Ticks and Tigers

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By Tom Bell

June 1994

KRASNY YAR – Svetlana’s Aunt Mia and Uncle Edik live upriver in the forest by themselves. They travel to Krasny Yar only a few times a year to pick up supplies. On my last visit to Krasny Yar, I finally got my chance to meet them. They came by Svetlana’s house for tea. Aunt Mia, a tough, big-boned Nanai woman chatted constantly. Her Russian husband, Uncle Edik, squatted on the floor. They spoke in Russian too fast for me to understand. I didn’t have much interest in following the conversation until Svetlana told me that they had invited me to live with them in the forest for a few days.

I had my worries about getting along with them. Still, I’d been eager to see more of the Bikin River watershed. Every other river basin in the Russian Far East has been logged to some extent, and only the Bikin has remained intact and truly wild. So I agreed to go.

We departed early the next morning. Wearing Svetlana’s winter parka (which I wore at her insistence), I laid down on a deer skin rug in the middle of a long, flat-bottomed boat. Mia sat up front with an oar and a long wooden pole at her side. Edik sat in the rear with his hand on the outboard motor. The boat traveled at about 8 m.p.h. It didn’t take me long to figure out why Svetlana had made me wear her parka. Although the temperature was mild, a steady 8 m.p.h. breeze gets chilly after a while, and this was going to be a 12-hour trip. I pulled a canvas blanket over me, covering everything but my head.

Viewed on a map, the Bikin is a tangled mess. The mud-brown river darts back and forth, forming so many islands and fingers that it seems like three or four rivers twisted together. It’s so spread out that its average depth sometimes is less than a foot. The river drops 3,700 feet during it’s a 375-mile-long journey to the Ussuri River yet rarely breaks into rapids. Its current is steady and swift, about the speed of someone jogging.

My role during our trip was to sit down and not do anything foolish, like try to help. When we reached a shallow section, 59-year-old Mia jumped into the water and pulled the boat with a chain, while I sat in the boat like an English aristocrat. When the motor later failed and the current pushed us downstream, Edik struggled to control our descent by shoving his pole against the river bottom. I took out my camera.

“Now you want to take pictures?” Edik shouted. He gave me such a nasty look I put my camera away.

Our mishap occurred near a summer fishing camp, so we were able to borrow a motor and continue on our trip without much delay. I fell asleep. When I woke up I noticed the trees had grown taller, and the forest thicker and wilder. Rounded, 3,000-foot mountains surrounded us, and ahead I could see the rugged peaks of Sikhote-Alin Range, the source of the Bikin.

The river was clearer here. The sun reached through the surface and touched the small stones on the bottom. A new landscape had opened up, with clouds of fish darting across moss-covered valleys and through forests of bowed, swaying reeds.

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By late afternoon, the sun had slipped below the treetops, and long shadows extended across the river. Edik guided the boat into the mouth of a narrow stream and pulled up alongside another boat. Our journey had come to an end. The breeze that had been with us all day had stopped. The sound of the motor was replaced by the whine of a million mosquitoes.

“Tom, run down that path, ” Mia shouted.

I threw my coat over my head, forming a peep-hole through which to see my way. The mosquitoes still managed to fly into my eyes and face. I sucked a few down with every breath until I learned to breathe only through my nose. I arrived at the cabin gagging. The door was locked. I tried the doors of several other buildings before finding sanctuary in the sauna.

I counted how many mosquitoes were sitting on me at one time. I counted more than 50 on my left leg alone. Avoiding mosquitoes soon became a way of life. Mosquito netting draped our beds, and we covered our head and faces with hats made with this netting whenever we went outside. Edik and Mia also carried buckets bellowing white smoke, which they swung about themselves when outside or around a room when they entered the house. When working outside, Edik strapped to his back a small canister filled with smoldering wood.

Mosquitoes may be annoying, but they aren’t dangerous, not like the ticks, the true menace in this wilderness. They can carry encephalitis, which can kill or paralyze a person. The ticks wait in the trees and bushes for warm-blooded hosts to stroll by, and then they grab on for a meal. But they don’t start digging right away. They usually wait until late at night when the host is asleep. If not removed, the ticks can stay as long as a week. It’s routine here to check your entire body for ticks every night and every time you return from the forest.

You can receive inoculation shots for the disease, but that has to be done before April. I had neglected to get my shots, and now it was too late in the season. Instead, I had brought an antidote, a clear liquid which needs to be injected. To keep the remedy cool, Edik stored it in their version of a refrigerator — a milk jug sitting in a cool-water stream that runs into the Bikin.

Before we had dinner that first night, we washed our bodies thoroughly in a wood-fueled sauna and checked each other for ticks. Then I made a mistake. Although I change my underwear, I put on the same pair of pants. While I was eating my fish soup, a large tick jumped off my pants and on to my leg. When Edik and Mia left to the river to check their nets, I stayed behind to do some writing, and while I worked, the tick was climbing. It didn’t stop until it found its way to some soft skin. I discovered the tick when I was in the outhouse. It had dug into the head of my penis and was drinking blood. I tried to pull it off, but it wouldn’t let go. I killed it with a match and pulled again, and this time it came out. After Edik came home, I called him into my room and explained the situation. I pulled down my pants, bent over a chair and grimaced while he gave me a shot of the antidote.

“That will be a lesson for you,” Aunt Mia said.

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The next morning I ventured into the outside world and take a look around the sprawling homestead. There was the original house, now decaying and abandoned, a new one-room log cabin, a half-enclosed kitchen, two workshops, three storage sheds, a tractor, a rusted-out trailer, four yapping dogs, eight cats, a bicycle with two flat tires, a motorcycle, several large garden plots, 85 box-shaped beehives, a cleared-out field for an airstrip, another smaller field intended for a helicopter landing pad. The landscape here was surprisingly level. I couldn’t see any mountains, only some small hills in the distance. How strange it was to travel so far upriver to arrive at a place at flat as Ohio.

In the workshop, I studied a topographical map to get my bearings. We were on a forested plateau, which stretched eastward for several miles, rose to another plateau of 1,750 feet, and then continued eastward until interrupted by the jagged peaks of 4,000- to 5,500-foot-tall mountains. On the other side of those mountains, 80 miles away, was the Sea of Japan.

The map explained the area’s extreme climate and rich biodiversity. In summer, the wind carries warm moisture from the sea over the mountains and unleashes monsoon rains. It’s so warm and lush here, and so rich in fauna and wildlife, that the Bikin River basin is sometimes called “Russia’s Amazon.” In winter, though, when the prevailing wind blows from Siberia, the mountains block the ocean’s moderating influence, and temperatures routinely drop to more than 30 degrees below zero. That’s why the animals here, like mink and sable, dress themselves with such luxuriant fur.

On this June morning, frost coated the grass, and the mosquitoes mercifully stayed in bed. After breakfast, Edik and I took the boat down the river. We drifted silently with the current, Edik holding his rifle in one hand in case he stumbled upon something worth killing.

The game here: elk, red deer, roe deer, wild boar and a type of pheasant. It’s illegal to hunt game from Jan. 15 to Oct. 15., but Edik and Mia were tired of eating fish and salted meat, and they don’t hold much regard for legal technicalities. We didn’t find any animals, only fresh deer footprints on the moss-covered floor of a lagoon. We had more luck when we checked a set net. There were two lenoks (a trout-sized fish covered with black, leopard-like spots) and a 10-pound taimen (a sharped-tooth predator that swallows its prey whole). Taimen can weigh as much 60 pounds. Edik said the largest he’d caught weighed nearly 40 pounds. I later measured the dried head of this monster, which he had kept as a souvenir. It was almost eight inches in diameter.

After we came home with our catch, we put on our mosquito nets and rubber boots and took a walk in the neighborhood to check the watering holes and salt licks for signs of visitors. Joining us were two small hunting dogs, Dollar and Yena. Everywhere we traveled Edik saw the ghosts of animals. A bear had trampled here, an elk had slept there, a deer had stepped in the mud here. We found some fresh deer prints in the mud around a small pond about a half mile east of the house. Here, Edik would return later that night, and with a flashlight strapped to his rifle, hide in a platform he had built in a tree.

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As we returned home, we walked through a field of ferns that reached to my armpits. Everything here, from the ancient oaks trees to the towering pines, was oversized. One towering pine measured nearly 12 feet in circumference, and the circumference of a chosenia, a soft-wood popular tree, measured 18 feet. The variety of trees was spectacular — a mixture of coniferous and broad-leafed deciduous. Nowhere else in the world does a temperate rain-forest and a coniferous forest (taiga) come together like this. There’s Korean pine, Manchurian nut, oaks, larch, cedar, maple, aspen, elm. More than 200 varieties of medicinal plants are found here, such as vitamin-rich lemonica berries, Eleutherococcus roots and ginseng.

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But as exotic as this forest was, it also struck me as familiar. Some of the same trees are found in the woods of my native New England, roughly located on the same latitude and, to a lesser extent, also serving as a meeting ground for southern and northern species. The only old-growth areas in New England today are small bushes and dwarfed trees on tops of some mountains. New Englanders have lost forever the sense of what the landscape looked like in its natural condition.

Because of its distance from Europe and the years of economic stagnation and isolation under communism, the botanical ecosystem of the Bikin basin has remained unchanged for thousands of years. In the last few years, the basin has been protected mainly because of the political savvy of the Udegeh people. Every time a company proposes to log the area, the Udegeh appeal for help from the international environmental community. So far they’ve been able to garner enough support to make it politically embarrassing for the Russian government to permit the logging. The recent expansion of lumber exports in exchange for hard currency has increased the risk that the Bikin may someday be opened for logging. Because the forest sits on a plateau, I now realized, logging would be especially devastating; with few steep slopes to worry about, the lumber companies could quickly and easily strip the whole area

For 25 years Edik and Mia Nekracov have lived on this 99-square-mile plot of land. In the summer, they fish, tend their vegetable gardens, keep bees, hunt for meat and gather edible plants in the forest — mushrooms, cedar nuts, hazelnuts, cowberries, blueberries, ferns.

During winter months, they work as staff hunter/trappers for the state hunting cooperative based in Krasny Yar. They have 170 traps and five cabins. It takes four days for both of them to check all the traps. They work separately, always carrying a rifle with them in case they should see a bear (which they would kill for its valuable liver) or game. They travel by foot until after the New Year, when deeper snow requires skis. They bury their traps a few inches under the snow in areas where they’ve seen several sets of tracks, on the assumption that the animal is likely to travel that way again. They use a variety of trap sizes. The smallest, for sable, is the size of a tea saucer. The largest, for wolf, has five-inch-long blades. They usually bait a trap with fish or rabbit meat, which is laid next to the trap in a tiny teepee-shaped shelter made from branches.

The purpose of a trap is not to injure an animal nor even to hold it in place. If a trap was staked to the ground, the animal might chew its leg off to free itself. Instead, traps are attached by a chain to a large branch, which lays freely on the ground. Once caught, the animal drags the branch until it’s too tired to move any further. It freezes to death. If a trapper finds a sable of mink still alive, he places his hand over the animal’s heart and squeezes until the beat stops. When Aunt Mia first began hunting 25 years ago and encountered her first live sable, a “beautiful little thing,” she couldn’t bring herself to kill it. She carried it home alive and gave it to her husband. He was furious. If she wanted to live in the forest with him, she would have to learn how to kill her own animals, he told her. Today, Aunt Mia kills sables as cold and quickly as any professional trapper.

In the fall, the government gave Nekrasovs a quota: Deliver by the following spring 30 sable pelts, 20 mink, 5 Russian mink, 1 otter, 150 squirrel and 120 kilograms of deer meat. In return, they would receive 281,000 rubles, about $180. However, due to the declining wildlife population caused by over-hunting, the couple failed to bring in the required number of pelts and meat. They ended up receiving 140,000 rubles, about $90.

This income was fairly typical for the other 38 staff hunters, although some of the hunters also sold some of their pelts on the black market where they fetch a higher price. I know this practice goes on because I bought some of these black market pelts myself last winter. The transaction took place in a hunter’s home. During our negotiations, after someone abruptly came into the house, the hunter quickly stashed the furs in a drawer. A hunter caught selling furs on the black market may have his hunting land taken away from him. Hunters lease their land free-of-charge from the state hunting cooperative.

Just a couple of years ago hunters were considered well paid. At the end of the season, Edik and Mia could afford to buy a car with their combined earnings. In those days, when the economy was structured on the idea of providing full employment even in remote areas, the cooperative was heavily subsidized. Now market efficiency rules, and most subsidies have been taken away. Meanwhile, price controls on commodities such as gasoline have been lifted, and the cost of most things have risen to world market levels.

How far has the hunters’ purchasing power fallen? Five years ago, a hunter could sell two sable skins and earn enough money to rent an airplane for an hour to ship a ton of goods. Today, a hunter would have to sell 40 skins for the same service.

The Udegeh use to sing a song:

Peristroika, Peristroika, assasa, assasa

Gorbechev, Gorbechev, assasa, assasa

“Assasa” is the Udegeh word for “Thank you.”

Today, they’d use a different word, “seminyeh,” which means lies.

The Nekracovs, like most of the hunters, are despondent over the changes. I tried to explain to them that the old days were kak v’skasky, like in a fairy tale. The country’s inefficient economic system was propped up by a reckless plundering of its natural resources. The fairy tale couldn’t last forever. When the price of oil fell in the 1980s, the economy was destined to crash, with or without peristroika’s help. The Nekracovs didn’t agree with my reasoning.

Next month the cooperative will be privatized. Its 120 workers will become shareholders, owning 51 percent of the shares, the government will keep 20 percent, and the remaining shares will sold on the open market.

Leases for the hunting lands will be auctioned off on a competitive basis, with the first two years rent-free. Current lease-holders will have a priority, and lease-holders who are members of “national minorities,” such as the Udegeh, won’t have to pay taxes on the land.


Besides furs and meat, the cooperative also handles other forest products such as ginseng, pine nuts and fiddleheads, an edible fern popular with the Japanese. Until a year ago, the cooperative also owned a number of beehives​. During summer months, Edik had worked as a bee-keeper for the cooperative. Last fall, when he heard the cooperative was getting rid of its hives, he decided to buy the 100-or-so hives on the property as well as the honey-processing equipment, paying a million rubles, about $750 at the time. It turned out to be a mistake. The price of honey is so depressed he feeds his bees honey instead of sugar. Meanwhile, the rise in fuel prices has made air transport too expensive, so he has to make the 200-mile round-trip to Krasny Yar by boat. His honey, made by bees working in a pure environment, is of the best quality, but unless he finds some affluent buyers willing to pay a premium price, it doesn’t make economic sense to make honey so deep in the forest.

His solution is to buy his own airplane or helicopter so he can transport his honey to markets. He doesn’t have a pilots license, and his life savings of $75 won’t even buy him fuel for one plane trip. When I tell him that his plan is unrealistic, he says he’ll settle for an ultra-light plane, the kind with fabric wings and an open cockpit. He’s read several magazine articles about it. We’ve spent hours together going over the articles and discussing his idea of flying honey and supplies over the forest. He thinks if he had a plane then everything would turn out all right.


Every afternoon with binoculars in hand, Edik stands guard over his bees. That’s the time of day they’re most likely to swarm and search for new hives. He follows them until they rest on a tree branch, and he sprays them with water to keep them from flying again. He then shakes the bees into a box and puts them into a cool cellar, where they wait until the next day before being put into a new hive.

Although he has more honey now than he knows what to do with, he must stand watch every day over his bees and keep them employed — or risk losing them all to the forest. About once a day, a jetliner flies high overhead, and Edik runs out of the cabin and turns his binoculars upward. He can identify the aircraft by the sound of the engine. “That’s a Boeing engine,” he’d say. “Can’t you hear how quiet it is? It’s flying to Khabarovsk from Tokyo.”

The Nekrasovs raised a family here in the wilderness, two girls and a boy. (This is their first summer without any of their children living with them.) The longer I stayed with the couple, the more I became awed by their endurance. They worked constantly, each taking responsibility for specific tasks. Edik takes care of the beehives. Mia washes the clothes. Edik hunts for meat. Mia cooks the food. When they take their boat on the river to check their gill nets, Edik always controls the motor. Mia, who sits up front scanning the water for obstacles, directs the route of travel.

They’ll weed the garden together, although I think Mia is in charge of the garden. There are three gardens, and they contain everything worth growing — potatoes, carrots, corn, beets, cucumbers, cabbages, sunflowers, pumpkins, radishes, white and black beans, tomatoes, horseradish, garlic, dill, pepper, blackberries and raspberries.

I tried to help. I volunteered to weed, but Mia was afraid I’d kill the potatoes by mistake. When I suggested that I cut the grass with a scythe, Edik said they couldn’t afford another one if I broke it. When I tried splitting some wood, Mia said it would be better if I would take a rest. In the end, they gave me the kind of tasks they might have given a visiting four-year-old — pumping the well water and stacking wood.

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Every time I made a mistake, my status in the forest dropped further and further. I reached bottom while fishing with Mia. I lost a fish because I didn’t tie the hook right. Mia cursed at me under her breath. Then I climbed in the boat and tried to pole myself upriver to the cabin so I could get a new hook. I stood in the back of the boat as I poled, however, and had a hard time keeping the boat straight in the current. Mia shouted at me to get out of the boat and walk along the bank instead. I realized later that I should have poled from the front of the boat. I must have looked ridiculous.

I feared Mia. She’s a woman of strong opinions, and she doesn’t mind sharing them, especially when they concern the deficiencies of other people. I knew that every mistake I made would be recounted later among her friends in Krasny Yar.

One morning we went fishing with a gill net. While Edik and Mia stretched the net across a section of the river, I waded upstream and smacked the water with a pole. Three lenoks swam into our trap! But such triumphs were rare. With few chores to do, I spent most of my time in the woodshed writing. I only went outdoors to go fishing with the Nekrasovs or for occasional hikes in the woods.

It’s an eery feeling to stroll in a place inhabited by Siberian tigers, the world’s largest cat. I knew tigers were around here because Edik had shown me a fresh paw print in a river bank less than a half mile from the cabin.

I placed my hand over the tiger’s print in the mud. It was about 5 inches by 4 inches.

Edik assured me tigers go to great lengths to avoid people. In the 20 years he’s lived here, he’s seen only four, one of which he shot and killed after it had eaten his dog. Maybe between 30 and 50 tigers live in the river basin, but no one knows for sure. This year hunters say they’ve seen more tigers than usual, and they’re seeing them in places where they’d never seen them before. This might seem like good news, but environmentalist say tigers are coming into the basin from other areas that are being logged.

We ate our meals in the kitchen, a small, unfinished log building with a wood stove and a sheet of clear plastic for one of the walls. Our diet: home-made bread, fried fish, fish cutlets, fish soup, old, heavily-salted deer meat, fish soup, fish soup, fish soup and occasionally some fish soup. Every night Erik had gone hunting, and every morning he had come home empty-handed.

I was only supposed to stay with the Nekrasovs for three or four days. According to the original plan, Mia’s brother, Uncle Serosha, was supposed to bring me back to the village. But where was he? After my eighth day with the Nekracovs, we traveled 10 kilometers upriver to Uncle Serosha’s cabin, but there was no sign of him.

Every October, Uncle Serosha and the other hunters of Krasny Yar travel to their winter cabins in boats loaded down with supplies and snowmobiles. In March, they ride their machines on the frozen river back to Krasny Yar. In the following summer, they must retrieve their boats so they can start the process all over again. This summer, however, the higher price of gasoline means that few hunters can afford to travel this far upriver. In seven days, I hadn’t seen a single person on the river, other than the Nekrasovs. Edik couldn’t take me back because he had to tend to his bees. Mia didn’t know how to operate the boat’s motor. An old man named Ivan Gombovich lived in a cabin 10 kilometers down river. We checked it three times, and he was never home. Evidentially he was visiting family in Krasny Yar.

On the way back home from the Uncle Serosha’s cabin, we stopped to check a net stretched across a lagoon. There were no fish, but on the algae covering the lagoon floor lay the dark footprints of a deer. The sun had just set and daylight was quickly disappearing. We headed into the river’s main current, and that’s when we saw the deer climbing onto the bank. Edik fired two shots before it escaped in the bush.

“We saw him too late,” Edik said. We moved the boat towards the shore, and he climbed on the bank and ran into the brush. Another shot.

“Tom, come here!” he shouted. I ran towards the direction he was pointing. I saw the deer on the ground, its head moving slowly and silently. I was close enough to touch it. By the time Edik came up to it, it was dead.

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Edik disemboweled it quickly while Mia waved leaves about his head to keep the mosquitoes away. Then together Edik and I dragged the deer towards the boat, each pulling on a front leg and ear. It was heavy. We had to use all our strength to pull it through the brush. While I had no skills for the forest, at least I had raw muscle power. I was finally contributing.

When we got home, we dragged the deer to the wooden platform where Mia does​ her laundry. Edik fired up the generator and butchered the deer under an electric light, while a nearby smoldering bucket kept him wrapped in a shroud of smoke. It was an eerie sight — the white, illuminated smoke, the rumbling generator, the heavy thump of the ax. Edik lifted the deer’s head and threw it to the side, and three cats rushed to inspect it. We placed most of the meat in a shed to be smoked. The rest we stored in milk jugs sitting in the brook.

We had a feast that night. Edik offered me some of the horn, which he claimed was an aphrodisiac, and Mia urged me to eat the bone marrow and raw chopped liver. I declined both and dug into the plate of fried deer meat. We ate without conversation. We ate like wolves.

That night, it rained heavily – a torrential, unrelenting wall of water. The next morning, we discovered that the nearby brook had flooded overnight, and my encephalitis antidote was gone. Edit and I jumped in the boat and motored downriver. After several hundred yards, we found a jumble of branches that had been swept down the river in the flood and but were now trapped by a large tree that had fallen into the river. And from that jumble we snatched up the milk jug containing the antidote.

I had been 11 days in the forest. Where was Uncle Serosha?

Up until two years ago, it wouldn’t have been so difficult to return. Fuel was still cheap then, and small planes ferrying cargo and passengers occasionally flew overhead. If Edik wanted a ride, he’d shoot a flare, and a plane would land in his grass airstrip. Nobody these days can afford a plane, and Edik’s airstrip is overgrown.

I thought about floating down the river in a raft. It would take three days to reach Krasny Yar, but Edik and Mia wouldn’t let me go, explaining that it would be too dangerous.

Barred from performing most chores, I spent most of my time in the woodshed. There,I wrote letters, kept a journal and listened to short-wave radio. My favorite stations were the BBC, Radio Netherlands and Voice of America. I learned that the dollar fell to new lows against the yen and that European bureaucrats were arguing again in Brussels. However, the radio gave me no news on the whereabouts of Uncle Serosha. Krasny Yar, only 60 miles away in a straight line, seemed farther away than any place on earth.

Eventually, the radio’s batteries went dead, leaving me alone with the unceasing buzz of mosquitoes flying around the room. When the weather was humid, their numbers increased so much that I retreated to my screen-covered bed. Their high-pitched drone sounded ghost-like.

About every 30 minutes or so a wasp would start rattling against the window. At first, the noise was an irritation, but then I noticed that the two windows in the shed acted like gravity fields for the wasps. I had an idea for a game. I captured a wasp in a film canister and placed the canister on the other side of the shed. By the time the wasp had worked its way out of the canister, I was positioned directly between the windows. I held a paddle designed for removing snow from traps. The flight-pattern of a wasp is like a knuckle-ball. My goal was to hit it into the mosquito netting over my bed. A home run was fatal for the wasp.

By my 13th day, I noticed some small seasonal changes. The days had grown a little warmer and more humid, with mid-day temperatures climbing into the 80s. A new irritating insect had joined us — the gnat, and Edik’s bees had begun producing honey.

“In another 10 days, you can watch me process it,” Edik said.

One morning during a game of wasp baseball, I heard Mia shout something about the sound of a motor. I raced towards the river with Edik following behind me. We climbed into the boat and headed down to the main channel, and there we saw a boat containing four Udegeh men and a dog. The men said they were going upriver and wouldn’t return for some time. They said there was no sign of Uncle Serosha.

Walking back to the cabin, I heard the sound of a helicopter. I sprinted to an open field and tried to wave it down, but it was too far away.

For the next two days, it rained. On the third day a strong wind blew through, and from the forest came the crackling of tree limbs splitting and crashing to the ground. It sounded just like firecrackers, which was appropriate since the date was July 4th. The wind pushed away the clouds, the rain, the humidity, the mosquitoes, the gnats. For the first time, it was a pleasure to be outdoors.

I sat on the porch with Mia and Edik and the dogs. We didn’t keep a bucket of smoke nearby or wave branches about our heads. We just sat there enjoying the sunlight and dry air.

The local name for their land is Lauxhye (Chinese for “old river”). According to the topographical map I found in the work shed, the ruins of an ancient Udegeh village lie within a few hundred feet of Edik and Mia’s cabin, although Edik and Mia said they’ve never seen the ruins.

In addition to the Udegeh, a group of Old Believers once lived in the area. After the Soviets gained power in 1922, they fled to this forest because it was remote and beyond Soviet control. In 1932, an officer from the defeated White Army came up the Bikin and tried to organize the Old Believers into rebelling against the Soviet authorities. A contingent of Soviet soldiers then came to capture the officer and suppress any potential rebellion. A battle ensued. The White Army officer and many of the Old Believers were killed

In 1936, the government decided that the level terrain of Lauxhye would be suitable for growing wheat. Or perhaps it just wanted to establish its authority in the forest. In any case, many of the now-retired soldiers who had put down the rebellion returned to Lauxhye again, but this time they brought their families. Twenty-six Russian families lived here and labored for the wheat cooperative. The cooperative lasted four years.

Amidst the Russian soldiers, there was also one Udegeh family, headed by an old man named Gombo. In keeping with old Udegeh custom, Gombo had three wives. These three wives gave him three sons. One son was killed by the Japanese in the Great Patriotic War. The second son moved to Kamchatka. The third son, now age 66, lives 10 kilometers down river. His name is Ivan Gombovich.

July 4th was my independence day. That evening we went downriver to see if Ivan Gombovich was home. He was. He was eating dinner with most of his family — his wife, two sons and two grandchildren. We joined them. The main dish was fish soup. Ivan Gombovich said he had grown weary of fish and wanted some fresh deer meat, but he was unable to shoot one. After some small talk, we began negotiations. Ivan Gombovich agreed to take me to Krasny Yar the next morning. In exchange, I would pay 50,000 rubles, and Edik would give him a side of fresh deer.

After dinner, Edik, Mia and I headed back upstream to the cabin. Within five minutes we spotted a deer swimming in the middle of the river. Edik pulled the boat alongside the deer and shot it in the head. We pulled the carcass into the boat and continued on our way.

Ivan Gombovich would have his meat.

Post-script. Several years after I wrote this story, Edik has was attacked by a tiger. He survived the encounter, but his face was badly disfigured. Mia died a few years ago.

In 2015, the Russian government created the Bikin National Park to protect the largest remaining old-growth mixed forest in the Northern Hemisphere, habitat for the Siberian tiger and the forest culture of the 600 indigenous inhabitants living in the river basin. In 2018, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization designated the basin a World Heritage Site.


Pickwick Tea and Biscuits

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By Tom Bell

April, 1993

KHABAROVSK – Yuri Ratnek is lecturing at the Khabarovsk Foreign Language Library about the life and works of Oscar Wilde. About 15 people, mostly middle-aged women, sit quietly while Yuri describes the suffering the British writer endured while imprisoned for two years.

But Yuri never tells his audience the reason Wilde was imprisoned. He only hints at it — reading the speech Wilde gave at the trial, in which Wilde describes the affection of an elder for a younger man as the “love that dare not speak its name.” After the lecture, Yuri tells me, “I watched the people’s reaction to see if they understood what happened to Oscar Wilde — what kind of love it was. But it seemed they didn’t understand what he meant. For years we had no information about such things; it’s beyond many people’s understanding.”

Wilde was convicted in 1895 of having homosexual relations. The Victorian-era judge gave him the maximum penalty — two years of hard labor. If Wilde had been convicted at this time in Russia for the same offense, he would have received five to seven years.

While statute #121, Russia’s anti-sodomy law, is rarely enforced today, the prejudice against homosexuals is so strong in Russia — especially in provincial cities like Khabarovsk — that few people ever admit to being gay, except perhaps to their gay friends. With his Oscar Wilde lectures, his colorful wardrobe and long hair, his theatrical, hush-voiced manner of speaking, Yuri probably comes closer to publicly revealing his homosexuality than anybody else in Khabarovsk.

Even though we’ve been friends since November, he didn’t tell me he was gay until last week. He has to be careful who knows, he says. If word gets out, the library would never allow him to lecture again, and his career as a classical guitar performer and guitar teacher might be ruined.

In this conformist society – where marrying young and having children appears to be the only lifestyle option — Yuri is a strange man. He’s 43 and lives with his 76-year-old mother. When everyone else is at work, he practices yoga on his bedroom floor or swims laps at the heated outdoor pool at Lenin Stadium. In summer months, he’s a beach bum, spending most of the day sunbathing on the banks of the Amur River or playing volleyball at the Central Beach. He’s one of the few people I know here who has the time and energy to play games He earns his income giving a handful of classical guitar lessons a week. He’s always made his money this way, even when it was illegal. In the old Soviet Union, people were supposed to only work for state organizations. Ten years ago, police arrested Yuri on the charge he was a “parasite of the state.” He was put jail for several days while prosecutors prepared his case. Fortunately, one of the prosecutors took a liking to Yuri and got the charges dropped.

In his free time, Yuri has made himself into one of Russia’s greatest authorities on Oscar Wilde. He’s obsessed with Wilde. And in true Oscar Wilde style, he amuses his friends with quips like, “I don’t like Gorbachev, and, of course, I would never sleep with him.” Explaining his attraction to his 19-year-old lover, he says, “I like cats and teenagers.” He speaks English with an accent fit for Oxford, and every day, at five o’clock, sits down for tea – Pickwick English blend.

In both work and sex, Yuri has always been an outlaw. Now everything is changing, of course. While drinking five o’clock tea, Yuri shows me a Russian gay magazine, “The Boys Party,” which features advice columns and personal ads, along with the photos of nude muscle men. The magazines first appeared a year ago. “It was a gift to us gays,” he says. And more positive news: A Moscow ballet dancer recently said in a television interview he’s gay. He’s one of the first Russian celebrities to have made such a public announcement so far. Also, a gay club has recently opened up in St. Petersburg.

But I can’t get too optimistic here, for there’s some history that must be told to help explain why Yuri is now planning to leave Russia forever. Yuri’s grandfather was a rich man, a colonel in the Czar’s army, who was tortured and executed in 1938 during one of Stalin’s purges. Yuri’s mother, Lidia, became so disturbed after her father’s death she spent much of her adult life in psychiatric wards.

“You Americans are patriotic,” Yuri says. “I am not a patriot. Frankly, I don’t like this country at all.”

Last summer, Yuri was invited to England to give several lectures on Oscar Wilde. He traveled to Moscow for the flight, but was robbed there and was unable to board the plane without any money. He says he’ll try again, maybe this summer. If he makes it this time, he won’t return to Russia. When I tell him he’ll never see his mother again, he shrugs his shoulders. “I cannot realize myself here,” he says. “I believe I will live in London society.” With that, he takes a sip of Pickwick English blend and offers me a biscuit.

In the Sunlight of Spring


Photo by Tom Bell
A boy in Krasny Yar shows off his homemade knife.
Photo by Tom Bell
Logs are hauled into the village and sawed in the streets for firewood.
Photo by Tom Bell
Goods are brought across the Bikin River by boat.
Photo by Tom Bell
A boy struggles to ride his bicycle in the muddy streets of Krasny Yar
By Tom Bell
The village streets look messy in the spring time because they are filled with firewood.
Photo by Tom Bell
People in the village chop wood when the it’s still frozen and easy to split.


April, 1993



Spring has come to Krasny Yar. You can smell it in the sawdust. Listen to the whine of the chainsaws and the scattered thuds of falling axes. Every family is cutting and splitting wood for next winter. It’s strange, in the sunlight of spring, to see people preparing for winter. But early spring is the best time for such tasks. The wood is frozen and easy to split, and the men are home. All winter they’ve been away in the forest hunting and trapping.

“Spring is the busiest time of the year,” said my friend Radion Sulyandziga, who began digging a new well after he finished splitting a year’s supply of wood. Unlike in February, the last time I was here, he had no time to play chess with me.

Most of the people in the village are Udegeh. Before the communists came to power, the Udegeh were nomadic and lived in clans along the banks of rivers.

“Springtime is hungry time,” the village elders say. In the old days, the Udegeh didn’t hunt animals that were pregnant or had offspring. Today, the Udegeh stop hunting in spring for the same reason.

Before the Soviet power had reached their mountains 70 years ago, the Udegeh hunted mostly for food. Now they hunt for fur, which they sell to the state cooperative for cash. Most of their food now comes from kitchen gardens or the village store.

The reason I came to Krasny Yar was to see my friend Svetlana, who manages that store. “Springtime is a time of problems,” she told me.

Indeed. While she was at work, I discovered the storage space under her kitchen floor was filled with water from melting snow. She had stored several hundred pounds of potatoes from her garden there — enough to feed herself and her two daughters for six months. When she came home, she climbed into the waist-deep water to save her potatoes, piling them into a bucket, which I emptied into a corner of the kitchen. She stood in frigid water for more than an hour, refusing to let me take her place. She was exhausted and shaking when she climbed out.

In a few days the potatoes — now piled three-feet high on the kitchen floor — dried without any sign of rot.

The morning I left Krasny Yar, a tractor left 13 logs in front of Svetlana’s house. The largest were two-feet thick. After I leave, she’ll split the wood herself, she said. We walked across the river that flows alongside the village. The river separates Krasny Yar from the road system, and now the ice was too thin for vehicles to cross. Soon it will be open water. Groceries for her store will have to be ferried by boat across the river.

As I rode the bus home to Khabarovsk,  I thought about the foreign businessmen I meet in Khabarovsk. They invariably complain there’s no work ethic in Russia. They should come to Krasny Yar in springtime.

A chicken farmer rules an army

Cossack Army
Members of the Ussuriski Cossack Army.


April, 1993


KHABAROVSK – It’s just past midnight, Easter Sunday. Six policemen stand at the door of the Khabarovsk Cathedral. The church is full, and.a crowd gathers outside in the cold rain  A policeman tells the crowd that nobody else is allowed inside. Some people yell insults at the officers. Others push their way towards the door, only to be pushed back by police. A man dressed in a long black coat, leather boots, and a tall wool hat approaches. Fourteen 12-mm cartridges are strapped across his chest. He carries a saber. The man makes the sign of the cross and bows. The police step aside and allow him through..

The man is a Cossack soldier. Several years ago, police might have arrested him for wearing such a costume. But Cossacks are respectable in the post-Soviet social order now. Before the revolution, Cossacks defended the southern outposts of the Russian empire and served as professional soldiers for the czar. In return, they received farmland and autonomy. They were legendary as fierce horsemen and ruthless fighters. But after the communists came to power, their armies were disbanded and their land confiscated; many who had fought for the White Army in the Civil War were either killed or sent to prison.

Two years ago, the descendants of Ussuriski Cossack troops in the Russian Far East re-establish their army. They fashioned a flag — copied from the flags they saw in old photographs – and took it to the Bishop of Khabarovsk, who blessed it in a televised ceremony. The flag is emblazoned with the face of Saint George, the “Saint of Warriors.”

There are now 12 Cossack armies in Russia. But these modern armies — their ranks filled with middle-aged men — are more like fraternal societies than fighting forces. Still, their leaders are ambitious; they seek to replace the old communist structures in Cossack villages with paramilitary ones. They’ve already begun organizing farmers and selling their produce.

What kind of people lead these so-called armies?

Col. Sergey Kalmeykov, a former chicken farmer and now Ataman of the Ussurisk Cossack Army, sits behind a plywood desk at his army’s headquarters, a one-story brick building in downtown Khabarovsk. He’s dressed in a brown military uniform. He is overweight. His face is fixed in a sneer. Before the interview begins, he nods to his young aide, Misha, who brings him a cigarette. I mention some recent news — that Cossacks in southern Russia have declared self-rule and have risen to the defense of President Yeltsin, offering to form a special presidential guard. I ask the colonel how he views the political situation. “Only through the cross hairs of my gun,” he says.

He refuses to elaborate, except to say he has 15,000 people under his command. (Other sources tell me the figure is more like 500.)

“What kind of weapons do you have?” I ask.

As he ponders his answer, his aide tells him, “Is it possible to answer such questions, sir? Maybe it’s a trick?”

The colonel says, softly, “Shut up, Misha.” Then he tells me he can’t answer my question.

“What do you think of the possibility of civil war?” I ask.

“Of course, this is a real possibility under certain conditions,”  he says.

A small, bearded man sitting in the back of the room speaks up: “Why possible?” the man asks. I later learn he’s the chief of the army’s cultural department.

“Because I say it’s possible,” the colonel shouts. “Please, shut up.”

“Why should I shut up? I’m a member of the board?”

“I don’t care if you’re a board member. Just shut up and go away!”

“But Russian people understand that a civil war will lead to the end of everything,” the chief of the cultural department says.

“Stop talking or I’ll throw you out!” the colonel shouts.

The colonel stands up.

The chief of the cultural department runs out of the room.

After the interview, I ask the colonel to pose for a photograph. The aide brings the colonel his saber. “Maybe you should smile for the picture, sir,” the aide suggests. The colonel’s face only grows more severe.

A can of meat from America

Old woman in Krasny Yar
An elderly woman in Krasny Yar


By Tom Bell

March, 1993

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.”

A Bitter Journey

SICK BOY-Edit_edited-SMALL

By Tom Bell

March, 1993


KRANSY YAR – The sick, the weary and the curious gathered in the school auditorium to see the doctor from Moscow. He was a tall, mustached man, rather handsome in his dark suit and tie, and he spoke extensively about his scientific credentials garnered in the capital 4,000 miles to the west. How he’d found his way to this remote village was a mystery. Why he’d come here was a mystery. The sick and weary waited patiently for an explanation, and possibly a miracle.

I sat in the audience with Svetlana, who suffers from migraine headaches. Last month, in search of a cure, she endured the treatment of a traveling acupuncturist from Moscow. The acupuncturist, a middle-aged woman, had diagnosed her at the village clinic by waving her hands over her body. Then she told Svetlana to sit down, and she stuck needles in her head, face and arms. Svetlana tried this treatment every day for a week. It didn’t work.

Maybe this man from Moscow could help? He looked over his audience of about 20 people, smiled, stretched his arms outward and asked for a volunteer. A teenage girl nervously approached him. He told her to shut her eyes, and then he placed his large hands on her forehead. He whispered to her. He gently caressed her head, pushing the weight of her body back and forth. Then he told her to stoop to the floor and pick up an imaginary apple and eat it. She did this, exactly as he had said. When he snapped his figures, she opened her eyes, giggled and rushed back to her seat while everyone applauded. For his next trick, the doctor took off his shirt, broke some empty bottles on the floor and stretched his body over the glass. A young man stood on his chest. The doctor apparently felt no pain because he kept grinning at us. At the end of the show, he urged people suffering from all sorts of physical ailments to see him for personal consultations, for a small fee.

We didn’t stay that long, however, because Svetlana’s sister had come into the auditorium with a terrible expression on her face. She took Svetlana by the arm and brought her out into the hall, and there she told her that their father was dead.

He had died of heart failure a few days after his 65th birthday. He lived in a small village more than 300 kilometers northwest of Krasny Yar. He belonged to a tribe of people called Nanai. There are about 2,000 Nanai in the world, and most live on the flat Amur River basin near Khabarovsk and work as fishermen. The Nanai have a different but related language. Like the Udegeh, only the elders still speak the Native language.

A young Russian businessman in Krasny Yar volunteered to drive us (Svetlana, her sister, her brother-in-law and me) to the Khabarovsk train station. We drove all night on the unfinished military road, a three-lane gravel highway that starts in Khabarovsk, cuts through the taiga and reaches a dead end about four miles from Krasny Yar. Our little Toyota endured two flat tires during our six-hour journey down from the mountains to the city. Yet, when the young driver dropped us off at the train station early the next morning, he refused to accept any payment.

In Khabarovsk, our funeral party was joined by Svetlana’s 18-year-old daughter Sasha. We traveled westward on the Trans-Siberian Railway for two hours. We disembarked at a grubby little rail town. Svetlana’s brother-in-law Valera was there waiting for us with a jeep and a sack filled with 20 bottles of vodka. Vodka apparently is necessary for funerals, since Svetlana had brought 15 bottles with her. I sat in the jeep’s rear compartment, with all the vodka, and we rattled northward over frozen lakes and swamps. There was no road I could discern. After an hour, we reached a stand of birch and Mongolian oak. Then we came to a cluster of houses. This was Natsonalnoye, a Nanai village of about 200 people. Svetlana’s mother was standing at the gate of her house. Svetlana and her sister rushed out of the jeep and threw their arms around her.

I had never met Svetlana’s mother before. A small, heavy-set woman, she’s 62 but looks a decade older Her breathing was labored. She walked so stiffly it seemed as though every movement made her wince. She led us into her house – a musty, three-room structure crowded with people. In the living room lay her husband, a small man, with high-Asian cheekbones and a round Nanai face. He was dressed in a black suit. His body was on a board that had been laid between two chairs. The house had been kept unheated to preserve the corpse. Sweet-smelling incense burned.

The trip had been exhausting, and after eating a meal of soup and bread Svetlana and we fell fast asleep in the bedroom bundled in our winter coats. In the middle of the night, I woke up and looked into the kitchen. Elderly Nanai men were smoking and playing cards. According to the custom here, people have to remain with the body at all times.

Strong winds buffeted the house all night. We awoke the next morning to find the ground covered with a foot of wet snow. Svetlana said that a storm following a death is a sign that God is angry.

We had to wait three days, until Tuesday, before we could bury Alexander Lesnikov because the elders said it’s bad luck to bury a man on a Monday. On the final night before the burial, Svetlana and I took our turn watching the body. By then it had been placed in a casket built with rough lumber. Red cloth was draped over it. The  odor of death was strong.  A cloud of smoke from the incense candles filled the room. In the kitchen, Sasha cooked a large stack of blini, thin pancakes, to be eaten during the feast following the burial.

The funeral the next day was an intermingling of Russian and Nanai traditions, but I had a hard time telling which was which. Before the body was taken to the cemetery, an old woman came into the house and began to speak in a tongue that sounded vaguely Chinese. It was the first time I had heard Nanai spoken. She chanted prayers and poured vodka into the casket. Then she passed the glass around to everyone to take a sip. She repeated this several times, but instead of pouring the vodka into the casket, she now poured it into a bucket that had been set underneath the casket. Svetlana’s mother tucked her husband’s hat and gloves in the casket near his feet. Then she gathered her three daughters around her and walked to the head of the casket, and there they wept.

Four blank-faced village men entered the room and lifted the casket to their chests. They carried it to the street and slid it into the back of the jeep that had brought us into the village. We began our march. Half the village walked in front of the jeep, and half walked behind. Some people in front carried the casket’s lid and the wooden grave marker, an obelisk covered with red felt and adorned with a hand-carved star. Immediately behind the jeep, I walked with Svetlana and the rest of the family. I’d seen open caskets like this carried in the streets of Khabarovsk. A brass band typically leads the procession in the city. This procession, however, moved silently. We walked until we reached the cemetery set amid small trees at the edge of the village. Someone had lit a bonfire next to an open grave. Then men began pounding the lid onto the coffin.

“Tom, come here,” Svetlana’s mother said. I walked over to her, and she handed me the hammer. Aware of the eyes of the whole village upon me, I carefully banged in the last nail.

The pallbearers lowered the casket into the grave, and everyone pushed dirt on top. Some people had shovels; others used their hands and feet. Eventually, we built up a mound. Two men stamped the obelisk monument into the head of the mound. One of them nailed a wooden sign carved with the name of Svetlana’s father. Another glass of vodka was passed around; people poured a little into the earth before sipping it. Finally, as the crowd headed back to the house. Svetlana’s mother, alone, walked to the grave marker and placed underneath it a small plate of food and a glass of vodka.

We stayed in that village for four days. Svetlana, her daughter and I were the only ones who didn’t drink any of the vodka, and we felt increasingly isolated as the funeral party slipped into a stupor. Svetlana’s relatives planned to stay in the village for another week. We wanted to leave as soon as possible, but the spring snowstorm that had fallen during our first night made escape impossible.

The next morning we heard a noise that sounded like a tank rolling into the village. We ran towards the direction of the clatter and discovered a slow-moving truck with tank treads. The vehicle, which had an enclosed rear cabin, was designed to transport workers over the tundra. After some negotiations, the driver agreed to take us to the train station.

Bundled in our heavy coats, we rode in the machine across the vast, frozen. I don’t know how workers can stand riding that contraption every day. Black clouds of exhaust fumes leaked into the passenger area, and we covered our mouths with handkerchiefs. One worker sat with us. He was evidently accustomed to a daily dose of poison for he didn’t bother covering his mouth. His face was as cold and gray as the tank’s metal siding. I peered out at the frozen marsh through the open rear window. A thick fog blended the sky with the snow, robbing the scene of all depth and color. We passed an island of Mongolian oak trees. Even though winter was almost over, faded yellow leaves still clung to the branches.

Svetlana's house

My dollars fly to Istanbul

Man selling dolls small
A man sells matches and dolls at the outdoor market in Khabarovsk
woman slippers small fixed. edited-1
A Nanai women sells hand-decorated slippers at the outdoor market in Khabarovsk.

By Tom Bell

March, 1993

KHABAROVSK – Igor Golubkov was working as a security guard one night and fell asleep.  When he woke up, his mink hat was gone. That’s when Igor decided to quit the security business. The hat was worth more than his annual salary.

Igor, 27, doesn’t work anymore. He stays home most days and reads detective stories. Still, he lives better than his friends. He owns a Japanese color TV, wears foreign-made clothes and eats fresh fruit. He owns a car. Considering Igor can’t even guard his own hat, how does he manage to live so well? The answer: Igor is a lucky man. His wife Lena is a stewardess.

Stewardesses are Russia’s high-flying commodity brokers. They jet around the country, buying low and selling high. The last time Lena flew to Turkey she bought two leather jackets for $100 each. Igor sold them at the Khabarovsk bazaar for $200 a piece. During trips to Moscow, Lena buys shirts, gloves, cosmetics, stockings. The Moscow stores sell higher quality goods than the Khabarovsk stores, so Lena and Igor find ready customers here.

Igor recently used some profits to buy a 1986 Toyota Sprint in Vladivostok. He paid a Russian sailor 400,000 rubles for the car. He and two friends drove it to Khabarovsk and sold it for 800,000 rubles — a profit of $850, about double the annual salary of a Russian doctor. There was some risk involved. Gangsters routinely cruise the 450-mile-long highway between Vladivostok and Khabarovsk and rob people of their Japanese cars.

Igor said he’s too ambitious to get a real job. “Young people like me don’t work in factories,” he said. “Only old people — because they don’t know what else to do.”

My friend Sergey first introduced me to Igor several weeks ago. I don’t particularly like him, but he gave me a good rate when I traded him dollars for rubles. When I visited this week, his wife served me peaches from the Crimea. I hadn’t seen peaches in four months. While I sucked down the peaches, Igor told me his wife was going to buy more leather jackets in Istanbul. He suggested I invest. If I gave them $200, he said, Lena would buy two more leather jackets, and we’d split the profits. Lena said she would get through customs by stick the dollars in her undergarments.

The idea of my money traveling 4,700 miles through seven times zones in a woman’s panties to buy some leather jackets in Istanbul seemed ridiculous. Legally, the deal violated Article 88 of the Russian criminal code, which prohibits trading with hard currency. You can get three to eight years in prison for violating Article 88, but almost everyone is trading in dollars these days. And as crazy as it sounds, Lena’s shopping trip to Istanbul is typical of the way Russians are doing business now. Only four percent of Russia’s industrial firms are privatized, and almost none produce anything big.

With Sergey’s assurance that Igor could be trusted, I lent the money. Three weeks later, not long after his wife returned from Turkey, Igor gave me my $200 plus an additional $200. This was my share of the profits.

I had become a speculator.

For most Russians, capitalism means speculatsia — buying something and re-selling it at a higher price. In Khabarovsk and other cities, sidewalk capitalists peddle Snickers bars, Nike athletic shoes, Camel cigarettes, Fischer skis, neon-colored Chinese coats, Italian spaghetti, Kazakhstan onions. Every week something new and amazing arrives on the streets. During the Communist regime, speculators were called criminals. Now the government calls them entrepreneurs. Many older people, like my Russian teacher, Evgeny Kucheryavenko, are disgusted by the speculators, blaming them for rising prices. “Why should they profit?” he asked me. “They don’t make anything. They haven’t added any value to the products.”

For my hard-working but poorly-paid friend, Dr. Andre Bevzenko, a kidney specialist, it’s depressing to look out the window of a crowded bus and see uneducated young men drive around in new Japanese cars. Dr. Bevzenko can’t even afford a pair of American-made athletic shoes. “The professional class languishes while the wheeler-dealers swim in profits,” he said. “It’s not just.”

But Igor said he deserves whatever money he makes, even if he is a lazy bum who can’t hold on to his hat.

My Friend, Sergey

Sergey small 2
In Russia, you need friends who are able to rescue you,” said Sergey Lashonov, a 26-year-old helicopter mechanic. Then he quoted Alexander Suvorov, an 18th century Russian general: “You must defend your friend, even if you die.”

By Tom Bell

March, 1993

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.”


Svetlana Lesnikova splits her own wood.

March, 1993

By Tom Bell

KRASNY YAR – Her name is Svetlana Lesnikova. She’s a lively woman with black hair, brown eyes,  a beautiful oval Asian face. She works as a clerk in the village store and as the recreation director of the village school. A year ago, she divorced her husband, a heavy drinker, and moved down the street with their two children into the village’s abandoned dress shop. She still lives in the two-room shop with her daughters Nina, 7, and Sasha, 17.

Their father, an Udegeh hunter, still lives in the village in the same large house he and Svetlana had once shared. When she divorced him, Svetlana moved into the dress shop rather than fight for the home because she feared her ex-husband would try to take custody of the girls. The dress shop has no running water, no toilet or outhouse. The brick stove is crumbling. The holes in the floor panels are so large that the neighbor’s cat can squeeze through without much difficulty. Still, the two-room building is immaculately clean, and Svetlana has managed to create an atmosphere that is as warm and safe as any real home I’ve visited. I admire her dedication to her children and her ability to not only survive but to live so well with so little. She fascinates me. She has more physical and mental endurance than anybody I know. Frankly, she has such a strong personality she scares me a little. The question is: Am I strong enough to be with her?

She calls me, “Moy mahlinkiy rebyonok,” – my little baby – because I’m so helpless in her world. She had to show me how to fetch water from the well — the kind with a pail on a rope — and how to wash myself using only a small basin. She seems to enjoy my dependency upon her. “In Krasny Yar you would die without me,” she told me, laughing. She cooks everything from scratch over a wood stove. The only food she buys from the store is bread, butter, margarine, coffee, salt and sugar. For milk, she walks a half mile to a small village on the other side of the river, to visit a friend there who has two cows). She makes her own tea, jams and relishes from plants gathered in the woods. She distils her own wine, which she gives to village men in exchange for labor. She grows her own vegetables. She buys her meat from hunters. She doesn’t even have a trash basket — only a metal bucket that serves as a combination toilet and garbage container. The pale is emptied several times a day into the a hole in the garden. I once showed her a can of imported beer, and she looked at it curiously, wondering how the pull-tab worked. After I had drunk the beer, she saved the can for a possible future use. If any plastic bags or bottles arrive in the household, she washes and reuses them.  She gives table scraps are to her ex-husband’s dog and potato skins to her uncle’s cow.

And her energy! I try to keep up, but I can’t.  A few weeks ago, we traveled from Khabarovsk to Krasny Yar together. The trip took seven hours on a train, four hours on a bus, and then a half hour walking on the river ice dragging 70 pounds of fabric that Svetlana had bought for making clothes.  As soon as we arrived at her house, I collapsed on the couch and fell asleep. Meanwhile, she cleaned the house, fetched water from the well and prepared dinner.

Later that day, I tried splitting some logs. She took the ax from me and cut wood at almost twice the rate.

In America, she would be the baby, I told her, to establish some parity. She would have to depend on me. After all, she’s never driven a car, pushed a shopping cart, written a check or flashed a credit card. Actually, I’m sure she’ll have no problem tossing bananas into her shopping cart. But would she be happier in America than in Krasny Yar? I don’t know. She doesn’t know either.  Her dream is to live here in a real house, and she plans to borrow money from a bank to build it. She drew a picture of the house. Like the other new houses in Krasny Yar, it would be decorated with large, colorful wood carvings of the images of Udegeh folklore. She drew a floor plan. “Here’s the kitchen,” she said, “the living room, the bedroom for my girls.” She pointed to the largest room. “For me and you.” It was seductive idea — the thought of settling down in Krasny Yar with Svetlana. Was I crazy to be even thinking about it?

She’s so strong. Few women of her age leave their husbands. A single woman in Russia is an economic and social disaster. Marriage gives a woman status in the community, and a woman who leaves a husband, no matter how foolish he is, is bucking social norms. Svetlana, whose hands are calloused from chopping wood, is a rebel. Could I really live in this Third World village so far from home? But maybe that’s the point. Maybe I’ve fallen in love not just with Svetlana, but with Krasny Yar, with Barada’s fairy-tale houses, with the whole idea of living in the kind of small community I’ve always longed be a part of. America may be the land of plenty, but it’s also the land of strangers. My father, for the sake of his career, moved his family from city to city. When I grew up, I did the same. In Anchorage, the last city I had called home, the average resident has lived there for less than five years. The Udegeh have lived in this mountain valley for seven centuries.

I can buy a lot more stuff in Anchorage. But do I need to live in a place with discount warehouse stores three times bigger than all of Krasny Yar? Is it necessary to have a 50-channel cable system, a 30-minute pizza delivery service, a 25-minute oil-change, a three-minute dinner? My choices in America are endless. But what do I get? Freedom? Happiness? Or only distraction from loneliness?

I sometimes worry that Krasny Yar may just be an illusion. When I first came here, I saw paradise. Now I can see the poverty. I see it in the clumsy steps of a skinny and sickly girl — a victim of fetal alcohol syndrome —  walking down the muddy street trying to keep up with the healthier children. I see it in the joyless eyes of the 17-year-old bride, three months pregnant, marrying an 18-year-old boy who doesn’t have a job or any prospects of getting one. I see it on Svetlana’s face, which is lit by a candle because the village has been without electricity for three weeks. The candle, her last one, now just a disc of wax and nub of a wick, is starting to flicker out.

On the morning I left Krasny Yar, the sky was clear. Svetlana tucked my scarf around my neck, and we walked across the river to where a small red bus was waiting. While we walked, Svetlana said all the women in Krasny Yar are talking about her. If I don’t come back to the village on March 8th, International Woman’s Day, she said, everyone will think I’ve left her. I promised to return. Then I kissed her and climbed aboard the red bus. And I began my journey down the mountain road.

tom and Svetlana small
Here I am with Svetlana and her daughter, Nina
vetlana and Nina small
Svetlana and Nina
Svetlana's house small
Svetlana lives here in a former dress shop.