.
Mariya Sergeyeva, a retiree who once worked for the customs service, is traveling on one of the buses that shuttle back and forth between Zabaikalsk and the Chinese city of Manzhouli every hour. She wants to have her hair teased and buy underwear for her grandchildren. "After the border opened 20 years ago, my mother brought the Chinese used plates, knives, forks and curtains," she recalls. "And preserved meat."