A Nation Comes Apart

Soviet Horror

Lenin Square in Luchegorsk, a small city situated about halfway between Khabarovsk and Vladivostok. It has an enormous coal-fired power station, which supplies electricity for Primorski Krai.

In the early 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union, I lived in the Russian Far East, spending most of time time in Khabarovsk, a city of more than a half million people about 19 miles from the Chinese border at the confluence of the Ussuri and Amur rivers. I had traveled there to write a weekly column for the Anchorage Daily News about the lives of ordinary Russians as their economy careened from state-controlled socialism to free-for-call capitalism.

The indestructible Soviet Union was gone. The lifetime savings of most Russians had been wiped out as a result of the “shock therapy” implemented by Boris Yeltsin’s government on the advice of American economists. This vast nation, once again called Russia for the first time in more than seven decades, was falling apart.

During this period, there were weekly flights between Khabarovsk and Anchorage, Alaska. This was all pre-Internet, of course. Every Sunday,  I stuffed one or two canisters of film and a floppy disk into an envelope and stuck on some U.S. postage stamps. Then I rode a bus to the airport and asked an Anchorage-bound stranger to drop the envelope in a mail box somewhere in the America.

All the letters arrived safely to the Anchorage Daily News newsroom.

I have decided to publish those columns in this blog. The photos, taken with Fuji slide film, had been damaged over the years by mold. I digitalised the photos, restored them and uploaded the restored images here on this blog.

In 2012, I returned to the same region with my wife, Svetlana, and our daughter, Ihila, to visit Svetlana’s sisters and to show Ihila the remote village where I met her mother. Ihila and I kept a blog about our journey. You can read here about our travels as well.

— Tom Bell




I glance out the cab window. The darkness surprises me. The street lamps are strangely dim. I don’t see people. I see silhouettes visible in the headlights of passing cars and the yellow glow of street-corner camp fires.

So this is Khabarovsk, an industrial city about 4,000 miles east of Moscow. I traveled here on an Aeroflot flight from Anchorage. My plan is to live here and write a weekly column for the Anchorage Daily News. It is October, 1992, less than a year after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Alaskans are curious about the Russian Far East. We are neighbors. Alaska’s Little Diomede Island and Russia’s Big Diomede are just 2.5 miles apart. But we are strangers. The “ice curtain” had been shut tight for 40 years. Nobody could cross. Even Soviet citizens needed permission to travel to places like Sakhalin Island, the heavily-fortified eastern-most outpost of the Soviet Empire, or Vladivostok, headquarters of the Soviet Pacific Fleet.

In the late 1980s, with the arrival of Gorbachev’s glasnost, the ice curtain began to melt. In 1991, a group of performers from Magadan, the former gulag city to the north, came to Anchorage to give some concerts. They sang Russian folk tunes, danced, played musical instruments. I couldn’t believe that such a small city could produce so much talent. One girl played the accordion brilliantly, and a group of children danced in ball-room style. The children seemed so isolated from the influence of Western mass media. At the end of their show, when the troupe sang God Bless America, many in the audience wept. I later introduced myself to the group’s translator, an English teacher, and showed her around the city. She was a creature from another planet. Everything about Anchorage — from the supermarkets to the seedy trailer parks — was to her exotic and wonderful. After she returned to Magadan, I tried to meet Russians whenever possible. The more I spoke with these visitors — with their dark, polyester clothes and odd questions — the more I wanted to see their strange world. I wanted to live there.

The main obstacle was my fear of the unknown. But that is the reason to go. While I know nothing about the Russian Far East, neither does hardly anyone else in the West. While dozens of foreign journalists are stationed in European Russia, the much larger eastern region seems all but forgotten by the rest of the world.

Khabarovsk will serve as my base. It’s a transportation hub, situated at the spot where the Trans-Siberian Railway crosses the 1,800 mile-long Amur River.

The Amur is Russia’s second-longest river after the Volga. It forms on the Mongolian Plateau south of Lake Baikal and rolls eastward in a serious of great bends before emptying into the Pacific. For much of its length, it acts as the border between Russia and China. Russians call it “Father Amur.” Viewed from the air, this twisting, powerful, mud-colored waterway looks more like its Chinese name — the “Black Dragon.”

The Amur River basin was once part of China’s sparsely-settled northern frontier. In 1854, the Russian army sailed down the river in a mile-long flotilla of 75 rafts and barges carrying the 13th Regular Siberian Battalion, a Cossack calvary squadron and an artillery division. By 1858, 22,000 Russian soldiers and more than 5,000 settlers had moved into the region. Lacking the military strength to push them out the Chinese authorities signed treaties abandoning claims to the Amur’s north bank and the land east of the Ussuri River all the way down to the Korean border.  Khabarovsk was founded that year on a high bank near where the Amur meets the Ussuri.

During the Civil War, control of the city changed hands several times before finally falling to the Red Army in 1922. The Soviets then established Khabarovsk as the regional headquarters for the army and the NKVD, which later became KGB. In the 1930s, during Stalin’s campaign of terror, Khabarovsk became a distribution center for the millions of people exiled to Stalin’s prison camps in the region.

Khabarovsk today has a population of nearly 600,000,  and I know one person — an Alaskan businessman, Mark Butler. He has a Russian girlfriend, and I hired her to find me a family I could live with. I gave her three criteria: The family had to live near downtown; they had to have a telephone; and they couldn’t speak any English (I was determined to learn Russian). She performed this task in the typical Russian manner, sending word out among her network of friends. In a few days, I was carrying my luggage in the into apartment of the Navogitsyn family.

The Navogitsyns seem ordinary, and this pleases me. The wife, Tina, is a high school history teacher; the husband, Valeri, worked in a factory. His nearly-blind 80-year-old mother, Zinaida Vasilievna, also lived in the apartment.

Rather than be a well-connected and savvy foreign correspondent (something I couldn’t be even if I’d wanted), I have decided to throw myself into Russian society and see what happens and then write about it. I hope my stores offer Alaskans an intimate sense of everyday life here.

I will use the new Aeroflot flight between Khabarovsk and Anchorage to get my column and photos to the editors. The flight departs for Anchorage every Sunday at 10 p.m. I will go to the Intourist Hotel around 7:30 p.m, introduce myself to an American businessman traveling to the U.S. and then give him a stamped envelope containing two or three rolls of film and a floppy disc with my weekly column.  If no messenger can be found, I will ride a bus to the airport and find one there.

In Moscow, liberals are in power and are pushing ahead with reforms. In far-away cities like Khabarovsk, the economy is running as it did during communist days, just less efficiently. Industrial production is in a free-fall. The average worker is making less than $30 a month, and inflation at times reaches two percent a day. There is food in the stores, but there is little variety beyond basic staples.

The nation is in the midst of a wrenching economic and social transformation. I have arrived in time to see the old Soviet economy and social structures still in place. I will watch it fall away.

For the Glory of Labor

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A girl harvests carrots with her classmates on a collective farm outside of Khabarovsk


Carrots. Carrots. Carrots. Every dinner, whether we have borscht, chicken, or ham, we eat carrots. Yesterday, I finally found out why. Tina, who cooks all the meals in our household, teaches history at School #13. For a few weeks every fall, most schools here send their older students to the government-owned farms and collectives to help with the harvest. School #13 and five other schools are responsible for harvesting carrots from a 40-acre field on the outskirts of Khabarovsk. Even my English-language students at the teachers’ college help with the harvest.

“Everybody for the Glory of Labor,” or so the Communist slogan goes. Now that the Communists are gone, the practice continues, but not for the glory of labor. It’s for the calories.

I visited School #13 today. All the children age 11 and older were gathered outside the school. They were holding metal lunch buckets and dressed in play clothes. Some children wore rubber boots. Six buses arrived, and I climbed aboard with Tina’s class. During our 25-minute ride to the farm, some of the children told me they’d rather pick carrots than do school work. “It’s like a holiday for us,” said one 15-year-old girl. Every child is officially allowed to take home five carrots per day, although many take home more. In addition, for every 170 kilograms picked, the school is paid 100 rubles — about 30 cents — to be divided among the children, with the hardest working getting the most money. The idea of paying the children is a new one. Until two years ago, they only received carrots.

When we reached the farm, the children were separated into small groups. Without much prodding, they began picking carrots, weighing them and packing them into mesh bags. The children talked and laughed as they worked, occasionally breaking carrots and leaving them in the dirt. A farm supervisor watched over them. Without the children, almost all of the carrots would stay in the fields she said.

The school’s principal Valentina Shepelyova walked up and down rows of carrots while issuing commands. She said labor teaches character. “They’re learning how to behave not as individuals but as part of a collective.”

But what about proposals to privatize farms? Wouldn’t this put an end to student labor? “The privatizing will not come for a long time,” she replied. “It’s difficult to change our attitude towards land.”

I was the first American these children had ever seen. At one point, about 15 children encircled me and peppered me with questions: “Do American children go to farms?” “How long do they stay in school?” “Who picks your crops?”

They stopped to eat lunch. Afterwards, their own buckets filled with carrots for home, they climbed back on the buses, leaving behind large bags of carrots to be gathered up by farm workers. Some of the girls sang songs during the ride home. The older boys sat in the back. Unlike American children, Russian children behave themselves on a bus. I found out why. When an older boy tossed a carrot out the window, the bus driver thrust his foot on the brakes, marched up to the boy, grabbed him by the collar, and pulled him to the front. “Go get the carrot!” he shouted, shoving the boy out the door. Then he closed it. The children erupted into laughter as they watched the carrot-thrower — now getting smaller and smaller as we drove away — shake his fists in the air.

The Doctors

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Dr. Andre Bevzenko and Dr. Andre Zhdankin go ice fishing on the Amur River.

Tom with fish

Dr. Andre Bevzenko took this photo of me.


I went ice fishing last weekend with two doctors named Andre — Dr. Andre Bevzenko and Dr. Andre Zhdankin.

Bevzenko lives in Kharbarovsk, where he works as a surgeon at the regional hospital. Zhdankin, a pediatrician, lives in a small village on the outskirts of the city. Both men are 30. I had met Bevzenko during a hospital tour, and we became friends. He invited me fishing so I could meet Zhdankin, his best friend.

Friday evening, Bevzenko and I took two buses and then hitched a ride in the back of a truck to reach Zhdankin’s village, Michorinskoya, located 40 kilometers north from downtown Khabarovsk. About 3,000 people live there. Metal drums sit in front of every home. Twice a week, a truck rumbles down the dirt road and fills the drums with water. No one has indoor plumbing. And no one has a phone, not even the village doctor. Zhdankin’s wife, Irina, cooked dinner while the two doctors questioned me about life in America.

“Our life is bad, isn’t it?” Bevzenko asked me.

How could I answer such a question? I tried to be positive. “You have good marriages, beautiful, healthy children,” I said. “You live good lives.”

My salary is 4,000 rubles a month, ” Zhdankin said.

“That’s $10,” Bevzenko added. “How much do American doctors make?”

“You don’t want to know,” I said.

“Please, tell us ,” Zhdankin said. “We want the truth.”

“In America, doctors are like businessmen. Some make more money than others.”

“How much money?”

I paused for a moment. “Some doctors make $10,000 a month,” I said.

Bevzenko laughed. “I can’t even imagine that much money,” he said. Zhdankin looked at the floor and said nothing. His wife entered the room with dinner — fried chicken, mashed potatoes, pickles, caviar and tea. The potatoes and pickles were grown in their garden. The chicken was raised in the back yard. The caviar came from a salmon Zhdankin had caught in the nearby Amur River. The milk in my tea was provided by their cow, which lives in the barn along with two pigs. The Zhdankins grow or kill much of their own food. When we went fishing the next morning, it was for food as well as sport.

We woke up early and walked down to the Amur. It was an unusually warm day, and a film of water covered the melting ice. We stayed close to shore. Zhdankin slammed an iron rod into the ice to make holes. Bevzenko unrolled a piece of canvass, revealing five fishing poles he had made himself. Each pole was about a foot long, unpainted, and smoothly carved from light-weight wood. He showed me how to hold a pole and jerk it to snag a fish. (There are 14 kinds of edible fish that live in the river.) While we stood there trying to catch one, I told the doctors about some American doctors I had met last year at an Alaska fishing lodge. Each doctor had paid $5,000 a week to go fishing. Lodge workers cooked them gourmet meals, and a float plane flew them to a different river or lake every morning. If they caught a fish, a guide would take it off their hook for them. The Russian doctors liked that story.

“Here we can fish for free,” Bevzenko said. Unfortunately, after four hours of free fishing, none of us had snagged anything. And there was no lodge plane to take us to a better river. To make matters worse, Bevzenko’s rubber boots were leaking. We headed home. Earlier in the week, strong winds had blown the snow off the river bank and uncovered a small beach. Bevzenko leaned over and with a joyful shout lifted a wrench from the sand. We all agreed that he was lucky to find such a useful tool.

The Orphans

Orphan kidsFinal orphan girl

Children at a Khabarovsk orphanage, Special School #10


Twice a day, thousands of Russians pour buckets of cold water over themselves. Some do it in their baths. Others, wearing bathing suits, drench themselves on city sidewalks or in parks. Even when winter temperatures drop below zero, they do this.

They do it because an old man with a great white beard, a man they call Ivanov the Teacher, said cold water brings people closer to nature and wards off sickness. His followers claim the old man, who died in the Ukraine nine years ago, made the blind see and the crippled walk. Some even say he was God.

On a particularly cold November day, I rode a public bus with five of his followers to an orphanage 20 kilometers south of Khabarovsk. My friend, Natasha Boldovskaya, an English language professor at the Khabaravsk teachers’ college, had invited me on the trip. The 99 orphans who live at Special School #5 gathered in the meeting hall to hear the followers preach about the cold-water way to health and salvation. The followers — four women and one man — sang about nature’s beauty and held up a large black and white photograph of Ivanov. They spoke about his rules: Wish the health of everybody you meet; don’t be greedy; fast on Saturdays; walk barefooted on the snow or ground every day; don’t smoke or drink alcohol; never spit on the earth.

“It’s not by chance that the Holy Spirit came into Ivanov’s body in Russia,” Natasha whispered to me. “There’s so much suffering here.”

The orphans — who don’t belong to any religion — listened politely. They’re used to such visits. The week before, two American missionaries came to perform scenes from the Bible. Perhaps next week Hare Krishnas will come and chant for the children, as they did for the children at Special School #10. Or maybe the foreign-born monks who wear orange robes and teach yoga every Sunday in a rented hall downtown. Or the Baptists from Atlanta who pass out little blue booklets titled, “Do You Know for Certain That You Have Eternal Life and Will go to Heaven When You Die?” Every week, the Aeroflot flight from America brings at least one clergyman with a box-full of Bibles. Russia is a good place to go if you’re on a mission from God.

Like the orphans, most adults here know little about religion. In 1922, the year the Communists took power in the Far East, there were 13 Russian Orthodox cathedrals in Khabarovsk. All were closed down or destroyed. The bishops and priests were either exiled or killed. Today, in this city of  nearly 700,000, there’s only one church.

I recently asked a room of about 30 university students how many believed in God. Only two raised their hands.Vadim Uchaikin, a 19-year-old economics student, came up to me after class. “Communism was like a religion,” he said. “Now people are living in a spiritual vacuum. Now, we have nothing.”

The children at the orphanage are too young to understand this existential dilemma. “Who believes in God?” I asked. They all raised their hands. They seemed eager to believe in anything, even in the cold–water methods of Ivanov the Teacher.

I rode home with the followers. As usual, the bus was overcrowded. I stood the whole trip, my body pressed against the door. I peeked out the door window and amused myself with the passing scenery of concrete apartment buildings. We drove by a wire factory. At the entrance stood a large, red billboard bearing the stern face of Lenin.  Most of these Communist billboards in Khabarovsk have been removed, but this one, for some reason, has remained. It read: “The Plans of the Party are the Plans of the People.” Later that afternoon we went to a follower’s apartment and watched video footage of Ivanov the Teacher leading his people on a barefoot walk in the snow.

The Professor


Professor Evgeny Vladimirovich Kucheryavenko and his wife Raissa Pavlovna


Professor Evgeny Vladimirovich Kucheryavenko, my Russian language teacher, lives in an apartment building across the street with his wife Raissa and their 17-year-old son Vladimir.I bring a flashlight when I go there at night. All the stairwell light bulbs are missing.

The stove outlet exploded yesterday, so today they cook their meals on a hot plate. The fourth-floor flat has no hot water. Two 50-kilogram sacks of potatoes — enough for the winter — are hidden behind a curtain in the coolest corner of the living room. Yet, for special guests, they eat on expensive Japanese china. They bought the china 20 years ago, when Russians could afford such things. During our lessons, the lights sometimes flicker off, leaving us in darkness.

“Did I tell you that we are doomed?” the 55-year-old university professor asks while sipping tea during dinner. “We are doomed. We are doomed. The people are behaving worse and worse. This process of de-evolution is happening all over the world, but in our country it’s accelerated.”

Professor Kucheryavenko’s flat is his bunker, shielding his family from the speculators, the light bulb-stealing vandals, the back-talking, pony-tailed, graffiti-writing rabble who listen to Western rock music and swear in public places.

Unfortunately, the bunker has been infiltrated. His son Vladimir has joined the forces of the uncivilized. Euvgeny and Raissa have  bought him more than 200 books – Pushkin, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky. But “Sonny,” as they call him, refuses to read them. Instead, he lifts dumbbells and belongs to a karate club. Bruce Lee, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwartzenegger sneer at his parents from his bedroom walls.

“We don’t understand him,” the professor says. “He doesn’t understand us. We are foreigners to each other.” The professor pauses for a moment to sip his tea. “You should hear how the boy talks to his mother.”

“That wasn’t the way we acted when we were young,” Raissa says. “We had respect for older people.”

“At least we were afraid of older people,” Euvgeny says. “Now, these young people aren’t afraid of anything.”

This is more than a family quarrel. This is part of a greater battle being waged all over the former Soviet Union — a battle between the young and the old. Values and social and economic structures are changing rapidly. Young people like Vladimir are flexible enough to adapt to life in a market economy. He’s a self-assured young man. Besides karate, he’s studying economics at college. He sees opportunity in this “New Russia.”

But people like Euvgeny and Raissa — life-long socialists who still believe that buying something and reselling it at a higher price is shameful behavior — see chaos.They wish they were back in the 1960s, when life was more orderly and prosperous, when they understood their place in the world. But they have lost their place. Filled with self-doubt, they are like teenagers themselves.

“Maybe we were fooled by our government,” Raissa says. “Maybe we were fools. But we believed in something. Now we are living in this spiritual emptiness. I don’t know what to believe in. I feel like I’m a lost person.”

“We are doomed,” the professor says. “We are doomed. We are doomed.”

A Village in the Forest

Old Udegeh manOld man with skiOld lady siting downLubasha and Shura Sulingiza in Krasy Yar, Russia, circa 1992


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Portraits of some of the residents of Krasny Yar, an Udege village in the Russian Far East.


KRASNY YAR — Amidst the rolling foothills of the Sikhote-Alin Mountains live the Udege people, indigenous Asians who hunt in the one of the most unusual forests in the world — an old-growth taiga that is home for both bears and tigers. Only about 1,500 Udege exist in the world. The largest group lives in Krasny Yar, a village on the Bikin River.

Last week, two American television journalists and I rode ride south from Khabarovsk for six hours on the Trans-Siberian Railway and then rattled up a mountain road in a small bus for four hours. The dirt road came to an end at a swift-moving, ice-clogged river, which we crossed in a narrow wooden boat. On the other side was a village of about 700 people. There aren’t any cars or all-terrain vehicles in Krasny Yar. Except for the distant rumble of the wood-fired boiler at the village school and the voices of children playing in the streets, the village is as serene as the forest that surrounds it.

We went to Krasny Yar to film a short documentary about the dispute between the Udege people and the South Korean conglomerate Hyundai, which wants to log the Udege’s traditional hunting grounds. Environmentalists say logging the area would destroy the habitat of the endangered Ussuri tiger. The Udege say it would destroy their livelihood and culture. Last August, when the villagers heard that logging was about to begin, six Udege hunters took their rifles and flew there by helicopter to guard the trees. Twelve Cossacks from Vladivostok joined forces with the Udege to “defend the border.” Hyundai withdrew the loggers, but the dispute has yet to be settled.

After one night in Krasny Yar, the American journalists and their translator flew by helicopter to Korean logging camps on the other side of the mountain range. There wasn’t any room in the helicopter for me, so they left me behind with the task of guarding the luggage. I was glad to be abandoned. I had grown wearing of the Americans, who bickered constantly. Also, it provided me the chance to learn more about this mountain village.

Although the Udege are an Asian people of the Tungus-Manchurian group, they wear Russian clothes and celebrate Russian holidays. Elders still speak the Udege language, but younger people only speak Russian. Krasny Yar for the most part seems like a typical Russian village. Cows and dogs roam the streets; people busy themselves with rural chores such as chopping wood and fetching water from stone wells.

What makes Krasny Yar unique is its location. No where else in the world is there such a blend of northern and southern plants and animals. Walk in these woods and you might find a spruce entwined by a grape vine, or a Manchurian nut-tree and a Korean pine growing side-by-side with maples and oaks. Northern animals like deer, elk, sable and bear travel the same terrain as wild boars and tigers. This rich diversity can be explained by the climate. Severe, Alaska-style winters are succeeded by summers as luxuriant as in India. The climate here is monsoon, meaning that the prevailing wind changes direction according to the season. In winter, when the wind flows off the frozen steppes of Siberia, temperatures routinely drop to 20 degrees below. In summer, it reverses direction and travels here from the Pacific, bringing with it sub-tropical humidity and heavy rains.

During my stay, I mostly saw just women and children in the village. With the exception of the mayor, some teachers and a few elders, all the men here work in the forest. At the end of October, they travel by boat up the Bikin River to their hunting grounds. They carry slow-moving Russian-made snowmobiles in the boats, and at the end of February, the ride the machines back to the village. Those who have cabins close to the village come back for the New Year’s holiday. They use the snowmobiles only for long-distance travel. When the hunt, they use six-foot-long, seven-inch-wide wooden skis that for traction are covered with deer skin. The men hunt and trap fur-bearing animals, such as sable, fox and mink. For food, they hunt deer and wild boar.

There’s another predator in this forest —  the Ussuri tiger, known by Westerners as the Siberian tiger. Typically weighing from 400 to 650 pounds and measuring 9 to 12 feet from head to tail, this tiger is the biggest cat in the world. Its yellowish winter top coat lacks the red stripe of tigers from warmer climates,and its underside, from its face to the back legs and tail, is white. To withstand temperatures that drop as low as 50 degrees below zero, it grows a longer and thicker coat and develops a layer of fat along its flanks and belly. During winter, it must eat over 20 pounds of meat a day to sustain itself.

For centuries, the Udege have worshiped the tiger as a god. To appease it, they place tobacco leaves on its trail. As one Udege man told me, “the tiger and the Udege people are the same.” Unfortunately, in China and Korea, the tigers’ skins, bones and genitals are valued for their medicinal value. Pulverized and used in “tiger wine,” the bones bring about a hundred dollars a pound. It’s against Russian law to kill a tiger, but with the end of the Cold War, Russia’s borders with China and Korea are now open, and poachers have easy access to markets there. After decades of steady growth, the tiger population is now shrinking. Today, there are  fewer than 400 tigers, almost all of them living in the narrow stretch of mountains along the Pacific called Sikhote-Alin Range. This same area includes the Udege hunting grounds.

Krasny Yar’s school has a one-room museum containing artifacts of Udege culture: wooden idols, a bow and arrow, a model of a dug-out canoe, a deerskin hat with a feather plume. A painting of a tiger hangs on the wall.

The museum’s caretaker, a reserved man in his 60s, carefully recounted the history of the Udege people. Seven hundred years ago, he told me, the Udege were citizens of the Jurchen Empire, which included parts of present-day China, Mongolia and Russia. The Jurchens had their own written language and agriculture. Archaeologists working in the southern part of Primorski Krai recently unearthed an ancient Jurchen megapolis which included the remains of administrative buildings, fortifications, metal works, moats, towers, a central gateway. The Jurchens had their own written language and a highly-developed system of agriculture. In the 13th century, nomads from the Mongol steppes used scorch earth tactics to destroy the city and crush the empire, The Mongols set fire to the crops and slaughtered the Jurchen people by the thousands. The survivors scattered over the Far East and formed into several small tribes. The people who fled to the Sikhote-Alin mountains eventually became the Udege people. In their isolation, the Udege had developed their own language and customs. To survive, however, they took a step backwards in social evolution and become semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers. They lived in clans along rivers and built squared huts roofed with birch bark and mounted on tripods. They hunted game with spears and bows and arrows and later with rifles.

They lived much like this until the 1930s, when an outside power again forced change upon them. Collectivization was imposed throughout the USSR, and the traditional occupations of native people were organized into producers’ cooperatives. The Communists broke up the Udege clans, gathered everyone into Russian-style villages and set up a hunter/gatherer cooperative. The Udege gave their furs, ginseng, ferns and berries to the government and in return received state wages. While their hunting and gathering tradition survived, most of their other traditions perished. The Soviets prohibited them from speaking their language and worshiping their gods. Shamanism was subjected to mockery by young natives recruited into the Young Communist League. Some shamans fled into the forests and were never seen again. Today, only the elders can speak the Udege language; the middle aged and younger people only remember a few words, such as bugdify, the Udege word for “hello.”

Still, the Udege seemed to have had an easier time adjusting to the modern world than American natives. Communism — an ideology centered on the idea that resources should be shared equally — is closer to the values of Udege culture than capitalism, which prizes competition and individualism. Plus the sheer inefficiency of the communist system has forced the Udege to maintain their barter economy and their reliance on their forest, rivers and gardens for much of their food. Fortunately, the communists had also struck a deal with village leaders to preserve their forest, an area covering 10,000 square miles, or about of the size of New Hampshire. The effect is that the Udege seem to have more self-pride and live more self-sufficiently than most American natives. In oil-rich Alaska, the Eskimos have nicer public buildings, faster snowmobiles, more food in the stores and better medical care than the Udege. Some Alaska natives make more cash in a single day than Udege hunters can earn in a year. But there’s a terrible problem of suicide Alaska, especially among young native men who feel hopelessly displaced in modern America. While Krasny Yar is far poorer, there’s still a role for young, strong men who want to work in the wilderness as their fathers did. I asked several people here if their teenagers ever kill themselves, and everyone had the same reply — never.

With the end of communism, though, some of the same forces that have affected the lives of native Americans have begun to show their influence here. The presence of the mass media is growing stronger. The village practically shuts down when the Western soup operas such as “Santa Barbara” appear on their snowy television screens. At the Friday-night dance at the school, teenagers imitate the rock stars they see on MTV, shown on television every evening for an hour. I’ve noticed that the youngest children, who know almost nothing of the Udege history or language, have managed to memorize the commercials for products like Snickers and Uncle Ben’s ketchup.

If there’s any part of the Udege culture that has survived, it’s the connection with the forest. Now that land in Russia is becoming privatized, who will own the forest? Foreign companies like Hyundai. Russian logging companies? Or the Udege? To be truthful, the Ussuri tiger stands a better chance of being saved from extinction. There are simply too few of Udege and too many Russians. Intermarriage with the Russians and other tribes, a taboo some 50 years ago, has become common place. I was invited to the school one day to watch 12 children dressed in colorful silk ceremonial costumes perform Udege dances. Eleven of the children had round Russian eyes. Only one girl with a beautiful, chubby Asian face seemed fully Udege. I brought her outside for some photographs. She was cold, so I only snapped a couple of pictures. For the whole day after that, all I could think about was that girl. I kept worrying that perhaps I had worked too quickly and had set the wrong exposure on my camera. I wanted to preserve forever the image of the Udege girl standing in the snow.

I waited for four days for the helicopter with the Americans to return, but they never came back. A snow storm had forced them on a detour to Vladivostok. So on the morning of the fifth day, I gathered the luggage and put it on a sled. Andre, the policeman for the region, pulled the sled across the river (it had frozen over during my stay) and loaded the luggage into his truck. Then we began the long drive back to Khabarovsk. After about 20 minutes, Andre stopped the truck and pointed out the window towards the side of the road. He shouted something. I didn’t understand him. I stepped out of the car and walked to where he was pointing. There were tiger prints — two sets — belonging to a mother and her cub. I pressed my palm in the snow and stretched out my fingers. The mother’s print was almost as big as my hand.

The Mysterious Theft of the Socialist Stage Panel

Soviet Horror

Lenin Square in Luchegorsk


Four wooden panels line the top of a wall in Tina Nagovitsyn’s classroom. The panels depict four stages in world history: The “Primitive Stage” (cave men fighting mammoths), the “Slave Stage” (Romans whipping slaves), the “Feudal Stage” (peasants tilling fields), and the “Capitalist Stage” (workers picketing factories).

The fifth stage — the “Socialism Stage” (happy children marching in a parade) — is missing. It was removed last June, said Tina, who teaches history in the classroom. She said it was dirty and needed to be cleaned.

“It takes seven months to clean a panel?” I asked.

“It got lost,” she said.

I didn’t believe her. My theory: Someone had removed the panel because it was Soviet propaganda, and Tina wouldn’t tell me this because she was embarrassed. Soviet propaganda had been her job for 27 years.

She had learned the propaganda business at the University of Marxism and Leninism in Khabarovsk. She went there because she wanted to teach history. In the Soviet Union, history teachers were responsible for the ideological training of the nation’s children.

I never thought of Tina as part of the Soviet propaganda machine. I live with her and her husband. I pay them rent to live in their flat. When I usually see her, she’s cooking something in the kitchen while dressed in her bathrobe. She makes great borscht. She’s 54, only a year from retirement. But the last few years have been the most difficult, she said.

“Now the children are skeptical of everything,” she said. “They’re blaming the generation of their fathers for the country’s problems. Sometimes, I try to prove that not everything was bad. They’re not right when they blame everybody.”

Before glasnost, all Tina had to do was make sure her students memorized text books provided by the Communist Party. The books were based upon a history book that Stalin himself had edited. During the Brezhnev era, she was required to reserve a special display area for Brezhnev’s books, like The Little Land, his ghost-written war memoirs. She didn’t like Brezhnev or his books. He was corrupt, and his books weren’t true, she said. Her hero was Lenin. “Lenin’s ideas were good,” she said, explaining that communism failed because the people who inherited his power didn’t follow his example. “They were people of low culture,” she said. “It’s not Lenin’s fault. It’s the fault of the leaders of this country.”

New text books have yet to be written for post-Soviet Russia, so Tina clips magazine and newspaper articles and brings them to class. Every week, it seems, the newspapers publish new disclosures about the crimes of Soviet leaders. Now they’re even saying Lenin was a despot, that he had ordered the deaths of thousands of people.

This week, I observed one of Tina classes. The subject was economic stagnation during the Brezhnev era. Her 11th-grade students took turns standing in front of a big yellow map of the Soviet Union, and in the Soviet educational tradition, quoting memorized text.

“Scientific initiatives mushroomed,” said one girl. “In some productions we overcame foreign countries, especially in arms. However, military engineering could have been used in other sections of the economy, but it was not encouraged.” The girl then spoke about the declining standard of living and sat down. Another girl stood up.

“In 1977, the People’s Deputies wrote a new constitution — the Constitution for Developed Socialism,” she said. “They wrote about democracy and freedom. But they were just words. People who tried to speak the truth were persecuted, especially people in the scientific and cultural communities.” Several more students reeled off their memorized text, all with a similar bent, and then the bell rang. Class was over. I asked some of the students if they believed if Tina was teaching them the truth. They said they didn’t care.

Later that day, back in our apartment, I was talking to Tina iwhile she watched television. Some government officials were being interviewed. “It’s all propaganda,” she said. “I don’t believe them.”

I noticed her bookcase contained the 52-volume collection of Lenin’s writings. She said she’d bought the collection while studying at the University of Marxism and Leninism. On her dresser mirror hung something I’d never seen before here — a small crucifix.

“The opium of the masses?” I asked.

“I need to believe in something,” she said.


The Jews

Boris Kaufman, a Sabbotniki. “All the old people have died, and the young generation looks far away. They dislike the place.”


BIROBIDZHAN — It’s Friday night in the Jewish Autonomous Region, an area the size of Belgium, planted on swampland in the far eastern corner of Russia. I sit in the region’s only synagogue waiting for Jews. After all, Friday night is the beginning of the Jewish sabbath. But no one shows up tonight, except for the caretaker. And he believes in Jesus Christ. “Some weeks no one comes here,” the caretaker says.

What a strange part of the world this is — Russia’s only official Jewish region. Hardly any Jews live here. Stalin had granted the region autonomy as a Jewish homeland in 1934. Lured by propaganda, which called for young jews to emigrate here and build their own state, seven thousand pioneers arrived and began building a town on the swamp. Many had fled persecution in other parts of the Soviet Union. Later Stalin deported Jews here by force. As he carried out ruthless purges elsewhere,  Stalin used the region as a showcase to display his alleged tolerance of ethnic self-determination. In the late 1940s, however, Stalin decided to wipe out everything Jewish in the Jewish region except the facade. In the capital, Birobidzhan, the Jewish street names — like the main boulevard, Shalom Aleichem Street — were allowed to remain. But the schools stopped teaching Yiddish. People stopped celebrating Jewish holidays and attending  synagogue. Jewish intellectuals began disappearing to prison camps in Siberia and the Far East. The synagogue hasn’t had a rabbi since the 1960s, and its Torah was stolen several years ago. Without a rabbi or Torah, this simple wooden building can’t even be called a synagogue, only a house of worship. The only worshipers I’ve meet this weekend are Sabbotniki, people who follow the Jewish rituals but believe in Christ. “No one wants to live here,” says the caretaker

A 10-year-old Soviet brochure  that Kaufman showed me provides a different story:

“During all the years of existence, not a single resident of the region had been lured by the promises of the Zionists and left the Soviet Union.”

Today, Jews account for less than three percent of the region’s population. Most have left for the new homeland, Israel. Since 1989, 2,400 Jews have emigrated there. The people who remain call these people otyezhanty, Russian slang meaning “those who go away.”

Sophia Brashina, 64, is all packed. She goes away in two weeks. She, her daughter and 168 other Jews from the region are taking a charter flight to Tel Aviv. “I don’t want to go there,” she says. “But I don’t want to be alone. Nearly all my friends have gone to Israel. My son is there, my grandchildren. I’ve lost 10 kilograms just thinking about it. I’m so sad. It’s difficult to change your home place.”

Jews move to Israel because they think economic conditions are better there, she says. But Anna Davydivona Piskovets, 59, who heads the quickly disappearing Jewish Women’s Organization, says many Jews leave because they’re afraid to stay in Russia. “In hard times, people look for an enemy,” she says. “Jewish people are afraid the Russians will find it among the Jews.” Even those who stay have many of their possessions packed so they can leave quickly if they have to, she says.

Ironically, while the Jews are leaving, the new democratic government is working to restore the region’s Jewish identity. The government now funds special concerts on Jewish holidays and recently opened a four-room Jewish school for children to study Jewish history, literature, music and Yiddish. The Great Patriotic War display at the Birobidzhan Museum has been replaced by an exhibit on Stalin’s persecution of Jews. The exhibit’s centerpiece is a long sheet of paper containing hundreds of names. These are the names the Jews from the region who died in Stalin’s camps. The list is still being compiled.

Stalin is dead, the Communist Party is history. The work camps are closed down. So why can’t the Jews feel safe? Why can’t they forget their fears? A few blocks from the museum there’s a building with a hammer and sickle symbol over the entrance. I walk inside. It’s police headquarters for the region. A mural in the lobby features 12 super-sized policemen surrounded by symbols of police power — a helicopter, a police car, a motorcycle, a radio and a club. The men, their faces dark and featureless, tower over a row of apartment buildings. The mural belongs in Birobidzhan Museum as a sarcastic commentary on the abuse of police power. Unfortunately, this is how police see themselves.

“Give me your documents,” says a real policeman. He apparently doesn’t like the way I’m looking at the mural.

I ask if I can photograph the mural. He gets even more upset, and he seems ready to detain me. “Don’t worry, I’m leaving Birobidzhan,” I say, heading out the door.

As I walk down the street, I can see him watching from the window. His face is dark, like the faces in the mural. Now I can understand the fear. If I were a Jew, I’d be on that charter flight to Tel Aviv.

The Lure of Paradise

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Portraits of young women in Khabarovsk


Lena entered my room, draped her fur coat on my arm and eased her 18-year-old body onto my bed. She wore bright-red lipstick and knee-high black leather boots. Like most English-speaking Russians, she spoke with a British pronunciation. Her accent, however, was more formal than most, and more irritating.

“Tom,” she said, batting her eyelids. “I want to help you.”

Her purpose for visiting me, as I had understood on the phone, was to give me a letter she wanted delivered to America. When I asked for the letter, she pouted and said she’d forgotten it.

Back home in Anchorage, I didn’t have any 18-year-old women chasing me like this. But here in Russia, I’m a rich man in a poor country, sought after by women who dream of snagging an American husband. I can’t blame women like Lena for trying. Most woman in Russia, it seems, work all day at their jobs and then come home for their second job. They wash their clothes in the sink, cook all the meals from scratch, spend every summer weekend in the garden or dacha growing food for their families. Without women the men of Russia would probably live in squalor and die eventually of malnutrition.

Russian women know how American women live because they see them three nights a week on the hugely popular American soap opera, “Santa Barbara.” Women on the show don’t do much besides lounge around their beautiful homes wearing elegant clothing.

“American women are rich and independent,” a young woman at the Khabarovsk teacher’s college told me. “America is like a paradise.”

Women I don’t know call me wanting to introduce me to their daughter, a “young Elizabeth Taylor” or their friend, a tall “Vivian Leigh.” I suppose I could take more advantage of the circumstances. But I’m faced with two dilemmas: 1) How do know if I woman likes me or just my passport? 2) How can I date someone without raising the expectations that I’ll take her to a new life in Santa Barbara?

These young women are hard to resist, though. Flirtatious, demure, ultra-feminine, they’re the kind of women that American men haven’t seen in 30 years. Even their appearance is from a different era. It’s an Old World look — with gobs of make-up, high heels, fur hats and matching fur collars in winter, mini skirts in summer. For lonely Alaskan men, this is an easy place to fall in love. I occasionally see them at the Khabarovsk airport — the grinning, 50-year-old bureaucrat from Anchorage squeezing hands with his busty, bleach-blonde 23-year-old pen pal from Vladivostok; or the married, foul-mouthed Fairbanks hunting guide with his cultured Russian sweetheart; or the overweight 62-year-old Baptist preacher with his fiancee, a petite 24-year-old atheist. I suppose it’s a good trade off. The men get something they can’t get in America — a beautiful young wife. The women get self-cleaning ovens.

It’s not just the women who are eager to please you. Many people here go out of their way to befriend you and lavish upon you such warmth and hospitality it’s overwhelming. For the visiting American, this sudden rise in status is a wonderful feeling. Only later do you learn that for many Russians a friendship with an American means opportunity — maybe it means the possibility of a loan, or business contacts, or a trip to America; maybe it only means a chance to speak English or meet someone from another world. At the very least, an American friend brings prestige to any relationship and to any social gathering. As one Russian confided to me, “You’re like the general at the wedding.”

The New Year in Krasny Yar

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Scenes from the village of Krasny Yar


For most of the winter, the men of Krasny Yar live in hunting cabins scattered along the Bikin River. They return to the village only once — at the end of December — to celebrate the New Year.

I also celebrated the New Year in Krasny Yar. I came here to meet the hunters and escape life in a big Russian city. Compared to the stinking apartment buildings of Khabarovsk, Krasny Yar is paradise. The water is pure, the snow deep and soft. The food — made with wild meat and garden vegetables— tastes wonderful.

New Year’s Day is Russia’s biggest holiday. After the Soviets took power and discouraged the celebration of Christmas, many of the symbols of Christmas‚ such as Grandfather Frost and the decorated tree, were moved to New Year’s. Indeed, the whole spirit of the holiday has been successfully transplanted. New Years in Russia is a time for families to be reunited. Father Frost, Dyehd Moroz, is like our Santa Claus, except less robust and more elderly (he represents the old year, after all). To deliver presents to children, he needs the help of his granddaughter, Snigoorochka, the Snow Maiden.  Snigoorochka has blonde hair and a long blue and white coat. While Santa Claus sneaks into children’s homes late at night, Dyehd Maroz and Snigoorochka, are highly visible spirits. Portrayed usually by friends of the family, they arrive at children’s homes at a respectable hour and hand out presents to each child. The children in return are expected to give a little performance of holiday poems and songs.

Until early in this century, before Russian culture had crept into their remote valley in the Sikhote-Alin Mountains, the Udegeh had never celebrated the New Year. So all of their New Year traditions are Russian. Still, in Krasny Yar, it’s somehow easier to believe in Father Frost. Parents here tell their children that the old man lives in the forest nearby.

A few days ago, while skiing in the woods on the outskirts of the village, I noticed that the foot path looked odd — like someone had scraped it with a rake. Then I saw why — two boys had been dragging a yolka, an evergreen tree, from the forest where it had been cut. The village Soviet of People’s Deputies (town hall) also had a yolka. The kindergarten children held a party there. Dressed like deer, princesses and gypsies, they held hands and circled around the yolka. They sang:

In the forest a little fir-tree was born,

In the forest it grew up,

In the winter and in the summer it was

slender and green.

A snowstorm sang it a lullaby:

“Sleep, little fir-tree, bye-bye.”

The frost wrapped it with snow:

“Take care, do not get cold.”

Today, it’s so beautifully decorated,

It has visited us for the holiday,

And so much happiness

It has brought to little children.

At the New Year’s party in the school gym, Father Frost was played by my friend Radion, a skinny 26-year-old English teacher. His Snow Maiden was Svetlana, the school’s 36-year-old, part-time recreation director. Her front teeth are made of gold. Her hands are callused from chopping wood. She lives in an abandoned dress shop with her two daughters. A year ago, she divorced her husband a year ago because he drank too much.

I visited that little house several times this week. I should’ve been interviewing the hunters, but I enjoyed the company of Svetlana and her girls, especially her 7-year-old daughter Nina, whom I nicknamed Yabloko, which means apple. Like her mother, she has a beautiful, round Asian face.

I imagine this will come as a surprise to the reader. It was to me. By the end of the week, Svetlana said she wanted to be my wife.

“But where would we live?” I asked, taking her proposal with humor, but somehow not quite ready to dismiss it entirely.

“Krasny Yar,” she said.

On New Year’s Eve, the hunters and their families gathered in their homes and ate the biggest meal of the year. Several had invited me for dinner. In my effort not to offend them, I had promised to visit each family for a toast. I was supposed to be at Radion’s father’s house for midnight. When the grand moment arrived, however, I missed it. I was caught between houses, walking down the street with the Snow Maiden, learning the Russian words for the moon and stars.