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Dinner in the Wild East

Dalnerečensk, Russia, 2005

Eating was a strange, interrupted business as we had to lunge at our plates during the brief moments when the screen on a tiny television, powered by a car battery and the only source of illumination, flickered at its brightest. Everything we ate had been grown, picked, shot or skinned in the fields and forests around Yuri Konstin’s log cabin, and none of this had been specially laid on for our benefit: we had arrived without warning, late one October afternoon, in an ancient van driven by a moonlighting soldier from Vladivostok.

“The other day, a Chinese customs official told me they caught 18 people illegally felling poplar trees,” explained Konstin between mouthfuls of wild boar, stewed with waxy potatoes and pickled mushrooms. “They executed 10 of them, and sent the others to prison. We should do the same thing here.” He knew that would never happen: many thousands of people are breaking the logging laws in the Russian Far East, the political elite being among the worst offenders.

 log cabin dinnerWhen we had pulled up in front of the cabin, an hour or so earlier, Konstin had suggested we take a rapid walk while it was still light enough to see. As we made our way along a muddy track he railed against the chief of the administration in nearby Dalnerečensk. “He controls all the crime round here, and one of the biggest crimes is illegal logging.”

I turned to my guide, Anatoly Lebedev, the director of an organization which campaigns against illegal logging, and told him that the landscape here, with the birch and the bogs, and the leaves of the birch fluttering down to the damp earth like golden confetti, reminded me of the Scottish Highlands. Lebedev translated for Konstin, who nodded pensively, the grey stubble on his fleshy cheeks glinting in the dying rays of the sun. He wasn’t much taller than me, but he had the physique of a nightclub bouncer – broad shoulders, thick neck – and he held his arms loosely, away from his sides, as though ready to do battle.

If I’d come here 10 years ago, he said, I would have seen ash and linden trees over a metre in diameter and huge Korean pines. These had all gone. So great was the loss of forests that Konstin’s jealously guarded piece of land, a mere 15 hectares in size, had become a refuge for rare wildlife. The previous year he had come across the tracks of a Siberian tiger, an animal whose range used to extend from here many time zones east to the Caspian Sea. Much coveted by the Chinese for its medical properties, the tiger was now close to extinction. “And this summer,” continued Konstin, “wild boar and bear were forced to raid my fields in search of food, as deforestation has so reduced the harvest of nuts and fruit.”

All the same, there must have been a few mature Korean pine in the forests, as the acrid liquor we drank at dinner was made from their nuts – it tasted like a particularly vile retsina – and indeed the forests still provided an extraordinary array of wild products. On the way north from Vladivostok, we’d stopped at a small roadside shack where a gaunt man, neck muffled with a huge scarf, purple nose dripping with cold, was selling cranberries, cowberries, bilberries and a dozen other wild fruits, all manner of medicinal herbs and roots, jars of oil with lumps of bear and badger fat, and a pickled snake.

While we were there, a group of schoolchildren descended from a bus, presumably to stretch their legs. Some came to inspect the stall – or more probably, to inspect us, as Lebedev and I were speaking in English. There was much giggling, then one of the girls, she must have been 8 or 9 years old, was pushed forward by her companions. She cleared her throat and asked, in impeccable English, “Do you have an elephant?”

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We were about halfway through the meal when I realised we weren’t alone. Someone was coughing on the far side of the cabin. A match flared, just long enough to make out the unshaven face of a young man in a heavy fur coat; another grumbled in the darkness. They were Konstin’s workers. The heavy, animal smell of the place didn’t just come from the stewed boar: this is how places smell when men live together in damp, northern climates.

There was much talk about hunting over dinner. “During the Soviet era, hunting was properly organised, and so was the collection of forest products like mushrooms and pine nuts,” reflected Lebedev. “But now, there are no proper sanctions, and the people who should control hunting are often the worst offenders.”

“That’s right,” agreed Konstin. “They’ve destroyed the old system and introduced new rules that nobody understands, and if they do, they don’t abide by them. I’ve even caught hunters on my land.”

“What do you do with them?”

He stiffened. “I chase them off.”

The next day, Lebedev took me to a café on the outskirts of Dalnerečensk to meet Gennady Baikov, a handsome man with a shaven head and roughly tattooed forearms. Over cups of strong black coffee we talked about corruption. Baikov and Lebedev had calculated who gains what at each stage of the illegal timber trail, following a notional cubic metre of hardwood from the forests of the Russian Far East to Suifenhe, a Chinese border town, where it will fetch US$140. Of this, local criminal gangs take US$5 as protection money; custom officials and the militia take US$5 each; forestry officials take US$3 to turn a blind eye and the environmental inspectors get US$5 to do the same. Another US$9 goes on bribes to regional and municipal administrators.

Baikov knew all about the illegal timber trade because he used to be part of it. Having tired of paying bribes, he’d recently decided to go straight and he and his small logging brigade were now working on contract for medium-sized concessionaires. He’d begun his working life as a hunter and trapper and he loved the countryside.

“I always liked to be self-sufficient, as independent as possible, and that’s what attracted me to hunting when I was young, in Soviet times. Yes, I was happy then, alone in the forests.” Among his quarry were elk, moose, sable, bear and badger. “You can’t compare the forests now,” he said, shaking his head. “It would be like comparing an 18 year-old girl with a 70 year-old woman. Ninety per cent of the forests have disappeared, and the rivers are dying.” He thought the people were poorer too. “The poverty is terrible, much worse than it was when I was a child.”

Anatoly Lebedev and Gennady Baikov

Anatoly Lebedev and Gennady Baikov

“Yes, that’s true, but nobody could afford to buy a car in Soviet times,” objected Lebedev. “I don’t want to go back to those days.”

Later that day we juddered into the remote village of Ismailikha with the intention of visiting a sawmill set up by a Chinese company. The place was deserted, apart from a surly Chinese guard who indicated, in sign language, that we weren’t welcome. So we walked around the village. It looked pretty enough at first sight, with a flock of white geese swaggering noisily down a rutted track between log cabins with shingle roofs and mossy gutters: the sort of scene you’d expect in a BBC costume drama. But then we came to what passed for the village centre and you only had to study the goods on sale on the rickety tables beside a couple of beaten-up vans to see how poor the people were: second-hand clothes faded by use and washing; grimy kitchen utensils of great antiquity; bits of machinery for which it was impossible to imagine any use.

Among those surveying the goods was Nikofor Kovera, a pensioner in his mid-sixties. We told him we’d come to see the Chinese sawmill. “They don’t leave any timber for us,” he said gloomily, “not even enough to mend our fences.” This was a dying village, full of the old. There was no work for the young; even the car repair shop had closed down. In Soviet times, in contrast, this had been a busy, prosperous place. “There were 150 cows in the village then, and we had all we needed,” said Mr Kovera. “Milk. Meat. Jobs. And the state purchased everything we produced.” Now there were just two cows left.

As I approached the Chinese border in the company of a dozen elderly Russian women with collapsing bosoms and leathery, weather-tanned skin – they were heading to Suifenhe to work – I gazed out of the bus window at a now familiar scene: a vast, sparsely forested landscape blemished by soulless towns with derelict factories, mean shops and potholed side streets. And I thought of the old tramp-woman in a small park behind the station in Vladivostok – the eastern end of the trans-Siberian railway – defecating on the scuffed grass, openly for all to see; I thought of the great swathes of municipal housing, most built during the Soviet era and staggering in their ugliness; and I thought of the blonde waitresses wearing little black numbers and expressions of deep boredom, and the filthy sheets in a state-run hotel in a small timber town, the techno music in the bar so loud that we couldn’t sleep till far into the night.

Then there was the drink. I didn’t see much public drunkenness, but you couldn’t miss the booze-battered faces on the street. I recall, in particular, the evening we spent in a miserable town on our way back to Vladivostok. It was still light when we went in search of food and the only place we could find was a Chinese takeaway. The woman behind the counter was so rude that Lebedev stormed out before our order arrived. We decided to buy some alcohol, rather than return to our rooms, and we drank it outside the hotel. Our moonlighting soldier captured the moment on camera. Lebedev is holding half a bottle of brandy; one of his colleagues, a long-haired student, is drinking from a large bottle of beer; I’m about to do the same. At the time, this struck me as perfectly natural. What else is there to do in small-town Russia when it’s 15 degrees below freezing and you’re whiling away your time in the snow, waiting for the bars to open?

Yet the greater the distance I put between myself and the country, the more I began to reflect on the good things, the noble things, I had seen and heard. I vividly remember driving through a gently undulating landscape early one morning, after a heavy snowfall, the road ahead of us a white, glistening ribbon, the fir trees on either side fluffy with snow. All of a sudden we came out of the trees on to the banks of a broad river, slow-moving and icy blue. We stopped the van on the bridge, turned off the engine and stood together, spellbound by the splendour of a world which looked much as it must have looked when the tigers were sabre-toothed and mammoths tramped through the virgin forests.

And I think of Anatoly Lebedev, in whose company I spent most of my time. I am surprised, when I look at my photos, by the warmth of his expression: that wasn’t something that struck me at the time. He was both solicitous and tetchy, and I would have been the same – tetchy, I mean – had I been suffering from his health problems. A dishevelled yet handsome figure, he had a dry, rasping cough and problems with his digestion. He’d clearly had his battles with alcohol too. When I arrived, I presented him with a bottle of Glenfiddich, having heard of his liking for spirits. “Oh no!” he said. “I haven’t had a drink for six weeks. I’ve given up.” I’d like to think it was the places we stayed, and the chilling bleakness of the northern towns, rather than my company that tipped him off the wagon after a couple of days. “My doctor said I could drink brandy, for medicinal reasons, every now and again,” he said by way of explanation.

I’d been hoping, naively and romantically, that we would have conversations about Tolstoy and Pasternak, Dostoevsky and Pushkin, and perhaps the Samizdat poets I’d read in my youth. When I mentioned one or other to him, he simply shook his head. “Nobody reads them now,” he said, adding that he himself was a fan of magic realism and had written a couple of novels in the genre.

“If I was in better health and younger, I’d emigrate,” he said forlornly one day. “But it’s too late now.”

He had endured decades of communism; now, he was destined to live out what little was left of his life in a world blighted by its legacy. The fact that he was trying to do something about the environmental devastation of the Russian Far East struck me as heroic. And his organisation, the Bureau for Regional Outreach Campaigns, really has had an impact. From a small office in Vladivostok, Lebedev and his meagrely funded colleagues have done much to lay bare the scale and nature of illegal logging, and this has helped to shape the international debate about the measures needed to tackle it.

Russian timber heading south towards China

Russian timber heading south towards China

Lebedev’s office, incidentally, reminded me of how the offices of environmental groups used to look in London in the 1970s and early 1980s, when they were strapped for cash and billeted in rambling quarters in Soho and Islington; before they became well-funded operations aping the manners and mores of the business world so many of them despise. There were typewriters and primitive computers. Metal shelves weighed down with files of reports and newspaper cuttings. Ashtrays overflowing with cigarette stubs. Posters denouncing this or praising that. But Lebedev’s office differed in one notable respect: tacked on to one wall was a large calendar of full-breasted nudes on horseback. Not the sort of thing you’d ever have got away with at Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth.

I met many other admirable individuals who were campaigning against illegal logging, the most memorable being Yuri Konstin. After we’d scraped the last glutinous mouthfuls of wild boar off our chipped plates, he explained that he was thinking of standing at the next local elections. He intended to fight on an anti-corruption ticket. He’d probably never heard of Edmund Burke and his famous aphorism about evil happening when good men do nothing, but he, like Lebedev, behaved as though he knew this to be true.