The first time I taught at a university in Vladivostok, Russia (and how many people can say that?) was in the spring of 1994. My business consultant husband and I lived in Sedunka, a village—of sorts.
Known throughout Russia as ‘the wild, wild East,’ Vladivostok and environs, which include Sedunka, were far from being tourist centers. One section of Vladivostok was still made up of log cabins, exactly as seen in pictures of the American frontier. But Vlad also had bars, restaurants, and shops.
Sedunka had none of these amenities. Houses there were set at irregular intervals along dirt roads with large puddles in front of them, even when there had been no rain for weeks. The roads met at the town ‘square,’ actually a large dirt area of a shape unknown to geometry. However, householders had been industrious. Next to each house was a stolen aluminum cargo-carrier, well disguised by dents and encrustations of debris from the roads. These metal shacks served as the contemporary equivalents of root cellars. The whole collection of dwellings and out-shacks was haphazardly set at the edge of a lovely taiga, or birch forest.
I took a daily walk in this forest, tentatively exploring the outskirts at first, but gradually going deeper into the woods. Not knowing how large the forest was and being timid by nature, each day I ventured only a few feet more into the darkness and solitude.
Solitude didn’t exist in the village. When I wandered over the dirt-hardened paths, I constantly met my fellow villagers. We would exchange dobre utras. If asked a question, I would reply by shrugging my shoulders or pointing in some vague direction. Occasionally a sosedka or neighbor would walk along with me, talking constantly and not waiting for a reply, which was a good thing. Before leaving I would repeat back a few of the words he had said, closing with a cheerful dosvidaniya. It seemed to work. I even had one friend in the village. She knew a few words in English as I did in Russian. You didn’t need much of a vocabulary to enjoy the things we did together. Larissa taught me how to make Russian cookies and how to hitchhike, Russian style – hand down, not up.
When I wasn’t with Larissa or teaching at the Far Eastern State University, I enjoyed meeting and walking with my more casual tovarisches. Language helps, but you don’t always need it to build a relationship of solidarity. Sometimes we would stand in line together to make a purchase. We seldom knew what we were standing in line for. We did know that if we left our place in line to find out what was being sold from the backs of the truck somewhere in front of us, we would have to go back to the end of the line and miss the chance to buy whatever it was. Usually the wares consisted of a few toothbrushes, a dried fish, and occasionally a solitary shoe.
But in the forest, I saw no one.
I loved my solitary walks. Other living things had been in the woods before me. I could follow their paths. But all I could see were lovely straight dappled birches. Occasionally the early spring sun came through leaves, marking paths in a corresponding dappled pattern. I never saw another comrade or animal.
One day at a faculty meeting at FESU (Far Eastern State University), I told some of my English-speaking colleagues about my daily outings.
“Audrey,” Olga, the chair of the English Language Department gasped, “Two years ago, four Siberian tigers were shot and killed in that very same forest.”
I gasped back at her and stumbled to a chair.
Hoping to keep me from fainting or having a heart attack, she was quick to reassure me: “Don’t worry, Audrey. Please, don’t worry.
“The tigers come down to the village only when they’re hungry.”
Audrey Lavin is a writer and professor of literature. She has published widely in obscure academic journals in the U.S., Russia, Spain, Ukraine, Chile, etc. At long last she has broken out of that academic cage and is at work on her third murder mystery.
© 2010, Audrey Lavin