My Stomach Rebels

A vendor at the Khabarovsk indoor market
two butchers
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

house in Krasny Yar smallTwo girls at door3.Boy on skis horizontal 2_edited-3Boy on skis large_edited-8Krasny Yar CopUdege man in costometwo girls on streetboy with hatboy on streetgirl at doorwayold man at doorwaytwo girlsaccordion4 girlsNinaJanuary, 1993

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.

The Mysterious Theft of the Socialist Stage Panel

Soviet Horror

Lenin Square in Luchegorsk

December, 1992

By Tom Bell

Four wooden panels line the top of a wall in Tina Nagovitsyn’s classroom. The panels depict four stages in world history: The “Primitive Stage” (cave men fighting mammoths), the “Slave Stage” (Romans whipping slaves), the “Feudal Stage” (peasants tilling fields), and the “Capitalist Stage” (workers picketing factories).

The fifth stage — the “Socialism Stage” (happy children marching in a parade) — is missing. It was removed last June, said Tina, who teaches history in the classroom. She said it was dirty and needed to be cleaned.

“It takes seven months to clean a panel?” I asked.

“It got lost,” she said.

I didn’t believe her. My theory: Someone had removed the panel because it was Soviet propaganda, and Tina wouldn’t tell me this because she was embarrassed. Soviet propaganda had been her job for 27 years.

She had learned the propaganda business at the University of Marxism and Leninism in Khabarovsk. She went there because she wanted to teach history. In the Soviet Union, history teachers were responsible for the ideological training of the nation’s children.

I never thought of Tina as part of the Soviet propaganda machine. I live with her and her husband. I pay them rent to live in their flat. When I usually see her, she’s cooking something in the kitchen while dressed in her bathrobe. She makes great borscht. She’s 54, only a year from retirement. But the last few years have been the most difficult, she said.

“Now the children are skeptical of everything,” she said. “They’re blaming the generation of their fathers for the country’s problems. Sometimes, I try to prove that not everything was bad. They’re not right when they blame everybody.”

Before glasnost, all Tina had to do was make sure her students memorized text books provided by the Communist Party. The books were based upon a history book that Stalin himself had edited. During the Brezhnev era, she was required to reserve a special display area for Brezhnev’s books, like The Little Land, his ghost-written war memoirs. She didn’t like Brezhnev or his books. He was corrupt, and his books weren’t true, she said. Her hero was Lenin. “Lenin’s ideas were good,” she said, explaining that communism failed because the people who inherited his power didn’t follow his example. “They were people of low culture,” she said. “It’s not Lenin’s fault. It’s the fault of the leaders of this country.”

New text books have yet to be written for post-Soviet Russia, so Tina clips magazine and newspaper articles and brings them to class. Every week, it seems, the newspapers publish new disclosures about the crimes of Soviet leaders. Now they’re even saying Lenin was a despot, that he had ordered the deaths of thousands of people.

This week, I observed one of Tina classes. The subject was economic stagnation during the Brezhnev era. Her 11th-grade students took turns standing in front of a big yellow map of the Soviet Union, and in the Soviet educational tradition, quoting memorized text.

“Scientific initiatives mushroomed,” said one girl. “In some productions we overcame foreign countries, especially in arms. However, military engineering could have been used in other sections of the economy, but it was not encouraged.” The girl then spoke about the declining standard of living and sat down. Another girl stood up.

“In 1977, the People’s Deputies wrote a new constitution — the Constitution for Developed Socialism,” she said. “They wrote about democracy and freedom. But they were just words. People who tried to speak the truth were persecuted, especially people in the scientific and cultural communities.” Several more students reeled off their memorized text, all with a similar bent, and then the bell rang. Class was over. I asked some of the students if they believed if Tina was teaching them the truth. They said they didn’t care.

Later that day, back in our apartment, I was talking to Tina iwhile she watched television. Some government officials were being interviewed. “It’s all propaganda,” she said. “I don’t believe them.”

I noticed her bookcase contained the 52-volume collection of Lenin’s writings. She said she’d bought the collection while studying at the University of Marxism and Leninism. On her dresser mirror hung something I’d never seen before here — a small crucifix.

“The opium of the masses?” I asked.

“I need to believe in something,” she said.

The Lure of Paradise

three girlsone girl57403-HRSL-Unt6-010-1609-Edit-2-Edit

December, 1992

By Tom Bell

Lena entered my room, draped her fur coat on my arm and eased her 18-year-old body onto my bed. She wore bright-red lipstick and knee-high black leather boots. Like most English-speaking Russians, she spoke with a British pronunciation. Her accent, however, was more formal than most, and more irritating.

“Tom,” she said, batting her eyelids. “I want to help you.”

Her purpose for visiting me, as I had understood on the phone, was to give me a letter she wanted delivered to America. When I asked for the letter, she pouted and said she’d forgotten it.

Back home in Anchorage, I didn’t have any 18-year-old women chasing me like this. But here in Russia, I’m a rich man in a poor country, sought after by women who dream of snagging an American husband. I can’t blame women like Lena for trying. Most woman in Russia, it seems, work all day at their jobs and then come home for their second job. They wash their clothes in the sink, cook all the meals from scratch, spend every summer weekend in the garden or dacha growing food for their families. Without women the men of Russia would probably live in squalor and die eventually of malnutrition.

Russian women know how American women live because they see them three nights a week on the hugely popular American soap opera, “Santa Barbara.” Women on the show don’t do much besides lounge around their beautiful homes wearing elegant clothing.

“American women are rich and independent,” a young woman at the Khabarovsk teacher’s college told me. “America is like a paradise.”

Women I don’t know call me wanting to introduce me to their daughter, a “young Elizabeth Taylor” or their friend, a tall “Vivian Leigh.” I suppose I could take more advantage of the circumstances. But I’m faced with two dilemmas: 1) How do know if I woman likes me or just my passport? 2) How can I date someone without raising the expectations that I’ll take her to a new life in Santa Barbara?

These young women are hard to resist, though. Flirtatious, demure, ultra-feminine, they’re the kind of women that American men haven’t seen in 30 years. Even their appearance is from a different era. It’s an Old World look — with gobs of make-up, high heels, fur hats and matching fur collars in winter, mini skirts in summer. For lonely Alaskan men, this is an easy place to fall in love. I occasionally see them at the Khabarovsk airport — the grinning, 50-year-old bureaucrat from Anchorage squeezing hands with his busty, bleach-blonde 23-year-old pen pal from Vladivostok; or the married, foul-mouthed Fairbanks hunting guide with his cultured Russian sweetheart; or the overweight 62-year-old Baptist preacher with his fiancee, a petite 24-year-old atheist. I suppose it’s a good trade off. The men get something they can’t get in America — a beautiful young wife. The women get self-cleaning ovens.

It’s not just the women who are eager to please you. Many people here go out of their way to befriend you and lavish upon you such warmth and hospitality it’s overwhelming. For the visiting American, this sudden rise in status is a wonderful feeling. Only later do you learn that for many Russians a friendship with an American means opportunity — maybe it means the possibility of a loan, or business contacts, or a trip to America; maybe it only means a chance to speak English or meet someone from another world. At the very least, an American friend brings prestige to any relationship and to any social gathering. As one Russian confided to me, “You’re like the general at the wedding.”

A Village in the Forest

Old Udegeh manOld man with skiOld lady siting downLubasha and Shura Sulingiza in Krasy Yar, Russia, circa 1992




57403-HRSL-Untitled 5-016-1595-Edit-Edit


November, 1992

By Tom Bell

Amidst the rolling foothills of the Sikhote-Alin Mountains live the Udegeh people, indigenous Asians who hunt in the one of the most unusual forests in the world — an old-growth taiga that is home for both bears and tigers. Only about 1,500 Udegeh exist in the world. The largest group lives in Krasny Yar, a village on the Bikin River.

Last week, two American television journalists and I rode ride south from Khabarovsk for six hours on the Trans-Siberian Railway and then rattled up a mountain road in a small bus for four hours. The dirt road came to an end at a swift-moving, ice-clogged river, which we crossed in a narrow wooden boat. On the other side was a village of about 700 people. There aren’t any cars or all-terrain vehicles in Krasny Yar. Except for the distant rumble of the wood-fired boiler at the village school and the voices of children playing in the streets, the village is as serene as the forest that surrounds it.

We went to Krasny Yar to film a short documentary about the dispute between the Udegeh people and the South Korean conglomerate Hyundai, which wants to log the Udegeh’s traditional hunting grounds. Environmentalists say logging the area would destroy the habitat of the endangered Ussuri tiger. The Udegeh say it would destroy their livelihood and culture. Last August, when the villagers heard that logging was about to begin, six Udegeh hunters took their rifles and flew there by helicopter to guard the trees. Twelve Cossacks from Vladivostok joined forces with the Udegeh to “defend the border.” Hyundai withdrew the loggers, but the dispute has yet to be settled.

After one night in Krasny Yar, the American journalists and their translator flew by helicopter to Korean logging camps on the other side of the mountain range. There wasn’t any room in the helicopter for me, so they left me behind with the task of guarding the luggage. I was glad to be abandoned. I had grown wearing of the Americans, who bickered constantly. Also, it provided me the chance to learn more about this mountain village.

Although the Udegeh are an Asian people of the Tungus-Manchurian group, they wear Russian clothes and celebrate Russian holidays. Elders still speak the Udegeh language, but younger people only speak Russian. Krasny Yar for the most part seems like a typical Russian village. Cows and dogs roam the streets; people busy themselves with rural chores such as chopping wood and fetching water from stone wells.

What makes Krasny Yar unique is its location. No where else in the world is there such a blend of northern and southern plants and animals. Walk in these woods and you might find a spruce entwined by a grape vine, or a Manchurian nut-tree and a Korean pine growing side-by-side with maples and oaks. Northern animals like deer, elk, sable and bear travel the same terrain as wild boars and tigers. This rich diversity can be explained by the climate. Severe, Alaska-style winters are succeeded by summers as luxuriant as in India. The climate here is monsoon, meaning that the prevailing wind changes direction according to the season. In winter, when the wind flows off the frozen steppes of Siberia, temperatures routinely drop to 20 degrees below. In summer, it reverses direction and travels here from the Pacific, bringing with it sub-tropical humidity and heavy rains.

During my stay, I mostly saw just women and children in the village. With the exception of the mayor, some teachers and a few elders, all the men here work in the forest. At the end of October, they travel by boat up the Bikin River to their hunting grounds. They carry slow-moving Russian-made snowmobiles in the boats, and at the end of February, the ride the machines back to the village. Those who have cabins close to the village come back for the New Year’s holiday. They use the snowmobiles only for long-distance travel. When the hunt, they use six-foot-long, seven-inch-wide wooden skis that for traction are covered with deer skin. The men hunt and trap fur-bearing animals, such as sable, fox and mink. For food, they hunt deer and wild boar.

There’s another predator in this forest —  the Ussuri tiger, known by Westerners as the Siberian tiger. Typically weighing from 400 to 650 pounds and measuring 9 to 12 feet from head to tail, this tiger is the biggest cat in the world. Its yellowish winter top coat lacks the red stripe of tigers from warmer climates,and its underside, from its face to the back legs and tail, is white. To withstand temperatures that drop as low as 50 degrees below zero, it grows a longer and thicker coat and develops a layer of fat along its flanks and belly. During winter, it must eat over 20 pounds of meat a day to sustain itself.

For centuries, the Udegeh have worshiped the tiger as a god. To appease it, they place tobacco leaves on its trail. As one Udegeh man told me, “the tiger and the Udegeh people are the same.” Unfortunately, in China and Korea, the tigers’ skins, bones and genitals are valued for their medicinal value. Pulverized and used in “tiger wine,” the bones bring about a hundred dollars a pound. It’s against Russian law to kill a tiger, but with the end of the Cold War, Russia’s borders with China and Korea are now open, and poachers have easy access to markets there. After decades of steady growth, the tiger population is now shrinking. Today, there are  fewer than 400 tigers, almost all of them living in the narrow stretch of mountains along the Pacific called Sikhote-Alin Range. This same area includes the Udegeh hunting grounds.

Krasny Yar’s school has a one-room museum containing artifacts of Udegeh culture: wooden idols, a bow and arrow, a model of a dug-out canoe, a deerskin hat with a feather plume. A painting of a tiger hangs on the wall.

The museum’s caretaker, a reserved man in his 60s, carefully recounted the history of the Udegeh people. Seven hundred years ago, he told me, the Udegeh were citizens of the Jurchen Empire, which included parts of present-day China, Mongolia and Russia. The Jurchens had their own written language and agriculture. Archaeologists working in the southern part of Primorski Krai recently unearthed an ancient Jurchen megapolis which included the remains of administrative buildings, fortifications, metal works, moats, towers, a central gateway. The Jurchens had their own written language and a highly-developed system of agriculture. In the 13th century, nomads from the Mongol steppes used scorch earth tactics to destroy the city and crush the empire, The Mongols set fire to the crops and slaughtered the Jurchen people by the thousands. The survivors scattered over the Far East and formed into several small tribes. The people who fled to the Sikhote-Alin mountains eventually became the Udegeh people. In their isolation, the Udegeh had developed their own language and customs. To survive, however, they took a step backwards in social evolution and become semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers. They lived in clans along rivers and built squared huts roofed with birch bark and mounted on tripods. They hunted game with spears and bows and arrows and later with rifles.

They lived much like this until the 1930s, when an outside power again forced change upon them. Collectivization was imposed throughout the USSR, and the traditional occupations of native people were organized into producers’ cooperatives. The Communists broke up the Udegeh clans, gathered everyone into Russian-style villages and set up a hunter/gatherer cooperative. The Udegeh gave their furs, ginseng, ferns and berries to the government and in return received state wages. While their hunting and gathering tradition survived, most of their other traditions perished. The Soviets prohibited them from speaking their language and worshiping their gods. Shamanism was subjected to mockery by young natives recruited into the Young Communist League. Some shamans fled into the forests and were never seen again. Today, only the elders can speak the Udegeh language; the middle aged and younger people only remember a few words, such as bugdify, the Udegeh word for “hello.”

Still, the Udegeh seemed to have had an easier time adjusting to the modern world than American natives. Communism — an ideology centered on the idea that resources should be shared equally — is closer to the values of Udegeh culture than capitalism, which prizes competition and individualism. Plus the sheer inefficiency of the communist system has forced the Udegeh to maintain their barter economy and their reliance on their forest, rivers and gardens for much of their food. Fortunately, the communists had also struck a deal with village leaders to preserve their forest, an area covering 10,000 square miles, or about of the size of New Hampshire. The effect is that the Udegeh seem to have more self-pride and live more self-sufficiently than most American natives. In oil-rich Alaska, the Eskimos have nicer public buildings, faster snowmobiles, more food in the stores and better medical care than the Udegeh. Some Alaska natives make more cash in a single day than Udegeh hunters can earn in a year. But there’s a terrible problem of suicide Alaska, especially among young native men who feel hopelessly displaced in modern America. While Krasny Yar is far poorer, there’s still a role for young, strong men who want to work in the wilderness as their fathers did. I asked several people here if their teenagers ever kill themselves, and everyone had the same reply — never.

With the end of communism, though, some of the same forces that have affected the lives of native Americans have begun to show their influence here. The presence of the mass media is growing stronger. The village practically shuts down when the Western soup operas such as “Santa Barbara” appear on their snowy television screens. At the Friday-night dance at the school, teenagers imitate the rock stars they see on MTV, shown on television every evening for an hour. I’ve noticed that the youngest children, who know almost nothing of the Udegeh history or language, have managed to memorize the commercials for products like Snickers and Uncle Ben’s ketchup.

If there’s any part of the Udegeh culture that has survived, it’s the connection with the forest. Now that land in Russia is becoming privatized, who will own the forest? Foreign companies like Hyundai. Russian logging companies? Or the Udegeh? To be truthful, the Ussuri tiger stands a better chance of being saved from extinction. There are simply too few of Udegeh and too many Russians. Intermarriage with the Russians and other tribes, a taboo some 50 years ago, has become common place. I was invited to the school one day to watch 12 children dressed in colorful silk ceremonial costumes perform Udegeh dances. Eleven of the children had round Russian eyes. Only one girl with a beautiful, chubby Asian face seemed fully Udegeh. I brought her outside for some photographs. She was cold, so I only snapped a couple of pictures. For the whole day after that, all I could think about was that girl. I kept worrying that perhaps I had worked too quickly and had set the wrong exposure on my camera. I wanted to preserve forever the image of the Udegeh girl standing in the snow.

I waited for four days for the helicopter with the Americans to return, but they never came back. A snow storm had forced them on a detour to Vladivostok. So on the morning of the fifth day, I gathered the luggage and put it on a sled. Andre, the policeman for the region, pulled the sled across the river (it had frozen over during my stay) and loaded the luggage into his truck. Then we began the long drive back to Khabarovsk. After about 20 minutes, Andre stopped the truck and pointed out the window towards the side of the road. He shouted something. I didn’t understand him. I stepped out of the car and walked to where he was pointing. There were tiger prints — two sets — belonging to a mother and her cub. I pressed my palm in the snow and stretched out my fingers. The mother’s print was almost as big as my hand.