Into Russia

On the newly constructed buildings that line Moscow’s wide avenues, there was a freshly painted mural recreating the historic photograph of Russian soldiers raising the Soviet flag over the Reichstag in Berlin. The backlit army recruitment advertisements along the streets surrounding the Kremlin featured slickly photographed special-forces soldiers dressed in all white winter camouflage. They leveled their weapons and smiled at you anonymously through balaclavas.

We rode bikes through the outskirts of Nizhny Novgorod on our second day in town. Past looming statues of Lenin, past old churches, and through markets full of men and women from the countryside selling herbs, vegetables, and flowers.

On the edge of a large factory complex, we came to a tall metal turnstile. It was not locked, so we pushed our bikes through and rode around the narrow streets that snaked between the large concrete buildings. There was little activity. We saw large boxcars filled with what looked like rubber. From time to time we ran across a stray worker crossing from one building to the next.

Just as we decided that it was sensible to leave, three men dressed in military fatigues stopped us. They spoke no English, but it was clear they were not happy that we were riding our bikes around the grounds of their factory. We laughed a bit and told them, “OK, we’re on our way out now.” They stood in front of us, only saying “Nyet”. One of them showed us his phone. It said, “WAIT FOR DIRECTOR.”

Mischa and I nervously laughed at his order. We waited. Soon a man about our age, presumably the Director, arrived. He leaped out of the passenger seat of a large black Ford SUV. He wore fatigues underneath a red Adidas track jacket. He smiled at us and shook our hands enthusiastically.

He also spoke no English, but was prepared with his phone. He showed it to me. It said “THIS IS NOT A REGIME OBJECT.” I was stumped by any possible meanings for this, but I smiled and said, “Yes sir.” After a short conversation with his men, he ordered them to open the gates and let us go. We rode out. I was hungry.

On our way back to town, we came across another factory. Its large storage cylinders towered over the river. It looked empty. We rode our bikes down a small path and through an opening in the wall that surrounded the factory. Inside a small courtyard, three men sat on large marble and granite stones, smoking cigarettes. Behind them was a black metal door, propped open with a stone human torso, a piece of a broken statue.

The men had dark skin and hair, and none could speak much English. I asked them if they were artists. They could understand enough, and one of them went into the black metal door. He returned with a man in his mid-twenties. He was balding on top, and wore a dirty t-shirt and jeans.

“How are you gentlemen?” he asked, speaking English fluently. “Are you here as tourists?” He brought us through the door and into a small room. He told us his name was Anastas. There was a large table with the remains of breakfast on top of it. Instant coffee packets lay torn open and strewn about. At the far end of the table sat a man of about 60, wearing sunglasses and a patterned shirt. He smiled at us.

This was the father of Anastas, also named Anastas. He watched a small boxy TV from the 1980s. He only spoke a few words of English, and asked us if we wanted anything to eat. We each took a coffee.

Anastas wanted us to see his artwork. He showed us the small plaster casts from which many of the religious statues found Nizhny Novgorod were modelled. He brought out photographs of the final results. A favorite work of his was a gold-painted, life-size bust relief of Vladimir Putin, leaning gingerly on a shelf in the corner of the room. He offered to give it to us to take on our trip and bring back to the United States. He almost insisted. We had to politely decline. It was too large for us to carry all the way to China and I couldn’t imagine how difficult crossing through customs would be with such a souvenir.

The younger Anastas took us further back into the building, into his studio. He told us he had learned to sculpt from his father, that his family immigrated here from Armenia after the breakup of the Soviet Union. He was only a baby then.

Further back, in another room, the ceiling was two or three stories high. There were eight teenagers here, each seated at a desk. Lamps hung from the ceiling, and there were windows at the top of each wall, letting a lot of natural light in. It was an ideal studio. Each teenager sat at a small desk and painted a small piece of white ceramic or clay. They worked diligently, and Anastas introduced us to each of them by name.

On the far wall, two oversized statues of Saint Peter and Saint Paul towered over us, seemingly keeping watch on the workers as they toiled.

“We make knick-knacks here,” Anastas said, “and then ship and sell them all over Europe. These ones are a little late, but we think they will do well in Southern France, especially at the beach.” He held up one of the finished products that the teenagers were producing. In brightly painted letters that stood above a mountain scene, it read SOCHI 2014.

“We mostly do religious commissions. But we like to pick up work like this to make ends meet,” Anastas explained.


On our last day in Nizhny Novgorod, Mischa picked up a handbag lying on the side of the road as he rode his bike across a bridge to buy our train tickets. He gave the lost bag to the police at the train station. Instead of offering thanks for turning it in, the police engaged Mischa in bureaucratic maneuvers, recording his local contact information and asking him to fill out forms. He waited all of this out. When he got back to our room, I asked him what had taken his trip so long, and he told me the story about the bag he found. We didn’t think much of the event after that. We’d be surprised later that night.

Waiting to catch the late-night train that evening, we drank beers with a group of young artists in a small bar. Artem’s phone rang loud over the din of the bar. He spoke for a few moments in Russian, and slowly turned pale. He glanced over at Mischa and said, “It’s for you.” It was the police calling about the bag. The owner of the bag had chosen this morning to die, and had jumped off the bridge where Mischa had found her bag. Her body had washed up on the southern shores of Nizhny Novgorod an hour or so after Mischa went to the cops.

The Police wanted to talk further. I was absolutely opposed to the idea of talking to the Russian Police. Mischa, always more courageous than I, agreed to talk to them. Why not? After some negotiating, Artem convinced them to agree to a meeting under two conditions:

1 — The Police wait until 9:30PM and come pick us up at the bar

2 — After we answer their questions, they take us to the train station in time for us to catch our 11pm train

The police acquiesced. We got drunker over the next two hours. Before we knew it, Artem’s phone rang again. The police had arrived. A van pulled up, the word Politsiya painted on the side. Two cops stepped out, one female and one male. Both were under 30. Another older male officer remained inside the van, sitting comfortably behind the steering wheel. The woman introduced herself politely and asked us to come join her inside the van. Her pudgy male partner glared at us, annoyed and completely disinterested.

Our Russian friends insisted that they come with us in order to make sure that nothing strange happened. They enthusiastically videoed the entire affair with their phones. We drove extremely slowly over the bridge. Mischa pointed out the spot where he had sighted the woman’s bag. The driver turned on the flashing lights atop the Sprinter and pulled a casual U-turn through four lanes of traffic. He stopped the car precisely where Mischa pointed. Our Russian friends snapped photos as Mischa explained his story yet again. The female officer stood next to him, listening carefully to Artem’s translation as she took notes.

After ten minutes, we all clambered back into the van. Mischa signed a series of papers, again all in Russian. As promised, the police took us to the train station. We had enough time to spare to thank our friends for their help and to grab a snack and a beer from a stall on the street before we got on the train.