Chapter 1: “The Wild, Wild East”

Stroking his blue black gun, a scowling teenage Russian grinned at us, obviously enjoying the effects of his behavior on a terrified group of Americans. His friends egged him on, staring at us with baleful, bloodshot eyes. For a moment, I flashed to the countless scenes in movies where the hero does the right thing – an instantaneous thought that only served to distract me from the reality of our situation.

Russian teenager with gun.
Russian teenager with gun.

There were about ten of us altogether but, true to every wildlife film, this pack of predators found us vulnerable and temporarily apart from the rest of the herd in the dilapidated bus station. Sitting across the tiny café table from me, two twenty-something CPA’s, husband and wife, looked like they had been teleported from atop a wedding cake in Des Moines, Iowa. They hunched there like a pair of Midwestern grouse in the middle of an open field, clutching each other while looking at me for a solution.

Another (damn Hollywood) scene popped into my head: “Are you looking at me?” except I thought that was from ‘Taxi Driver’ and didn’t offer up much relevance at that moment. I was sorely tempted to look over my shoulder in mock amazement that anyone was looking to me for a way out of the predicament. Perhaps it was my age.

Yes, I was staring at the big 4-oh within the year. That was small comfort to me. Great, I would be one of the sick, the tired, AND the old that attracted the attention of this testosterone laden, pimply faced, gang.

This little foray into the Siberian city of Ussirisk, had been doomed from the start. Brainchild of the Russian desk at Peace Corps headquarters in Washington on the Potomac, it was our first big chance to get ‘out there’ – to engage the Russian people. Our in-country director, a self avowed minimalist (boy, was he in the right place) and a veteran of countless Peace Corps missions in the warmer climes of South East Asia, thought it would be terrific – just the thing to get our feet wet (or frozen, in this case).

Anyone with a lick of sense would have balked but we were still (and would remain) strangers in a strange land. We were at this point so discombobulated by our surgical insertion into the Siberian hinterlands that we suspended all credulity to embrace whatever sketchy plan the government had in mind.

We had arrived on Friday afternoon to a frozen landscape – both inside our rooms and out – thanks to a complete shutdown of the plant that supplied utilities to the entire crumbling, gloomy city. As typical Americans, we naturally assumed that the situation was temporary and that the simple push of a restart button would return us to above -35 degree temperatures. Visual of two thumbs up, Houston, we’ve solved the problem. We later learned, many times, that non-payment was to blame – after the collapse of communism, cities in the Russian Far East were left to their own devices, rocked on their heels by the unforeseen and unintended consequences of historic change. Heat or hot water was not forthcoming anytime soon, if at all.

Huddling together like so many penguins on an Antarctic floe, we stood shivering and staring at the bus that had so unceremoniously regurgitated us on the steps of a building – one that resembled a bus station if you squinted. With unsurprising alacrity, we marshaled our collective I.Q’s and bolted for the structure – it enjoyed four walls – our new minimum requirements.

We dragged our suitcases with something nearing cruelty – their little plastic wheels providing scant negotiation on the ice, their contents having lost all utility as sartorial concerns took a back seat to survival. We’d only been in Russia for less than a month and were already showing the symptoms of the desperation that the indigenous population had endured for decades. This was a cultural immersion in ice.

Staggering and schlepping into the ‘station’, we were met with zoolike curiosity from a now familiar and ubiquitous scarved group of Babushkas (Russia’s grandmothers and their greatest defense against anarchy), a typical smattering of Russian ‘Ne’re Do Wells’ who engaged in what can only be described as cryptic but rich performance art, and finally, a suspiciously eager group of young male teenagers who hung on our every incomprehensible word.

We felt and looked like idiots – gaily dressed in various permutations of Land’s End and arctic regalia (the Siberian equivalent of Hawaiian shirts) and we mutely stared back at the gathering crowd, all secretly hoping that some other American would fall on his/her sword and attempt to speak in Russian. After a ridiculously long silence, it became obvious that all my fellow ‘volunteers’ were doing no such thing and the old expression “in for a dime, in for a dollar” sprang to mind. I screwed up my courage and ventured to articulate the Russian word for ‘hotel’ from our handy little Peace Corps guide entitled “Weekend in Russia”.  .  .  .