My Friend, Sergey

Sergey small 2
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.”

By Tom Bell

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.”

The 11-Day Itch

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

February, 1993

By Tom Bell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But at least the buggers would die, I thought,

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

And I still itch.

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

Is there anything that gives me hope?

Yes.

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.

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.

Internet access at last!

VLADIVOSTOK — We arrived here yesterday after taking a 12-hour train-ride, the last leg of the Trans-Siberian Railroad.  We’re staying with my wife’s 23-year-old niece, Dasha, and for the first time in two weeks we have access to the Internet.

 We had been living in Krasny Yar, a native village in a mountain valley in the northwest corner of Primorksi Krai. Its 680 inhabitants belong primarily to the Udegeh tribe, although several members are Nanai, the tribe of my wife.

 The village is situated on high ground on the east bank of the Bikin River. “Yar” is an old Russian word for “river bank.”  “Krasny” means “red.”  There is nothing  red here, though. The name is due to the color favored by the Soviet government, which established the village in 1957 as a settlement for native people who were scattered in the region.

  The river basin upstream from Krasny Yar forms the largest tract of virgin temperate forest in the Northern Hemisphere. The Udgeh tribe, which controls the timber rights, has fought for decades to protect the forest from loggers. Nearly 50 men in the village work in the forest as professional hunters and trappers.

 As one might suspect, there is no Internet service in the homes. While the school principal has dial-up Internet service, she has installed  a hyper-vigilant filter that blocks access to most foreign Web sites, including my e-mail sites and my blog.

 There is also no cell phone service. So in Krasny Yar, my iPhone served mainly as a flashlight for my trips to the outhouse.

 To be truthful, though, life without Internet access has been pleasant.

 But now I sit here on Dasha’s one-bedroom apartment in Vladivostok, with the Ethernet cable securely attached, and I can tell you about our trip so far.

 Let me begin were I left off, in Khabarovsk, a regional capital situated on a bend on the Amur River, which for much of its length serves a  border between Russia and China. I lived in Khabarovsk in late 1992 and 1993, working as a freelance journalist following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

 I see some obvious differences between then and today. The communist propaganda murals are gone, replaced many times over with billboards.  Some of the newer commercial buildings are covered with advertising, and companies even use graffiti to hawk their products and services.

 Supermarkets have arrived in Khabarovsk, and several large, new apartment buildings have been built or are under construction.

 For the most part, though, Khabarovsk’s outward appearances have changed little. Most of the city’s  600,000 residents live in grim, Soviet-era apartment buildings in various stages of decay.

 The buildings don’t have furnaces. Rather, power stations supply hot water that flows though the city via a network of huge above-ground pipes.

 We have been staying with my wife’s cousin, Ira. Her husband,  Vasili, was killed three years ago when a  helicopter he was piloting crashed and burned in the upper portion of the Bikin River. The helicopter’s radar system had been tampered by somebody, apparently by an enemy of a businessman who had rented it and was flying as passenger.

 Ira and her daughter Anya, have been a wonderful hostesses and have kept us well-fed with wonderful home-cooked meals.  While staying with them, I walked around the neighborhood and took some photographs. I’ll post some of them now. 

A Journey to a Far-Away World

We are traveling from Maine to the Russian Far East to a remote mountain village in a forest populated by a huge variety of creatures, including elk, wild boar and the Siberian tiger.  Most of the people who live in the village are members of an indigenous tribe called Udegeh. This is the village where my wife, Svetlana, grew up. She has not been home to her  village in 17 years. We will be traveling with our 16-year-old daughter, Ihila.

The village is some 8,200 miles to the west of our home in Yarmouth, Maine. But we will be traveling the other way around the globe, eastward, a distance of some 12,000 miles. While the journey is longer, it’s less expensive because air travel within Russia is less expensive. We will leave Saturday on a bus to NYC and then fly nine hours to Moscow and then another eight hours to Khabarovsk, a city of nearly 600,000 in the Russian Far East. Then we will travel by car about five hours to the village, Kransy Yar. Seventeen years ago, it was impossible to reach the village by car in summer, when the Bekin River was not frozen over. But a new bridge now makes summer travel by car possible.

Our daughter, Ihila, will also be contributing to this blog.

Tom Bell