Chapter 4: Vladivostok

We taxied onto the runway in utter darkness. We filed out of the plane, descending a very long, steep, ice covered set of metal steps leading to a dimly lit tarmac. Desperately holding onto the rails, we slipped and slid until we reached what we thought was safety – whereupon we slipped and slid our way onto a glistening patch of concrete to a bus a few hundred yards away. Our baggage was strewn everywhere and I marveled at how little I cared – it was too cold to think of anything but personal survival.

Vladivostok in the Summer
Vladivostok in the Summer

The bus was escorted by Russian police – sirens blaring and lights flashing in the middle of the night. Meanwhile, we huddled, as the object of this fanfare with no heat and no light. Shivering uncontrollably, I glanced about to see if my compatriots were similarly affected. They were – the usual banter was absent and everyone seemed lost in frigid thought.

Banks of snow impeded our progress and the police helped the bus driver extricate us on several occasions before we reached our destination. Our “dormitory” was like nothing I’ve ever seen. Its entrance was a steel door which opened into a tunnel like hallway – leading to a wooden door – both about 4 feet wide. The claustrophobia was palpable. Steep stairs led upwards and an elevator hid around the corner – like a troll – maliciously hoping that someone from Texas with 135 pounds of luggage (lest you forget) would try to use it. Of course I did and returned, defeated, to conquer six flights of stairs – one at a time.

We slept soundly that night. The following morning, I ventured onto the balcony to view the Ussiriski Bay – it was frozen except for a few circular patches and peppered with ice fishermen. I was fascinated with their ability to endure the temperatures for the sake of a few catches. It was a spectacular scene, with ghostly ships frozen in the ice until the end of a long winter.

Ship frozen in Bay
Ship frozen in Bay

I then crossed the hallway to the other side of the ‘dormitory’ and stood on that balcony. I was physically taken aback by the surreal sight of layer upon layer of stacked grey apartments, perched on a 30° hill, which reached and obscured the horizon. The scene was almost two-dimensional – eerily reminiscent of a page from a child’s pop-up book.  Geysers of hot water billowed from broken pipes everywhere. The street in front of the dormitory was pocked with holes so big that they could only be circumnavigated.

All I could think of was the CIA and other “intelligence agencies” that had stampeded the U.S. into spending zillions of dollars to protect Americans from the Soviet threat. Conversely, the Soviet Union had bankrupted their citizens by exaggerating the danger of Western Intervention. What a galactic waste of resources and human possibilities.

Many Americans have attributed the fall of the Former Soviet Union to Western pressure. While there’s no doubt that the escalation of military spending on the part of both super powers led to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union, it minimizes the degradation that had persisted for decades. The Soviet Union collapsed under its own weight. Regardless of a highly educated workforce, the command system simply did not work. It encouraged cronyism, corruption, and venal behavior in the name of the Communist Party. The Communist ‘elite’ were driven about in black Volga’s like self-important Rockefellers among the peasantry, mirroring their capitalistic counterparts. It was disappointingly human.

 

Third World Accommodations
Third World Accommodations

Most Americans believe that the Russian Mafia rose out of the ashes of the fallen Soviet Union. In fact, it had existed for as long as the Communist Party. The collapse of the Soviet Union merely meant a change in title. Governors became bank presidents, KGB Colonels started their own ‘security’ businesses, and nothing passed through the ports of the Russian Far East without enriching customs. . .

The impossibility of providing any Western guidance about transparent business practices in this perverse 3rd world country would not dawn on me for several years. In the meantime, invisible forces steered us through a Potemkin like tour – we were regaled with dancing Russian women in folk costumes, highly decorated deputies of something or another, private violin concerts, and Babushka’s in the kitchen who took us under their collective (if you’ll excuse the pun) wings.

Every new day was otherworldly. Before dawn, we would tramp through the snow, single file, along a little ice covered path that snaked around a ledge bordering the cafeteria. Twenty feet below us, an ice hockey field gleamed in the darkness. A cliff beyond it descended to the frozen bay. The warm lights from the dining room radiated into the inky black like a welcoming lighthouse.  .  .  .