I’m sitting in the living room of Svetlana’s sister, Lena, in the village of Pobeda, located in the middle of nowhere, or more specifically, on a swamp about 100 kilometers north of Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East.
It was difficult getting here. Nineteen years ago, I arrived in a large helicopter that carried nearly 20 passengers. But helicopter service to the village ended years ago.
So that left us with the option of a ferry. But drought conditions have complicated travel by water. We normally would have taken a ferry from Khabarovsk, first on the Amur River, then on Khor River and then on the Tunguska River. But the Khor River is now too shallow for the ferry.
We rode the ferry as far as it could go. Then we hired a Nania man and his wife to take us the rest of the way to Pobeda in their small motorboat.
Even then, we slowed down several times to avoid hitting the river bottom.
We’ve been living in Pobeda for four days now, and a typhoon from the Sea of Japan is raging outside, which is good news because we hope it will raise the river enough for the ferry.
The land around the village is flat, mostly tree-less wetlands, with the occasional cluster of birch trees. There’s whole forest of trees on the uplands away from the river. I see mountains to the north.
Mosquitoes are so numerous we can sometimes hear them outside the house. This afternoon, I tried to take photos of the dark clouds of the approaching typhoon, but the mosquitoes drove me inside. When I came in, my wife shed the mosquitoes stuck to my body by slapping me with a towel, as if she were brushing off snow.
The village was established as a logging hub after the Great Patriotic War and given the name of “Pobeda,” the Russian word for “victory.” Really? I would like to see what a village called “defeated” looks like.
Pobeda is home to 1,500, about half the number that lived here two decades ago. Its inhabitants are Russians, not indigenous. While it’s tidier than Krasny Yar, its streets are oddly empty.
This is a scary place.
It seems like a frontier town of the old American West. Walk down the streets here and children turn away and close their garden gates behind them. People are nervous about my camera. Women avert their heads. Nobody looks at you when then walk by. I ask some young men if I could take their photograph, and they angrily demand to be paid. One of them asks me, “How did you end up in a place like this?”
Even the dogs are mean. Lena keeps two chained outside the house. The big one is half wolf and howls at night, launching a cascade of howling and barking among all the dogs on the street.
Almost every household keeps a dog to discourage intruders. Barbed wire runs on top of some of the fences.
Ihila, my daughter, goes running here every day. She prefers the quiet road outside the village. She runs by a beautiful stand of birch trees, a field of trash, and a little cemetery hidden in the woods. I follow behind on a bicycle. When she runs back to the village, she asks me to ride as close as possible to her.
From a distance, we notice a group of teenage boys sitting and smoking. When we walk closer, we are surprised to discover that these boys are actually men. My daughter says she’s not used to grown men sitting around doing nothing. Most of the men here wear camouflage, adding a military touch to their tough-guy poses.
Yesterday, a middle-aged man, halfway drunk but harmless, saw me walking and gave me a ride to Lena’s house in his van, explaining that it was not safe for me to walk alone.
Since the government-run logging company shut down in the 1990s, there hasn’t been much to do here.
People depend heavily on their vegetable gardens to supplement their pension checks or government assistance checks. The taiga — home to boar, wild goats, deer and moose — is not as reliable as it once was, though. Hunters must now travel deeper and deeper into the forest to find game.
Alcoholism here is so prevalent it seems normal. A good portion of the men I see in public are in various stages of intoxication, even in the morning.
Within the first five minutes of arriving here, a drunken woman pushing a stroller with a baby girl asks me for a cigarette. She lets me take her child’s photograph. When I look at the photos afterward on my laptop, I see that the poor child’s face is covered with red marks, and that she is constantly scratching and pinching herself.
On September 1, students and parents gathered for a morning ritual repeated on the first day of school in every elementary school across Russia. Nine first-graders, all dressed beautifully in dresses and suits, presented flowers to teachers, recited poetry and sang songs, while the rest of the older students looked on. One of the first-grader’s father, who was drunk, ruined the event by repeatedly shouting out the name of his poor son and urging me to take a photo of the boy, which I did in an attempt to keep the man quiet.
The school hasn’t change since I was here in 1993, except for all the empty classrooms. Enrollment has plummeted by 65 percent, from 350 to 122.
Families are leaving Pobeda to find work, said Irene Vityazeva, an English teacher whom I first met in 1993. She said many villages in Russia are in worse condition than Pobeda.
“I think this province in Russian in dying,” she told me, speaking not of this region but all of all of rural Russia. “Cities are developing. Villages are dying.”
She said she does not feel safe here.
My family has reasons to fear Pobeda. Lena’s husband, Valeri Menshov, a truck driver, was murdered in 2001, his body found in the river. He was already dead before he was thrown in a river. The police did not make any arrests. His family believes his death had something to do with organized crime, that he had seen something he wasn’t supposed to see.
Last December, Lena’s 19-year-old son, Yuri, was killed at a school dance party.
Yuri, a well-liked and kind boy, had just returned home from the Russian Army. A 16-year-old boy, known for his cruelty, was harassing one of Yuri’s friends when Yuri interceded, according to Vityazeva, the English teacher. The boy lunged at Yuri with a knife, stabbing him in the side of his body. Nobody could stop the bleeding. When the helicopter arrived from Khabarovsk, it was too late.
An ambulance — an old military van – took his body to Khabarovsk for an autopsy, traveling over a road that exists only in winter because it crosses frozen swamps and rivers.
My wife, Svetlana, flew from Maine to Khabarovsk on New Year’s Day, retrieved her nephew’s body from the city morgue and brought him home to Pobeda to be buried. She rode in the same ambulance that had brought him to the city. A large contingent of the village was waiting when the ambulance arrived in Pobeda around midnight.
It was the first time she had seen her sister in 17 years, and she was delivering the body of her youngest son.
He was burred next to his father in the little cemetery in the woods.
Furious about the killing, villagers complained to the authorities and the media in Khabarovsk about the lawlessness here. TV reporters came and made a story out of the tragedy, and the police came and asked a lot of questions. Still, the 16-year-old has yet to be arrested, and the people here wonder if there can ever be justice in a forgotten village on the far side of Siberia.
The dogs are quiet tonight. The rain is heavy. We hope the typhoon will hold its power and raise the river enough for the ferry to come and get us.
– Tom Bell