Barada the Gypsy

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“Barada” in his cabin.

March, 1993

By Tom Bell

KRASNY YAR  – The functional wooden houses built during the Soviet era are still here. But there are a few new homes that look like something from the pages of a children’s picture book. Built with tall gables and mansard roofs, these structures feature colorful art work and wood carvings that depict the queens, devils and pagan gods of Udegeh folklore.

On the gates of the village Soviet of People’s Deputies, a wooden bear argues with two wooden wolves. On the roof of a home that shelters a family of 12, a wooden maiden prays to the gods for the health of the household. On the new hospital, there’s a nine-foot-long face of a woman shedding a tear.

The tall, decorative mansard roofs make the houses appear larger than they really are. The designs aren’t practical at all. The  space on the second-floor is useless except for storage. Inside, the houses are typical of the small, wooden houses found in any Russian village. There’s no indoor plumbing. A brick stove in the center of the house provides the heat.

I went to see the man who designs and builds these structures. He’s a Ukrainian gypsy whom villagers call Barada, the Russian word for “beard.” I found him in his one-room cabin — the smallest, poorest, dirtiest house in the village. He was eating salted fish and drinking vodka and surrounded by his wooden carvings. He’s a large, muscled man, with a thick black beard and expressive eyes.

His real name is Yuri Petrovich Martsenuk. People here respect him, even though on occasion they have found him passed out in their gardens.

I wanted to know more about him, but most of our conversation evolved around the nature of the soul and why I couldn’t photograph him because I might capture his soul on film.

Regarding his art, he would only tell me this: He came to live Krasny Yar because he believes that man must learn to coexist with nature and that he wanted to live in the forest. He said his buildings pay homage the spirituality of nature, and the Udegeh people understand this and understand his art. To show his appreciation, he builds homes for them using images from their culture.

wasn’t able to get much more information from Barada. Before I left, he asked me bring him carving tools from the city.  I promised him I would. Then I asked him again if I could take his photograph. He agreed this time, but only after he was able to position himself in a respectable pose for a god.

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Detail of a typical village house built in the Soviet era by the government.

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The Fat Man in the Lincoln Town Car

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   Sergei S. Eliseyev imports Japanese cars to Russia. He ships them Vladivostok and drives them to Khabarovsk in a convoy of four cars to protect themselves from the gunmen who cruise the highway. He carries 8mm pistol at all times. “A pioneer is like a child,” he said. “It’s easy to beat him down. But God protects people who protect themselves.”

February, 1993

By Tom Bell

A black Lincoln Town Car — with a plastic American eagle perched on the dashboard — cruised through my neighborhood the other day. Four men sat inside the car. I’ve been trying to meet some rich Russians lately, so while the car was waiting at a light, I tapped on the window to speak to the driver. But the light changed and the Lincoln sped away before I could say anything.

A few days later, I saw the car again. It was parked on the sidewalk in front of a Japanese restaurant, a favorite gathering place for thugs and foreigners. No one was in the car, but inside the restaurant I saw the driver, a young, tough-looking punk — maybe 20 years old — sitting at a table with five other men. They were all young bruisers except for the man at the head of the table — a fat, middle-aged man wearing a tie, a pin-striped shirt, grey slacks and Air Jordan sneakers.

“Who owns the Lincoln? I asked.

The fat man smiled and handed me his business card — “Sergei S. Eliseyev, President of Trade Industrial Co. DALS&S.” He asked me to join him for lunch. The five men sitting with him are his security guards, he explained. One of the guards — a big guy with a drooping moustache — punched his hand with his fist, to make the point clear I knew his line of work. Some of my Russian friends say they hate going to restaurants because they can’t stand to see the people who eat there — thugs, thieves and wheeler-dealers. These are the people making money in Russia these days. Eliseyev is a wheeler-dealer. He buys new and used cars, mainly from Japan, and sells them to rich Russians. He has cars shipped from Japan to the Russian port city of Nahodtka. Then he and his boys drive the cars to Khabarovsk. They drive in a convoy of four cars to protect themselves from the gunmen who  cruise the highway robbing people of their Japanese cars and extorting money. A car in Japan that sells for $22,000 is worth $30,000 in Khabarovsk. Eliseyev said it costs only $500 to ship a container with four cars across the Sea of Japan

Eliseyev was a radio electronics specialists before he entered the business world, first as administrator in a Russian-American joint venture and then as president of his own trading company. Besides cars, he has bought and sold fish, lumber and computers. But now he’s mostly buying cars; that’s where the greatest profits are. After lunch, we drove to his office. I rode in the Lincoln with Eliseyev and two bodyguards. Three other guards followed us in a Pontiac Grand Am.

At the office, located above a food store he owns, Eliseyev showed me blueprints for the 17-room mansion he’s building for himself. There’ll be a special room for a security guard. Eliseyev wouldn’t talk about why he has so many guards, except to say that he is a target because he’s rich. He pulled out an 8mm pistol from a desk drawer and gave it to me to examine. “A pioneer is like a child,” he said. “It’s easy to beat him down. But God protects people who protect themselves.”

Besides the mansion, Eliseyev plans to build a brick factory and two hotels. He’s also building houses for 12 of his employees.

I don’t know if he has the money to do all these things. A businessman who knows him described him as “a small-time guy with big ideas.” It would be easy to dismiss someone like Eliseyev as a bragger, a two-bit car dealer, a junior capitalist pig with an overblown need for security. But I’m tired of looking at poor people. Russia needs rich people like Eliseyev if it’s ever going to make the transition to a market economy. It needs rich people to build hotels and factories. It needs wheeler-dealers.

At the end of the interview, Eliseyev drove me home in his Lincoln. On the way, he talked about plans to establish vegetable farms on land he owns on the left bank of the Amur. Maybe it was all talk, but for the first time in weeks I’ve begun to think there’s hope for Russia. For this I thank the fat man with the Lincoln Town Car.

The 11-Day Itch

I went to the (Khabarovsk) City Disinfection Clinic, where a nurse led me into a little room heated by a hot plate. She gave me a bottle partly filled with white liquid and told me to strip off my clothes. “Smear the ointment over your body,” she said. “Use it with the highest economy.

February, 1993

By Tom Bell

I feel an itch on my right thigh. And on the left side of my chest. And under my left armpit. And under my chin. I’ve just itched my left ear lobe. Now my stomach wants a scratch.

I’ve been scratching myself for 11 days, and I can’t seem to stop. Tiny, prehistoric-looking creatures — smaller than ticks but fatter than fleas — have been crawling over my body. Apparently, they burrow under my skin to lay eggs. I’ve squashed 17 and captured six. Last week, I brought some live ones to a doctor at the Khabarovsk Regional Hospital. She eyeballed my prisoners and the scabby-looking bumps that covered my body.”Chesotka,” she said, with a look of disgust.

I looked up “chesotka” in my Russian-English dictionary. It said, “scabies, mange.”

Christ. I was bound to get it, I suppose. There’s an epidemic of scabies this winter in Khabarovsk. Twenty-two public bath houses have been closed in the region. City officials estimate 80 percent of the people who live in college dormitories and workers’ hostels are infected. Scabies is new to Khabarovsk, perhaps the result of deteriorating living conditions. Entire neighborhoods here lose their water supply for days and even weeks, so people aren’t as clean as they should be, a city official said.

You can pick up scabies from pets and furniture.  I  suspect the parasites jumped on me while I was sleeping on the train. Unfortunately, there’s a shortage of medicine to treat the condition. My doctor friend, Andre, took an afternoon off from work to help me hunt down some medicine. We visited every downtown pharmacy but couldn’t find anything. Finally, I went to the City Disinfection Clinic, where a nurse led me into a little room heated by a hot plate. She gave me a bottle partly filled with white liquid and told me to strip off my clothes. “Smear the ointment over your body,” she said. “Use it with the highest economy. You can only use the minimum of ointment I’ve given you.” She left the room with my clothing. When she returned 20 minutes later, the clothes were warm — freshly baked from the disinfection machine. She said the clinic treats 40 to 50 people a day.

“All my family’s infected,” said one young man waiting for his share of the white liquid. “It probably comes from all those clothes that Chinese are bringing into Khabarovsk.”

When I told my host family that my body was host to parasites, they banished me from the apartment. I went back to my doctor, and she phoned them, trying to calm their fears. They agreed to let me back in, as long as I stayed in my own room and ate on my own set of plates. The medicine at the clinic helped, but it wasn’t enough. So I shaved all my body hair. I now look like a very tall 8-year-old boy.

Four days ago, when the creatures seemed ready to launch a new assault, I counterattacked with vinegar.  I splashed the vinegar  on my body and clamped my jaws down to avoid screaming. I turns out (and how would I know?) that Russian vinegar is 25 times more acidic than the American kind. Russians commit suicide by drinking the stuff.

I tried to wash the vinegar off my body by siting in a tub on turning on the water. But there was no cold water coming out of the faucet. On this particular day for reasons that are beyond my understanding, only steaming hot water was coming out of the faucet.  So I splashed the steaming hot water over my body for as much as I could stand it.

But at least the buggers would die, I thought,

Now I’ve got large red blotches — burned skin — on my legs, hands and stomach.

And I still itch.

Maybe I’ll go back to the disinfection clinic tomorrow. If they don’t give me some white liquid, I don’t know what I’ll do. Maybe I’ll trade my word processor for the stuff. Maybe I’ll just DRINK the vinegar this time.

Is there anything that gives me hope?


I look on my desk, and I see a box of Kellogg’s Honey Smacks. I bought the box  today at the store. It’s the first breakfast cereal I’ve seen in five months. It’s made by the Kellogg Company of South Africa. It tastes wonderful. Maybe some familiar food will lift me out of my despair.

“Speel jy’s Snap, Crackle of Pop,” it says on the box. “Jy kan Tony, Coco monkey of selfs Smack die Honey Smacks Padda wees…”

“Die Honey Smacks Padda wees.” I don’t know what it means, or even what language it is. But it sounds right.

Die Honey Smacks Padda wees. Die Die.

I Find an Honest Man

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Valentine V. Vashnov in Vladivostok sees himself as an American-style business man.

February, 1993

By Tom Bell

Vladivostok is a lively place, with lots of cars and people running about, although I can’t say I saw much of the city, since I was always squinting and rubbing my eyes as I walked down its crowded sidewalks. Strong winds from the Pacific kept whipping up dirt and blowing it into my face. In search of shelter, I ducked into the Vladivostok customs office, which sits on the harbor overlooking the Russian Pacific fleet. That’s where I met Valentine V. Vashnov.

“Our government just kicked us again,” mumbled a clean-cut, boyish-looking man as his paced about the lobby. “They just raised the tax from 7.5 to 15 percent. Don’t they want good products for our people?”

Vazhnov is a Russian yuppie. He owns a company that imports cheap consumer goods from Hong Kong, and the tax hike wipes out his company’s profits, he complained.

I didn’t come to Vladivostok to write about taxes, however. I came here to write about what Western journalist usually write about when they come to Vladivostok — organized crime, corruption, prostitution, the general moral degradation of Russian life. This Far Eastern port city of 700,000 people is notorious for such things. But when I stumbled upon Vazhnov muttering in custom’s office lobby, I quickly realized I had found someone very unusual.

Some of my Russian friends tell me there’s no such thing as an honest Russian businessman, that the men who make money in this country are either involved in organized crime or were part of the old Communist Party apparatus. But Vazhnov does not belong with either group. He an “American-style” businessman — the kind who pays his taxes, goes to church, donates to charity, loves his wife, and joins the local chamber of commerce. Vazhnov, 31, smokes Camel cigarettes and eats Snickers bars. He speaks English with an American accent. The face of his watch is emblazoned with an eagle and the phrase, “In God We Trust.” He carries an American-designed .38-caliber revolver that shoots copper canisters filled with tear gas. (Real guns are illegal in Russia.) Vazhnov says he needs the gas pistol to protect himself from gang members who might try to extort him.

Vladivostok is a rough place to run a business.  For 50 years Vladivostok was a closed city because it served as headquarters of the Soviet Pacific Fleet. But now the city has returned to its earlier character as a wide-open international port. Last year, 1004 people, including 32 police officers, were murdered in Primorsky Krai — the strip of Russia tucked in between the Chinese border and the Japanese Sea. In the region’s biggest city, Vladivostok, the word most often on people’s lips is not democracy but mafia.  In some neighborhoods,  only residents with friendly contacts with local criminal groups feel safe.

Vazhnov has learned about the American way of business from reading U.S. magazines and autobiographies of American businessmen. (His favorite is Lee Iacocca.) Hard work, honesty, obeying the law, and competing fairly — this is how businessmen should behave, he said.

“I’m proud I’m honest,” he  said. “I’m proud to pay my taxes. If everybody would be this way, our country would change.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell Vazhnov about our savings-and-loan scandal, or the Wall Street scandals, or the decline of our heavy industry. He should be reading the autobiographies of Japanese businessmen, I thought to myself.

But I said noting. I just listened as he talked about his new business venture — importing food, vitamins and medicine from his favorite country, the United States.

He plans to ship $70,000 worth of U.S. goods to South Korea this summer and then have them transferred to another ship bound for Vladivostok. He said he’s already received approval from a bank for a $50,000 loan.

I spent a day with Vazhnov as he drove around town conducting business. Like a good American manager,  he keeps a tight schedule and constantly glances at his “In God We Trust” watch. He does almost every deal in person, since there are few telephones in Vladivostok. Even meeting with his accountant, who works at another job, required a rendezvous at a parking lot at a prearranged time.

At the end of the day, I asked Vazhnov to drop me off at the bank that’s loaning him the $50,000. I wanted to talk to the bank director.

“Don’t mention the loan to him,” Vazhnov pleaded. “He doesn’t know about it yet.”

The bank director didn’t know about the loan, all right, and didn’t know much about Vaznhov, either. But he knew Vazhnov’s wife. She works at the bank. She’s in charge of the hard currency loan department.

When I later met Vazhnov outside the bank, I asked him about this $50,000 loan.

“I’ve got a meeting. No time to talk,” he replied , scampering to his car.

That was the last time I saw Valentine V. Vazhnov.

By American standards, Vazhnov wasn’t so ethical after all, I suppose. But to the Russia mind, he would be a fool not to take advantage of his wife’s position. Is Vazhnov an honest man? He is in Russia.

At the Chinese Border

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At the Chinese border with Odajima Toshiro, a reporter for the Japanese newspaper, the Hokkaido Shimbun Press

January, 1993

By Tom Bell

The road to China is as flat and endless as a Texas highway. To the west, snow-covered wheat fields extend to the horizon. To the southeast, on the other side of the Amur River, we can see low, rounded mountains — Chinese territory. We’ve been driving southwest from Khabarovsk for about five hours. In the past hour, two squads of Russian boarder guards armed with machine guns have stopped us to search our car and examine our documents.  Our car bucks like a mule as our Texas highway turns to dirt. A few hundred yards away, a Russian army helicopter hovers low to the ground.

“It seems we’re at the edge of the world,” I tell my traveling companion Odajima Toshiro, a 43-year-old reporter for the Japanese newspaper, The Hokkaido Shimbun Press.

“This is not the edge of the world,” Odajima says. “This is the middle of everything.”

Since the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s, this region along the Amur River has been one of the most heavily militarized areas in the world. In the late 1960s, not far from here on an island in the Ussuri River, Chinese and Soviet soldiers fought each other in a small battle that left dozens dead. Both forces withdrew from the island, which today belongs to no one. But the cold war between Russia and China is over. Russia now sends military equipment across the boarder in exchange for hard currency. And Chinese merchants, by the thousands, are crossing the border to sell candy, wine, beer, cookware, neon-colored down jackets, fake Adidas sneakers, grey Chinese army coats. You see the Chinese everywhere in Khabarovsk, groaning under their unimaginably large bundles of trading goods.

The Amur River, a ribbon of ice one and a half miles wide and 1,800 miles long, forms the border between Russia and China for much of its course. In the summer, cargo boats cross the river. In winter, trucks drive across on the ice. At the end of one of these frozen highways, near the village of Leninskoya, stands a small Russian customs office. Metal containers, filled with cement manufactured at a local factory are stacked in the yard. The cement — something Russia has a surplus of — will be exported.

About 40 Chinese merchants, their pockets swollen with cash, are waiting to go through customs. They’re heading back home.  Their canvass bags, once filled with goods, are empty now. There’s not much to buy in Russia, so the merchants have little to declare, except for some toys and souvenirs. In Khabarovsk, the Chinese cover their faces when I photograph them. But they are relaxed here and even smile for my camera. I try to talk to them, but it’s impossible without an interpreter. Finally, I try a word they might know:

“Nixon,” I say.

“Mao Tse-tung,” replies a man in a grey coat and black fedora.

Custom officials here say trade through this border point, the third busiest in the Far East, has been doubling every year since the mid-1980s. Last winter, 50,000 tons of goods were driven across the ice. This winter, more than 100,000 tons will cross, custom officials predict. So many people want to cross — about 7,500 last year — that the Russian government is building a dock for a ferry boat. In winter, there’s a bus. It leaves for China every afternoon.

Odajima and I had hoped to see the Chinese customs office on the other side of the river, but the Russian border guards won’t let us walk on the ice. I try taking photographs of trucks parked on the ice, but the guards apprehend me, saying it’s illegal to photograph the border. My captors take me to their chief, a beefy, grim-looking man. The chief announces that I’m the first American to visit this border point. He shakes my hand and smiles. Half criminal, half celebrity, I’m allowed to go free. I bid the guards good-bye and head back to the river bank. I’m just in time to watch the bus drive to China. The bus heads up-river. I watch it for about 10 minutes, until I can’t see it any more.

The Cold Wind

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A boy and girl in the village of Krasny Yar, Primorsky Krai, the Russian Far East
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A mother and her son don’t seem to mind the cold in the village of Krasny Yar
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Two boys enjoy the ice in the village of Pobeda (Victory) in Khabarovsk Krai
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Two men go ice fishing on a bay in Vladivostok

January, 1993

By Tom Bell

A few days ago, I pulled on a wool shirt, thick wool pants, a sweater, a polyester-fill vest, a quilted nylon parka liner, a U.S. Army Extreme Cold Weather parka, and my hat made from six sable skins, and walked down the street to the Far East Territorial Committee for Meteorology and Monitoring of the Environment. I wanted to know how cold and windy it got in Khabarovsk. But the chief meteorologist wouldn’t tell me unless I gave her 1,250 rubles (the cost of two kilograms of sausage). Never in my career have I paid a government agency for such basic information, I told her.

“This is outrageous.” I said. Then I gave her all the rubles I had in my wallet, 1,050 rubles. This is what she gave me in return: The average January temperature here is minus 22.3 Celsius (minus 8 degrees Fahrenheit) and can easily drop to minus 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Wind velocity is usually from two to five meters per second (4.5 to 11 mph) and mostly blows from the west. For no extra charge, she told me the ice on the Amur River is now one meter thick.

I thanked her and left the Far East Territorial Committee for Meteorology and Monitoring of the Environment with all the data needed to verify that this place is damn cold. Khabarovsk sits on the 49th parallel, about the same latitude as Paris. The westerly wind that warms Paris travels 5,000 miles before reaching Khabarovsk, passing over all of Europe and Asia. By the time it rattles my window, it has lost its European charm. Perhaps it lost it in Mongolia or Siberia. In any case, it has grown unruly and mean.

People here can’t hide from the wind. Most don’t own cars. They walk. Mothers wrap their toddlers in wool and fur and pull them down the sidewalk on sleds. Men undo the flaps of their fur hats, letting them hang over their cheeks so their heads look like half-frozen basset hounds. Young girls cover their noses with their mittens and hurry home. Because the buses and trams are poorly heated, the insides of their windows are caked with ice.  Passengers scrape peepholes with their thumbnails.

Apartments offer no refuge. Many are cold. The entire city is heated with hot water boiled by three central power plants. The water is pumped through pipes buried below ground. Unfortunately, the pipes leak. This is why the hot water never reaches some radiators. It also explains why steam shoots from the ground everywhere, giving the impression that Khabarovsk is built on an active volcano. Be careful when walking at the streets here. Every few hundred yards there’s an open man hole. No one seems very concurred that these holes remain uncovered for months at a time. Try not to fall down one. Some of the holes are more than twenty feet deep, and once you reach bottom, you’ll find yourself trapped in the city’s heating system.

Yesterday, I went to the office of the deputy mayor to find out more about the system. When I arrived, two elderly women were waiting to see him. They had been waiting all morning. One said her water pipes had frozen and burst, flooding her flat with water. The same thing happened six times last winter, she said. The other woman told me her apartment is only zero degrees Celsius. She said her 94-year-old mother spent most of last winter lying in bed wearing all her clothes. By spring, she was dead.

“She had good health,” she said. “If it wasn’t so cold, she would be alive now.”

I was called in to see the deputy mayor. He looked tired. He told me Power Plant #3 suffered water pressure problems last week, leaving 500 apartments without heat for three days. The city’s power plants are poorly designed, he said, and 20 percent of the city’s pipes need to be replaced, but the city can’t afford it.

I tried to cheer him up with humor: “Please, I live at 7 Sheronava St., Apt. #128. Could you raise the temperature in my room by five degrees?”

He wrote down my address.

“No, no, it’s just a joke,” I said. “The temperature in my room is fine.”

The mayor, who had walked in during the interview, insisted I tell him the temperature in my room.

“It’s 18 (Celsius) degrees,” I said.

“That’s normal,” he said, laughing. He said he wanted to make sure that the city’s only American journalist stayed warm for the winter.

I said good-bye to the mayor and the deputy mayor. On the way out of the office, I looked for the two old women in the waiting room, but they were gone. I walked home. I pulled my flaps down over my ears and covered my face with a scarf. A light snow was in the wind, which seemed particularly strong and biting. As usual, it blew from the west, from Paris.

My Stomach Rebels

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Two butchers at the Khabarovsk outdoor market

January, 1993

Russian women must be among the best cooks in the world, considering what they have to work with. Their borscht is wonderful. Their bread is more substantive and tastier than the pre-sliced, air-filled plastic-wrapped product found in American homes. These women can take a scrawny chicken, salted cabbage and a few five-month-old potatoes and carrots and make a soup that is healthier than the soup found in any can. My only complaint is that they use so much grease. Two days ago, after three months of eating like a Russian, my stomach finally rebelled.

The day of the rebellion started off peacefully enough: I had fried eggs and sausage for breakfast. (I eat fried eggs and sausage every morning.) Then I went to a banya, a public sauna. My friend Sergey, a 26-year-old unemployed helicopter mechanic, had invited me.

It was a dry sauna: The thermometer at the ceiling measured 132 degrees Celsius, (250 degrees Fahrenheit). “It’s for your health,” Sergey explained as we pushed open the heavy wooden door and stepped into hell.

The benches were stacked like bleachers. Two potbellied, naked men sat on the top bench. I sat on the bench closest to the floor. Then I spread sweat over my body, as if basting a turkey. After 10 minutes, Sergey announced it was time to leave. We took a shower, draped white sheets over our shoulders and sat in the cooling-off room. Then Sergey announced it was time to return to the sauna. We repeated this process five times over a two-hour period, staying in the sauna a bit longer each time.

During our final visit, we sat on the top bench. And in the Russian tradition, Sergey hit me repeatedly with leaf-covered oak branches. The branches drive heat into the body, he said. By this time Sergey began to resemble Satan himself.

By the time we left the banya, my legs were wobbly. I wanted to sleep, but Sergey said we had to drink hot tea and eat fried potatoes at his apartment. After the tea and potatoes, he placed a jar of salted cabbage on the table. He poured sunflower seed oil over the cabbage. Then he poured the oil on a spoon and began shoveling it into his mouth.

“Eat some oil,” he said. “It has vitamins.”

“Please,” I said. “I want water. Just give me a glass of cold water.”

The water in Khabarovsk has to be boiled before drinking, and Sergey had no boiled water available. He never does. Like most Russians, he doesn’t drink much pure water, just tea, vodka and Chinese wine. Even in villages where the water is delicious, people eat huge meals without drinking anything. A professor at the teachers’ college once explained to me, “We were always told that too much water makes your heart work too hard.” Another woman told me that cold water combined with hot food is bad for one’s teeth.

I escaped from Sergey’s apartment without drinking oil. I went home, and after taking a nap, I prepared dinner: spaghetti and chicken. This wasn’t a skinny chicken from the state store. This was a plump, juicy chicken from the private bazaar downtown. The state stores sell bread, eggs, milk, sugar, low-quality meat and sometimes butter. But if you’re a rich Russian or a foreigner, you go to the bazaar, where dark-skinned Central Asians and Gypsies sell apples, dried apricots, oranges, and even bananas for 1,500 rubles per kilogram (about four days’ pay for a Russian school teacher); Russian women hawk onions, garlic, pastries, Italian spaghetti; and Koreans sell the only green vegetable available in Khabarovsk this winter — a wet, stringy fern. I can’t afford to buy too much food at the bazaar. I usually just get the dried apricots and stringy fern. The chicken was a treat. But the last time I had brought home bazaar chicken and spaghetti, Tina, the wife in the Russian family I live with, fried the chicken and flavored the spaghetti with chicken fat.

I was determined to make this second chicken into a healthy American-style meal. I had planned to bake it, but Tina, unfortunately, tossed it on the frying pan while I was in the bathroom. Not all was lost; she had yet to touch the spaghetti.

“I will cook the spaghetti separately,” I said. She argued with me and then allowed me to boil the spaghetti in its own pot. Then, after the spaghetti was done, she tossed it into the frying pan.

I took the spaghetti out of the frying pan. I put the spaghetti on a plate. I sat down, and while I began to eat it, she picked up the frying pan and poured the chicken fat over my spaghetti. Then she and her husband sat down to eat their own meal: pickled cucumber and cold, salted pig fat.

I spent that night tossing in bed with a fever. I kept thinking of Sergey gulping down that oil. Each time that particular image came to mind, I ran to the bathroom to lean over the toilet. And I had diarrhea — a reoccurring problem ever since I’d arrived in Russia. In my half-conscious imagination, my body was a giant grease ball.

Everyone in the household knew I was sick. The next morning, Tina came into my room to check on me.

“Water,” I pleaded. “Cold water.”

“No, cold water is bad for you,” she said. She gave me a bowl of dumplings covered in butter.

I didn’t touch the dumplings. I didn’t eat anything all day, until late last night when I reached for my supply of granola bars my mother had sent me for Christmas. There was one only left.

The New Year in Krasny Yar

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By  Tom Bell

For most of the winter, the men of Krasny Yar live in hunting cabins scattered along the Bikin River. They return to the village only once — at the end of December — to celebrate the New Year.

I also celebrated the New Year in Krasny Yar. I came here to meet the hunters and escape life in a big Russian city. Compared to the stinking apartment buildings of Khabarovsk, Krasny Yar is paradise. The water is pure, the snow deep and soft. The food — made with wild meat and garden vegetables— tastes wonderful.

New Year’s Day is Russia’s biggest holiday. After the Soviets took power and discouraged the celebration of Christmas, many of the symbols of Christmas‚ such as Grandfather Frost and the decorated tree, were moved to New Year’s. Indeed, the whole spirit of the holiday has been successfully transplanted. New Years in Russia is a time for families to be reunited. Father Frost, Dyehd Moroz, is like our Santa Claus, except less robust and more elderly (he represents the old year, after all). To deliver presents to children, he needs the help of his granddaughter, Snigoorochka, the Snow Maiden.  Snigoorochka has blonde hair and a long blue and white coat. While Santa Claus sneaks into children’s homes late at night, Dyehd Maroz and Snigoorochka, are highly visible spirits. Portrayed usually by friends of the family, they arrive at children’s homes at a respectable hour and hand out presents to each child. The children in return are expected to give a little performance of holiday poems and songs.

Until early in this century, before Russian culture had crept into their remote valley in the Sikhote-Alin Mountains, the Udegeh had never celebrated the New Year. So all of their New Year traditions are Russian. Still, in Krasny Yar, it’s somehow easier to believe in Father Frost. Parents here tell their children that the old man lives in the forest nearby.

A few days ago, while skiing in the woods on the outskirts of the village, I noticed that the foot path looked odd — like someone had scraped it with a rake. Then I saw why — two boys had been dragging a yolka, an evergreen tree, from the forest where it had been cut. The village Soviet of People’s Deputies (town hall) also had a yolka. The kindergarten children held a party there. Dressed like deer, princesses and gypsies, they held hands and circled around the yolka. They sang:

In the forest a little fir-tree was born,

In the forest it grew up,

In the winter and in the summer it was

slender and green.

A snowstorm sang it a lullaby:

“Sleep, little fir-tree, bye-bye.”

The frost wrapped it with snow:

“Take care, do not get cold.”

Today, it’s so beautifully decorated,

It has visited us for the holiday,

And so much happiness

It has brought to little children.

At the New Year’s party in the school gym, Father Frost was played by my friend Radion, a skinny 26-year-old English teacher. His Snow Maiden was Svetlana, the school’s 36-year-old, part-time recreation director. Her front teeth are made of gold. Her hands are callused from chopping wood. She lives in an abandoned dress shop with her two daughters. A year ago, she divorced her husband a year ago because he drank too much.

I visited that little house several times this week. I should’ve been interviewing the hunters, but I enjoyed the company of Svetlana and her girls, especially her 7-year-old daughter Nina, whom I nicknamed Yabloko, which means apple. Like her mother, she has a beautiful, round Asian face.

I imagine this will come as a surprise to the reader. It was to me. By the end of the week, Svetlana said she wanted to be my wife.

“But where would we live?” I asked, taking her proposal with humor, but somehow not quite ready to dismiss it entirely.

“Krasny Yar,” she said.

On New Year’s Eve, the hunters and their families gathered in their homes and ate the biggest meal of the year. Several had invited me for dinner. In my effort not to offend them, I had promised to visit each family for a toast. I was supposed to be at Radion’s father’s house for midnight. When the grand moment arrived, however, I missed it. I was caught between houses, walking down the street with the Snow Maiden, learning the Russian words for the moon and stars.


The Jews

Boris Kaufman, a Sabbotniki. “All the old people have died, and the young generation looks far away. They dislike the place.”

December, 1992

By Tom Bell

It’s Friday night in the Jewish Autonomous Region, an area the size of Belgium, planted on swampland in the far eastern corner of Russia. I sit in the region’s only synagogue waiting for Jews. After all, Friday night is the beginning of the Jewish sabbath. But no one shows up tonight, except for the caretaker. And he believes in Jesus Christ. “Some weeks no one comes here,” the caretaker says.

What a strange part of the world this is — Russia’s only official Jewish region. Hardly any Jews live here. Stalin had granted the region autonomy as a Jewish homeland in 1934. Lured by propaganda, which called for young jews to emigrate here and build their own state, seven thousand pioneers arrived and began building a town on the swamp. Many had fled persecution in other parts of the Soviet Union. Later Stalin deported Jews here by force. As he carried out ruthless purges elsewhere,  Stalin used the region as a showcase to display his alleged tolerance of ethnic self-determination. In the late 1940s, however, Stalin decided to wipe out everything Jewish in the Jewish region except the facade. In the capital, Birobidzhan, the Jewish street names — like the main boulevard, Shalom Aleichem Street — were allowed to remain. But the schools stopped teaching Yiddish. People stopped celebrating Jewish holidays and attending  synagogue. Jewish intellectuals began disappearing to prison camps in Siberia and the Far East. The synagogue hasn’t had a rabbi since the 1960s, and its Torah was stolen several years ago. Without a rabbi or Torah, this simple wooden building can’t even be called a synagogue, only a house of worship. The only worshipers I’ve meet this weekend are Sabbotniki, people who follow the Jewish rituals but believe in Christ. “No one wants to live here,” says the caretaker

A 10-year-old Soviet brochure  that Kaufman showed me provides a different story:

“During all the years of existence, not a single resident of the region had been lured by the promises of the Zionists and left the Soviet Union.”

Today, Jews account for less than three percent of the region’s population. Most have left for the new homeland, Israel. Since 1989, 2,400 Jews have emigrated there. The people who remain call these people otyezhanty, Russian slang meaning “those who go away.”

Sophia Brashina, 64, is all packed. She goes away in two weeks. She, her daughter and 168 other Jews from the region are taking a charter flight to Tel Aviv. “I don’t want to go there,” she says. “But I don’t want to be alone. Nearly all my friends have gone to Israel. My son is there, my grandchildren. I’ve lost 10 kilograms just thinking about it. I’m so sad. It’s difficult to change your home place.”

Jews move to Israel because they think economic conditions are better there, she says. But Anna Davydivona Piskovets, 59, who heads the quickly disappearing Jewish Women’s Organization, says many Jews leave because they’re afraid to stay in Russia. “In hard times, people look for an enemy,” she says. “Jewish people are afraid the Russians will find it among the Jews.” Even those who stay have many of their possessions packed so they can leave quickly if they have to, she says.

Ironically, while the Jews are leaving, the new democratic government is working to restore the region’s Jewish identity. The government now funds special concerts on Jewish holidays and recently opened a four-room Jewish school for children to study Jewish history, literature, music and Yiddish. The Great Patriotic War display at the Birobidzhan Museum has been replaced by an exhibit on Stalin’s persecution of Jews. The exhibit’s centerpiece is a long sheet of paper containing hundreds of names. These are the names the Jews from the region who died in Stalin’s camps. The list is still being compiled.

Stalin is dead, the Communist Party is history. The work camps are closed down. So why can’t the Jews feel safe? Why can’t they forget their fears? A few blocks from the museum there’s a building with a hammer and sickle symbol over the entrance. I walk inside. It’s police headquarters for the region. A mural in the lobby features 12 super-sized policemen surrounded by symbols of police power — a helicopter, a police car, a motorcycle, a radio and a club. The men, their faces dark and featureless, tower over a row of apartment buildings. The mural belongs in Birobidzhan Museum as a sarcastic commentary on the abuse of police power. Unfortunately, this is how police see themselves.

“Give me your documents,” says a real policeman. He apparently doesn’t like the way I’m looking at the mural.

I ask if I can photograph the mural. He gets even more upset, and he seems ready to detain me. “Don’t worry, I’m leaving Birobidzhan,” I say, heading out the door.

As I walk down the street, I can see him watching from the window. His face is dark, like the faces in the mural. Now I can understand the fear. If I were a Jew, I’d be on that charter flight to Tel Aviv.