It was 20 years ago when I first arrived in Krasny Yar. I had come here with Alaskan journalist and friend of mine, Hal Bernton, to help him with a documentary about how the Udegeh hunters were threatening to use their rifles to keep a Korean logging company from entering the virgin forests of the Bikin River basin. My role was simply to carry some equipment. At the time, I was writing a weekly column about the Russian Far East for the Anchorage Daily News.
I was living that year in the city of Khabarovsk because there were weekly flights between Khabarovsk and Anchorage. That’s how I got my columns to the newspaper in Alaska. This was before the Internet, and mailing letters would take weeks to arrive.
Every week, I went to the airport and tried to find someone flying to America. I handed them a stamped envelope containing my column and a couple rolls of film.
I had arrived in Russia in October, 1992. The Soviet Union that previous winter had collapsed, and so had the economy, as it began its wrenching transition away from communism to Russia’s own version of capitalism.
There was a huge interest at the time in Alaska about the Russian Far East or “Siberia,” as Alaskans called it. It was Alaska’s next-door neighbor, but the so-called Ice Curtain had prevented Americans from visiting the region since the beginning of the Cold War.
My strategy as a writer was to throw myself in interesting situations and write about what happened. So the trip to Krasny Yar made sense.
I had arrived in Russia in time to see the economic structures and way of life of the Soviet Union still intact and barely standing. The stale slogans of Communist propaganda were still everywhere.
When I first traveled in 1992 on the bus to Krasny Yar from Luchegorsk, a mining town near the Tans-Siberian Railroad, a poster of Yuri Gagarin, the hero Soviet cosmonaut, hung behind the bus driver.
By 1994, the poster had been replaced by a sexually provocative fashion ad.
Communism is a crazy idea that was doomed to fail. But remote villages like Krasny Yar benefited from the system. For one thing, the cost of consumer goods and food was the same throughout the country, no matter how far away from urban centers. And Krasny Yar, which is closer to Australia than to Moscow, was about as far away as one could be.
Unhitched from market forces, prices were set in a way that benefited the Udegeh trappers. For the amount of rubles they received for a six stable skins, they could rent a helicopter for an hour. In today’s market economy, it would take 100 skins.
The government had established a bakery that made delicious fresh bread. It was so cheap that people sometimes fed it to their cows.
The village also had a good school and a medical clinic. I was impressed that native people — not white people — ran the school and the clinic, unlike in the many native villages in Alaska.
The men in the village were dispatched to the forest to fulfill a quota of game and fur-bearing animals. In doing so, the government had been given work that was close to their traditional way of life.
There was less alcoholism in the village than in many Alaskan native villages.
The village was established in 1957 to settle the indigenous people who lived in scattered settlements along the Bikin River. It was built on a high bank of the river to be safe from floods.
“Krasny” is Russian for “red,” the favorite color of the Communists, and has nothing to do with the color of the soil here. “Yar” is an old Russian word for “bank.”
Despite being established at the dawn of the Space Age, the village in 1992 seemed medieval.
There were no cars because the Bikin River separated the village from the road system. In winter, though, the ice was thick enough to support the weight of trucks carrying goods for the village stores.
Everyone had vegetable gardens. They got their water using buckets from communal wells. Dozens of cows roamed the village roads.
When I first arrived in Krasny Yar, the most of hunters were away in their hunting cabins. I decided to return for the New Year’s holiday, the biggest holiday of the year in Russia, when all the hunters return to spend time with their families.
That’s when I met my future wife, Svetlana Lesnikova, at the New Year’s party at the school. I had brought my accordion and played dance music. She was dressed as the Snow Maiden, the granddaughter of Father Frost. I put my accordion down and danced with her.
I returned to Krasny Yar many times that year. In 1995, I brought Svetlana and her two daughters, Nina, 10 and Sasha, 18, to Alaska, and married there. Today, we all live in Maine and have a 16-year-old daughter, Ihila.
This August, I returned to Krasny Yar with Svetlana and Ihila. It was Svetlana’s first visit home in 17 years.
Svetlana’s return was cause of great joy as she met friends and family she has not seen in so many years. The whole village was waiting for us. Ihila had a great time playing with the young children that gravitated toward her. She also made several friends her age.
Our long absence from the village gave us an opportunity to see the changes that have occurred during the first two decades of the post-communist era.
Many people here asked us for our assessment.
Perhaps these observations are not of interest for many readers, but the 20-year span presents an unusual opportunity to observe an indigenous community in transition from communism to capitalism.
• There’s a bridge now over the Bikin River. When we were last here, reaching the village required crossing the river on a long, narrow boat. We didn’t cross directly, but would ride for several hundred yards upstream before landing on the other side of the river.
We call it the “new bridge” because it is new to us, although it already looks old, with missing railings and gaping holes. It’s actually three bridges strung together over islands in the river.
• There are cars in the village now. About a third of the households own a car, but most of them are out-of-operation and sit as junk on the side of the road or in people’s yards.
Villages here had no prior experience with cars. They tended to buy cheap, unregistered cars that needed repairs. They do not know how to fix them. So they drove them around the village until they died and then pushed them into their yards.
It would be prohibitively expensive to hall the junk cars to Luchegorsk, the nearest town, some four or five hours away.
A group of Japanese environmentalists are concerned about the junk cars and other discarded metal and plan to come to the village this fall to create a system to clean up the village.
• The bus from Luchegorsk is gone. The dirt road between Luchegorsk and Krasny Yar has fallen into disrepair from lack of maintenance. The road is so bad that the bus has stopped coming to the village.
So while the bridge has made it easier to cross the river, the poor condition of the road has made the village more isolated.
• The bakery is gone. However, there’s a village woman who bakes bread for sale in her kitchen.
• All the homes now have electricity, and it’s dependable. A diesel generator provides electricity for the village. Twenty years ago, it could be down for weeks at a time because of the lack of fuel.
• Dependable electricity means people can use electric pumps for getting water from their wells. In the old system people used buckets to get water from communal wells.
• Television has arrived. Most houses have satellite dishes that provide reception for both free and paid channels. Twenty years ago, the over-the-air signal was so poor that people didn’t watch much TV.
• The men still work as hunters and trappers. Rather than working for the government collective, they work for Community Tiger, a sort of community development organization, which organizes the hunters, buys the fur and brings it to market. One difference is the hunters must now pay their own expenses.
• There are fewer vegetable gardens and fewer cows. This may be a positive sign, though. The country’s economic condition in the 1990s was so unstable and frightening that people planted vegetables in every available piece of land in the village, to be assured they had enough to eat. Now people have more options.
• Many of the houses seem to be in poorer condition than 20 years ago. The government own most of the homes, and people pay a modest rent. Some people have spent the money and effort to privatize their homes. Those homes are in better shape. Two new houses are under construction, including the village’s first two-story house.
• There are fewer children. When Svetlana attended school here, there were 30 students in her grade. When her daughter, Nina, was in second grade in 1992, there were 20 students in her grade. This year, nine children will be entering first grade.
• There are fewer people. About 800 people lived here in 1992. Today, the village is home to 680. Many young adults, particularly college-educated women, have moved to cities where there are more opportunities.
The decline of the village’s population needs to be put in context. Villages all over Russia have experienced significant out-migration during the post-Soviet era, as people have moved to cities to find work. Many villages have disappeared altogether. Krasny Yar appears to be doing better than most.
• There’s a new museum celebrating Udegeh culture and a new annual summer festival featuring Udegeh and Nanai dancers and competition in Udegeh sports.
At the festival this August, the community appeared to be cohesive and healthy.
“People are still here. People are still alive. They still survive,” said my friend, Radion Sulyanziga, who was the school’s principle in 1992 and today is vice president of the Russian Association of the Indigenous People of North Siberia and the Far East. “They are still living and protecting this territory because this is our home.”
Tom Bell, Aug. 29. 2012.