T HE R USSIAN VILLAGE of Sagra is where I nearly lost my wife.
When we stopped there on our Trans-Siberian trip in 2011, a man named Andrei
Gorodilov took a liking to her. (Okay, that's at least the way I saw it at first). I had to stomach
this, because Andrei, thirty-nine, and his family were people I was eager to get to know.
If anyplace in Russia seems to be experimenting with democracy, it is this tiny village
in the Ural Mountains. I had read the colorful story of how villagers in Sagra, including
Andrei's family, took up hunting rifles and pitchforks on a summer night in July 2011 and
defended the community against an approaching criminal gang. As the story goes, the gang
had been in skirmishes with residents of the poor village in the past, and on this night was
approaching in cars just before midnight to terrorize the place. Residents clashed with the
gang, and one of the intruders was killed. A New York Times story a month after the at-
tack said villagers tried to alert authorities but got nowhere. “For nearly five minutes, by her
count, a resident named Tatyana Gordeyeva tried to persuade a police dispatcher on the tele-
phone to connect her to a station. When help finally came, she said, the battle had been over
for two hours.” At first local officials interrogated residents of Sagra and, according to vil-
lagers, charged some with hooliganism. That included Andrei's father, Viktor. In response,
villagers did the unthinkable: They took to the Internet to fight the local authorities. They
found a lawyer to fight for their rights against a local government that seemed to have de-
cided the case before it began.
And they won.
Arriving in Sagra that first time, I immediately noticed (perceived, at least) Andrei's fas-
cination with Rose. Perhaps this threw me off my game—or maybe Andrei used Russian
voodoo to put a curse on me—because for whatever reason, I couldn't walk a block on
Sagra's snowy streets without falling flat on my face. One fall was especially trouble-
some—I was carrying two bottles of vodka, gifts for a family we were to interview, and I
slipped, saving myself but shattering the vodka bottles.
Unofficial Russian law says one never sacrifices vodka to save himself.
This event earned me the nickname Lokh (dope) among Andrei and his friends. But Rose,
as she so often does, came to the rescue. After my brutal fall, she could tell I was humiliated
and swung into action. Andrei and Viktor had brought us to a neighbor's house in Sagra for