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 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 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

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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.”