The wild wild East


read the italian version

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, 200,000 former KGB agents found themselves without a job. Among the newly unemployed were the enforcers, the muscle. Almost all possessed a strong work ethic. They would not accept the boredom of mundane jobs or unemployment. A good number of them found a new beginning in the organized crime syndicates, the Russian mafia. By 1998 the Russian mafia was firmly established throughout all of Mother Russia, in businesses both lawful and unlawful. This included the city of Khabarovsk, located in the far east of Russia, at the confluence of the Amur and Ussuri Rivers. Originally the home of the Tungusic peoples, the Khabarovsk region was first visited by outsiders in the 13th century,  when armies of the Mongol led Yuan Dynasty arrived, and again in the 15th century, courtesy of a Chinese fleet admiraled by the Ming Empire eunuch Yishaha. The Cossacks arrived in 1651, but China returned in 1689. The Tungusic peoples became a side note to the ongoing China-Russia dispute. They were non factors when China finally ceded the Khabarovsk region to Russia in 1858.

The Russian military, in the form of the Headquarters of the Eastern Military District, is also established in the city of Khabarovsk. A logical location, as Khabarovsk, the second largest city in the Russian Far East, is situated only 19 miles from the Chinese border. In 1998 a form of detente existed between the military and the mafia in Khabarovsk. No question that the military was far more powerful, but the mafia was entrenched in the system. They were essential to a smooth, albeit corrupt, functioning economy. Both the military and the mafia benefitted from the fact that there were no sports such as rugby or American football in the region. Consequently, many of the young men who would be playing college or professional footbal in the Usa instead became soldiers in the military and enforcers and bodyguards in the mafia. Many seemed to be lacking in necks, their broad, crewcut heads seeming to grow directly from their powerfully muscled shoulders.

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(When cold is cold     photo by Chris Middlebrook)

General Andrushenko was the commander of the Far Eastern Military District. He was also a major enthusiast and supporter of bandy. It was his brainchild to host a bandy tournament in Khabarovsk to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Russian bandy. The Asian Pacific Cup. He looked east to Canada and the United States. Even though bandy in both countries existed only in the heartlands of Manitoba and Minnesota, the countries themselves bordered on the Pacific Ocean. Together with four teams from the Khabarovsk Region, the US and Canada would complete the lineup of the Asian Pacific Cup. In December 1997, General Andrushenko and two of his associates arrived in Minnesota to personally deliver the airline tickets to the US team. The three were heartily welcomed by USA Bandy and shown a very good time. Cathy and I hosted them at a sumptuous dinner at Anthony's Wharf, a restaurant run by bandy player Paul Lundeen, located on the banks of the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis.

The US team arrived in Khabarovsk in February 1998. We flew west from Minneapolis, first to Seattle and then to Anchorage, before boarding the Aeroflot flight to Khabarovsk. It was cold when we arrived, very cold. No surprise. Khabarovsk is promoted as being the coldest city of more than 500,000 in the world. But the hospitality of General Andrushenko was both warm and expansive. Magnus Skold wanted to ride in a tank, go to the Chinese border and shoot a Kalashnikov. The General made it so. On the way back to Khabarovsk, a stop at the General's dacha for a celebration of food and drink. Several hours later Magnus and his interpreter were being driven back to the hotel. They were pulled over by the police. The driver was over the legal limit and was arrested. Magnus and the interpreter waited while the General sent another driver. The interpreter commented that they would not see that driver again; he would be going to jail. The next morning Magnus was picked up at the hotel by the driver who had been arrested the night before. The General had made a phone call.

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(Women in  Khabarovsk     photo by Chris Middlebrook)

The General asked Chris Halden and I if we would like to go to a military shooting range to shoot the legendary Makarov semi automatic pistol. Yes, of course. What fun. Accompanying us was an army sergeant who clearly had drawn the short straw. He would not have looked out of place in a Minnesota Vikings football uniform. Some basic instructions and then shooting time. I endeared myself to the Sergeant by looking around while holding the pistol, asking where the terrorists were. I then aimed the pistol at the target and the good humor of our fellowship was blown away together with the tip of my right thumb. The Makarov operates on a blowback principle. It obtains energy from the cartridge case as it is pushed to the rear by the expanding gas created by the ignition of the propellant charge. In laymen's terms, there is a wicked recoil. Neither I nor my right thumb had been aware of this before I pulled the trigger. Blood poured from the tip of my thumb. The Sergeant looked at me as if I had just popped a live scorpion in my mouth. He fetched a first aid box and began to address my wound. All soldier, professional and serious. Until he made the mistake of looking at my face.

"That was great fun - can i do it again"? I asked him.

The floodgates of common humanity opened up. I laughed at myself. He laughed at me. We both laughed in unison at the stupid American and the missing portion of my thumb. It was a beautiful shared moment.

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(At the Chinese border        photo by Chris Middlebrook)

The General was a man who believed in repaying favors. Cathy and I had taken him to dinner in Minneapolis. He returned the favor with a room reserved at one of the finest restaurants in Khabarovsk. Cathy was back in Minneapolis so Chris Halden came to dinner in her place. The General and his 20 year old daughter joined us at the banquet table, piled from end to end with meats, fish, cheeses, vegetables, pastries, food enough for 30 people. Bottles of vodka, cognac, champagne and beer - more than we could have drunk in a week and remained alive. A brand new-top of the line karaoke machine. The General loved karaoke, and yes, we were going to sing. As one of my solos I chose "Take On Me" by A-ha. Not an easy one, but I had not been President of the student choir because I lacked confidence. Neither the General nor his daughter seemed concerned that I had difficulty hitting the highest notes.

Earlier in the week Chris Halden met a lovely young Russian woman. Her name was Olga. She and two friends had been hanging out at the bandy rink, hoping to meet the Americans. Chris and Paul Eddlestein took them to lunch. Their english was rudimentary, communication was achieved through hand gestures and enthusiasm. The lunch over, thank yous and good byes. But Chris and Olga were destined to meet again.

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(General  Andrushenko - center - with Chris Middlebrook - left - and Chris Halden - right           photo by Chris Middelbrook)

The nightclubs in Khabarovsk were run by the mafia. Behind the scenes an understanding was reached between the General and the mafia. No physical harm must come to the Americans. No-one told us that there were concerns about our safety. We were simply informed of the nightclub we were allowed to visit. The General, a believer in precautions, arranged for a number of his soldiers, dressed in civilian clothes, to be strategically placed throughout the nightclub. We did not notice them as we enjoyed a nice evening, drinking Baltica beer, soaking up the ambience and scenery. And what a wonderful surprise for Chris Halden: Olga was also at the club, looking very pretty indeed. They danced. They sat together at the bar. Olga did not, however, tell Chris that she had a secret. She had a boyfriend. He was in the mafia. Chris found out soon enough. In fact, Chris and Olga had been under observation by some very large gangster guys, colleagues of Olga's boyfriend. Chris sat at the bar with Olga, his beer in front of him. One of the big fellas picked up Chris' beer and set it down on the bar, three feet away. Chris was uncertain. A joke? Was the guy trying to be funny? Chris reached over, grabbed his beer, and set it down on the bar in front of him. Once again the big fella took Chris' beer and set it back down three feet away. This time, however, he spoke.

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(Jogging in  Khabarovsk            photo by Chris Middlebrook)

"Time to go" he said in English.

"Go?" Chris responded. "What do you mean, go?"

"Time for you to leave"

"The bar?"

"No. Time for you to leave the country"

Three additional, large, mafia gangster boys joined in. They began to dance around Chris, shadow boxing what they intended to do him. The team interpreter, who had come with us to the nightclub, approached Chris and the troika of boxers.

"Can you help me out here?" Chris asked. "These guys want me to leave the country. What should I do?"

The interpreter sized up the gangster boys surrounding Chris. "If I were you I'd leave the country".

Fortunately the cavalry arrived in the form of four of the General's soldiers. An intense discussion, brimming with Russian testosterone. An agreement was reached. Chris would need to leave the bar but he could stay in the country. He must not, however, interact with Olga again. Olga was by this time gone and so did not witness this historic accord. She had already exited the nightclub, moving with the swiftness of high speed internet that had not even been invented yet.

(translated into italian by Vittorio Ragone) 

*CHRIS MIDDLEBROOK (He is a lawyer, was a professional bandy player and is also the author of a collection of 118 short stories - "The Bandy Chronicles-My Pursuit of a Forgotten Sport." As a US National Bandy Team player, coach and the current President of The American Bandy Association he has traveled extensively in the Nordic Countries, The Soviet Union and Russia as well as Central Asia and China. He currently resides in his hometown of Minneapolis together with his wife of 36 years, Cathy)

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