WINTER COMES TO THE SOVIET PROVINCES
Irkutsk, USSR — It was just after one of the first snowfalls of the season that I walked down a muddy street along a ridge overlooking this siberian city. A boy was making a snowman, rolling the clump around and around, trying to get enough together to make a reasonable-size head. He said, in answer to a question, that no, it was the second snow, it had started the day before. And he seemed eager for more. In Irkutsk, he will get it.
Across street, three preteens watched with interest as a stranger plodded along. One, wearing a red kerchief about his neck (indicating he was a member of the Young Pioneers, a Communist youth organization), crossed and asked, "Otkuda?" ("Where are for from?").
"Ot Ess-Sha-Ah" ("From the USA"), I replied, using a carefully rehearsed phrase, and he returned to the others.
Soon he was back, repeating his question. I said, "Ya uzhe skazal " which may not be good Russian grammar, but means essentially "I already told you." He said he had forgotten and wanted to know what i was doing.
"Photo correspondent," I replied, which means the same in English and Russian. His eyes bugged and he pulled his cap down.
About a block later, I tired of his game and stopped suddenly. HE passed. I turned and went rapidly in the other direction, whereupon his pals whistled from across the street to let red-scarf know his prey had gone.
They didn't show up for several minutes, by which time i had come across three older boys strumming on guitars ad talking. They were pleased to be asked to do a number, and sang two.
Later, while i picked my way on down the muddy street, a pensioner suddenly appeared in shirt sleeves and asked the now-familiar where was i from, etc. He said his president had told him to love everyone, and he was interpreting that as reason to invite a stranger in.
His house was a typical solid log structure, but clean and neat inside. A stove built into an interior wall had the two rooms at a toasty level.
His wife was seated in the front room, where he proudly showed their collection of three icons. They said they had enjoyed the television set, but it hadn't worked for some time, and since he was retired they couldn't get it fixed. Besides he added, they didn't like to watch it.
Though i couldn't understand much of his conversation, he spoke rapidly about having been in the Army; of a city during the war with the Nazis; that there hadn't been any food during the siege. Then there was talk of many years in some capacity on a boat on nearby Lake Baikal, and how he was strong and livelyafter being retired for 13 years.
As i thanked him and made motions of leaving, his wife told him to offer me some cabbage soup. While i ate the soup and a huge slice of bread, she heated water for tea.
About six inches from the soup bowl lay a limp black fish. I hoped he wouldn't be offering it, too, but he was. he beheaded and cleaned it, since i did not, and started to lower it into the bowl.
i thanked him but explained that i couldn't eat it. He interpreted it one way, but in truth, I couldn't have managed to eat it.
Then he cut another huge slice of bread and, putting it beside the bowl, insisted, "Be sure to tell them we have plenty of bread."
They were wonderful hosts, genuinely friendly people.
When I again indicated that it was time to depart, he went all the way to the street again, reluctant to release my hand, and after another round of well-wishing, kissed my wrist and turned quickly away.