Pickwick Tea and Biscuits

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By Tom Bell

April, 1993

KHABAROVSK – Yuri Ratnek is lecturing at the Khabarovsk Foreign Language Library about the life and works of Oscar Wilde. About 15 people, mostly middle-aged women, sit quietly while Yuri describes the suffering the British writer endured while imprisoned for two years.

But Yuri never tells his audience the reason Wilde was imprisoned. He only hints at it — reading the speech Wilde gave at the trial, in which Wilde describes the affection of an elder for a younger man as the “love that dare not speak its name.” After the lecture, Yuri tells me, “I watched the people’s reaction to see if they understood what happened to Oscar Wilde — what kind of love it was. But it seemed they didn’t understand what he meant. For years we had no information about such things; it’s beyond many people’s understanding.”

Wilde was convicted in 1895 of having homosexual relations. The Victorian-era judge gave him the maximum penalty — two years of hard labor. If Wilde had been convicted at this time in Russia for the same offense, he would have received five to seven years.

While statute #121, Russia’s anti-sodomy law, is rarely enforced today, the prejudice against homosexuals is so strong in Russia — especially in provincial cities like Khabarovsk — that few people ever admit to being gay, except perhaps to their gay friends. With his Oscar Wilde lectures, his colorful wardrobe and long hair, his theatrical, hush-voiced manner of speaking, Yuri probably comes closer to publicly revealing his homosexuality than anybody else in Khabarovsk.

Even though we’ve been friends since November, he didn’t tell me he was gay until last week. He has to be careful who knows, he says. If word gets out, the library would never allow him to lecture again, and his career as a classical guitar performer and guitar teacher might be ruined.

In this conformist society – where marrying young and having children appears to be the only lifestyle option — Yuri is a strange man. He’s 43 and lives with his 76-year-old mother. When everyone else is at work, he practices yoga on his bedroom floor or swims laps at the heated outdoor pool at Lenin Stadium. In summer months, he’s a beach bum, spending most of the day sunbathing on the banks of the Amur River or playing volleyball at the Central Beach. He’s one of the few people I know here who has the time and energy to play games He earns his income giving a handful of classical guitar lessons a week. He’s always made his money this way, even when it was illegal. In the old Soviet Union, people were supposed to only work for state organizations. Ten years ago, police arrested Yuri on the charge he was a “parasite of the state.” He was put jail for several days while prosecutors prepared his case. Fortunately, one of the prosecutors took a liking to Yuri and got the charges dropped.

In his free time, Yuri has made himself into one of Russia’s greatest authorities on Oscar Wilde. He’s obsessed with Wilde. And in true Oscar Wilde style, he amuses his friends with quips like, “I don’t like Gorbachev, and, of course, I would never sleep with him.” Explaining his attraction to his 19-year-old lover, he says, “I like cats and teenagers.” He speaks English with an accent fit for Oxford, and every day, at five o’clock, sits down for tea – Pickwick English blend.

In both work and sex, Yuri has always been an outlaw. Now everything is changing, of course. While drinking five o’clock tea, Yuri shows me a Russian gay magazine, “The Boys Party,” which features advice columns and personal ads, along with the photos of nude muscle men. The magazines first appeared a year ago. “It was a gift to us gays,” he says. And more positive news: A Moscow ballet dancer recently said in a television interview he’s gay. He’s one of the first Russian celebrities to have made such a public announcement so far. Also, a gay club has recently opened up in St. Petersburg.

But I can’t get too optimistic here, for there’s some history that must be told to help explain why Yuri is now planning to leave Russia forever. Yuri’s grandfather was a rich man, a colonel in the Czar’s army, who was tortured and executed in 1938 during one of Stalin’s purges. Yuri’s mother, Lidia, became so disturbed after her father’s death she spent much of her adult life in psychiatric wards.

“You Americans are patriotic,” Yuri says. “I am not a patriot. Frankly, I don’t like this country at all.”

Last summer, Yuri was invited to England to give several lectures on Oscar Wilde. He traveled to Moscow for the flight, but was robbed there and was unable to board the plane without any money. He says he’ll try again, maybe this summer. If he makes it this time, he won’t return to Russia. When I tell him he’ll never see his mother again, he shrugs his shoulders. “I cannot realize myself here,” he says. “I believe I will live in London society.” With that, he takes a sip of Pickwick English blend and offers me a biscuit.

In the Sunlight of Spring


Photo by Tom Bell
A boy in Krasny Yar shows off his homemade knife.
Photo by Tom Bell
Logs are hauled into the village and sawed in the streets for firewood.
Photo by Tom Bell
Goods are brought across the Bikin River by boat.
Photo by Tom Bell
A boy struggles to ride his bicycle in the muddy streets of Krasny Yar
By Tom Bell
The village streets look messy in the spring time because they are filled with firewood.
Photo by Tom Bell
People in the village chop wood when the it’s still frozen and easy to split.


April, 1993



Spring has come to Krasny Yar. You can smell it in the sawdust. Listen to the whine of the chainsaws and the scattered thuds of falling axes. Every family is cutting and splitting wood for next winter. It’s strange, in the sunlight of spring, to see people preparing for winter. But early spring is the best time for such tasks. The wood is frozen and easy to split, and the men are home. All winter they’ve been away in the forest hunting and trapping.

“Spring is the busiest time of the year,” said my friend Radion Sulyandziga, who began digging a new well after he finished splitting a year’s supply of wood. Unlike in February, the last time I was here, he had no time to play chess with me.

Most of the people in the village are Udegeh. Before the communists came to power, the Udegeh were nomadic and lived in clans along the banks of rivers.

“Springtime is hungry time,” the village elders say. In the old days, the Udegeh didn’t hunt animals that were pregnant or had offspring. Today, the Udegeh stop hunting in spring for the same reason.

Before the Soviet power had reached their mountains 70 years ago, the Udegeh hunted mostly for food. Now they hunt for fur, which they sell to the state cooperative for cash. Most of their food now comes from kitchen gardens or the village store.

The reason I came to Krasny Yar was to see my friend Svetlana, who manages that store. “Springtime is a time of problems,” she told me.

Indeed. While she was at work, I discovered the storage space under her kitchen floor was filled with water from melting snow. She had stored several hundred pounds of potatoes from her garden there — enough to feed herself and her two daughters for six months. When she came home, she climbed into the waist-deep water to save her potatoes, piling them into a bucket, which I emptied into a corner of the kitchen. She stood in frigid water for more than an hour, refusing to let me take her place. She was exhausted and shaking when she climbed out.

In a few days the potatoes — now piled three-feet high on the kitchen floor — dried without any sign of rot.

The morning I left Krasny Yar, a tractor left 13 logs in front of Svetlana’s house. The largest were two-feet thick. After I leave, she’ll split the wood herself, she said. We walked across the river that flows alongside the village. The river separates Krasny Yar from the road system, and now the ice was too thin for vehicles to cross. Soon it will be open water. Groceries for her store will have to be ferried by boat across the river.

As I rode the bus home to Khabarovsk,  I thought about the foreign businessmen I meet in Khabarovsk. They invariably complain there’s no work ethic in Russia. They should come to Krasny Yar in springtime.

A chicken farmer rules an army

Cossack Army
Members of the Ussuriski Cossack Army.


April, 1993


KHABAROVSK – It’s just past midnight, Easter Sunday. Six policemen stand at the door of the Khabarovsk Cathedral. The church is full, and.a crowd gathers outside in the cold rain  A policeman tells the crowd that nobody else is allowed inside. Some people yell insults at the officers. Others push their way towards the door, only to be pushed back by police. A man dressed in a long black coat, leather boots, and a tall wool hat approaches. Fourteen 12-mm cartridges are strapped across his chest. He carries a saber. The man makes the sign of the cross and bows. The police step aside and allow him through..

The man is a Cossack soldier. Several years ago, police might have arrested him for wearing such a costume. But Cossacks are respectable in the post-Soviet social order now. Before the revolution, Cossacks defended the southern outposts of the Russian empire and served as professional soldiers for the czar. In return, they received farmland and autonomy. They were legendary as fierce horsemen and ruthless fighters. But after the communists came to power, their armies were disbanded and their land confiscated; many who had fought for the White Army in the Civil War were either killed or sent to prison.

Two years ago, the descendants of Ussuriski Cossack troops in the Russian Far East re-establish their army. They fashioned a flag — copied from the flags they saw in old photographs – and took it to the Bishop of Khabarovsk, who blessed it in a televised ceremony. The flag is emblazoned with the face of Saint George, the “Saint of Warriors.”

There are now 12 Cossack armies in Russia. But these modern armies — their ranks filled with middle-aged men — are more like fraternal societies than fighting forces. Still, their leaders are ambitious; they seek to replace the old communist structures in Cossack villages with paramilitary ones. They’ve already begun organizing farmers and selling their produce.

What kind of people lead these so-called armies?

Col. Sergey Kalmeykov, a former chicken farmer and now Ataman of the Ussurisk Cossack Army, sits behind a plywood desk at his army’s headquarters, a one-story brick building in downtown Khabarovsk. He’s dressed in a brown military uniform. He is overweight. His face is fixed in a sneer. Before the interview begins, he nods to his young aide, Misha, who brings him a cigarette. I mention some recent news — that Cossacks in southern Russia have declared self-rule and have risen to the defense of President Yeltsin, offering to form a special presidential guard. I ask the colonel how he views the political situation. “Only through the cross hairs of my gun,” he says.

He refuses to elaborate, except to say he has 15,000 people under his command. (Other sources tell me the figure is more like 500.)

“What kind of weapons do you have?” I ask.

As he ponders his answer, his aide tells him, “Is it possible to answer such questions, sir? Maybe it’s a trick?”

The colonel says, softly, “Shut up, Misha.” Then he tells me he can’t answer my question.

“What do you think of the possibility of civil war?” I ask.

“Of course, this is a real possibility under certain conditions,”  he says.

A small, bearded man sitting in the back of the room speaks up: “Why possible?” the man asks. I later learn he’s the chief of the army’s cultural department.

“Because I say it’s possible,” the colonel shouts. “Please, shut up.”

“Why should I shut up? I’m a member of the board?”

“I don’t care if you’re a board member. Just shut up and go away!”

“But Russian people understand that a civil war will lead to the end of everything,” the chief of the cultural department says.

“Stop talking or I’ll throw you out!” the colonel shouts.

The colonel stands up.

The chief of the cultural department runs out of the room.

After the interview, I ask the colonel to pose for a photograph. The aide brings the colonel his saber. “Maybe you should smile for the picture, sir,” the aide suggests. The colonel’s face only grows more severe.

A can of meat from America

Old woman in Krasny Yar
An elderly woman in Krasny Yar


By Tom Bell

March, 1993

KHABAROVSK – This morning I received a call from Asa Abramova, a small, 72-year-old Jewish woman who lives alone. She worked for 46 years as a cashier in a food store. For her pension, she receives 9,000 rubles a month – enough to buy a loaf of bread and a bottle of milk a day.

“Come right away,” she shouted on the phone. “Ten minutes. Ten minutes. I need you now.”

Mark Butler, an Alaskan businessman,  first introduced me to her two weeks ago because he wanted my advice on how to help her. She lives near the center of Khabarovsk on the second floor of a Stalin-era apartment building. With their high ceilings and solid construction, these Stalin buildings are the most prized addresses in the city.

If she privatized her apartment, she could sell it for $50,000 and move into a smaller apartment farther from downtown, with enough money left over to live comfortably for the rest of her life. But she doesn’t have anyone to guide her through the long trail of paperwork. Her husband, daughter and son are dead. Her neighbors harass her. The years of isolation have left her without any social skills. She repeats herself constantly. She’s so eager to please she practically shakes in apprehension. The total effect is so annoying that no one can stand being around her for more than a few minutes.

The first time I met her was at her apartment. I acted as a translator for Mark. It was any easy task since she only recited a few simple phrases over and over. She was in constant motion — either cleaning something or running into the kitchen and then running back. One one trip from the kitchen, she brought back boiled fish. It tasted terrible. She didn’t eat it. She just sat on the couch watching Mark and me eat it. When we finished, she plopped more boiled fish on our plates. During one of her trips to the kitchen, I stuffed the remainder of the fish into a napkin. When she came back, I excused myself to the bathroom and I flushed it down the toilet.

Asa Abramova lives in an impeccably clean three-room flat. The thick stucco walls are painted in pastel tones. The furniture is from the 1930s and ’40s. French doors separate the bedroom from the dining room. In the china cabinet, amidst a crystal pieces, she keeps her most cherished possessions —  the family photographs. Her husband, a stern man in a dark suit, was a local Communist Party leader. He died of a heart attack 12 years ago. Her two children died of cancer before they reached middle age. Each photograph is carefully wrapped in newspaper to protect it.

After we finished eating our meal, she seemed to relax a bit. I decided to test the waters. I mentioned that she would never worry about money if she sold her apartment and moved someplace else.  We  could help her with the paperwork and find a new apartment, I said. She smiled in agreement. But I didn’t think she understood, so I explained again. This time her reaction was different. She shook her head. “Nyet, nyet, nyet, nyet, nyet.”

I could eventually convince her to sell apartment and move, I suppose,  but that would mean spending a lot of time with her. Frankly, I don’t want to make the effort. I told Mark that the only man who is going to remove her from her apartment is the coroner.

I’ve noticed that the Americans who survive the longest in Russia have the coldest hearts. It’s just self-protection. You can never help enough or give enough here. The recipients  of your goodwill just come back for more and more, and then when you stop, they become angry. Communism produced a culture of dependency, a whole nation on the take.

I have an American friend living here, a middle-aged woman who arrived from Anchorage seven months ago with an eager desire to help. Now she keeps herself locked up in her apartment and refuses to see anyone. I think she on the verge of a some sort of mental breakdown. I won’t make her mistake. Selfishness is a character trait I now cultivate without shame. Still, it’s not easy turning off feelings of empathy.

When Asa Abramova called me this morning, she was looking for Mark. I told her he had returned to Alaska, and she began to cry. The only way I could get her to stop crying was to promise to visit her immediately. I walked about ten blocks in a snow storm to her apartment. When I arrived, she was standing at the top of the staircase waiting for me.

She said a repairman had come to fix her phone and had charged her 6,000 rubles. She asked me to give her money to pay the bill, which I did. At this point I tried to make my exit, but she wouldn’t let me go.

“In America, food is cheap?” she asked while wrapping her hands around  my arm.

“Yes,” I said.

“Please,” she said, “bring me a can of meat from America.” She ran to her kitchen and returned with an empty can. ” Like this, ” she said. “A can of meat. A can of meat. A can of meat. A can of meat. A can of meat from America. If you give me a can of meat, I can make some soup and eat the whole month.” She began to weep. Her hands were clenched in trembling, little-old-lady fists.

The wet snow that had collected on my sable hat was now melting and dripping onto her floor and forming a puddle. She noticed this, and momentarily stopped weeping to wipe up the floor with a cloth. When she was finished, I gave her a 10,000 ruble note.

“I can of meat from America,” she said as I walked down the stairs. “I can of meat from America.”

A Bitter Journey

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By Tom Bell

March, 1993


KRANSY YAR – The sick, the weary and the curious gathered in the school auditorium to see the doctor from Moscow. He was a tall, mustached man, rather handsome in his dark suit and tie, and he spoke extensively about his scientific credentials garnered in the capital 4,000 miles to the west. How he’d found his way to this remote village was a mystery. Why he’d come here was a mystery. The sick and weary waited patiently for an explanation, and possibly a miracle.

I sat in the audience with Svetlana, who suffers from migraine headaches. Last month, in search of a cure, she endured the treatment of a traveling acupuncturist from Moscow. The acupuncturist, a middle-aged woman, had diagnosed her at the village clinic by waving her hands over her body. Then she told Svetlana to sit down, and she stuck needles in her head, face and arms. Svetlana tried this treatment every day for a week. It didn’t work.

Maybe this man from Moscow could help? He looked over his audience of about 20 people, smiled, stretched his arms outward and asked for a volunteer. A teenage girl nervously approached him. He told her to shut her eyes, and then he placed his large hands on her forehead. He whispered to her. He gently caressed her head, pushing the weight of her body back and forth. Then he told her to stoop to the floor and pick up an imaginary apple and eat it. She did this, exactly as he had said. When he snapped his figures, she opened her eyes, giggled and rushed back to her seat while everyone applauded. For his next trick, the doctor took off his shirt, broke some empty bottles on the floor and stretched his body over the glass. A young man stood on his chest. The doctor apparently felt no pain because he kept grinning at us. At the end of the show, he urged people suffering from all sorts of physical ailments to see him for personal consultations, for a small fee.

We didn’t stay that long, however, because Svetlana’s sister had come into the auditorium with a terrible expression on her face. She took Svetlana by the arm and brought her out into the hall, and there she told her that their father was dead.

He had died of heart failure a few days after his 65th birthday. He lived in a small village more than 300 kilometers northwest of Krasny Yar. He belonged to a tribe of people called Nanai. There are about 2,000 Nanai in the world, and most live on the flat Amur River basin near Khabarovsk and work as fishermen. The Nanai have a different but related language. Like the Udegeh, only the elders still speak the Native language.

A young Russian businessman in Krasny Yar volunteered to drive us (Svetlana, her sister, her brother-in-law and me) to the Khabarovsk train station. We drove all night on the unfinished military road, a three-lane gravel highway that starts in Khabarovsk, cuts through the taiga and reaches a dead end about four miles from Krasny Yar. Our little Toyota endured two flat tires during our six-hour journey down from the mountains to the city. Yet, when the young driver dropped us off at the train station early the next morning, he refused to accept any payment.

In Khabarovsk, our funeral party was joined by Svetlana’s 18-year-old daughter Sasha. We traveled westward on the Trans-Siberian Railway for two hours. We disembarked at a grubby little rail town. Svetlana’s brother-in-law Valera was there waiting for us with a jeep and a sack filled with 20 bottles of vodka. Vodka apparently is necessary for funerals, since Svetlana had brought 15 bottles with her. I sat in the jeep’s rear compartment, with all the vodka, and we rattled northward over frozen lakes and swamps. There was no road I could discern. After an hour, we reached a stand of birch and Mongolian oak. Then we came to a cluster of houses. This was Natsonalnoye, a Nanai village of about 200 people. Svetlana’s mother was standing at the gate of her house. Svetlana and her sister rushed out of the jeep and threw their arms around her.

I had never met Svetlana’s mother before. A small, heavy-set woman, she’s 62 but looks a decade older Her breathing was labored. She walked so stiffly it seemed as though every movement made her wince. She led us into her house – a musty, three-room structure crowded with people. In the living room lay her husband, a small man, with high-Asian cheekbones and a round Nanai face. He was dressed in a black suit. His body was on a board that had been laid between two chairs. The house had been kept unheated to preserve the corpse. Sweet-smelling incense burned.

The trip had been exhausting, and after eating a meal of soup and bread Svetlana and we fell fast asleep in the bedroom bundled in our winter coats. In the middle of the night, I woke up and looked into the kitchen. Elderly Nanai men were smoking and playing cards. According to the custom here, people have to remain with the body at all times.

Strong winds buffeted the house all night. We awoke the next morning to find the ground covered with a foot of wet snow. Svetlana said that a storm following a death is a sign that God is angry.

We had to wait three days, until Tuesday, before we could bury Alexander Lesnikov because the elders said it’s bad luck to bury a man on a Monday. On the final night before the burial, Svetlana and I took our turn watching the body. By then it had been placed in a casket built with rough lumber. Red cloth was draped over it. The  odor of death was strong.  A cloud of smoke from the incense candles filled the room. In the kitchen, Sasha cooked a large stack of blini, thin pancakes, to be eaten during the feast following the burial.

The funeral the next day was an intermingling of Russian and Nanai traditions, but I had a hard time telling which was which. Before the body was taken to the cemetery, an old woman came into the house and began to speak in a tongue that sounded vaguely Chinese. It was the first time I had heard Nanai spoken. She chanted prayers and poured vodka into the casket. Then she passed the glass around to everyone to take a sip. She repeated this several times, but instead of pouring the vodka into the casket, she now poured it into a bucket that had been set underneath the casket. Svetlana’s mother tucked her husband’s hat and gloves in the casket near his feet. Then she gathered her three daughters around her and walked to the head of the casket, and there they wept.

Four blank-faced village men entered the room and lifted the casket to their chests. They carried it to the street and slid it into the back of the jeep that had brought us into the village. We began our march. Half the village walked in front of the jeep, and half walked behind. Some people in front carried the casket’s lid and the wooden grave marker, an obelisk covered with red felt and adorned with a hand-carved star. Immediately behind the jeep, I walked with Svetlana and the rest of the family. I’d seen open caskets like this carried in the streets of Khabarovsk. A brass band typically leads the procession in the city. This procession, however, moved silently. We walked until we reached the cemetery set amid small trees at the edge of the village. Someone had lit a bonfire next to an open grave. Then men began pounding the lid onto the coffin.

“Tom, come here,” Svetlana’s mother said. I walked over to her, and she handed me the hammer. Aware of the eyes of the whole village upon me, I carefully banged in the last nail.

The pallbearers lowered the casket into the grave, and everyone pushed dirt on top. Some people had shovels; others used their hands and feet. Eventually, we built up a mound. Two men stamped the obelisk monument into the head of the mound. One of them nailed a wooden sign carved with the name of Svetlana’s father. Another glass of vodka was passed around; people poured a little into the earth before sipping it. Finally, as the crowd headed back to the house. Svetlana’s mother, alone, walked to the grave marker and placed underneath it a small plate of food and a glass of vodka.

We stayed in that village for four days. Svetlana, her daughter and I were the only ones who didn’t drink any of the vodka, and we felt increasingly isolated as the funeral party slipped into a stupor. Svetlana’s relatives planned to stay in the village for another week. We wanted to leave as soon as possible, but the spring snowstorm that had fallen during our first night made escape impossible.

The next morning we heard a noise that sounded like a tank rolling into the village. We ran towards the direction of the clatter and discovered a slow-moving truck with tank treads. The vehicle, which had an enclosed rear cabin, was designed to transport workers over the tundra. After some negotiations, the driver agreed to take us to the train station.

Bundled in our heavy coats, we rode in the machine across the vast, frozen. I don’t know how workers can stand riding that contraption every day. Black clouds of exhaust fumes leaked into the passenger area, and we covered our mouths with handkerchiefs. One worker sat with us. He was evidently accustomed to a daily dose of poison for he didn’t bother covering his mouth. His face was as cold and gray as the tank’s metal siding. I peered out at the frozen marsh through the open rear window. A thick fog blended the sky with the snow, robbing the scene of all depth and color. We passed an island of Mongolian oak trees. Even though winter was almost over, faded yellow leaves still clung to the branches.

Svetlana's house