Birobidzhan, Russia

  • Date
  • 11 July 1999
  • Lodging
  • Hotel Vostok
  • Distance
  • 186 KM
  • Total
  • 27149 KM

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.”