Visit to 'Closed' City Brings Quick Celebrity
A MAP of the former Soviet Union is pasted to the wall of the hallway in The Christian Science Monitor bureau in Moscow. We don't look at this map to locate a town or a river. It has quite another function - to tell us where we cannot go.
Supplied by the Foreign Ministry, it shows the Soviet Union in brown, mottled with pink splotches.
As the map index so blithely explains, the pink splotches are the regions, cities, and even river systems that are "closed" to foreigners.
A more detailed second map shows the same thing for the area around Moscow. It has always been a ritual of travel by foreign correspondents here to consult these maps when planning a trip, whether to a distant city or to a friend's country dacha.
Behind the designation of the "closed" zones is a certain cold-war logic, albeit often with inexplicable exceptions. For the most part they are drawn up in the obsessive - and in this age of satellites, largely useless - desire to protect military secrets. Pink strips run along all the Soviet borders. In the Far East, the entire Kamchatka Peninsula and the Primorski Krai are colored in, sealing off the submarine pens and the wharfs of the Soviet Pacific Fleet from prying eyes. The United States, in the n ame of reciprocity, kept Soviet journalists on a similar leash.
A vast pink blob sits in central Russia, running along the far, Siberian side of the Ural mountains. Here the secrets are not Army bases or naval ports but the factories that churn out the weapons of the Soviet war machine, from behemoth tanks to nuclear warheads. 'Tankograd'
Chelyabinsk is a classic Urals "closed" zone. The region's capital of the same name is nicknamed "Tankograd," a moniker it acquired during World War II for the tanks that rolled from its huge tractor plant. By the account of the local officialdom, every factory in town - and it is full of them - is producing something for the military. Even the textile plant specializes in making uniforms and bulletproof vests.
Glasnost and the end of the cold war have shrunk the pink spots somewhat, with many formerly closed cities now off the list. As of Jan. 1, even Vladivostok, home port of the Pacific Fleet, was finally "opened." But the wheels of bureaucracy grind slowly, and to this day even the demise of the Soviet Union has not been enough to "open" Chelyabinsk. Something to offer
Nevertheless, during the last few years, even such "closed" towns have been accessible with the right invitation. Foreign businessmen with money to invest were welcomed in this industrial nodule in the empty Siberian lands. So were scientists coming to help study how to dispose of the highly radioactive waste stored out at the once-secret town known as Chelyabinsk-65, where the first Soviet atom bombs were built.
But an American journalist is still a mighty rare breed here, as I discovered. My path into town was well paved by the energetic and engaging head of the recently created press center of the Chelyabinsk oblast soviet (regional council), Alexander Bazaev. A phone call to Sasha, as we came to know him, produced not only the official open door but an itinerary that left time only for a few idle breaths.
In a city that doesn't exist in the guidebooks of the ubiquitous Intourist agency, which manages what pass for hotels in the former Soviet Union, Sasha also provided a reservation at the best place in town. The "hotel with no name" is a brief walk through the snow from the central square where the government buildings stand. Before the failed hard-line coup last August ended the reign of the Communist Party, the two-story building housed only the guests of the party.
It was here that I discovered my status as a celebrity in Chelyabinsk. I was accorded the best room in the joint, a three room suite: one room with a desk and a telephone with direct dial to Moscow; a sitting room with a brown velour couch, television (unfortunately inoperable) and refrigerator, and a bedroom. The cafeteria across the hall, clearly on special instructions, offered substantial though typically limited meals of cabbage, potatoes and meat. I began to get a sense of how it felt to be a visit ing party boss in the old days. Mysterious power
And somewhat like those departed party bigwigs, an American correspondent was received as the unofficial envoy of a great, mysterious power able to solve problems. An unsolicited meeting with social welfare officials was less an interview for me than an opportunity for them to plead for humanitarian aid from the West. Oblast soviet officials relentlessly pressed their complaints against the administrators sent from Moscow by Russian President Boris Yeltsin, plying me with piles of documents.
The administrators had their own agenda - seeking help in attracting foreign investors to their town, while complaining about Western businessmen who promise "gold mountains" and don't deliver. Another local official made his case for foreign assistance in solving the region's horrendous environmental pollution problems.
With Sasha's reluctant assent, I sneaked off to talk to steelworkers on the street and in their homes. But in exchange for ducking out on a few of my appointed rounds, I consented to another price of stardom in Chelyabinsk - being interviewed myself.
A reporter for the Chelyabinsk radio station, who is also a deputy in the oblast soviet, grabbed me for a wide-ranging inquiry on everything from my impressions of the city to my thoughts on Mr. Yeltsin's reform policies. A local daily wanted to expand its knowledge of the history of the Monitor and sought my assessment of the state of religion in Russia today.
Finally, I was rushed into the Chelyabinsk television studio on Friday afternoon for a five-minute interview by the hostess of the evening local news program. Did I manage to have some informal encounters with the local folk? she asked. What was the most pleasant thing I encountered here? We parted with a pledge to conduct a deeper talk the next time I came to Chelyabinsk. Last gesture
My hosts dropped me off at the Chelyabinsk airport for the late Friday night flight back to Moscow. In a last gesture to my esteemed status, I was sent to the lounge once reserved for party delegations, its former role now marked only by the oversized oil portrait of Lenin on the wall and the stuffed chairs grouped around a color television which still worked.
Unfortunately Sasha's powers did not extend to that mainstay of Soviet horror stories - Aeroflot, the national airline. Ignoring the missing seat belt, I was firmly settled in my uncomfortable seat when an announcement of a delay because of winds sent me back to the lounge. I spent a long night there in the convivial company of several Israeli businessmen, listening to announcements every two hours of further delays.
At last, on Saturday afternoon, an American correspondent's sojourn in the warm embrace of this "closed" Siberian city ended, returning him to the cold anonymity of "open" Moscow.