By Tom Bell
KHABAROVSK – This morning I received a call from Asa Abramova, a small, 72-year-old Jewish woman who lives alone. She worked for 46 years as a cashier in a food store. For her pension, she receives 9,000 rubles a month – enough to buy a loaf of bread and a bottle of milk a day.
“Come right away,” she shouted on the phone. “Ten minutes. Ten minutes. I need you now.”
Mark Butler, an Alaskan businessman, first introduced me to her two weeks ago because he wanted my advice on how to help her. She lives near the center of Khabarovsk on the second floor of a Stalin-era apartment building. With their high ceilings and solid construction, these Stalin buildings are the most prized addresses in the city.
If she privatized her apartment, she could sell it for $50,000 and move into a smaller apartment farther from downtown, with enough money left over to live comfortably for the rest of her life. But she doesn’t have anyone to guide her through the long trail of paperwork. Her husband, daughter and son are dead. Her neighbors harass her. The years of isolation have left her without any social skills. She repeats herself constantly. She’s so eager to please she practically shakes in apprehension. The total effect is so annoying that no one can stand being around her for more than a few minutes.
The first time I met her was at her apartment. I acted as a translator for Mark. It was any easy task since she only recited a few simple phrases over and over. She was in constant motion — either cleaning something or running into the kitchen and then running back. One one trip from the kitchen, she brought back boiled fish. It tasted terrible. She didn’t eat it. She just sat on the couch watching Mark and me eat it. When we finished, she plopped more boiled fish on our plates. During one of her trips to the kitchen, I stuffed the remainder of the fish into a napkin. When she came back, I excused myself to the bathroom and I flushed it down the toilet.
Asa Abramova lives in an impeccably clean three-room flat. The thick stucco walls are painted in pastel tones. The furniture is from the 1930s and ’40s. French doors separate the bedroom from the dining room. In the china cabinet, amidst a crystal pieces, she keeps her most cherished possessions — the family photographs. Her husband, a stern man in a dark suit, was a local Communist Party leader. He died of a heart attack 12 years ago. Her two children died of cancer before they reached middle age. Each photograph is carefully wrapped in newspaper to protect it.
After we finished eating our meal, she seemed to relax a bit. I decided to test the waters. I mentioned that she would never worry about money if she sold her apartment and moved someplace else. We could help her with the paperwork and find a new apartment, I said. She smiled in agreement. But I didn’t think she understood, so I explained again. This time her reaction was different. She shook her head. “Nyet, nyet, nyet, nyet, nyet.”
I could eventually convince her to sell apartment and move, I suppose, but that would mean spending a lot of time with her. Frankly, I don’t want to make the effort. I told Mark that the only man who is going to remove her from her apartment is the coroner.
I’ve noticed that the Americans who survive the longest in Russia have the coldest hearts. It’s just self-protection. You can never help enough or give enough here. The recipients of your goodwill just come back for more and more, and then when you stop, they become angry. Communism produced a culture of dependency, a whole nation on the take.
I have an American friend living here, a middle-aged woman who arrived from Anchorage seven months ago with an eager desire to help. Now she keeps herself locked up in her apartment and refuses to see anyone. I think she on the verge of a some sort of mental breakdown. I won’t make her mistake. Selfishness is a character trait I now cultivate without shame. Still, it’s not easy turning off feelings of empathy.
When Asa Abramova called me this morning, she was looking for Mark. I told her he had returned to Alaska, and she began to cry. The only way I could get her to stop crying was to promise to visit her immediately. I walked about ten blocks in a snow storm to her apartment. When I arrived, she was standing at the top of the staircase waiting for me.
She said a repairman had come to fix her phone and had charged her 6,000 rubles. She asked me to give her money to pay the bill, which I did. At this point I tried to make my exit, but she wouldn’t let me go.
“In America, food is cheap?” she asked while wrapping her hands around my arm.
“Yes,” I said.
“Please,” she said, “bring me a can of meat from America.” She ran to her kitchen and returned with an empty can. ” Like this, ” she said. “A can of meat. A can of meat. A can of meat. A can of meat. A can of meat from America. If you give me a can of meat, I can make some soup and eat the whole month.” She began to weep. Her hands were clenched in trembling, little-old-lady fists.
The wet snow that had collected on my sable hat was now melting and dripping onto her floor and forming a puddle. She noticed this, and momentarily stopped weeping to wipe up the floor with a cloth. When she was finished, I gave her a 10,000 ruble note.
“I can of meat from America,” she said as I walked down the stairs. “I can of meat from America.”