Out of Russia: A frozen asset that only the rich may endure

YAKUTSK - When Pyotr Beketov seized this particular patch of permafrost - three times the size of France - with 30-odd Cossacks in 1632 he reported his dismal conquest back to the tsar: 'I shed my blood for you, Sire, and defiled my spirit and ate mare's meat and roots and fir bark and all kinds of filth.'

After three days trying to get a meal at the Hotel Miner buffet I have an idea of what he was getting at.

Yakutsk is a place to tax even the most dogged devotee of off-the-beaten-track excursions: packed in ice for two- thirds of the year, sticky and swarming with plump mosquitoes for the rest and so remote it takes an all-night Aeroflot flight across Siberia to get here just from Moscow.

As if that were not enough, local authorities have come up with another compelling reason to stay away from the capital of what, in the Soviet era, was Yakutia and, after a brief linguistic and political pause at the hyphenated status of Yakutia-Sakha, now calls itself the Republic of Sakha.

'We are are only interested in rich tourists, very rich,' explained the region's self- styled Foreign Minister, Vitaly Artamonov. He is particularly fond of rich Japanese. He hangs a map of Japan on the wall, studies Japanese at night and sniffs at Europe as 'barbarous next to Japan'.

'We have no interest in mass tourism,' he continued. I did not have the heart to tell him that this was unlikely to be a problem any time soon.

But Mr Artamonov is taking no chances: foreign visitors now need visas. His ministry's bureaucrats are working flat out to prevent hordes of European holiday- makers cancelling their week on the Costa del Sol for what - if you include flying time and the ravages of Aeroflot- enhanced jet leg - would be a grim long weekend listening to lugubrious Russian pop music and munching stringy chicken in Yakutsk's best, and basically only, restaurant, The Lena.

The visas cost about pounds 50. No other part of the former Soviet Union has a higher price of admission.

A former academic with excellent French and passable English, Mr Artamonov still has a quaintly Soviet attitude towards the outside world: 'All foreigners on our territory are under our control. If they come without our knowledge they will be in trouble. All foreigners must pay.'

All, that is, except for Russians. But Mr Artamonov - himself a Turkic-speaking Yakut despite his Russified name - prefers not to discuss this. It underlines an uncomfortable fact that no number of flags or bureaucrats with big titles can mask: the Republic of Sakha is still very much part of Russia. The population is more than two- thirds Russian, its real capital still Moscow.

Visas are a great fetish of post-Soviet statehood. For Britons, only the Baltic countries charge no entry fee. Newly independent states, from Belarus and Ukraine on the old empire's western fringe to Uzbekistan in Central Asia, all demand them. Now, it seems, is the time for not-so-independent states to follow suit.

Sakha declared its 'sovereignty' in 1990, crafted a new emblem, elected a president and, most important of all, cut a deal with Moscow for a 20-per-cent share of the vast diamond reserves that lie beneath the snow.

Barring the door to riff-raff seems to be working. During a week in the region, I encountered only one group of foreigners: a delegation from the South African De Beers diamond cartel. The ideal guests. Rich, very rich.

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