Thursday, December 13, 2012

Khabarovsk 1992

 © Boyd Norton
Khabarovsk 1992.
                I sat in the car, waiting for my companions who had gone into the train station to purchase tickets for the next leg of our journey. I had decided not to go in with them because, with my limited command of Russian, I would be of no help in the complex negotiations that it took to purchase train tickets. So I remained behind.
Trans-Siberian Railroad
Rain was coming down steadily, streaking the windshield and side windows. Occasionally I had to wipe the condensation from the interior of the glass so that I could watch the people coming and going. People watching in Russia, particularly Siberia, can be fascinating. We were parked near a covered stairway that led downward into the tunnels that went under the tracks and led to the various train platforms – and there were many. This is a major terminal for the Trans-Siberian Railroad. I had arrived here myself from Ulan Ude a few days earlier and nearly got lost getting from the train platform in the maze of tunnels.
People were streaming in and out, most with umbrellas. It was then that I noticed the young couple standing huddled out of the rain in the opening of this portal. They had no umbrella and seemed to be waiting for a bus or a vehicle to pick them up.
            They were both in their late teens, perhaps early twenties - university students, I guessed. She was slight of build, very delicate and thin and I imagined that she might be a student of the ballet. He was taller, also slender, but I didn’t picture him as a ballet or dance student. A musician, perhaps. Or maybe a mathematics major. He held his arm around her shoulders and they looked at each other often, speaking a few words. Then they looked expectantly out into the expanse of the asphalt covered parking lot. There were few vehicles. In typical Soviet fashion, the parking lot was not a smooth surface of asphalt but was dimpled with numerous irregularities so that rainwater quickly formed puddles all around. I watched as some people picked their way across this minefield of puddled water. Obviously this parking lot had been designed by that most powerful of all Soviet bureaucracies, The Ministry of A and I (see next essay).
            Many minutes passed. I was fascinated with the couple before me. At one point he said something that made her laugh. She covered her mouth and lowered her eyes as she giggled. Then they both seriously surveyed the parking lot again. I wondered if they had arrived by train and from where? Ulan Ude? Or Irkutsk? Maybe Moscow, some five or six days distant by train from here? Or maybe from one of the many small towns and villages along the Trans-Siberian. But it struck me that they didn’t seem to be from one of those little Siberian villages. Their clothing was more urban. Maybe Vladivostok in the other direction. Or maybe they were from Khabarovsk and were just seeing a friend off and got caught in this rain. The fact that they didn’t appear to have any luggage seemed to confirm my last theory.
            Mesmerized in my voyeurism I suddenly became aware of a large vehicle approaching from behind. It slowed as it came past the car, but then continued on across the watery parking lot sending spray into the air as it hit each puddle. It was one of those Soviet era buses, rather grimy and painted a dull yellow color. It came to a stop at the far end of the parking lot – about one hundred yards away. I turned and now saw the couple moving quickly. She slipped off her shoes and he reached down and clutched them to his chest. They paused, as though to map a route across the watery course. Then he nodded and they began to run in the direction of the far bus. She ran with delicate, mincing steps almost on tiptoe. It was like watching a ballet. And apparently she preferred to run barefoot rather than to spoil what looked like new shoes. I wondered if they had assessed the risk of stepping on one of those broken vodka bottles so prevalent all over Russia. They ran hand in hand, dodging, when they could, the puddles. It took a few moments for them to traverse the space to the parked bus. But as they neared the vehicle it suddenly started moving, picking up speed as they drew closer. And when they arrived at the spot where the bus had been it was well out of the parking lot and onto the boulevard heading toward the city center. The young man waved, but it passed unnoticed by the driver – if he ever cared.
            The couple stood in the rain, shoulders slumped in defeat. He reached and embraced her. They stood a moment, then slowly started walking back in my direction to the portal where they had stood for so long waiting. The rain had eased to a slight drizzle, but it was obvious that they were both soaking wet. As I watched them huddle in the portal once more, looking anxiously for another bus, I felt profoundly sad. Though young, they were old enough to have lived most of their lives in the old Soviet system. The year was 1992 and though the Soviet Union was no more, the new Russia was only a year old and little had changed in the old infrastructure. What had saddened me most about the plight of this young couple was their stoicism and resignation to their fate. I was reminded of a slogan related to me by an older Russian friend, a saying that everyone used, sardonically, about life during Soviet times: “Nothing works, everything breaks, nobody cares.” Everyone, he said, resigned themselves to a miserable life of one frustration after another. If you didn’t accept the way things were you would either drink yourself to death or end up in prison. Many Soviet citizens did both.

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