I had just returned from my assignment in Dzerzhinsk when I got this email from the local Greenpeace representative, Dmitry Levashov:
"Here and your visit to Dzerzhinsk the office under the name of KGB was interested in you. Especially them interested, that you ostensibly were interested in the information, 'about which To you to know it is not necessary', ostensibly you asked 'interesting' questions. They contacted agency, on specified on vizitka to coordinates, and him have told, that you have gone to Dzerzhinsk under the initiative."
Take the waters at Dzerzhinsk's famous hot springs
You might think that I was onto something big, what with all the attention I was getting. I hadn't been in town for more than a couple hours before I'd fended off two separate FSB agents asking about the purpose of my visit. The next day, when I showed up to the city administration offices to begin researching a story about Dzerzhinsk -- a city that the Guinness Book of World Records had listed as "the most polluted small city in the world" -- I was guided into a room where an undercover agent was stationed. This seemed strange since the Dzerzhinsk story has already been reported on many times in the West, including an hour-long documentary by the BBC. The 270,000 person city half an hour south of Nizhni's airport was old hat. All this attention I was getting might have made me feel perty darned important, but really there's nothing particularly romantic or even risky about getting dogged by the KGB. It's more like being the receiving end of a bad slapstick routine, where a bunch of bumbling cliches pester you without actually preventing you from finding out what you need to know.
Perhaps the Dzerzhinsk FSB was so over-zealous because of its namesake. It is, after all, the only Russian city named after the founder of the Soviet secret police, and probably the last one with a statue of Iron Felix still lording over its main square. If so, I'm afraid Dzerzhinsky would be sorely disappointed in his legacy. One thing he didn't tolerate was incompetence -- he'd rather have his subordinates kill dozens of innocents to prove a point than bumble half-heartedly. He'd have scores of priests shot just to remind people who was in charge.
But more likely the local FSB's interest in me was a product of Dzerzhinsk being a closed city right up until 1990. Their jobs were easy enough to enforce before that date -- no propusk, no entry -- and that let them grow soft. Now they're hopelessly behind the times, crusty and unsophisticated. Worse still, they've got a new role model in Putin, a former low-level spook whose stint in provincial Germany represents everything that a spy shouldn't ever be. He was the anti-Bond, living in a modest house with a manicured lawn and a collection of chintzy East German-made porcelain, filing reports on minor Russian officials' drinking habits.
So here I was in the city administration, hoping to get the official side of the story before I went off to meet with a Greenpeace activist who promised to take me to several illegal and highly toxic waste dumps, and all I could get was an unimaginative low ranking spook in a cheap suit with misplaced patriotism to dodge my questions.
Sergei Ivanovich Federov, as he was introduced to me, at least looked roughly like a spy. He was well-built, square jawed, and blond. But everything unraveled from there. The nice women from the mayor's press office told me that he was from the Ministry of Economic Development, but Sergei told me otherwise. He claimed to be from the "section of industry," a label I've never heard in all my dealings with local Russian officials. Even more suspicious was that he didn't have a business card to offer me when I presented mine -- he didn't even offer the excuse that he'd run out. Now, one thing about minor officials, from the time of Gogol on, is that the lesser the position, the grander the title. Take, for example, my dealings later that day with Vladimir Kuznetsov. He didn't have any useful info for me, but he had a helluva business card. It read: "Advisor of the Nizhegorodskaya oblast second class. Assistant to the director of the section." And then, above that, "Committee of the defense of nature and the management of nature use in the Nizhegorodskaya oblast. Direction of ecological control." That is a job title. Belonging to the "section of industry" without even a card to back it up isn't just odd, it simply cannot be. Not in Russia.