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Just Another Night in Kharbarovsk

Johnny Robinson in a Russian apartment building hallway.

by John Robinson

“NYSHA, NYSHA!” Osetta repeats again, her high-pitched wail directed toward the keyhole in the heavy, dented steel door. “NYSHA, NYSHA!” This has been going on for quite a while now. With me, besides Osetta, are my American anesthesiologist friend Rocky, as well as Vitale, Antoly, and Simavar, the latter three all doctors and professors at the medical institute. We’ve been milling about in this dark, freezing cold concrete hallway trying to get into Osetta and Vitale’s apartment. Apparently, they don’t have one of the three oddly-shaped keys it takes to open the massive, crudely welded door, and their 3 and 6 year-old daughters are inside.

Nysha, the oldest, will hopefully hear us and open the door. As usual, Rocky and I learn what’s happening on the fly, in real time, a grasp of common language being slight at best. We gather that the plan is for us all to sleep here tonight, saving for tomorrow the extra hour of driving back to the center of the city.

It’s after 2:00 am and we’ve been awake and on the move –we were at the institute all day- since early the previous morning. Some hours ago, in the evening, our Russian friends had picked us up in front of our shabby hotel on Amursky Strada. They had whisked us off in their little Volga jeep to the sprawling outskirts of Khabarovsk and beyond, where the cold Siberian wind blows across the icy plains. At a cozy cottage, Rocky and I were treated to an unforgettable banya –sauna- experience, not to mention a midnight Siberian feast of fish stew and boiled potatoes.

I would have fallen fast asleep on our return to the city, if not for the weight of the vodka-saturated Simavar wedged upon me in the cramped cargo space of the Volga. Finally arriving at Osseta and Vitale’s apartment building, it had taken a while to find the guard of the chainlink fenced car lot. The guard’s midnight loneliness is obviously tempered by an acquaintance with some of the locally-distilled spirits. Anyway, in the Russian Far East one doesn’t dare leave a car parked on the street, with any hope, that is, of finding it there the next morning.

While Osetta maintains her plaintive “NYSHA” routine, the rest of us talk and move around to keep warm. With so many suggestions of a difficult life all around me, I muse about it again. Rocky and I, here for a three-week medical volunteer trip, have learned by now that this is a crime-ridden part of the world and to make ones way through it is a leap of faith. The most common crime is thievery. The hallway in which we huddle has no light, the bulbs in the crummy ceiling fixtures impossible to maintain; they are pilfered at once. There’s just a bit of the harsh glow of a mercury vapor lamp on a steel tower outside, shining through a dirty window 10 meters away. Everyone learns to grope confidently through dark halls, to creep steadfastly up dim flights of stairs. And it’s rare to find elevators which are operable, even in 10-story Soviet-era apartment towers. Vandals too quickly remove any usable parts.

My attention returns to the apartment doors which look like ones from crudely constructed bank vaults. They are always adorned with an assortment of medieval-looking locking mechanisms. Sometimes there are two separately opening doors one after the other. Apparently the thieves are quite determined. Hmmmm…I ask Antoly if the thieves kill people who get in their way. “Don’t get in their way,” he replies with that maniacal grin.

These ugly apartment buildings do not have balconies. That might make it easier for us to get into the fortified apartment. I guess that would make it easier for thieves too. Then Vitale laughs and tells me about the burglars who break into apartments by climbing down ropes suspended from the roof or from an upper window. They hang there, spider-like, and bust through a window of an unsuspecting apartment, rob the place, and exit the same way they entered. Kind of like a twisted Santa Claus story. Antoly leans back in the dim glow and laughs heartily, at the grim, desperate humor of it all, I guess.

Obviously, Nysha and her little sister are fast asleep –hopefully they’re fine- and there’s no waking them by yelling through the thick doors. A neighbor investigates our little gathering by peeking through chains attached to a cracked open door. He sees Vitale, and after a bustle of clanking lock cylinders the heavy door swings opens and jovial Andre invites us into his cluttered space bright with fluorescent light. His apartment has the air of a going concern, that’s for sure. Working the black market is how people supplement their modest earnings provided by their state jobs, and Andre is in the illicit business of pirating videos for sale on the street. At the time of my visit business is good, and on this night Andre has a bank of six battered VCR’s wired up, recording, and copying. There are boxes of video tapes scattered on the floor. These he smuggles from China, which is only a short, highly unauthorized trip across the solidly frozen Amur river.

It feels good to get into a heated space; thanks to Andre. And thanks to hot water heat delivered through leaky underground pipes to aging apartment towers like this one. There are several hot water plants which supply this heat source to the city’s residents. Before I knew about this tactic to keep Khabarovsk residents from freezing I was wondering of the source of all the steam rising from the ground throughout the city. A lot of energy goes to waste here. I’m checking out the windows now, the panes of which buzz from the icy breeze outside. It’s funny how everybody here seals the ill-fitting sashes with a papier mache kind of glop which they mix up using “bad milk and newsprint”.  They do this with the first frost of fall and don’t pick it out until the late-arriving spring allows the opening of the windows again.

Rocky and I sit on the floor of Andre’s apartment and lean against the wall, amid the whir of VCRs and the soft Russian conversation of our comrades. We’ve given up on getting into Osetta and Vitale’s apartment; tonight we sleep on Andre’s floor. Rocky’s face is pale with a coming flu, but a smile –wan as it is in this case- steadfastly crosses his face with every turn in our fortunes. He reminds me that he is supposed to be at a pediatric neurology clinic in just a few hours. Oh, we’ll make it all right.

We have to laugh, as the curtain falls on another day with our friends in the Russian Far East. The mountains, people and easy way of life in Southwest Virginia seem even farther away than they are – but all will be well.

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