Birobidzhan, Russia
Date: Lodging: Distance: Total:
11/07/1999 Hotel Vostok 186 KM 27149 KM

Some of the few remaining members of the Jewish congregation left in Birobidzan

Birobidzan boys

The signs in Birobidzan, the capital of the Jewish Autonomous Region, are often in Russian and Hebrew, but virtually no one can read the Hebrew anymore.

Men stack hay along the road to Birobidzan. Mechanized farming is a long way off.

The under-construction Russian Orthodox Church in Birobizhan

Birobizhan, capital of the Jewish Autonomous Region (which was supposed to become the homeland for the Jewish people), claims one small synagogue today. When we visited, we met three people working inside the synagogue who said that almost every Russian Jewish person has left Siberia for Israel, Canada or the US.

Along the banks of the Amur River, this village exists just outside of Khabarovsk.

One of the many faces of Siberia

One of many Chinese who have flooded into the political, social and economic vacuum developing in Siberia. China will someday own this area again, just as they did before the 19th century.

When we saw Chinese workers in a field about 80 kilometers from Khabarovsk, we stopped to meet them. This man finally agreed to let me photograph him.

This group of Chinese workers, with Sasha in the hat as their ringleader, was most willing to halt their work to pose for me.

This Siberian woman caught my eye and then stood patiently waiting as I fumbled to grab the camera and capture her for posterity.

Amazed by these ancient tools, Jim pulled over so I could take this shot. How many more years will these pitchforks and rakes see use?

This car ferry – really a barge with a tow boat attached – took us across the Amur River, one of the five largest in the world. Amazingly a bridge for automobiles still does not exist along this pass in Siberia. A local said a car bridge, which began construction in 1990, will be completed in October 1999.

11 July 1999 - Dinner in a sauna of a restaurant with cracked, white paint sealing shut the windows and more flies buzzing than customers eating. Things improved when I met Tatiana and Helen and shared their vodka. I approached the women asking if I could try their cranberry-looking vodka. They invited me to sit and offered me a glass of the wine/vodka mixture.

Twenty-two year-old Tatiana and Helen, 26, both government employees were enjoying a rare, girls night out. Tatiana with thin, tweezed eyebrows is bleached blond and mother of a one-year old daughter. Helen, with three front-teeth lined in gold and frosted hair cut like Dorothy Hammill, has a six-year-old son. They had left their children with their mothers, while both husbands worked nightshift.

Perhaps the vodka, or a face they would never see again, served as the catalyst for the disclosures made that evening, but both talked candidly with me. First we talked about role models, which led to women’s figures. They quizzed me on fashion, insisting they stay attuned to trends by reading glossy magazines. Tatiana admitted, “We want Chanel No. 5 but wear the fakes because designers do not ship here.” Helen said of Russian politics: “That’s the only place where Russian women have a chance to gain any position. But I find it hard to care about politics now. We've had three prime ministers in the last year and I grow tired of keeping up.” Tatiana replied, “Yes, government is important. The women who work in high profile government jobs go the stylist once a week, because they must look presentable. I would love that. Imagine having your hair done every week. We dye ours and paint our own fingernails. Going to our dacha and planting potatoes is our life!” With this, she roared with laughter.

One of the more revealing parts of the evening came from Helen. “Women have to marry by 25 or no one will have them. And once married, you go to the doctor every three months to make sure you are clean because if you are not sleeping around, then your husband is.” After more vodka, both admitted to on-going affairs. Tatiana lamented, “I've been sleeping with Vladimir for six months. Why not? My lover treats me better than my husband.” Around midnight, after dancing with them to Russian songs, in a swirl from too much vodka and honest conversation, I asked my finale question, “If you could change just one thing in your life, what would it be?” Without missing a beat, Helen looked me dead in the eyes and outstretched her hands to mine, “My life.”


  Jewish Autonomous Region
  Crossing the Amur River (Jim)
  Amur River to Birobidzhan in the Jewish Autonomous Region (Jim)
  Japanese cars are fewer. (Paige)
  Wells (Jim)
  Sex holidays (Jim)