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.