The Hitchhikers

We are hitchhikers. In winter, spring and fall we have regular jobs in sales.  We sell building materials and wood to save up for the upcoming travel and equipment.  Then in summer we always quit our jobs and hit the road. Our employers hate this, as it is the biggest selling season. But in life you have to prioritize and for now our choice is to travel. Because it is better than sitting in an office in front of a computer screen.

  It all started when our friend traveled across Russia for five years as a hitchhiker. We went for 10 days trip and after that we just couldn’t stop. First, we explored our region, Altai. And last year we hitchhiked to Crimea.  We traveled 4500 kilometers from Barnaul to Novorosibirsk in six days. Then we also hitchhiked around Crimea, explored the shores of the Black and Azov seas. Now we have been traveling from Barnaul to Vladivostok for more than a month.

  We choose routes near the federal highway so that we could come and go within three days without carrying 50 kilos of food. All the travel is planned, we initially think over the route, calculate the timing. During the trip, we ask locals where to go and we check out those places that impress us from their stories. We mostly look for beautiful nature spots, cities are less interesting to us. We sleep for free at places through couch surfing.

  The drivers are well wishing people. A lot of people say “Now if I hadn’t stopped here you would have had to walk along the highway to your destination.” Everyone thinks that he alone was kind enough to stop for us and that nobody else would have otherwise picked us up. But normally as soon as we come out to the highway, we just sit in the car and leave. Sometimes drivers say that they can only take one of us, but separating is not safe.

The drivers tell us their tales. Once we were traveling through Irkutsk region. We got into the car, everything was normal. Regular introductions, “Hello, I’m Olya, I’m Zhenya, I’m Alexey”, and then we left. He started talking about people, who had sat behind bars. He said “I myself served a sentence three times”, and looked at us. He probably thought that we would get scared, jump out of the car and run away (laughs). But we are girls with humor, we began asking him questions. The whole eight hours on the road, he was telling us about life in prison: what can be made from bread, how to properly enter a prison cell and how to make chifir (editor’s note: an exceptionally strong tea, brewed in Soviet detention facilities such as gulags and prisons).

One time we spent the night at the police station. We drove to Teletskiy Lake in Altai Republic. The driver got out of the car to take our photo and didn’t put it on brake. And the car with money and documents went under the water up until the roof. We watched the car slide into the water and bubbles appear on the water surface. Like in a movie. Then until the morning: first they called a tractor, but the tractor couldn’t pull it out, he had to call a shishiga (editors note: Russian 4×4 all-road (off-road) military truck produced by GAZ) . As a result,  the district police officer took pity on us and drove us to the police station. They have a resting room for staff there, they gave us a blanket, hot tea to warm us up.

  Once we went with a driver on Lada, and the rain was pouring on the windshield like it was from a bucket. And the wipers didn’t work. We went more than 100 km/hr, he said “Look, girls, what I can do!” The music blasted loudly from his speakers, vibrating an entire car, and the water diverged from the windshield. He was guided only by the oncoming lights. We were very scared, it’s good that the rain in Altai is just a very quick downpour.

One time we were driven by a trucker from Pyatigorsk. He picked us up in Samara and drove us to Omsk, we drove for three days, we spent the night in the cockpit. He let us steer the wheel, and we drove a wagon that is 16 meters long, loaded with 20 tons, despite the fact we only had category B driver’s license.

On a normal travel day we carry a sleeping bag, several pairs of socks, underwear, pants, shorts and t-shirts, hats, groceries, personal hygiene products and a first-aid kit in our backpacks.

Hitchhiking is a completely spontaneous way of traveling. You need to understand exactly what the risks are, because no one gives you a guarantee whether or not you will manage to drive a thousand kilometers today or not.  On these kilometers you daily encounter many people and their stories. When you’re in your own car or a train, you can be silent. But here you are forced to communicate with people, learn a lot, leave a mark in their life, just like they do in yours. Through these encounters you learn about  cool places that you can’t find even on the internet. In hitchhiking, you spend together 24/7 with your travel partner. By now se now understand each other right away, we no longer need words to communicate.

  During these travels, you get acquainted with different nationalities, regions of Russia, begin to love your homeland. We don’t need to go anywhere abroad. We have such a huge country, a lot of cool places, there is no way to find it anywhere else in the world. To see them, you only need time and desire. Sometimes you see the beauty in the details. So, the heart sinks. The sunset we saw in Barguzin is nowhere to be found. Such an orange sun, cold water, cold blue. Such a warm sea, as in the Tatar bay, is not anywhere else.

Now after two months of traveling, we really want to be home. I want to come to my place, lie on my favorite sofa, hug my beloved cat. The next trip planned – in Thailand. The really popular route in South East Asia: Thailand – Cambodia – Laos.


The Pregnant Lady

Pregnant woman, 37 years old

Today is my last day of freedom; I have C-section appointment for tomorrow. And that’s it. I will have to breastfeed a baby, no more breakfasts at a café for me (ed. note: Mesto47 team met the woman in a coffee shop). I can’t say that I dislike children, it’s just that I would have liked to live freely. But my husband insisted. I give birth to children only to satisfy my husband.

I met him on Odnoklassniki (ed. note: Russian version of Facebook.) I was working at the airport, and they gave me free internet access. Before IT guy cut off my access to social media, my husband wrote me a message.

From the very beginning I knew it was a boy. After the first baby I could not get pregnant and went to see an astrologist. Together with a colleague from the airport, we went all the way to an opposite side of Yekaterinburg to see her. Her room really impressed us; it had star alliances and horoscope signs all over it.

When she asked me, when I was born exactly, she said, “You have a close connection to your father. When you make peace with him, everything will work out. It will get stable.” She also said that she saw two boys in my house and that the place for conception would not be Yekaterinburg. It would be located at a two-day trip distance from the Ural Mountains.

At that point a relationship with my father was ugly. I had a big grudge against him. I had a little sister. When she was twenty, on the second year of college, they found a tumor in her head. Exactly the same diagnosis as Janna Friske (ed. note, Janna Friske was a famous Russian pop singer, who died after brain tumor diagnosis). During the three years of my little sister’s cancer treatment my father did not support my mother morally, needless to say, financially.

We fought endlessly. I would kick him out of the house, insisted that he and my mom would get a divorce. He was drinking. But my parents are affected by this mentality of being raised in a village. If you get married, it is only one time for your whole life. A divorce just because your husband is drinking and he is not helping? Unspeakable! What can one do, he is a husband, a father. The master of the house. Our men are weak, and I had to take the responsibility for my sister’s upbringing upon my shoulders. She fought for three years and died.

Anger against my father was accumulating, but after astrologist advice I started saying hi to him, when I came to visit my mom. I might not have forgiven fully, but I just forgot about it, tried to ignore it, because my husband wanted children and family. And it worked. After this incident my husband went on a business trip to Astana, two days by train from Yekaterinburg, and I got pregnant.

I do believe that fortune telling is nonsense. But following some kind of advice is different. For example, you have to make peace with your father for something to happen. Fortune telling and energy are two different things.

At the moment it’s hard for me physically. I can barely get up, sit down or lay down. Women should give birth before they are 35, it is probably inborn in their nature. Now, when an app on my phone tells me that walking somewhere will take 30 minutes, I calculate an hour.

After giving birth I will miss travelling. When you fly to Asia, everything is spicy, a lot of seafood, sometimes even an adult would be scared to try some food. You have to always think about the child. When the child is born, we will move to Sochi. Ural has a bad climate: a long winter and spring, and my husband and I like it when it is warm and green.

I will call him Jan. It’s an ancient Jewish name. His father is Ruslan. So his middle name would be difficult, that’s why I went for a short name. (ed. note: in Russia, a person’s middle name is derived from your father’s name).


The Communist

Ivan, Secretary of Agitation and Ideology
Khabarovsk Bureau of CPRF, the Communist Party
of the Russian Federation

As we, меsто47 team (photographer Georg and writer Marina) stroll around Khabarovsk, an enormous red Soviet flag draws our attention. “Khabarovsk bureau of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation” reads a sign on the door. We try to catch a glimpse through the window, and the interior looks like museum of Soviet history: there is a huge Lenin poster on the wall, calling for hard labor as a direct highway to socialism and a shiny, almost brand new bust of Stalin . After some debating, doubting and hesitation, we decide to walk in.

The first thing we see is a portrait of Stalin, a huge stack of freshly printed newspapers and a bunch of flags, rolled up and put in the corner. The man at the reception desk asks us what we want. We ask for a brochure, but he instead he suggests to talk to Ivan, who welcomes us with a smile and an introduction of himself and his long title,

“Nice to meet you, I am Ivan, Secretary of Agitation and Ideology, for Communist Party, Khabarovsk Bureau”.

We are surprised by how young he is, he should be under 30. We explain the concept of Mesto47 project as a collection of human stories, and he agrees to an interview.

“Just wait here for a bit. I need to finish writing couple campaign slogans and will be right back with you.”

While we are waiting, a man in a suit, on his way out of the office asks us who we are and what we want. After a quick explanation, he turns to Georg and – in perfect German and very direct – tells him that he hopes that Georg knows that Austria is only what it is now, because of the Soviet Union, as the other allies in WWII wanted to split it, like Germany. We later find out that he was a diplomat in the soviet embassy in Germany.
The wait gives us freedom to look around the room and study all objects. Communist brochures. Endless photos of Lenin. Printed slogans. Schedule of party regional and national meetings. Party newspaper and rulebook. Like we rode a time machine back to the USSR.

After twenty minutes, Ivan calls us in, lets us turn on the recorder and starts telling his story.

Ivan: I was born in Khabarovsk, I have lived here all my life. In Russia, family history is important.

I am very proud of my grandparents and great grandparents from mother’s side. During Tsarist times, my great grandfather killed a manager of his landlord, because the manager wanted to take everything from his family and starve it to death. He was sent to Kursk by force. My grandfather fought in the Second World war, he was a partisan during occupation. After the war he was a director of production on a big factory in Khabarovsk which exported its products to Japan, Saudi Arabia and eastern Europe. He was awarded the Order of Friendship of Peoples (ed. note: a Soviet order, awarded to people for strengthening international friendship and cooperation). My other great grandfather was a sovkhoz chairman.

Ivan looks at Marina, trying to find an english equivalent of the word “sovkhoz”. They both laugh, trying to come up with a suitable term. It is one of those words that sounds so natural for a Russian who was born in the USSR (even in the last months or days of its existence), but it would take a while to explain to a foreigner who is not familiar with daily lives and bureaucratic acronyms for things in post-Soviet Russia. These terms come up all throughout our conversation. Sovkhoz, a state-owned farm. Komsomol, the All-Union Leninist Young Communist Leage, a political youth organization in the Soviet Union. And many, many others.

Ivan continues,

My parents were also born into a working class family. My father was a firefighter. My mother studied engineering, but during the 90’s, because of the USSR’s collapse and difficult economic times, she worked almost everywhere she could find work: selling goods at the market, in the fire brigade on a call line.

Of course, everyone had a different childhood, but childhood in 90’s Russia was very different from the one children are having today. It’s this feeling when you don’t know whether you will have something to eat tomorrow.

There were many gopniks (ed. note: young men of lower class suburban areas). Every day, when I was walking to school, the gopniks were picking on me, whistling and telling me to approach them. They were sitting in garages in their Puna and Abibas (ed. note: chinese knock-offs of big brands) suits, teen gangs trying to get money.

I had a Dendy (ed. note: Nintendo clone, produced exclusively for the Soviet and later Russian market). Happy childhood (smiles). And a lot of books. And books made me a communitst. I read a lot. There was a cult of knowledge in my family. When I was a boy, my mother taught me about art, she showed me works by Vereshchyagin, the famous Russian war artist, and the Renaissance period. She read Russian poetry and Russian classics to me. But most books of my childhood were encyclopedias. When you read a lot, you shape your view of world economy and society. The leftier the book I was reading, the more coherent it seemed to the reality I saw around me. And I read, read, read. In high school I was a liberal, but slowly and steadily I was becoming left.

I became a communist after my 10-days trip to North Korea in 2015. I visited both Pyongyang and the north of the country. The capital is a magic destination. The countryside is poor, but clean. It’s in order. It’s a simple life. They are not rich, but they are not dying or starving to death. The korean countryside looks better than in Russia. Russian villages have run down houses, many ruins reminiscent of the Soviet era.

They do say that in North Korea they only take you to Potemkin villages, but it is hard to do that, when you take alternative routes from one city to another for thousands of kilometers. As you ride, you see painted clean houses and many fields.  And it makes you think that socialism is not so bad. When I returned, I applied for Khabarovsk Komsomol, and a year later I became a member of Russia’s Communist Party.

Marina: So they brainwashed you very well in North Korea?

Ivan: The beer was excellent, yes (laughs).

Georg: Did ever you visit a western country?

Ivan:  When I was in school, I was in Finland and one day in Stockholm. Of course I admire the economic standard of western countries, like USA and Japan, or South Korea. But I think that a lot of those standards are paid for by unfair trade and workers from other countries. There is an inequality in international trade and exchange of goods, that’s why some countries gain more and some countries get less.

Even liberal people who study Korea, say that if the two Koreas will end up together as a market economy, it will be a catastrophe for North Korea, due to the lack of  employment opportunities for North Koreans. It’s a hierarchical society, and North Korean people will end up at the bottom.

Georg: So what exactly are your responsibilities?

Ivan: In Soviet times the word “propaganda” in my title stood for “education” or “enlightment”. I define the direction of election campaigns. Should we be more like “old CPSU (ed. note: Communist Party of the Soviet Union)  is back” or ”We are simple people like you”  to win the election.

Georg: Isn’t it all a bit outdated, the image and style? Are you not planning to modernize it? To get the ideas better into the 21st century. If you propose a new, technologically developed communism, why are we greeted here by Stalin and Lenin?

French people still sing La Marseillaise and they still relate to Robespierre as a great revolutionary even though he is considered an incarnation of Revolution’s Reign of Terror. Two centuries later, the French Republic is a normal western country. It has implemented a lot of his original ideas, maybe in a different form with different content.

Already in the 90’s, communism has brought in computer science for better planning. In the late USSR times, there was a lot of work on combined math and socialism. The future was seen as computer planning, with no government or bureaucrats making decisions. Glushkov from the Academy of Sciences developed these theories. To put it simple, let’s say you want to open a café. You load your idea into the computer, and it calculates how it will suit the overall plan of the country. If this initiative is timely, if there is enough building material for you to proceed.

Marina: Is communist a 24/7 ideology? Do you have a portrait of Lenin at home?

Ivan: In my house I have a small Lenin portrait, in my bedroom. I have a hand-painted portrait of Mao Zedong. I personally love him a lot, not only because he was a great visionary and had great success in factory building, but I respect him as a politician and master of intrigue. And a lot of things I was reading about him in his biography were close to me. I respect him, because he achieved an industrial revolution in a country without an industrial proletariat and it’s a great breakthrough in communist theory and practice. He succeeded in leading a mostly peasant (which is a small kind of bourgeoisie) country into socialism.

My girlfriend is a communist too. It was not a must criteria for me, but it is still pleasant she shares ones political views. I met her at a Komsomol party meeting in Moscow.

As the interview is coming to an end, we stick around and chat about our trip. We show Ivan a kiss selfie we made in Ulan-Ude with an enormous statue of Lenin’s head. He approves, jokingly saying that communists embraced kissing culture since Brezhnev times. “An intimate kiss that goes into the dents”, that’s how our leader put it.

As Georg searches for a photo spot, Ivan goes to a large Stalin portrait without any hesitation and poses for a photo. We say good-bye and leave the bureau. But before we go, Ivan gives us a present: beautiful shiny Communist party pins. We thank him and put them on our jackets before we leave. Just to take them off again as soon as we turn to another street.


The Sailor

From childhood on it’s just been me and my mom: my dad died in a motorcycle crash before I was even born. When I was in school, my mother was getting her education, and from the fifth grade on I was already completely independent.

In my upbringing my grandpa played the biggest role. From the beginning he showed me his cap and dagger, he brought me up as a military man. He fought in Chechnya and told me about how terrible everything was there. How his friends were killed, how the fight for their bodies began, because the enemies often took the dead and made videos mocking the bodies. For 24 hours they would fight back just to return the bodies of the fallen to their families. My great grandma also fought from 1941, she even went to Berlin. She was injured by shrapnel in her leg and could not walk. She told me it was possible to tell children about the war and showed me her awards: three Orders of the Red Star. I am very proud of her.

Grandpa always told me that I need to serve my country and from 6th grade I dreamed about joining the navy. I’ve always loved the elements of the sea. In my room, I have sailboats and compasses painted on the wallpaper, and the clock is made in the form of a helm. After 9th grade I enrolled in the Higher Naval School. Right now I’m studying in the final course. At first it was difficult to adjust to the Navy discipline. At home I’m free but there, everything is strict: drills, training, uniform… When they give you an order, you can not argue, you just say, “Yes, sir” and do it.

One time, when as I was on guard duty, I saluted my sergeant, but it seemed to him that I had done it too quietly. He decided to teach me a lesson, and made me do guard duty one after another three times. It meant four days of standing with only four hours of sleep. I came home and fell into bed, just like that, weak and still in my clothes. Many can’t stand it, but I told myself “Bullshit, I will break through it, everything is fine!”

My first time at sea the, sensations were unusual. A complete delight. Sailors have this tradition: when it’s your first time going to sea, they pour you a glass of seawater and you drink it. That means you’re a true sailor – I tried seawater, let it flow through me. I drank the whole glass in one gulp. During my first time in a small storm, I was afraid. The boat rocked hard. It was an average storm, but the ship was small and it was enough for me as a beginner. I laid down and rolled around, I was tossed from side to side.

When I first got on a submarine, we were told, “Forget what you were taught in school”. I went over to it and thought “Wow, this is ginormous!” Nearby, it turned out to be even larger than from afar. Below the surface it goes another six meters. With my height 1, 83 cm (ed. Note, 6ft) it’s difficult. There is very very little space. You bend over all the time, people are walking around like ninja turtles. The boat may be at the bottom of the ocean for a month, during which time you won’t see the light of day. To understand if it’s day or night on the boat they regulate the lighting depending on the time of day: in the morning they turn on the light, and by the evening they turn it down. 

It’s psychologically difficult. You’re packed like sardines in a can. No portholes. You see nothing around you. My sailor friend says “Spin the globe and touch any part of the ocean – I’ve been there. I didn’t see anything”. Then you go out and see the light of god and rejoice, thinking “God, it’s so good”. Friendships made during service – they will last for your whole life It plays a big role in the collective work. Everyone interacts with each other. Nobody is alone. Therefore, we have such a trait – even if you are in conflict with someone over the little things but that person needs your help, you help immediately.

Being in the military it’s difficult to find a life partner. In 9th grade I started dating a girl. I thought that she was the love of my life. At the end of the year I proposed to her. I liked our little family: me and her. Then I had to leave for a month of training at sea. When I returned I accidentally saw a message from another man on the screen of her phone. While I was away, she met a civilian. She tried to talk to me, asked me for forgiveness, but can betrayal be forgiven? From the person you have to trust. How can I go back to sea, thinking that she will be with someone else again? I myself am a faithful person, if I say that I am with you, it will be so. I can’t build relationships without trust. You can not do it this way. 

It was very painful. But I compensated by working hard in my service and doing sports. And I survived. I don’t regret anything. It was an experience of family life. When you were making the choice, you were feeling good about it back then. The last time I saw her was at the civil registration office when we were filing for divorce. I can’t believe that I’m 21 and I’ve already been married and divorced. Hell, I’m scared to look at my passport. It feels like I’m 30 already.

I still can not find the girl of my dreams. She doesn’t necessarily need to be smart, but even just savvy. I can’t say I am well-read myself, but I’ve got common sense. The wife of an army man needs to be supportive. Her attitude should be like, “Here are the bullets, who are we shooting?” Many girls try to hit on me, military uniforms work (ed. Laughs), but in their head many girls just think about shopping and hair style products. Once I could not stand it and said to one girl, “It’s easier for me to hug a birch tree. It will be more interesting to talk with that than with you.”

I don’t get hung up on this, for me now the main thing is the service. My goal is to become a first rank captain. Most likely, they will send me to the north of the country. In the ranking system, one year of service there counts for two, which is very good. Sure, the climate there is awful and in summer, the sun never sets. The time of day there is defined as follows: if there are a lot of mosquitoes, then it’s daytime. If there are even more of them, then it’s dusk. And if they are gone – night has come. 

My grandpa is very proud of me. His eyes are shining, he is glad that I am studying to become a naval officer and that I have chosen the profession of a military man. He always says “This is my grandson – a real sailor!” At his house he has a framed photograph of me, taking the oath.

There is an old saying “If you pick up a sword, you can be sure that sooner or later you will die from it.” If you choose the military profession, you must be prepared for the fact that sooner or later you will need to fight and give your life. If you are not ready for this, then you should not even go. I hope that I will be a worthy officer, I can teach and educate my subordinates the way that my grandfather raised me.

A soldier must know what he is fighting for. I know my country is dear to me. I am a patriot of my country. This is my country, I love its territory, nature, its inhabitants, people – literally everything. I grew up here. My grandfather fought, my great-grandmother gave her life for this country. I have something to lose.


The Racedriver

Sergei, 28 years old

I was born on Sakhalin. I’m a drag racer. The culture of drag racing came to us from the USA. It’s simple: two cars line up, then race for a quarter mile (402 meters). The faster car wins. A time under 10 seconds is considered to be fast, speeds get up to 290 km/hr. In Russia, drag racing is illegal. 

I don’t come from a rich family, I’m a child of civil servants. My mom worked her whole life as a city administrator, and my dad was a policeman. He is the reason I got addicted to cars since my childhood. He had a lot of cars. One day my brother and I tried to calculate how many and we settled on forty. We illegally began driving from age 13. On public roads. The Russian reality is all about taking advantage of the opportunities you have.

I remember this feeling, the first time I sat behind the wheel. I begged my dad for a long time, “Dad, let me drive”. He doubted it at first, but then one moment he turned to me at the parking lot and said “Do you want to start driving? Come on”. 

My first experience was in a Land Cruiser. This was a big jeep, so I had to put a pillow under my butt to look over the wheel. I sat in the driver’s seat, put my pillow beneath me and he showed me how the car functioned. We drove in one circle and he said “That’s all, you take a car for a ride now. I have some things I need to finish at home”. He left me alone after one lap in the parking lot. For three months I went back to that parking lot each month with my dad to do a lap. I enjoyed it. Often we would get water from the spring, and one day we forgot to do it and my mother yelled at us. My dad came to my room, gave me the key and said “The bottle is in the car, you know where the spring is, go. If you need something, call”.

When I was deciding on a university after high school, I was looking for a major that works with cars. I graduated with a mechanics degree from Vladivostok State University of Economics and Service. I went to work as a mechanic at an auto shop. The year that I graduated, I managed to save money and buy myself my first car – a 1993 Toyota Mark II. I met a friend who introduced me to drag racing. I started going to races, and it inspired me to improve my own car: increase the power and improve other specifications. I gave the car a name: “Blackbird”. I spent days at the site, bought many parts, ordered and installed them. With every new component the car got better and better. It was getting more powerful, but that wasn’t enough for me. 

It was winter time when the crisis hit. There was a 2.5x increase in the currency exchange, and all the parts I was buying were imported. My car was completely disassembled, one engine sold, the second bought. And we were just stuck. It was like my feet were covered in asphalt. I was so upset that I didn’t drive for two years. I was saving money to assemble the car back in a proper way. There was a lot to be changed for it to compete against the most powerful cars. 

2007 was not a good year for me, from the beginning of the season it was breakdown after breakdown. In 2018 I made a difficult decision. I decided to sell my car. At that time I was tired of all this, I had an idea of buying a finished, assembled project and driving it. I put a car up for cosmic million rubles, as they would say in our circles. The car didn’t sell for two months, so I decided to sell it for parts: took it for tuning and sold them. My girlfriend was even more worried than me. She saw how difficult it was for me to take my car apart, and she said, no, you should not do it. As a result, instead of the million that I wanted for the finished car, I earned 1.6 million.

The car I have now I bought from Sergey, he also loves to collect cool cars. When one of our drag racing friends is selling a car, we want it to be in good hands.There are situations when a young man, a daddy’s boy, who has the money acquires such a car without ever having to deal with it, and then accidents occur. We always try to get such cars to good people who know what they are doing and who take a good care of the car. I participate in races with this car, I constantly illegally ride in the city.

This is an illegal movement, police often comes, they disperse us, but sometimes we manage to come to an agreement with them. We would like this to become legal and leave the streets. To avoid conflicts with the authorities and misunderstandings of ordinary citizens.

In 2014 there was a huge epic fail. It all started with the usual dispute when our guys went to the old airport terminal to race. The police came and did not let them ride one weekend, then the second. “That’s fine, we won’t race here, we’ll race in the city”. It was simply unrealistic: a very large number of people gathered, two thousand and two young people in the most epic places – Aleutskaya Street, near the FSB building and Ocean Avenue. Police were helpless. They tightened the screws on us way too much and the whole situation blew up.

Authorities understand well what is going on and they know that the development of the drag racing movement is irreversible. We would like to become legal eventually. Firstly, it’s the safety of people. Big crowds attend racing events, although we try not to make massive announcements. Sometimes people who come here as spectators relax, get drunk and, as a result, get into tricky situations. Secondly, it is a public road. We hang up bags and tell people to pick up their garbage. We also have preventive conversations with some guys in the city, who drive arrogantly and start racing right in Vladivostok downtown. We are trying to help the authorities to move racing away from the city. 

When I was younger, I allowed myself to play around in the traffic stream. Now I am looking for a free section of the road, where there are no cars at all, I go for high speeds there. 

When I race, it’s a moment of complete freedom. My head is empty, not clogged with the everyday routine. I feel free. I catch the buzz. The fastest I ever went is 298 km / h. The limit of 300 is not broken. Yet.


The Bootmaker

Misha (Blago), 43 years old

I grew up in Blagoveshensk. I work as a shoemaker and sew mukluks: a type of traditional Buryat boots. I didn’t have a mother: when I was two years old, they took away her parental rights. I don’t remember her, I don’t even have photos. She drank all the time and my father took me to live with him. She died when I was ten, from vodka.

My stepmother raised me. I learned that she wasn’t my birth mom when I was 13 years old. I somehow suspected it and looked at the documents. Her name was Valentina and in my birth certificate it said my mother’s name was Natalia. I brought it up to my stepmom and she admitted that I was right, she showed me the documents saying that my mom hadn’t been allowed to raise me. I wanted to find her but there wasn’t any information about her. Probably there’s a grave in the cemetery but I never went. I don’t know why.

I had a normal life with my father and stepmother, it wasn’t worse than anyone else’s. Normal, average family. I was a bad student, it was really hard for me, especially chemistry, physics, geometry: all those x’s and y’s and equations. I was better at French, I liked that. Then I went to college for municipal construction but I didn’t even stay until the end of semester.

My father was a shoemaker, so I also went off to learn to make these traditional Buryat boots. They paid you a stipend while you studied. Within half a year I learned everything that I needed to. Afterwards, in 1993, at 17 years old, I was put in jail for the first time for four years.

I hadn’t been working alone, my partner Slava was four years older than me. The first time we broke into an apartment we didn’t even really want to take anything, we just wanted to walk around as though we owned it. We didn’t even really steal anything special, just small things.

From outside of an apartment you can tell how people live. We selected those  with pretty windows, or an expensive door, or which had air conditioners. You set your sights on an apartment – you go during the day, and put a bit of tape on the door or stick a match in the lock. In the evening you look again: if everything is where it was, then no one’s home. If the tape has been unstuck or the match is on the floor, then someone is inside. Or you can look in the windows. Now that wouldn’t work anymore, as soon as you get near the entrance, the cameras are already watching you.

When I was held in a temporary detention center for three days, I was just a kid and there were adult men there and they immediately said “Well it’s gonna be jail, it’s gonna be tough, you should follow a strict set of rules.” As a child, that’s scary. Actually the first time I went to prison, they stuck me in the sweatbox. There two forty five year old guys forcing confessions out of kids 15-17 years old. They force them to confess the crimes they hadn’t admitted to committing. For this they get a reward – their sentences are cut in half.

The first two days were okay, I didn’t know they did that yet. And then they told me, “ok go write your confession” and gave me a stack of blank sheets of A4 paper. Then one of them grabbed a metal mug and hit me with it – I started bleeding all over the floor. That saved me. I wrote down what I’d already told the cops. I thought he would kill me, you know? Within a day they transferred me to a normal cell. One older guy and about 20 underage guys. There it was okay, it wasn’t as crazy and lawless as in the sweatbox.

In jail you live by the code. If you’re a normal guy, you hang out with normal guys. If you’re a sniffler (editorial note: here and further is the description of a known Russian caste system in Russian prisons), you hang out with others. A sniffler is like…people are constantly telling him bring this, give me that, go there, leave that alone, make tea. If no one pays attention to the sniffler – then he’s just nobody, alone he has no life at all. He’s not even able to say anything himself. He is agreeing with someone else or helping someone else…just sniffling, as we say. And once you start being like that, then that’s it, this is how your life in jail will continue. You can’t get out of that position, you can only fall lower.

Even lower – those are the hurt people. You know who they are? No? Well, it’s the gays. And the pedophiles. At some point in jail they start talking about something that happened once, and there, people are strict about that kind of thing. If you’ve done something bad with a woman, even if you’ve just licked her somewhere, then that’s it. If you, as a normal guy, even drink tea with him, just “splashed” as we call it, in the same cup, then you’re associated with him. You also can’t smoke after him, if you get cigarettes from him it has to be a closed, full pack.

I was a normal guy, as we say “mujik”, I wasn’t reliant on anyone. That was how most mujiks were. I didn’t want to be one of the criminal chiefs. That’s a shitload of work. I saw how they lived. Totally over the top, very showy.

In the early 90s, they fed us stinking herring and barley. The herring wasn’t cleaned, it still had guts, it still had its head. In my second sentence it was already better. They started to make good borsch, they gave us one can of tinned salmon a day.

Every morning at six we’d wake up to music. Every day the same song: “What a hard day” by Minaev. (Editorial note: Russian version of “You’re in the army now”).  Then we did exercises for 15 minutes, always outside, in summer and in winter. Before breakfast, there’d be a check. Everyone comes out of their rooms and there’s a roll call for half an hour. Then you sit down and wait for breakfast. Not everyone fits into the cafeteria so you’re divided into groups. Then you wait until lunch, in hope of someone getting a package from a visitor. A lot of people got ephedrine. Those were pills from China, sometimes people would even eat 10 pills in soup or in condensed milk. I never tried it, but the guys who did it, they were running around like crazy all night long, they were on a different level. Of the guys I know who were in jail, half of them are already dead. Some overdosed, some are still in jail, some caught tuberculosis and died.

In the jail there was a library. In our free time we read or watched one of the two television channels. I read all of Chase’s detective stories there.

I also did my first tattoo in jail when I was underage. Instead of tattoo ink, we burned and cut off the heel of a boot, then we ground it into a powder and mixed it with urine. And then you sit there all day long, poking and poking away the time with the needle. Tattoos like: “It’s more likely that a lion will turn down meat, than that a woman would stop manipulating and lying.” Or “The more I know about people, the more I like dogs.” I used to have a tattoo of the crest saying “Hello thieves” but people looked at me weirdly in the bus, so I covered it with a bigger tattoo in Thailand. And other tattoo I had removed. I didn’t know what it meant when they made the tattoo, but later it turned out that it was a crest and stripes meaning that you’re fatherless. Then I thought, why the fuck would I be fatherless, my father is still alive. To remove the tatoo, you take the plastic barrel of a pen, pull out the ink ball, light it on fire and blow. The skin swells, your eyes are burning, and you get blisters. It’s so humid in jail, the wound was rotting for a month. Maybe it was infected.

After I got out of my first sentence, after exactly a year, I was put back in again. Me and a partner broke into an apartment where a barterer lived, he dealt in mink coats from China. Unpacking and taking away 20 fur coats wasn’t easy, we didn’t have a car so we went back 3 or 4 times to grab everything. When we left, the apartment was empty. My partner met a drug addict who was collecting cigarette butts to smoke and offered to buy him a cigarette. Then my criminal partner (he was an Asian Buryat, you can’t mistake him for anyone else) and the drug addict with a braid went to go buy cigarettes at a kiosk right by that apartment — with just a ton of cash. Of course the lady in the kiosk remembered them and later told the cops everything. Then it turned out that the apartment actually belonged to a cop, the barterer was renting it to him. Then the cops got the entire town looking for us and found us very quickly.

During my second term I also worked as a shoemaker inside the jail, I sewed felt boots and mukluks for the policemen. In exchange, they brought me tea, cigarettes, meat. Ten packs of cigarettes, half of a kilogram of tea in exchange for a pair of warm mukluks. It was good for me and good for them. When I was in jail the first time, my parents came and visited every month to see me and bring me stuff. The second time I went to jail, I wrote them and said they didn’t have to come. My dad came to see me just one time, he brought me the materials so I could work.

When I got out for the second time, I still had this urge to go back to apartments. I don’t fucking know why, now it’s not like that anymore. I broke down a door, took the electronics and the television and hid them by the garbage shoot to go back and look for cash. Then the door opened, the owner came home. I heard it and jumped off the balcony from the second floor. It was nighttime and I didn’t even look to see what was down there. If there had been a stake or something, I don’t know what would have happened. I fell and ran, kept running, I ran about 100 meters and my heels hurt so much. I fell down, I just couldn’t any more. And I yelled for help. A lady called out from the balcony, “what’s wrong, what happened.” I said, “The cops hit me, they broke my feet. They threw me out of a car, I’m lying here.” She came out and called for an ambulance. Later I learned that she’d recently lost her son, he’d also been beaten up. You see, that’s why she came out.

In the hospital they put two casts on me. I lay there and waited, wondering if they would come for me or not. They didn’t. And since then I’ve been clean. That was a last warning. Now I don’t want to anymore, it’s gone.

I was married for ten years. It was in the 2000s, after I was released, I immediately found myself a seventeen year old. We met at a market, I suggested we go have a shot of vodka – and that’s how it all started. After that I bought her clothes, I got her all cleaned up, and then she didn’t need me anymore. She started partying, cheating on me. Of course I also cheated on her, maybe twice. But she did it completely openly. Every Friday she drank with her friends, she’d just get dragged into something. Once I called her, and she couldn’t talk at all. She was mooing like a cow and she couldn’t get out a single word, she was in a car somewhere. Then I heard two guys talking. I asked where she was, said I would go get her, but she couldn’t answer me. I put up with it for a while but then it was just too much. Maybe it didn’t work out with us because of children. She had an ectopic pregnancy and then they had to remove her Fallopian tubes. I hope the child had been mine, but I can’t be sure.

In 2013 we officially divorced, but after leaving the registry office we went to a pub and ended up in a hotel room. She got married but she still comes to me and cheats with me on her husband. That’s better than if she was married to me and cheating with someone else. At least she’s with someone else, coming to me. She knows that if she came back to me I wouldn’t put up with her running around like she did before. When she comes over, her husband knows that she’s with me. He doesn’t call me himself but his friends do. They’re mad, of course. But I don’t give a damn, I’m having fun. I don’t force her to come, she comes herself.

If she wanted to come back to me, I would take her of course. She actually said “buy an apartment and I’ll come back to you.” I bought a studio apartment and she said she had to think about it. Right now I don’t have anything, I even sold my car when they took away my driving license. And her man has a car, a two room apartment, guns. So she decided to stay with him.


The Mother

Galina, 25 Blagoveshchensk

My mom had me when she was very young, just 18. She did not need kids, she loved going out and having fun. She would often abandon me to go to some party in some shady place. I still have a deep fear of drunk men, I just hate them. My father declined his parental rights early in my childhood, saying that my mom had me by a mere accident.

When I was four, they took me to an orphanage, and I spent there my whole childhood. Our teachers did a lot of brainwashing, “If you don’t do something, nobody will do it for you. Never rely on anybody, don’t wait for help, do everything on your own.” It stuck in my memory, and I still do everything on my own, never delegate anything. Orphan kids went to a regular high school, and even when students made fun of orphans, I never paid any attention to it.

Our teachers did a lot of brainwashing, “If you don’t do something, nobody will do it for you. Never rely on anybody, don’t wait for help, do everything on your own.”

Normally when you reach 18, you receive a personal file with details of your admission to the orphanage: who took you there, what the situation was. I started looking for my mom, but I found her already dead: in 2007 she got into a car accident. My father is alive, but I did not feel like meeting him. I don’t like when people push me away, I don’t want to impose myself. If it was him who would initiate to meet, I would do it.

I found my grandfather, but when I met him, I didn’t sense any relative connection. But I do have warm feelings towards my grandmother. When we met, she said she didn’t know that I grew up in an orphanage, that it happened. Most likely she just wasn’t interested in my destiny, despite the fact that we share the same blood. And I didn’t search for the rest of my relatives. I already had the closest person appear in my life, I didn’t need anybody else.

I met my husband when we were hanging out with the same group of people. Four years we kept an eye on each other, for a long time something was just in the way of us being together, we would get closer, but then fall apart. Then one day we realized: it’s time to stop imagining things. If we haven’t found anybody else in four years, it means it’s destiny.

When I was pregnant, I had bronchitis. My son Danil was prematurely born, on the seventh month of my pregnancy. His weight was 1 kg 660 grams and his height was 43 centimeters. Soon after giving birth I went into emergency room to take a look at my son for the first time. I didn’t feel any happiness, I just remember the sense of sorrow and pain. A tiny person was lying there, all pinched with tubes, connected to the artificial lung ventilation device. We spent three and a half months in a maternity clinic. They gave him medication for life support, said that he might not make it. They cautioned us he might be blind, as they gave him a lot of toxic antibiotics. But it was the hearing that became the problem.

First he was wearing acoustic aid. We got used to it: Danil was attending a kindergarten, my husband and I both worked, lived a normal life. But when his hearing became worse, he needed a complicated surgery. It is called capillary implantation; they install a transducer that transmits the sound to the brain. It digitizes everything and can decipher the meaning of the sound. But his hearing will never recover again.

We had to do surgery in Saint Petersburg, as we don’t have such specialists in Blagoveshchensk. Now we are on our way home after post-surgery check up. We had to go by train, six days there and six days back, 12 days of travel in total. There were a lot of expenses we could not predict because of surgery: flight, hotel, medical tests. It was less than a month between the surgery and the check up, and this time was not enough to make money for the plane, it is 25 thousand rubles per person, and there was no discount for children.

It is very tough to hear from the doctors “no progress” all the time. During moments like this you wish to have a close person next to you to support you, but my husband unfortunately is not there. He is a welder, and he has unregulated working ours, and he spends most of his time at work. Sometimes I get mad at him and tell him, “Help me”, but I understand that my husband is a man, and he should make a living, and not solve women problems.

Danil’s personality is very kind, he is a mommy’s boy. He likes to be close by. But I try to develop independency in him, always give him the right of choice. It’s a shame he has health issues.  Many doctors recommend having two children, but I don’t want that. I want to give myself fully to him. Now he is a child and it’s an excuse for everything, but later he will go to school. Teens are very complicated now, I am afraid they can start teasing him, and this could eventually isolate him.

During these five years I got used to not being able to rest in any circumstances. He is very often sick, you can never relax, anything can happen any time. I try to compensate, I want him to have things I didn’t have in my own childhood. I want him to trust me, I want to become a very close person for him. Some people compliment me, but I think that any mother who adores her child would do the same.


The Dropouts

It’s day 14 of our travel, and we leave Baikhal to Irkutsk after a-four-day stay on a beautiful island of Olkhon. As we get inside Bukhanka, a cramped old Soviet mini bus that takes us from the island back to Irkutsk, we start talking to a young couple. The oddity of this encounter is that we had been staying with them in the same hotel for entire four days, but only the magic of a long road started the conversation.

They proudly tell us that this Baikal trip is a reward they booked for themselves after completing Teachers for Russia, a program that sends talented professionals from big cities to teach at schools. To remote villages, in the middle of nowhere.  For two(!) years. Mostly for kids from difficult families.

When we asked if we could record a story, they say “yes” simultaneously. They tell us they want the story to be big, to inspire other people by their example. The recorded sound of the interview is terrible; the bumpy road, reckless driving and no seat belts at the back of Bukhanka make the microphone jump back and forth. It’s also them talking at the same time, constantly interrupting each other. Like the three-hour ride ahead of us would not be enough for them to share what they’ve been experiencing for the last two years.

Now, meet Natasha and Pasha, both 27. Their backgrounds are very similar: both were born in remote towns in Russia, but went to good universities (in Saint Petersburg and Moscow). Both went to study abroad (to Germany and Spain), securing good stable well-paid jobs in Moscow upon their return. Both had no prior teaching experience. But chose to give this all up to move to a little village to become teachers.

Pasha: I never thought I would become a teacher. This idea never came to me even in the worst nightmare, it was not prestigious and not cool. I was working in consulting.

Among my friends and ex-colleagues I had a circle of acquaintances whose priority was to make money or attain something prestigious.  Things like which company you work for and career aspiration was their agenda. And it surprised them when I abruptly decided to go, but not to “downshift” in some magic place like Bali, but to become a village teacher.

Natasha: When I was doing my Masters in Spain, I realized that it was important for me to live in Russia, a sudden feeling of patriotism arose inside of me. It became important, what is going on back home, I wanted to exist in this politics and social sphere. I didn’t care what was going on in Europe and Spain, who was their president, what the prices were. I wanted to speak Russian with Russian people. That’s why I came back.

To be selected for the program, I had to go through five steps: application, interview, competition and Skype interview. There is also a summer institute where you give your first lessons and your learn how to communicate with kids.

For a long time I was hiding my plans while applying for the program. On my birthday I decided to unveil my plan to leave for a village to my friends. I thought they would not criticize me (it was my birthday, for God’s sake), but they said I was crazy that it was horrible. My parents were the same, “What do you mean, going to the village, what if you decide to stay there?” But at that point I was sure it was necessary, and left.

Pasha: We were teaching at Moscow region school in Karinskoe village. 70 km is not a big distance from Moscow, but sometimes it felt like it was 7 000 km. As a part of the program teachers from all regions take kids to Moscow to attend a theatre festival. I can totally understand, when children from a very remote village, like Demyan Bedniy of Tambov region, have never been to Moscow. But it is shocking, when 15-year old students from this tiny village nearby Moscow have never made it to the capital. They have not been to the Red Square, they have never been on the subway, because they can’t afford a ticket for 50 rubles with a school discount. Needless to say, they can’t afford going to a museum.

When I, a hipster from Moscow, showed up at a village school, I heard swearing at a lesson for the first time. First it was not addressed to me, yet, I brought their attention to it and asked them to speak in a proper way. But later, it turned out they were just shy in the beginning. In two or three months we got used to each other and I heard “F*** you” for the first time addressed to me from a student.

Natasha: During the first three months I would call my parents, and would start crying when they asked me how I was doing. And I was doing OK, I had everything. I was healthy physically, but it was very hard from this pressure and from how personal your work is. They can tell you to go to hell, and you cannot tell, if they do it to you as a person or as a teacher. These borders erase fast.

A teacher and a student are very conventional roles. It often happened so, that I talked to students about video games during a break, but as soon as the bell rang, they interrupted the lesson. Because from this moment on, you are a teacher, and everything is your fault. It is truly unsettling.

Pasha: As you communicate with student’s parents, you often see where the roots of many problems are. I was preparing one high school student for his talk at the conference. He was an A student, but preparation was tough, because he would always devalue everything. When somebody expressed opinion (including himself), he would only say, “This is non sense. I will not speak about that. What I am saying is shit.” I started reflecting whether he gets any approval at home.

At the conference I realized what the deal was. The guy’s parents did not like the topic of video games he chose. After his talk they started to drag their own son down with questions. It must have really hurt. Are not your parents the people you would expect to support you during your first public speech? But he resolved the situation well. He looked at the audience and said, “Well, see? Typical parents situation.”

Natasha: During my first year I had few success stories. A lot of failure stories. There were many days, when I would come home, just lay in my bed, and thought, “Why am I doing this?

Children are mirroring you, they reflect you from the inside. You don’t see yourself from outside, and they can see your worst fears, complexes, they figure out your doubts and suppress them. Even if the lesson is perfect according to all standards, if you think that it will not work, it will not work. And your lesson might not be ready, but if you are confident, it might work out at the end. For me those two years were all about confidence. If I can manage to teach a lesson for a group of 16 second-graders, I can do everything in this life.

Pasha: I became more open-minded. It is very hard without it at school, it would never happen at a regular job. In the village everything is close and your personal space is non-existent. One night before an important graduation exam on social studies I came out to my balcony to have a smoke. I see my student hanging out outside. I yell at him from my balcony, “Danya, are you serious? The exam is tomorrow! Go home and sleep.”

I never liked and avoided public speaking, a mere idea of it made me shaky. Every day in teacher profession is public speaking, and in two years I mastered it. School is a big test for your resilience. Stress at school comes from different sources: from school administration, children, colleagues. You always have to be ready to communicate.

Natasha: It’s like in “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. The bell tolls for you. If not you, who else would do it? If everybody leaves Russia, what will be happing here? It’s much cooler to stay here and to contribute to the change, than to work for somebody and try to survive in a foreign country. When you leave abroad, you will always be an immigrant. You will never be a person fully belonging there. Here you belong, than why not bring a change to your home country? There are opportunities.

Pasha: I would not be preaching anybody to stay in Russia. I wanted to leave myself. And now there are moments when I feel like going away. But it has to be a personal choice. My choice has been to stay and work here. I am surrounded by my language, my literature. If I want to immigrate one day, I will leave. But I don’t feel like running away from anything.  If you are trying to escape from something, you will always end up on the run. If there is an opportunity to work in some cool pace, then come back, then go somewhere else, why not?


The Miners

Night train Blagoweschensk – Khabarovsk. Mesto47 team is heading to the dining car. We take a table across a group of miners with an empty bottle of vodka. From their conversation we figure that they are travelling from a corporate event on lake Baikal, a soccer competition commemorating Steel Miners’ Day. They are having a drunk discussion about their final match and celebrating their victory as they bring the competition’s Cup back home, to Mnogoverschinniy, a tiny village in Khabarovsk region that mines 3,5 tons of gold each year.

They hear a foreign language and initiate a conversation. They ask us where we are from, what we are doing and where we are heading. They take me for a prostitute who accompanies a foreigner and ask me how much I charge for my services per hour. I get angry and tell them I am a journalist. They apologize and ask for a permission to sit at our table. We drink and talk. The most talkative are their leader Jenya, he is around 50 and Grisha, 21.

9:30 pm Two vodka shots. Miners profession. Jenya is loud. He shows off his huge golden ring, bracelet and a shiny heavy thick chain on his neck. He lets us take a photo of his jewelry.

Marina: What is it like to be a miner?

Jenya: We are living in Mnogovershinny village. It is a Swiss gold mining company. A miner is a person who comes under ground and starts extraction. He comes out happy, puts his hammer on one shoulder and goes to lunch with a big smile on his dirty face. In order to become a miner, you have to be strong and dumb. Why strong? Because it is physical labor, you have to turn off your brain and work, work, work. Why dumb? So that you are not scared in a dark confined space. You are alone there, 120 meters under ground with a lantern and a hammer that weights 70 kilos. We have this black humor joke: if I die, they get me out, then dig me back under ground. I will chill there for three days, and they will send me back to work. We have this superstition; we don’t have a word “last”, we say outermost. If you ask a miner, which shift he has today, he will never reply the last one. You can’t say that, what if it really becomes last?

Grisha: I am doing vocational training for miners and each summer I work under the ground. You just turn on your flashlight on and walk. Rockslide can happen anywhere. If a rock that weighs a ton falls on you, your helmet will not save you.  It happened twenty times, when you sit there, look at a rock and think, “It looks like it’s about to fall”, but it doesn’t. You walk away a bit, and it falls down. At the end of the day, everybody has their mission, we are all like ants in a big ant hill.  A miner should be paid as much as an engineer. Nothing will happen without him, he does the most difficult job.

Jenya: A mine does not forgive mistakes. If you don’t break nature laws, no accidents will occur. Are you in doubt? Don’t go there. Don’t remember something? You should not do it.

10: 10 pm We drink two more shots. Life in Russia’s Far East. Putin.

Grisha: if you watch mass media in Moscow, what do they say about people’s life, how do they live, good or bad? When you take a train through Far East, have you seen many beautiful houses and roads?

Marina: No.

Grisha: It is 21st century, and life outside of Russia is changing rapidly. But in our country people are learning again how to hammer in nails. A westerner will live till he is 100 years old, he will be happy, the ecology is OK there, they have Teslas. Not like here, people live until 60, when they retire. Miners used to earn more: older generation in the USSR were paid 100 rubles. They managed to go to Khabarovsk just for a weekend to drink beer. We knew that we worked in bad conditions, but at least we were paid well for this and the family was covered. Now they pay pennies, and you might die, so what’s next?

Our President doesn’t fulfill a single promise. It feels like Far East lives in a separate country, not in Russia. They don’t open new kindergartens. Children are playing in dirt. People work without following safety instructions. They work anywhere, as they need to provide for the family. He gets pennies, but he does it for the family. Do you have many bad roads in Moscow?

Marina: No

Jenya: I am an old man, and this is young people talking. Just imagine what opinion they have about Russia. I am sure that the youth will not betray the motherland, but it will not follow its President.

Grisha: To be honest, I feel like half of Russia will be sold soon. I can see how they sell forest. Yes, Siberia has enough forests for 1000 years to come. Locals are not allowed to cut the wood. But then some guys from Moscow come with connections and they do it. The same goes for fish. We have this law in Far East if you just want to fish, they will fine you for 1 million rubles. And then the fish goes to Moscow, it is sold cheaper than here. It goes to the center from Far East it doesn’t get to the locals. You don’t even pay attention to domestic politics.

Jenya: FSB works well here, so shhh…

Grisha: At the end people do not have anything. How are we supposed to live? In a country that doesn’t want to support us. People, who sit up there, don’t fight for it. For what they need to fight. They are just unreachable.

11 pm We meet a Korean dude, he buys beers for everyone. The beer’s called Siberian Crown. We drink and chat about gays.

Jenya: Marina, tell me, are we adequate people?

Marina: You have a special approach towards life. You say everything as it is, you don’t really have a filter.

Jenya: Yep, we are not about filter for sure.

Korean dude tells Grisha that he is beautiful.

Grisha: Translate to him we don’t say beautiful to a man, this is unacceptable. You can’t say this, it will lead to no good. When in Rome, do as Romans do!

Jenya: We don’t have gays. We just destroy them. It does not matter if he is good or bad.

Marina: if you don’t have gays, why is it a problem? 

Jenya: We had one guy move from Irkutsk to our town with his 3 mln rubles motorcycle and tubes in his ears. We put a lock on his ears and locked him up to a door handle and left. After four hours we came and unlocked him. He quit and left.

Grisha: You need to experience living here for some time. People are programmed this way: we are one kind of people, and you are another. If we give in, there will be no families. How will women have children? And there are so many single girls nowadays, they just don’t give birth. The nation is just dying out. Who will love you then if everyone is gay?

Normally, after progress and human development reach their, regress starts. Same sex marriage means that people are killing themselves just because they made up some kind of addiction in their head. Can a birch tree grow and then suddenly become an orange tree?  It is a psychological disease, something must have gone wrong with his head. There are gays who were shown images of naked women, and they wanted them. They just deny it. Faggots are useless people.

Jenya: One guy from our village fell in love with a girl. A girl left for Saint Petersburg. He moved there and got a job of a bouncer at a night club. He told me, “I come out of the club, and I see two dudes kiss. I tell them to leave, but they don’t listen.” The administrator told him that this was not accepted. They fired the guy. You see, we are raised differently. We don’t understand it when a dude kisses a dude.

An advantage of the Far East is that you will not let them in here. Your bold guy will not bring them to march here. (editor’s note: reference to Yuri Luzhkov, former mayor of Moscow, who allowed Moscow’s first gay parade). A man and a mujik are different. Mujik will defend the motherland. A man can commit treason.

23: 50 We finish our beers. The speech is not that clear already, but we somehow manage to talk about soccer and poetry.

Grisha: I don’t like reading that much. They gave us Esenin (editor’s note: famour Russian poet) to read at school. Some alcoholics wrote something beautiful, yes, but it does not mean that children should learn this by heart. In poetry I don’t see anything beautiful or useful for me in life.

Actually, I would like to move to Rio de Janeiro. It is a beautiful city with masquerades, parades, and ocean shore. It is also a soccer capital. I used to have just one favorite player: Cristiano Ronaldo. And now when you watch soccer, you see many players stand out.

Soccer in Russia is not in the best condition. We have no soccer fields. We’ve got million talents in Russia. Did you see our team play at the Championships? I think they should be fired. So many sick kids could be getting their treatment with the money they are making. Foreign soccer players play soccer professionally, and they get paid accordingly. Our players just kicked the ball like kids in the backyard. They just talk, they don’t act. Tell the youth, “we will pay you a quarter of that salary”, and a younger generation will start winning.

Midnight. Empty bottles and a snoring miner at the table. A fat train stewardess in a short skirt decisively walks our way.

Fat train stewardess: Dining car is closing.  Thank you, good-bye.

Marina: What time is it? Could we stay a bit longer?

Grisha: You have foreign guests here. And you are closing down so fast.

Fat train stewardess: Thank you, good-bye.

We obey and continue to drink in a third class carriage, but with no recorder running.


The Ex-Cop

Victoria, 42

(Editor’s note: this co-traveller’s name has been changed on her request due to signing a non-disclosure agreement upon retirement)

In my job one has to have good sense of humor, otherwise, I would go mad. I always wanted to work for the police. I can’t say my parents were happy about my choice. My dad was a policeman for 27 years himself. I am a young pensioner; recently I retired after being a policewoman for 23 years.

This job comes with unregulated hours, so it’s hard on family life. One needs an understanding husband or wife. You come home, and they call you up. A murder just happened. It means that your workday has started. You have to wake up, put some clothes on and go there at night. Of course, it’s annoying when you have some weekend plans, but then someone just gets murdered, raped or beaten so severely, that he or she is about to die. If you work in the murder department, you should check out the details of the crime scene yourself.

On average we get 125-128 calls a day. We have three crime scene investigation teams plus three patrol and inspection services. We manage. Sometimes we would get just 80 calls, but this is considered to be few. Apart from this, we study law, shooting, have work out sessions and self-defense wrestling exercises.

Sometimes young girls join the police with romantic ideas in their head, based on books and movies. They think that they will just stand in their uniform be writing something down or investigating. And in reality they work with morally deficient people, who verbally abuse them. You have to interrogate them, sometimes they are under alcohol influence and can be aggressive. You should calm them down, but it doesn’t always work. They get back their anger at you, even though it’s not your fault.

But it’s not exactly every day you  get thugs, assholes, and scumbags, who should be either in nut hospital or on a life-sentence. You have to treat such people as humans. It’s easier to do for a woman, as she has more patience.

Crime psychology of a woman differs of that one of a man. A woman is more insidious. She has no obstacles, no long-term strategy. She just has a short plan: to get her revenge on this asshole here and now.

One time a woman stabbed herself, because of jealousy. She saw her boyfriend with another woman and said that it was him who stabbed her. He got arrested, but the doctor said the pathway of the stroke showed that he could not have done it. She continued to claim it was him, but then later lied that she was cutting meat and did it herself by accident.

Once I faced a similar situation. They called us because of theft, and a woman said that her partner stole her earrings. In reality there was no theft. He has been physically abusing her, and she wanted to revenge, to get him punished. To scare him. But at the same time she didn’t want to claim the beating. The physical abuse was obvious, but she claimed that she had fallen down. This situation really upset me as a woman. I came into a room, and there were three babies lying on the bed. One was a breastfed child, and the other two were between year and a half and three years old. The youngest one was spluttering with a bottle. I took him, and his lips were already blue. I started shaming her, “how can you do this, you are a mother”. At 23 she already had three kids from different men. She didn’t even have papers for the smallest baby.

When we watch detective movies on TV at the police station, we laugh at this nonsense. Arrest and evidence collection in the movies is just ridiculous, just bloopers everywhere, it reminds me more a fantasy or a comedy genre. Things don’t happen like this in real life, one can get fired for such mistakes. Any evidence extraction is always recorded, by photo or video.

Policemen don’t have many rights, even though they work for a low salary and have really high working loads. And they have a lot of responsibility. We had a situation: a boy stole his dad’s keys and got his gun, but didn’t manage to kill a teacher, who gave him a C for the term. Luckily his sister saw this and told somebody, so the police could prevent him from doing it. But the neighborhood officer was fired, as apparently, he wasn’t watching them close enough.

It is impossible to define a criminal by the way he or she looks. You can tell a drug addict by his behavior or by their eyes. When I was attending police academy, I had a nice neighbor. He was saying hello to all grannies next to our house, he would hold the door for women with strollers. He studied well and was his mom’s pride. But one day we found out that he killed more than 20 people. He organized a criminal group, they would stop at the road and pretended that their car had broken down. They used a girl with a little child, while other members of the group were hiding in bushes. They killed people, took their cars and hid the bodies by putting them under concrete in a friend’s garage. One day they were talking about it, and a girlfriend heard it. She ran away, they were chasing her, but she managed to get into a stranger’s car and asked for help. She got to the police station and told them everything.

 Half of the neighborhood attended the court hearing, nobody could believe this, everybody thought that he had been arrested on false charges. Nobody could have identified a criminal in him, regardless of experience in the police. His behavior was not changing in any way, he was always self-restrained, polite and calm.

In road police we have police guys with tummies, they have to sit around a lot. And in our department, if you are not in shape, you will not be able to fulfill your work duties. At some point your shape can save your life, and I am an alive proof to that.

It happened when I was not on duty. I was just walking home, it was winter, strong wind, around 9 pm. Suddenly a man attacked me from behind and started choking me. The most terrible thing in this situation was the fact that I was pregnant. He didn’t say a word to me, was just choking me silently. I shook my head, hit him with it and bent him. He was much heavier than me, and my weight was insufficient, but I managed to escape. I didn’t even think about arresting him. If he kicked me into my stomach, I would have been dead. That’s why I could not risk it, I didn’t have the right to do so. Maybe he wanted to take my purse, maybe to rape me. I don’t know what he wanted.

One has to work out in order to be able to stand up for themselves. Of course, it is tougher for a woman. Even a well-trained man would not be able to withstand the fight. But to hold on for some time, call for help and have a possibility to at least run away, invest all strength in one stroke. There is a chance. One has to be realistic about it. All self-defense methods are targeted at knocking out a gun or a knife. Of course, not when a gun is pointed at you. In this case you might be better off to agree to his demands and hit him on the sly, when he relaxes and his attention is diverted.

The most important is not to behave like a victim. Never be a victim. It is not important whether you have muscles. If you are tense or nervous, they will pick up a fight. You have to be confident.