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.

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

Cold boy and girl SMALL
A boy and girl in the village of Krasny Yar, Primorsky Krai, the Russian Far East
VERY FINAL BOY IN STREET 4-SMALL
A boy in the village of Krasny Yar
Woman and little boy with blue scarf SMALL
A boy and and mother in Khabarovsk
Mother and child-2.SMALL
A mother and her son don’t seem to mind the cold in the village of Krasny Yar
57403-HRSL-Untitled 5-011-1590-Edit-Edit-2-Edit-Edit
Two boys enjoy the ice in the village of Pobeda (Victory) in Khabarovsk Krai
57403-HRSL-Unt6-011-1610-Edit-2 copy_edited-1 SMALL
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.

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.”