This has set Igor back. What he says he does need his government to spend time on is help-
ing Russian-owned businesses like his succeed by keeping out competition from Chinese
“But that they won't do,” he tells us.
Igor has brown hair, slightly graying, and a rotund figure. He is eating solyanka —Rus-
sian soup made with beef—a crab salad with mayonnaise, and some vodka. He treats us to
some of the vodka, and we raise our shot glasses: “To a new friendship,” he says. Clink.
Igor is wearing a long-sleeved shirt that catches my attention. Written in black letters,
in vertical top-to-bottom rows, in English, it says: “The past is now part of my future. The
present is well out of hand.”
We all smile.
The shirt was a gift from his twenty-two-year-old daughter, who liked the message,
though she had to translate it for her dad when she gave it to him.
“What does the message mean?” I ask.
He takes a long pause. “It means, there is my grandfather, my father, and me. And my
He stops there, a man of few words. The shirt seems to remind him that different gen-
erations of his family have lived through different times. Whatever past generations have
seen and learned will shape his daughter's life. As for him, there is little work that can be
“Why is the present out of hand?”
“The present—it's me.”
“And you have no control?”
“It is possible to control oneself. But nowadays it is difficult to control the overall situ-
ation because it has been constantly changing.”
Intimidated by the change all around, clinging to any small sense of control that can be
found. This is not the first we've heard of this.
Our next stop is Birobidzhan, a Far East city not far from the Pacific coast. Sergei and I
planned an eight-hour stop there before getting on our final train.
Birobidzhan is the capital of Russia's “Jewish Autonomous Region”—yes, it's still
called that. It was one of Stalin's other geographic creations in the 1920s, a place to both
relocate Russia's Jewish population and, he hoped, draw Jewish communities from outside
the country. Hoping to attract the masses, the government had a gorgeous train station con-
structed—the work of forced laborers. The masses never came, but the Jewish population
became modest for a time. Yet the place was an embodiment of Stalin's cruel whims. As
the BBC described, “The first Jewish settlers arrived in 1928—20 years before Israel was
created. They had come to the virgin lands of the Far East to build a new city, and set up a