A WINTER IN RUSSIA

Tom with fish

My catch from an afternoon of ice fishing on the Amur River.

By 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 about 630,000,  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.

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