By Tom Bell
KHABAROVSK- “It’s better to have 100 friends than 100 rubles,” goes the Russian proverb. Despite its enormous size, Russia is run on the basis of personal connections. People cultivate a network for protection against the risks of daily life. Whether dealing with stubborn bureaucrats or busted plumbing, they solve a problem by calling someone the know.
Like a good Russian, I’ve been building my network of friends. My most dependable friend here, Sergey Lashonov, is a short, barrel-chested 26-year-old helicopter mechanic. I met him last December at the English Club. Although he knew many English words, his accent was rough, and he spoke slowly, straining to pronounce the words correctly. His English teacher, an elderly woman who lived in his apartment building, had only taught him grammar, he explained. What he needed, he said, was practice speaking English, especially with Americans. I needed an interpreter. We struck a deal. I’d teach him how to speak English properly, and he’d work for me as an interpreter a few hours a week. But he has done more than that. He has become my Man Friday in Russia. He taught me how to talk to telephone operators so they wouldn’t hang up on me. He found families for me to stay with when I traveled outside Khabarovsk. He helped me buy train tickets and exchange money. In return, I introduced him to American businessmen, Peace Corps volunteers and a Japanese journalist. His boss at the government-owned airline, a division of Aeroflot now being privatized, has been so impressed with Sergey’s new contacts that he recently gave him a new job – “engineer of marketing.”
“What do you know about marketing?” I asked Sergey when he told me the news.
“Nothing at all,” he said, laughing. He said he hated his job as a helicopter mechanic and was eager to launch a new career, even if he wasn’t quite sure what it was.
During his first week as a marketing engineer, he took me on a helicopter trip to a half-built fishing lodge deep in the pine forests of the Bazhal Mountains, about 150 miles north of Khabarovsk. We flew there in a Mil-8 helicopter, the kind that carried combat troops in Afghanistan. A dozen construction workers came with us. The lodge will be for foreign tourists. Sergey brought me there because he wanted my advice on how to market it to Americans.
That night, the construction workers cooked up a big meal — fish, moose and potatoes. They drank vodka and sang Russian folk songs until past midnight. While they caroused, my thoughts were about the nature of my friendship with Sergey. It was a true Russian friendship in that we had grown dependent on each other. The friendships I have at home are based more on common interests and a shared sense of humor. Friendship in Russia is different.
“In Russia, you need friends who are able to rescue you,” Sergey told me that night. “If I am faithful, I can rely on them, and they can rely on me.” Then he quoted Alexander Suvorov, an 18th century Russian general. “You must defend your friend, even if you die.”
The next morning, after we flew back to Khabarovsk, we had lunch at the home of the helicopter pilot. It was a Russian lunch, meaning that it lasted for four hours and included a bottle of vodka. Then we rode the bus home. When we said goodbye to each other, Sergey was a little drunk, but he said the same thing he always says: “Call me if you need me.”