Kamchatka Weekend

Every inch of our Soviet country, from the Baltic Sea
to the Pacific Ocean, is sacred. A soldier must always be ready
to sacrifice his life for the territorial integrity of the Motherland.
Soviet Army code of service regulations.

Our faces swollen from drinking a few boxes of vodka on a train, we marched from a station to Shaulyai Air Force base. Local children followed, throwing apples at us and shouting "Russians, go home!" We felt very upset, expecting a long month of stupid drills and malnutrition, so traditional for the Soviet Army.

Among us was a guy named Sasha who had unusually thin ears and was able to roll them into tight tubes. He showed this trick to our commanding officer, and asked to be given a job in the kitchen. We thought Sasha was cunning and very lucky. But soon we discovered that the food was much better than we expected. Poor Sasha had to work hard, washing endless piles of dirty dishes, while the rest of us had almost nothing to do.

Our officers were supposed to keep us busy, but they didn't care. Every morning we had a nice breakfast and were taken to the airfield. Those who had business skills searched around as a pack of jackals, buying or stealing everything they could find: uniforms, parachute silk, radio parts, ammunition, even airplane equipment. Others were more lazy and spent days sunbathing or feeding on strawberries in the forest nearby. After lunch we would play cards or dice, then go AWOL for the rest of the day.

At first the city folks met us with complaints about 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact (the one which divided Poland and adjacent territories between the USSR and the Nazi Germany). But we were ready: we had all learned five words in Lithuanian. It was enough to become friends with most people in local bars. (Later we found out that in all fifty years that the base had been in the city, not a single officer or soldier had ever bothered to learn as much as "hello" and "thanks" in Lithuanian).

Just as our moral decay was becoming complete, the commander of the base, colonel Nakhrapov (nicknamed Ivan the Terrible by other officers), decided to give us a surprise inspection. He walked into our barracks at midnight. Most bunks were deserted. My friend Igor and I were watching forbidden West German TV. Igor had just lost me his mug playing blackjack, and had to make himself cocktails by drinking vodka and liquor directly from bottles at the same time. I was busy trying to sharpen a Finn knife I'd bought in the city. The floor was littered with women's underwear, and unmistakable moaning could be heard from some bunks on the far side of the dormitory.

"Everybody out!" the colonel yelled, "get ready for combat!" But most guys present were too busy to pay attention.

We all got three days of arrest, and had to think about retaliation. Next day someone accidentally pulled emergency escape handle in a new fighter plane, instantly turning it into a pile of scrape metal. Then the red flag at the roof of our barracks was somehow replaced by a flag of Lithuanian Republic. Walking around the base, I met a miserable, downtrodden uryuk (this word literally means dried apricots, but is a widespread slur for people from Middle Asia). He happened to be from Kara Kala, a town in Turkmenistan where I'd spent a lot of time as a schoolboy, catching snakes for a local snake farm. We even had some mutual friends there. I stole a bag of bread from officers' dining room for the poor guy. As a token of gratitude, he gave me a box of teryak, fine powder made of dried poppy juice. Our agent in the kitchen Sasha added some of this powder to Nakhrapov's borsch when the colonel was giving lunch to a group of inspectors from the Army's regional headquarters. The colonel got very excited. He had planned to take the inspectors to the airfield, but somehow changed his mind, and decided to show them our barracks. The inspectors just loved it. They noticed the Lithuanian flag, and the statue of Voroshilov (Stalin's favorite commander during the Civil War) that we used for target practice (we built a nice catapult which used empty beer bottles for projectiles). But just as they were about to share their excitement with Nakhrapov, he fell asleep. Literally fell.

As always, everybody thought it was all my fault. But I had nothing to do with it, honestly. I wasn't anywhere near that catapult. When the inspectors came, I was practicing rock climbing techniques at the barracks' facade. This innocent sport got me in trouble. I got arrested again, and was ordered to clean floors in the central command building. I was so frustrated that I opened all water taps I could find, and left them that way. On the first floor the water got waist-deep, and the current carried piles of top secret documents all over the base. When they asked me who did it, I said some mean-looking Lithuanian sneaked into the building and opened the taps. "Why didn't you stop him?" they asked. "I had no such orders," I explained.

I was looking at three more weeks under arrest. I was already bored to death after seven days of Army service, I hated that place, and I decided to get out. Fortunately my officers were as tired of me as I was of them. My friend Igor accidentally got alcohol poisoning, and they ordered me to escort him back to Moscow. I escorted him as far as the dormitory of a local college, where both our girlfriends lived. He quickly recovered there. A few days later we returned to Moscow, visiting some old cities and Nature reserves of Lithuania, Latvia, and Byelorussia along the way. Then I took some Canadian tourists on a trip across the Barentz Sea in an old fishing boat, and spent the rest of the summer and most of the fall traveling around Northwestern Russia, Moldova, Estonia, and the Caucasus.

But then it was time for me to write my Master's thesis, so I got stuck in Moscow for many months. Winter in Moscow is very depressing. It used to be cold, with plenty of snow, until the climate changed in the late 1970-s. Now the temperature hovers just below freezing most of time. Streets are covered with ice, dirt, salt, and melting snow. There are only five-seven hours of daylight, and the sky is overcast almost permanently from late September to mid-March.

To make things worse, that particular year the winter was even warmer, so by the early February the forests around the city were almost snow-free - something unheard of in Russian history. Skiing was now out of question. Well, I had no time to get out of the city anyway. The country was rolling downhill, the economy was falling apart, and a civil war seemed to be just around the corner. The price of a dollar in rubles doubled every month. I had two full-time jobs (each of my bosses didn't know about my other job), one as a senior researcher and the other as a deputy director of a publishing house. But I hardly made enough money to buy food. Watching TV was gruesome: it was a mix of Gorbachev's endless speeches and scary reports about ethnic conflicts and skyrocketing street crime. The air smelled of decay and desperation.

One day I turned on the TV, and suddenly learned that an eruption of Avacha Volcano was beginning. One of the paradoxes of that weird time was unbelievably low cost of air and train tickets. The airfare from Moscow to Kamchatka was twenty dollars - about ten bottles of vodka. I couldn't stay one more day in the city. I had an emergency fund for just such an occasion. By that time, a girl responsible for issuing border zone passes at our local police department was a friend of mine. It only took me a few hours to get on a plane to Petropavlovsk.

It was the eighth time I was flying to the Far East or from it, and there was always something interesting to see along the way. This time is was dark most of the flight (the route goes way above the Arctic Circle). But when we were over Eastern Yakutia, the sun briefly rose above the horizon, and I saw a wonderful landscape below. Mountain ridges were everywhere, branching off in all directions, bright purple in the sunlight. Between them, blue zigzags of forest-lined rivers made their way through deep canyons. I promised myself not to leave the country until I see that remote land up close. Late at night we got to Petropavlovsk, and I tried to see the red glow of the eruption, but couldn't. I called a friend of mine, he invited me to stay overnight, and told me the news.

Things had changed there. Rampant gold mining began on salmon rivers. The first hordes of foreign tourists had reached the peninsula, and for some reason most of them were trophy hunters. The World's largest population of brown bears was being rapidly converted into stockpiles of skins and dried bale. Lynxes, sables, wolverines, even capercallies were hunted from helicopters, airplanes, and snowmobiles. Border zone restrictions were expected to be abolished; thousands of fur and caviar dealers on the mainland were waiting to rush in.

The eruption had started five days earlier, on Sunday. The foothills of Avacha Volcano were the most popular area for cross-country skiing in the vicinity. Thousands of people were there when the mountain blew its top. A cloud of hot ash rose to twenty thousand meters. People watched in amazement, until the ash started falling on the snow, turning it into sandpaper. Most people had plastic skis, so by the time they made it back to the city their skis were completely destroyed by friction.

During the week, some fresh powder covered the ash layer. It took me only four hours to run uphill towards the volcano thirty kilometers to the north. The weather was great, it wasn't too cold, and flocks of chickadees were moving through park-like forests of stone birch. But the volcano seemed to be almost dormant. There was some smoke above the summit, and the slopes were covered with black lava flows, but I didn't see any red glow or movement. I was almost sure it was too late and the eruption was over. But when I got closer I noticed a strange humming noise, and rockslides streaming down the slopes.

Avacha is very similar to Vesuvius. It is a two-story volcano, with an inner cone inside a large old crater. The rim of the outer crater is about halfway to the summit. At the southern side a deep gorge cuts into the rim, making it easy to climb to the base of the inner cone and then to a smaller crater at the summit. There was a tiny cabin in the gorge, and I spent the night there, but hardly could sleep because of loud roar from the summit.

As soon as the sky turned pink in the east, I left my skis and backpack in the cabin and started climbing, dodging the rocks rolling from above. The sunrise was gorgeous: all the world was suddenly flooded with red and golden watercolor. The air was very clear, so I could see volcanic peaks as far as two hundred kilometers in all directions.

The higher I climbed, the louder was the sound of the eruption. By the time I got to the summit, it was well above pain threshold. For centuries, the inner crater of Avacha was a beautiful bowl four hundred meters wide and deep, lined on the inside with golden-yellow sulfur deposits. I was stunned to see that this famous tourist attraction wasn't there any more. Instead, I saw a level surface of broken lava. It was trembling, shaking, crawling, cracking, and slowly moving over the crater rim and down the slope in one broad brown flow. It was mostly hard already, but still very hot, and there was some red glow in deep fissures.

I could only stay on the summit for five minutes. My ears hurt too much from the horrifying screams of tortured stone. I took a few pictures, put my hard hat back on, ran to the cabin, ate a can of sausage, put on my skis, and slid all the way down to the city. By the time I got there the day was almost over. The volcanoes turned deep purple, then violet, and then dark blue.

Next day I decided to have a look at the eruption from above. I went to the heliport, and found it unbelievably busy. All aviation of Kamchatka had switched to serving tourists. It was Sunday. Every few minutes tourist groups left for Kurilskoye Lake, Uzon Caldera, Ksudach Caldera, and other interesting places. Just three years earlier it took me ten days and approximately two hundred dollars to arrange a trip to Geyser Valley. Now it would have taken ten minutes and fifteen hundred dollars.

I sneaked on a helicopter that was going to make a flyover of Avacha. The eruption was almost over. The lava seemed cold and motionless. The summit looked like a cup full of coffee, spilled on one side. But the sound and the smell of sulfur were strong enough to get inside the cabin.

The city was a funny place now. The most dilapidated of apartment buildings were decorated with spray-painted inscriptions like "Historical monument. Late Communist period. Protected by law." Almost all cafes and restaurants had disappeared. The only place to eat I found had hot sausages. They were served in tomato sauce, but still wrapped in plastic. I ate them, washed the sauce off my hands, watched the sunset over the bay for the last time, took a huge pile of packages my friend asked me to take to Moscow, and left Kamchatka.

We never saw sunlight during the seven hours of flight. But there were beautiful Northern lights over Taimyr Peninsula. Viewing them from an airliner always feels kind of intimate: they seem to be so close, although in fact they are many times higher above the ground than any airplane. Watching these endless rivers of green fire, I tried to imagine what Geyser Valley was looking like, with hundreds of tourists, and helicopters landing every few minutes. And I felt very fortunate that I'd once had to spend ten days just to get there.

...The winter finally returned to Moscow in late February. The streets were turned into rivers of slippery brown dirt. Low clouds, cold wind, and falling snow looked like the beginning of a new Ice Age.

I was walking in knee-deep mud, trying not to drop the bags of canned food I was carrying home. People's faces were grim, as if they'd read too many newspapers. Suddenly I heard the sound of a tiny silver bell, clear and beautiful. I looked up. On a branch of an exhaust-suffocated poplar tree a titmouse was sinning its spring song, paying no attention to snow and wind.

“May be there will be spring some day, after all!” I thought, diving into the darkness of a food store. There was a long queue, but it moved fast: the shelves were empty, except for some packs of processed cheese. The girl at the counter was obviously a newcomer in Moscow: her pronunciation was soft, and she didn't yet look at the customers as if they were her sworn enemies. "She must be from Siberia", I decided, and then saw that my guess was correct. On one of the empty shelves, there was a water-filled milk bottle with a twig of Dahurian rhododendron. It had no leaves yet, but at its very tip the first flower had just opened, pink with tiny purple freckles.

I bought some cheese, got back to the street, and hurried home. I had tons of important things to take care of. The snow was still falling, but in the south there was a small gap in the clouds, like a piece of blue tile on a dusty floor of an ancient tomb in the desert. And through this window a distant row of sunlit clouds could be seen, like an ice-covered mountain range.

I couldn't stand it any more. I turned around, crossed the street, and ran to Aeroflot ticket office.

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