"Are you Chuvash?" I asked.
He gave me an offended look. "I'm Russian, blya!"
* * *
I got one hour of sleep in, then it was off to Mari-El, where Ilya and an off-duty cop friend of his had "plans" for me. Meet the mother of the runner up for Miss Teenage Russia and discuss extrasensory powers with her. A day at a Dom Okhota, drinking, shashlik, banya... More girls, "Chuvash, our girls..." Somehow we were able to fit in meetings with three local journalists from Yoshkar-Ola, all extremely helpful. One thing I've learned -- Russian journalists are the most helpful goddamn people on earth, not like the stuffy, suspicious wankers who work in the Western press.
The president of Mari-El, Leonid Markelov, is fighting a miniature war with Sergei Kiriyenko, President Putin's envoy to the Volga region. Kiriyenko supported Markelov in the republic's presidential elections early last year as a way to get rid of the corrupt previous Mari president, Vyacheslav Kislytsin. Kiriyenko tried to get Kislytsin to step down, but he refused. Kiriyenko then sent his deputy, Stepankov, a former spetssluzhb officer, who accused Kislytsin of corruption. Eventually, Markelov won the election, though there were irregularities.
Markelov wasn't Kiriyenko's first choice: he was, after all, a former LDPR deputy with an unsavory reputation. When he left the LDPR to run for president of Mari-El, Zhirinovsky was quoted as saying that Markelov "is nothing without the LDPR."
Kiriyenko assumed that if he helped Markelov come to power, he'd have some control over him. He'd owe him.
He was wrong. Markelov is now in power. After harmonizing the local laws with the constitution, he then set about to raid the republic as if it was his own fiefdom. Over the spring some 300 solvent companies were bankrupted by the republic tax inspectorate, in spite of the fact that Mari-El is one of the poorest places in Russia. Locals say Markelov ordered these bankruptcies for his own benefit: either to take over good companies for his own faction or to weaken his enemies' positions. Last September, in a local battle with the mayor, the republic utility company suddenly switched off all gas and electricity to the capital, leaving it in the dark in order to pressure the mayor on other matters.
Since Markelov is seen as Kiriyenko's man, he has been finding it difficult to devise a strategy to remove him. When Kiriyenko complains, say, about bankruptcies, Markelov answers: "You presided over the default and defrauding of the whole country. Who are you to talk?"
Recent Mari Congress gatherings have attracted large crowds who are questioning both Markelov's legitimacy and the ruinous bankruptcies. Meanwhile, the local press is suffering from the same pressures as the other regions.
"I'd be careful about writing about the bankruptcies," I was warned by one journalist. "That's an issue we don't touch. But it's up on www.flb.ru if you want to see it."
* * *
I finally left on Sunday a total wreck. Four days of interviewing, drinking, fucking... and no story, no answer to why, of all the places in Russia or the world, this spot, these two neighboring and totally distinct republics, Chuvashia and Mari-El had the highest suicide rates in the world. All I knew was that I felt like dying. And that soon, I'd have to come back.
I took an SV cabin to Moscow. The car was mostly empty. It seemed as though I'd lucked out. Two hours later, at our first stop, a middle-aged Chuvash man boarded the train and took up in my cabin. He was severe, an old communist type. I have to say, I like the old communists. They have manners. They're suspicious yet warm beneath the ice.
He kept his mouth shut. He didn't bother me, I didn't bother him. Ten words the whole trip. He let out a fart late in the night that woke me up. I fired two back. Border shelling, like India and Pakistan. An hour later, I saw him standing outside of our open cabin door. He looked displeased. I guess I won that skirmish.