Vladimir was most likely born laughing. After years of getting to know him, I've learned that he not only laughs generously, but without the least fear that you might take more than your share or that he might run out. Indeed, he often laughs for no apparent reason, giving the impression that the laugh has laughed him – instead of he the laugh. It can spill out when he's in the middle of eating a bowl of soup, standing in line, or at a bus stop.
Vladimir and Anatoly, both childhood friends of Nikolai's, have from the start helped us with our work in Russia. The three are as inseparable as the prongs of a salad fork. Such unbroken friendships not only are very Russian, they are how everything gets done here. As they say: "Don't work to earn 100 rubles, work to earn 100 friends."
Still, for the sake of space, this story is not about friendship, but about Vladimir and why he laughs. Laughter, after all, is a funny thing. The world would be sad without it, and without it, it would be impossible to travel across Russia.
Vladimir's laugh begins with several short breaths and the slight quivering of his shoulders, followed by the closing of his eyes and the wrinkling of his face to better concentrate.
It is all the more enjoyable given that he has a huge black mustache, two gold-filled teeth, and an ample form.
The first time I met Vladimir, he gave me his Soviet-era police hat (the kind worn in winter with ear flaps) and said "hello" in English, followed by a hearty laugh. It was winter and my first time in Siberia, so both the hat and the laugh were truly thoughtful gifts.
The next year I brought cowboy hats for the three men: one black, one brown, and one tan. The hats weren't out of place, since my friends live in the Ural Mountains at the border where Europe meets Asia. You can find people wearing hats of every shape, style, and description – although the variety is more for the sake of joy than warmth.
The cowboy hats looked terrific on them, which made Vladimir laugh even more. With that, our friendship was sealed. I had, they kindly said, become the polish on their fork.
That year Vladimir invited us to dinner. Anatoly brought mushroom soup (for which he is famous). I brought dessert, and Nikolai brought a new hammer, as Vladimir and his wife, Nadershda, were building a house.
This was now their 10th year working on it. The one room that was finished served as kitchen, sitting room, dining room, or bedroom, depending on the time of day.
Vladimir, I learned, had bought two small pieces of land for the sake of building one house. One piece of land in the village of Pelniah was for the house, and the other, in a nearby forest, was to get the wood to build it.
One of the first days in their house, Vladimir woke up one morning to find that the winter winds had blown most of the shingles off the roof. We roared with laughter when he told us over plov (a wonderful chicken and rice dish) that he thought Nadershda had opened a window in the night.
As soon as the first room was livable, Vladimir built a barn for two cows, two sheep, and a scattering of chickens. He laughed, of course, when asked about milking the cows at 4 in the morning and breaking ice out of the water buckets in the winter.
In addition, he built a large greenhouse and garden. They grew tomatoes, spinach, radishes, and beans because that's what Anatoly and Nikolai liked, and if you grew what your friends liked, they were sure to show up – especially if they knew your roof needed reshingling.
I often wondered if Vladimir and Nadershda would ever finish the house, because, as long as I had known them, they had happily lived in the one room while their cow lived in several, their chickens in an upscale coop, and their vegetables in a glass palace.
This year, however, I returned to find that Vladimir had completed everything but the staircase between the first and second floors. I laughed at the rickety ladder propped up between the two.
In the meantime, they continue to live in the same room. Nikolai explained that neither Vladimir nor Nadershda really care about living in a big house.
The house, like the oversize barn and garden, the overflowing table prepared for friends, and a winter hat given to warm the heart of a stranger were the outcome of tradition. And tradition in Russia is more than something passed down from one generation to the next. It is, as Nikolai put it, as inseparable a part of a Russian as his heart.
Having a cow didn't really make sense when you could easily buy milk, butter, and sour cream. But it is as traditional in rural Russia as front lawns are in America.
Humans are funny creatures. We do things that serve no more purpose than to know we have done them right. And when things don't go right, how incredible that we can still laugh and keep going.
Of all the things that Vladimir does right, the best is his gift of laughter. In all honesty, the lives of my Russian friends are difficult, and yet they are the happiest of all my friends.
In any case, Vladimir will definitely laugh when he learns I wrote a story about him.