Vladivostok My Love

Ross Gordon

In Vladivostok no one can hear you scream.  Like Laika the saddest space-dog in history, betrayed and left to die alone in orbit wondering a dog-like: "Why?" 

Life is dull and disposable in the Russian Far East, or any part of Russia really.  It always has been, which is odd for a place where Christianity survived terrible onslaughts and purges and yet occupies pride of place in Russian society.  So many people are suffering, so many dying, that the impact is muted, statistical, expected. "At least the Gulags are closed."  All but unnoticed. 

He is sitting in a room, drinking cold vodka and eating smoked salmon out of the package, the only food he seems to like since arriving in Vladivostok.  It is a student residence, built by men who cared not a whit for workmanship or pride in product.  The door jambs are askew, the walls have thin cheap covering that does not line up, not even close, the lines wavering, separating and coming together again. The fake wood wallpaper bubbles here and there, slap dash application, put up between swigs of vodka and the endless smoke breaks of the communist "worker."

There is a wardrobe.  A sliver-delivery mechanism of unbelievably rough nature.  Had it been made of orange crates it would have been smoother, and more attractive.  But his clothes are piled up in the open suitcase on the floor.  Why bother unpacking, he is only spending two months in this dump, if that. 

There is no television, at least in the room.  The one shared TV down the hall is a waste of time and he does not feel like sharing right now. His clock radio picks up only the machinelike euro disco prevalent in Eastern Europe.  He shuts it off.  Waste of batteries. 

There is a radio on the wall, one channel, and a volume dial.  It is Radio Moscow and it is not any worse, or better than the CBC he left behind.  Chatter, endless chatter on political and social topics that only the hosts and guest care about.  Still, one channel radio must have been a dream to some of the hosts back when.  Think of the audience!

Look out the window into dusky gray skies, gray buildings, gray ground.  Horse blanket drapes.  Huge piles of odd refuse down below.  It looks like pieces of a destroyed building, mixed with a metal tower twisted and torn and piles of litter as though a giant cargo plane full of abandoned buildings and dumpsters crashed at the top of the hill and rolled and rolled all the way down, coming to a gentle stop in front of his window.   And there was lots of broken glass, the preferred ground cover in much of Vladivostok.  Even a walk in the woods or by a stream is taken over a carpet of glass and plastic bags.  Freedom means never putting garbage away.  Freedom is smashing those bottles like never before, when you could have been arrested just for thinking about it.  There will be times when he wishes that the evil oppressors would return just long enough to lock up the scum who throw bottles off their balconies or from car windows without bothering to check on the damage.  Just for a week, into the gulags.  Maybe it's the geography, so close to Siberia, but he quickly becomes a Soviet hardliner in a country that has largely forgotten its past. 

It is a pit of a city built on seven hills, facing sidelong into a port full of rusted navy ships and garbage.  They call it with no trace of irony: the San Francisco of the East.  No one in their right mind, who had ever seen the two cities, could hear the comparison without bursting into deranged laughter.  Not right away, but when the Russians had left the room.

Looking though the darkening window, into the farther distance, an irregular series of crumbling concrete apartment buildings loom into view; brooding, gray, the windows not quite lined up but uneven like the windows in the carved stone cave homes of Cappadocia, or the Flintstone village.  Why they are so far up the hill, one of the many hills one has to walk up and down constantly, would only be a mystery if one wasn't in Russia.  There is never a good reason.  Don't even ask.  To keep the people tired is as likely an explanation as any.

He watches from his straw filled chair, twitching, wondering about bugs, waiting, and waiting some more and then a light goes on in one of the apartments, and he takes a drink. Smooth cold vodka. A light goes off, he takes a drink.  The evening has begun.  Two lights on at one time, one large drink or two quick gulps.  The rules are flexible; it is after all not much of a game but hypnotic in its own way.  He learned it from the American down the hall, who can go through two or three, possibly more bottles in a sitting.  And fall asleep in his chair. In his underwear with the door wide open.  Entertainment for the masses.

Given that it is a student building it is oddly quiet.  No throbbing music. No parties. Once in a while a shout, a laugh and a bottle flies out a window and smashes in the rubble.  Feral cats cry and fight and screech under a nearby window, and a second later a jar of beets smashes beside them and more laughs are heard.  Funny students. Funny in a Russian way.  Broken bottles and screaming cats.

But who is he to judge, in a very short time the smooth edges of civilization have begun to wear off, he is often numb and dumb and god knows what a lifetime would do to someone in this place.

There are wild cats and dogs everywhere, in parks, parking lots, ditches.  Once they had a domestic life, not great but the usual free food and petting, then the human system collapsed and out they went.  He sometimes sees them on the move, in convoy style, Spaniel mutts walking in a chain gang line behind German Shepherds and poodles coming up the rear.   It is like a surrealist version of the Incredible Journey.   They take care of one another and move quietly, too smart to bark, down the sidewalks or he sees them asleep in the glass covered grass, one a sentry with ears cocked guarding the others.  He likes them enormously and would approach them to pet and talk, but they have attacked and killed humans, at least according to the newspapers.  They must know that they are doomed, they can never be as organized or vicious as humans.  But they are making a stand. As nature intended, they take down the elderly and slow moving during the winter. Drunks who fell into the numerous uncovered holes in the sidewalks and roads and couldn't get up.  Some were dead already, but once a dog has nibbled human flesh, well, you can't be sure they would let you scratch them behind the ears.  Without thinking, "closer, closer...mmmmm."  A cull will be inevitable, a massacre likely. 

Drinking is everything and the only thing.  It is a pleasure.  Vodka is a perfect drink for this place, no surprise.  No real taste, just pure cleansing heat.  Sweetness would be overwhelming, puke making.  Sour, strong drink would be a distraction from the mission, which is to nicely slide into oblivion.  Vodka goes down smooth, smooth, nice and smooth.  He keeps it cold in the little fridge that holds his salmon and a couple of eggs for variety.  When he runs out he has to stagger down the hill to the nearest tiny street kiosk, point and grunt at the 50 kinds of vodka until the clerk, who he can't see other than a hand, pulls one of the medium priced local brands off the shelf.  "I'll take two. Dvai. Two fingers stupid girl look at me am I kidding?  Hard to understand?"  Not the expensive stuff.  It is not worth buying expensive anything in Vladivostok, especially vodka,  especially when the goal is to drink alone.  Not the cheapest stuff either. At three rubles it comes in a plastic bag like the drip bags strung onto a hospital patient.  The worst of all is labeled with Chinese letters, no one knows if it isn't just anti-freeze and frankly anyone who buys it does not care anymore.  Let it be anti-freeze.

Back up the Hill.  Stares from the skinny acne scarred students.  He is too big to be Russian.  Too well fed despite dropping a good 10 pounds in a few days of non-eating.  The easiest diet in the world, there is nothing appetizing and walking up and down god damned hills all day really helps.  They never learned to flatten things out or drill through anything.  Just build on top, top of each hill.  The cost of laziness and central planning.  The stares are because he is walking.  No foreigner walks in Vladivostok, no Russian with a decent job walks either.  It is considered low class, and somewhat dangerous.  The students are confused and vaguely menacing.  It is obvious that he has a job, and his nice haircut sets him apart from the forlorn Ivans and Peters.  His clothes are obviously better than Chinese imports worn by locals.

He staggers a bit, rattling the bottles of vodka and some crackers that looked edible at the kiosk.  Use them to hold the salmon slices.  He comes from the real world, the imaginary real world; their number one desire is to get to America or at least they think they do after hours spent on the Internet. They react with confusion, they fear that if they act on their anger, their chances may disappear for another 100 years.

He thinks that if this is what life is like after Communism, he would not have lasted long during the dark years.  That the incoherent rage he sees in the eyes of so many young ones comes from the fact that they are descendants of the kind of people who would survive a system so drab, crushingly dull, menacing, interfering, criminally incompetent, foolish.  Had his parents made it through such ridiculous, ugly, stinking years and he was born into that world and allowed a glimpse of the outside, would he be happy, or embarrassed, or outraged?  He would not be proud.  Why bother.  Proud of nothing.  Smash bottles, chase strangers, drink all my money away. 

Made it.  The hallway is dark as always.  Walls are covered in a brown vinyl puffy kind of material, the pattern suggesting a really lousy opium den.  A Kmart opium den where dreams lead to a parking lot full of snakes.  The effect is a dusty, optical illusion created by the lines joining the floor to the walls not being straight and the doors hanging like in the Twilight Zone opening segment. Everything is crooked, quiet, dark, odd.  Very odd and dreamlike.  He staggers to his room, the doors he passes are as thick as cardboard and the temptation to kick them to pieces is near overwhelming.  But he continues, the American has left his door partly open and he pokes his head in, sees him sitting in his underwear in a semi-coma, a trail of bottles leading from his chair to the window.  He looks around, wonders, "Should I steal something?"  Maybe not, just because the door is open doesn't mean he should act like a local criminal.  He retreats to the hall.  A door opens slightly, an Asian face peeks out, a tiny Korean girl.  She nods and closes the door again and he knows someone is watching over him.

Back in his room, drink in hand, he wonders what brought him to this place. A light goes on across the wasteland.  He has a drink. 

Ross Gordon

Russ is a writer/librarian living in Gatineau, Quebec. He has published stories on his working visits to Vladivostok, Russia in the Ottawa Citizen and FeliciterMagazine. He researches and writes extensively on the History of Libraries, particularly the Library of Parliament in Canada.