At the Chinese Border

At the Chinese Border
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
A boy in the village of Krasny Yar
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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

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

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 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.

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.