FORUM: Siberia

I owe my existence to the onset of World War II. When Germany attacked Poland from the west, Russia attacked Poland from the east to keep the German army away from the Russian border. My grandfather was an estate owner and Cavalry officer, so he and his family were sent by train in cattle cars to a gulag in Siberia, near Mongolia. No guards were necessary as there were no roads, and the grasslands were peppered by brown bears and patrolled by Siberian tigers.

The Poles—including my grandparents, my mother, and her sister and two brothers, decided to walk 5,000 miles to India. In the “long walk” 90% perished, including my mother’s youngest brother “Little Joe.” The Poles then boarded ships in Bangladesh which took them to Africa. They were granted exile in Uganda on the shores of Lake Victoria. My grandfather fought Germans in Africa, serving with the Polish regiment of the French Foreign Legion. After the war was won, most Poles left for Poland, America, or southeastern Australia.

Mom’s family arrived in Maine, then moved to Chicago. Working on her doctoral degree in clinical psychology at the University of Chicago (UC), Mom met Dad, a doctoral candidate in mathematical statistics at UC. They married, and I was their first born.

Of all places on Earth, one place I thought I’d never visit was Siberia. Funny how life plays out…

Half a century later, my inspiration, mentor, friend, and fellow angler—Dr. Roy Patterson, head of the Department of Medicine, and the Division of Allergy/Immunology, passed away. A power struggle and reorganization of the medical school ensued. Having recovered from a cardiac arrest, eager to avoid the unfolding political battles, I resigned from my position as Research Professor of Emergency Medicine at Northwestern University and moved to Point Loma—a fishing village, submarine base, F18 Super Hornet wing, and Marine Corps training center in San Diego. I spent my meager retirement savings developing my life’s work—quantum mechanics for non-real-numbers (the type of data that most human’s produce). Russian scientists were early leaders in this field, but Americans took over the reigns when computers became available, because requisite math is computationally intense. Then I took over the Americans.

I had acquaintances in Russia whom I’d met through the early internet. I was invited to come to Barnaul, a city of more than 600,000 population at that time, located in Siberia not too far from Mongolia, near where Mom’s family was taken as prisoners. To win a Fulbright Scholarship I planned to organize a study identifying factors influencing human survival from bird flu infection (rampant in Barnaul at that time), and to teach scientists at the Russian National Academies of Science and Medicine about my research in optimal data analysis and mathematical medicine. I hoped that I’d also have time to fish for Siberian taimen—the world’s largest trout which grow up to six feet long and weigh up to 230 pounds.

I purchased my airline ticket from San Diego to New York’s JFK International Airport. Once there I entered the International Terminal, awaiting my non-stop flight to Moscow via Aeroflot airlines. In this terminal I discovered the two countries boasting the world’s most beautiful women—or, at least, most spectacular stewardesses.

Passengers waited in a giant room, in the center of which was a large oval walkway located in a lower section. A glass “fence” barrier surrounded the sunken walkway and gave passengers a vantage point to see what is going on. I was surprised when a loud chime rang out. Men immediately walked to the barrier. I found a perfect spot overlooking the entire walkway.

Moments later a woman dressed in a Ferrari red outfit entered the track and walked like I’d only observed in televised modeling shows. She was more beautiful than anything I’d ever seen or imagined. Ten feet behind her another breathtaking vixen dressed in the same uniform began to march in step. Eventually a dozen mind-boggling beauties marched then disappeared into the other end of the walkway. Men deafeningly bellowed approval, but the Russian ladies maintained their poise, cadence, and enchanting smiles.

Fifteen minutes later the chime rang again. Men rushed to the barrier. This time, marching in the same manner but in the opposite direction, dressed in Lamborghini yellow, were a dozen unmatchable and indescribable Japanese women. Time slowed to a crawl, the only thing happening in the world was this parade. After the parade ended there was no other chime. There were no other contenders.

I entered my seat in the magnificent Aeroflot airliner: roomy seats, wide isles, high ceiling, pristine and massive. I sat next to a window. There were two seats, but I was alone with nobody beside me. The flight was close to ten hours, but I stayed awake. The stewardesses on the flight were breathtaking beauties like those I saw on the walkway in the international terminal. They marched along the aircraft isles, and when they passed by me, they looked into my eyes and smiled cordially. I was speechless—my mind was unable to process thoughts or time, it was like a ten-hour-long dream…

In Moscow I waited in a crowded subway on my way to another nearby airport which offered flights within Russia. Men were taller than I, dressed in black, handsome, and physically fit. Women were nearly as tall as I, dressed in black, and stunningly beautiful. I was the only person dressed in out-of-place Guess clothing consisting of skinny blue jeans, white t-shirt, and unbuttoned blue shirt. I felt self-conscious and out of place, so I went to the end of the platform and stood against the wall with the only other people dressed in colorful clothing—beautiful shorter ladies from Mongolia who maintained the terminal.

The next jet was reminiscent of a standard American airliner—perhaps forty rows of seats, two seats per side, separated by a center aisle. The passengers were obviously not Muscovites—they were Siberians and Mongolians clad in inelegant working clothes. I felt overdressed in the six-hour flight to Barnaul.

We landed at the Barnaul airport, two days after I left San Diego due to the three long flights and to travelling east through many time zones. The tarmac was enormous, yet there was only one other jet there besides ours: it was parked at least a quarter mile away. A mobile staircase was used to disembark my flight. Passengers walked into the terminal to collect their luggage, which was manually brought from the jet. I was surprised that I had no difficulty obtaining my suitcase or leaving the terminal: my identity was never assessed or investigated, I was free to leave.

Outside the terminal door stood a blizzard of taxis. Few people took cabs, so every cab driver hailed me as a rider. It was deafening, dizzying, and frightening. I stood at the doorway, waiting for my interpreter to meet me. She came along shortly and escorted me to her car, and we were off to the hotel where I would stay during the week I would be in country.

The next morning my interpreter met me at the hotel, and she drove to the closest University. We went into the campus stolovaya (dining hall) and sat at a table. She asked what I thought about the people in the facility, and I replied that I was reluctant to look: after Moscow and the tarmac, I felt modestly insecure. She encouraged me to look around, so I did—and what I saw was astonishing. Every table featured two or three women: their posture was perfect, their dress styles were unique and chic, their bearing was demure, and all were powerfully alluring. There were no men other than I—and no woman, other than my guide, was looking at me.

Feeling quite invisible, I asked what is this all about? I was told: “In Russia, men of worth are sent to Moscow or Petersburg. Intellectual woman are sent to a city such as Barnaul, where we have 19 universities and colleges, and Divisions of National Academies of Science and Medicine. The only men here are workers who take care of infrastructure and manual labor. Single intellectual women do their work, and have hobbies such as reading, playing music, creating art, sports, scouting, sewing, and so forth.”

After a modest breakfast we took a three-hour long walking tour of Barnaul. The city was bustling in preparation of 10-hour-long working days. An army consisting of uniquely beautiful women, most wearing high heels, walked in every direction like models on the cobblestone and concrete sidewalks. I imagined they were gently flowing rivers of kaleidoscopic flowers. There were few cars, but an armada of busses ferried people to work. The architecture of the buildings—commercial, governmental, and residential, was functional without expressing uniqueness. In my perspective they resembled what are called “projects” (public housing) in Chicago. Most intersections featured a large, detailed, aesthetic bronze statue depicting a worker—primarily men: carpenters, farmers, iron workers, scientists, constructionists, civic workers, musicians, artists, soldiers, doctors, nurses, engineers. Heading back to prepare for scheduled meetings, I noticed that the square adjoining my hotel featured an actual WWII T34 tank.

The hotel doorman was a hulk who spoke no English—I called him Lurch. His fingers were the size of small cucumbers: he could grasp my head as if it were a grapefruit. His eyes told me he hated my display of Guess and Armani clothing. I realized I had to implement the strategy which my grandfather taught me enabled him to navigate the world during WWII: bribe the enforcers.

I asked the front desk where to find the closest high-quality liquor store: it was located on the same block as the hotel. I walked to the store and asked to see their finest bottle of vodka: it was inside a locked cabinet. I asked the price, and I could afford it ($50 US). I returned to the hotel and stopped in front of Lurch. I showed him the bottle and his eyes got bigger—and meaner. I said, “This is for you,” extending my arms in his direction. It seemed he understood but could not believe what I was saying—his eyes changed from fire to glazed. I pushed the bottle into his hands while wearing a genuine happy smile, and his eyes changed back to fire—of appreciation. His smile grew like that of a gigantic Cheshire Cat.

From that moment forward my safety and well-being was Lurch’s focused concern. The rest of my visit, when I returned to the hotel at the end of the day, Lurch and I had fun speaking with each other in the lobby. I had an electronic English/Russian translating computer. I would type a sentence in English and then speak (as best I could) and show the translation to Lurch. He laughed, took the little computer, and with his enormous fingers typed the Russian response and read it to me (as best as he could) in English. I laughed, and this continued for at least an hour every evening. We became good friends, and learned a lot about each other’s history and culture. I left him with another bottle the night before I returned to America. I doubt that we will ever forget each other.

My talk at the Academy of Science was a failure. The Russians were perturbed that I had become the world leader in math which they were first to master—their hurt pride trumped their interest to follow in the path of an American scientist. I fail to understand why they did not take up the challenge to learn my methods and then push the frontier. I concluded that Russia is not nearly as competitive as the USSR had been, at least with respect to intellectual and academic pursuits.

In contrast, my talk at the Academy of Medicine was appreciated. Russian academic physicians were very enthusiastic about my ideas for a collaborative study of bird-flu victims and survivors: Barnaul had only 5,000 fatalities—whereas I estimated an American city of the same size would have 10 to 100 times as many deaths. The doctors wanted $100 (US) for the data of each patient. I needed thousands of records, so this made the proposed work infeasible. However, I learned WHY so few Russians died.

In Barnaul, every specific job position was staffed by two workers rather than by one—in contrast to the policy in America. Each pair worked 10-hour days, 6 days a week, so workers were thoroughly familiar with each other’s daily activities and the status of all projects. If, and when, one worker showed signs of an illness, that worker went home—and stayed home until well or dead. In the meantime, the healthy co-worker knew the job intimately: there was no down time. In contrast, ill Americans use prophylactic medicine to mask their symptoms and continue to work—infecting co-workers and clientele and thereby creating an exponentially increasing cascade of illness.

I had three full days left on my visit, and nothing left to do in Barnaul.

The first day my interpreter took me to a park where a cable car took us to the highpoint of a local mountain to survey the countryside. It reminded me of some parts of America: a beautiful forest and a picturesque patchwork of farms in the distance. However, past the farms was an endless sea of grass in every direction. I felt as though I’d travelled backwards in time and was viewing the American plains before they were conquered by modern agriculture. I learned that Siberia has more than 200 species of grass. The growing period is relatively brief, so grasses grow head-high very quickly. Many grasses are used as various types of pharmaceuticals, whereas some grasses are deadly if ingested. I wondered what treasures American grasslands, now gone, might have held.

That evening we went to dinner at a traditional restaurant. At the insistence of my interpreter, I tried Borscht for the first time: it contained five types of meat and was the most delicious food which I’ve ever enjoyed. It tantalized my senses of taste and smell and created a sense of well-being that my digestive system had never experienced, before or after.

I also wanted to order turkey—but I learned there are no turkeys in Russia! I ordered a chicken breast, but that didn’t go very well because it resembled a half-inch-thick piece of roasted road-kill which had been run over by a semi. Vis-à-vis my interpreter I told the waiter that I ordered a chicken breast, and what I received was not that! Instantly exploding into rage, he replied that this is what a chicken breast looks like, and what is served in America is genetically engineered and pharmaceutically altered—which, he continued, is why Americans get cancers of the digestive system which are comparatively rare in Russia. The breast was delicious, whereas in America I usually use a sauce to make the breast palatable. Food for thought, literally.

There were no outfitters which guided anglers on rivers, so my hope to fish for taimen went for naught.

Instead, on the second-to-last day the interpreter drove an hour for me to meet directors of a research center which developed naturally growing teas, used as folk remedies, as pharmaceuticals.

On the way we passed what I learned was the world’s longest village: 19 kilometers in length, one-cabin wide on only one side of the only road. The villagers wore native clothing and carried swords (that they called knives) for personal protection, since the other side of the road was grassland populated by brown bears and tigers. But there was something much more dangerous than a free-roaming man-eating animal.

Just past the village we stopped at a hut on the side of the road. Outside the hut was a policeman holding an AK47. He had no car, there was only the one road, there were no options. The interpreter went inside the hut as I stayed in the car. She came back and told me to hand her all the money I brought with me: fortunately, I left most of my valuable possessions, including cash, in the hotel safe in Barnaul. I did as was requested, she went inside the hut and gave the money to the policeman. The policeman escorted her to the car and affably wished us a pleasant day.

At the research center I discussed the possibility of importing Siberian teas to America—where there are many Russians, and where a naturalistic movement was growing in the population. I was told that scientists from nine countries were presently visiting their facility with the same objective in mind. I continued batting goose eggs, science- and business-wise.

On the final day we visited a little shopping center for local celebrations and foreign visitors in Barnaul. We went into a café which had blazingly bright lighting and deafening music playing on the speakers. I told my interpreter I wanted her to ask the waitress to turn down the lights and music. She replied that people in Barnaul hardly ever get to party—so given the opportunity they want the music loud and the lights bright: there is no way the waitress will accommodate my wishes. I replied that capitalism can fix this problem. She summoned the waitress and explained my desire. The waitress looked at me with a blank expression. I pulled out $20 (US) and waved it at her: she grabbed the bill and immediately turned down the lights and music for ten minutes—until her supervisor told her to return the ambiance to normal. My interpreter was shocked: she’d never personally witnessed such capitalistic negotiation.

We then went to a gift shop, and after inspecting the goods I wanted to buy an official Russian Olympic sweatsuit outfit—it was very artistic. As a lesson in capitalism, I told my interpreter that I wanted her to negotiate the price down for me—to insist that the price is cut by 20% or I will leave without buying anything. Stupefied, the saleswoman summoned her supervisor who came into the shop. The supervisor spoke with my interpreter—who had transformed into the most audacious exemplification of a rich American bully—loud, forceful, audacious. The manager complied. On the way back to my hotel the interpreter had wild eyes and a frightening smile. I’d obviously created a monster. I packed my belongings, thanked the hotel desk staff, and hung out with Lurch.

The final morning, prior to going to the airport, my interpreter and I went on a short walk. I was flabbergasted to learn that on the following night one of my favorite bands, the Rolling Stones, would appear in concert at the convention center near my hotel! What a band. What a trip.

Worrying about my return to San Diego, I spent a restless night.

The morning after I returned to Point Loma, I dressed in my Russian workout suit and went to the fishing docks to say hello to my brothers, the Red Shirts (dock workers).

It was striking that I arrived back home in San Diego on the same day that I left Siberia—but I arrived in Siberia two days after leaving San Diego. Then I realized…

Time travel is real!


Paul R. Yarnold, Ph.D.

June 2, 2021

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