You may have seen this plot line in a number of movies. There is an island, prohibited and uninhabited, the secret gate to another world. Only in this case the island sits not in the ocean but in a river — or rather, at the confluence of two major and almost mythical Asian rivers, the Amur and the Ussuri.
The island is divided in almost equal sections between Russia and China. The Soviet Union occupied the whole of Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island (known as Heixiazi, or Black Bear, in Chinese) following the so-called Chinese Eastern Railway Incident of 1929, but in an historic agreement between Russia and China signed in 2004, Moscow agreed to return about half of it. The transfer took place in 2008. Since then the island in the Ussuri has become a miniature symbol of the vast Asian regions divided between the two geopolitical giants.
Visiting the island and the villages around it is as difficult as you might imagine. You must be accompanied by Russian border guards and before anything else a long interview with a secret service agent awaits. I was asked about every imaginable detail about my previous life and all the papers I had with me were examined and photographed. The interview was itself rather instructive. The first question I was asked was why someone from an enemy country — and a former politician to boot — wanted to visit the border between Russia and China.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
It was surprising to hear Portugal and Russia described as enemies, so I probed a bit. What did he mean?
“Portugal is a member of NATO, no?”
“Yes, but I am not sure I would call Russia and NATO enemies. Perhaps in Soviet times, but Russia and the Soviet Union are not the same.”
The agent — whose name I never learned — was silent for a moment and then said: “That would be a very interesting philosophical discussion.”
After my interview — which did feel at times more like a conversation — it occurred to me that in Russia today being a secret service agent is maybe the aspirational equivalent of a tech entrepreneur in the West. After all, Putin himself was once a secret agent and his administration radiates the culture, influence, and glamor of the Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti (FSB). My interlocutor mimicked the ways an agent is supposed to act, trying to catch me in contradictions with unexpected questions, while examining my papers and photos for revealing details. Perhaps if he found something interesting and important there would be a promotion and a move to Moscow?
Meeting and talking to this agent and the border guards at the Kazakevichevo post gave me a good window into how the security apparatus thinks and how these ideas trickle down to low-rank officials in the provinces. I was told how Europe is too soft on terrorism. It should deal with terrorists in Belgium as Moscow dealt with them in the Caucasus. When the questioning was over I asked if my interlocutor was now convinced I was neither a spy nor a terrorist.
“If I thought you were a spy or a terrorist you would never leave this place.”
The border guards were less talkative and certainly less sophisticated. One asked whether it would be possible for him to work in the Portuguese army. The secret service agent had enormous authority over them, even if he was younger and dressed casually in a slick leather jacket.
There was one point where the border guards and the “razvedchik” were clearly in disagreement. What will become of the island? One of the reasons for the partition — the main reason, I believe — was the implicit promise that China would help develop the border area with heavy investment and millions of tourists. Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island was to be a spearhead of this effort, a paradise of untouched nature transformed into a booming tourist zone and a hub of cross-border ties between Russia and China. Western sanctions have further pushed the notion that Russia’s future lies in developing closer ties with China. Bolshoy Ussuriysky is one of just three or four locations where this is being ground-tested. While the border guards and the people in the border village take the plans more or less seriously, the “razvedchik” had no qualms telling me this is nonsense and that sometimes he does not understand people in Moscow.
In Vladimir Sorokin’s fantastic vision of Russia’s future in his novel The Day of the Oprichnik, 28 million Chinese live in Siberia and some officials grumble that Russia must “crawl hunchbacked before the Celestial Kingdom.” Others understand that there is no alternative as long as everything Russians need, including beds and toilets, is manufactured in China. Sorokin has put his finger on an already powerful dialectic. Russia is attracted to China, with its promise of unbound economic possibilities, but at the same time it fears its own attraction and recoils. Russians will feel deceived if China does not extend its economic power to them and they will feel threatened if it does. From this double movement there is little or no escape. Perhaps Russia will want its growing economic dependency on China to be so subtle that no one — not even Russians themselves — will notice it. This will also please Beijing, which will certainly try to avoid creating the impression that anything like an entente between the two countries has been put in place.
So far, on its side of the border in the Ussuri and Amur, Russia has made only one move. A couple of years ago it built an expensive bridge, the first linking Bolshoy Ussuriysky with the south bank of the river, but the paved road ends one mile or so after you cross. This is rather typical of so-called strategic projects in Russia. A token or reminder is speedily built, lest one forget about the project, but then nothing else happens.
The island is almost completely deserted. There’s a handful of abandoned farms, a few dirt roads, and no fauna to speak of. I had been warned about the wild bears roaming the island, but it seemed improbable that any bear, let alone a Chinese tourist, would survive here for long.
Things could not be more different on the Chinese side of the border. We made our way back across the Ussuri bridge to Kazakevichevo. The village sits in a privileged position, across the Ussuri from both the border line on Ussuriysky and the Chinese peninsula protubering to the south. Since it is inside the border security perimeter you cannot enter or exit the village without going through a security checkpoint and showing a special permit. The inhabitants seem quite happy with this. They can leave their house doors unlocked. Few other places in Russia are as guarded or as safe.
From Kazakevichevo you can look across the Ussuri and easily compare the two sides of the border. On the Russian side, just a few meters from the new border line, you see the small but elegant chapel of St. Victor, built in 1999 to commemorate those Russian soldiers who died defending the borders in the far east. Some of them died defending them against the Chinese, of course. The border line was drawn just to the west, so that the chapel could remain in Russia.
If you look to the left, toward China, just south of Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island, the first thing you see is a giant sculpture of what at first looks like a human figure, dwarfing the tiny Orthodox chapel. It is in fact representation of the Chinese character for “East.” Why have the Chinese built a giant “East” character towering over their border with Russia?
What you find out looking at a map is that this statue is placed on China’s easternmost point, the very first place in China meeting the sun every morning. One of the ironies of political geography here is that China, the eastern empire, sits to the west and Russia, a European power, confronts it to the east. A swath of Russian territory cuts China’s Heilongjiang Province off from the Sea of Japan. Look again, more carefully, and you will realize why so many in Beijing regard the Russian far east exclave as the last remnant of European colonialism in Chinese lands. Is this monument a symbol, a proclamation that the East is Chinese?
The giant character is 49 meters tall, an allusion to the founding date of the People’s Republic. In the enveloping square there is also a map of China drawn on the ground and a number of pavilions.
The border guards at Kazakevichevo, while being careful not to disagree with the island partition, expressed obvious concerns about how it changed the security situation in Khabarovsk, the second city in the Russian far east after Vladivostok. In the event of a military conflict between China and Russia the island could serve as a springboard for the quick capture of Khabarovsk. The airport at nearby Fuyuan could easily be used for military purposes and the monumental square with the giant character and the pavilions — already reinforced with concrete slabs — could receive artillery batteries.
In fact, the decision to transfer half of the island to China originally met with heavy protests. Members of the Khabarovsk City Council insisted that Bolshoy Ussuriysky was of vital importance to defend the city in case of Chinese aggression. In 2005 tens of thousand of signatures against the transfer were quickly collected and sent to Moscow, but the decision had been taken.
After my interview with the secret service agent, he left to make a phone call and I was left chatting with the interpreter, Galina. She confided that, like me, she had once been a university professor, having studied linguistics in Leningrad under the influence of Roman Jakobson. I could not but be impressed that the Russian secret service uses linguists of such caliber for simple interpretation tasks, but in retrospect the association seems eerily appropriate. Who better than a structuralist linguist to help us navigate the thick forest of symbols at Ussuriysky island?
I discovered one final symbol that night while going over the island terrain on Google. Seen from above, the peninsula square housing the giant Chinese character, pointed at Khabarovsk, looks unmistakably like a war ship — a destroyer named “East.”
Bruno Maçães is the former Europe minister for Portugal and the author of the forthcoming book The New Eurasian Supercontinent. You can follow him on Twitter at @MacaesBruno.