“Who are you?!”

By Tom Swithenbank

“A kto vi?!”. The Lada had screeched to a halt in Ananevo’s one of two streets and a square-jawed cropped-haired blonde male had jumped out and was now gesticulating at Robert and me as we stood, a little lost, a little bewildered, in the small Kirghiz settlement. We had arrived an hour earlier, staggering off the bus from Bishkek and looking forward to the promised resort on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul that Ilya in Moscow had described in such glowing terms. 

Promised resort no longer, it transpired. The rotten beams and the caving roofs of the wooden izbas by the lake shore suggested Ilya had not been here for a very long time, if ever. Dusk was setting, we were six hours from the capital, we were not really supposed to be here; we had no visas – a concept no one had worried about too much as the Soviet Union disintegrated – and there we stood scratching our heads, wondering what next as the man strode ever more forcefully towards us. “Kto vi?!” he repeated, a little louder now, as if we might not have heard the first time. 

I looked at Robbie, I looked up and down the street and the lack of any definable escape route. Play straight, dissimulate? The lack of any entry stamp in my passport, either for here or Kazakhstan, still played on my mind. I took a deep breath. Play straight. ”Hi, I am Tom, this is Robbie, we were looking for the resort…” I ventured in faltering Russian. “Are you Latvian?!’ he barked back. “Your accent is Latvian!”. Another glance at Robbie, another deep breath. “No, I am an Englishman, he is German.”

I could see a veil of confusion descend upon the man’s face. Something clearly did not make sense. “I don’t believe you.” His stance had softened. His shoulders had dropped. The bulldog in him receded. The sun had now set behind the mountains behind the village, the high peaks shadowed against the purpling sky. Emboldened, I pulled out my passport and nodded to Rob that he should do the same. Holding firmly onto both I opened them to the photo pages. I pointed to “United Kingdom” and “Bundesrepublik Deutschland”. “Videte? You see?”. A moment of silence and a smile broke across his face. “We have never had foreigners here”, he murmured. The significance of the statement for my recently liberated Latvian friends flitted through my mind. I put the passports back in my pocket. 

“Come with me!” he ordered. “Where do you want us to go?” Visions of police stations, lengthy discussions with officials, explanations of how two young students with a yen for adventure and an interest in the Great Game had decided one drunken evening to jump the very next morning on a train from St Petersburg to Almaty. “Domoi!” Home. “You must be hungry. You must meet my wife!” 

Volodya led us the twenty yards from our point of hesitation through the gap in the painted picket fence, up the garden path to his wooden house. As we perched somewhat awkwardly on the divan, the obligatory carpet on the wall behind us, a bottle of samagon appeared as his wife peered warily at us from the kitchen. The night was making itself known through the window panes, a nervousness of where we would eventually sleep equally present. 

We had been in Russia long enough to know the ritual. “Za vstrechu!”. I raised my glass and sank the undefinable liquid. My eyes watered, my throat burned. Rob spluttered.  The glass refilled, “To family!”. As the clear contents of the bottle steadily receded, moonshine evaporating from our tongues as we worked through the roll call of toasts, we sank deeper into the divan, the warmth of the room and the long journey behind us adding to heavy eyes. A polite enquiry about a hotel provoked hilarity and we were ushered into the front room where two beds had been freshly made. “Hotel!” Volodya laughed, but one more for the road… 

The night was long, friendships were sealed. Three weeks and a host of adventures later, with misty eyes and repeated bear hugs, we finally bid our goodbyes to Volodya and his family, our guilt at his refusal to accept any payment somewhat assuaged by the two hundred dollars tucked under the pillows. We corresponded for a while. The last we heard, Volodya was no longer a district nurse but, buoyed by an unexpected friendship and a small injection of capital, had become the village biznesmen. I would love to see him now. Kindness does indeed pay.