Farther to the west, in the remote Amur Basin adjacent to China, hydroelectric dams are being built to export power across the border. On the quiet southern shores of Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater body in the world, the central government has announced a new, 270-square-mile special tourism zone. There are plans for faster and bigger roads, ski resorts, five-star hotels, golf courses, spas, yacht moorings, sports halls, and a center for Tibetan medicine. Within 20 years, two million annual visitors are expected. Siberia is opening.
The 19th-century novelist Nikolai Gogol once wrote that Russia suffers two misfortunes: "fools and bad roads." Of all the projects breaking ground in the country's wild east, the Trans-Siberian Highway is the most overtly patriotic, the most closely tied to its rebounding sense of self. "Russia," says Serge Poleshuk, the rotund deputy head of Rosavtodor, the federal highway agency, "is coming back into the ranks of the superpowers." The highway will help the nation sell more oil, timber, and minerals to the world—more leverage to fuel an increasingly assertive foreign policy—but more important, it shows what Russia is capable of. Vladimir Putin himself was there for the official unveiling. In late February 2004, days before the election that gave him his second and final term as president (though not, it turns out, as leader), he stood in the snows near the city of Khabarovsk, cut a ribbon colored in the white, blue, and red of the Russian flag, and declared it possible to drive from sea to shining sea. He said the superhighway would be fully paved by 2008, uniting the country in this century as 1903's Trans-Siberian Railroad did in the last.
The long-standing barrier to this national moment—the gap Putin claimed to have defeated—is the Amur, a 1,300-mile-wide swath of swamps and unbound taiga a few days north of Vladivostok. The Amur is the peregonchiks' greatest challenge. Since 2001, the highway agency has spent roughly 10 percent of its $2.5 billion annual budget taming it, cutting a path through 700 miles of wilderness and improving hundreds of miles of existing jeep tracks. They've logged and graded and paved. They've blasted and bridged. But a true highway—something more than the Amur's current hodgepodge of smooth blacktop, mud, potholes, and single-lane gravel—is many years and an estimated $1 billion away. For now, it's mostly a bad road and a great metaphor. Like Russia's rebirth, it's more than a little rough.