Pickwick Tea and Biscuits

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Portrait of Yuri Ratnek in Khabarovsk

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.

My Stomach Rebels

A vendor at the Khabarovsk indoor market
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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 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 boy and and mother in Khabarovsk
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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

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.

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.”


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.

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

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.

I Find an Honest Man

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


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.

The 11-Day Itch

I traveled 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.”


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.

Barada the Gypsy

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“Barada” in his cabin.

MARCH, 1993

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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My Friend, Sergey

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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.”

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.”