Russia, for all its drama and unpredictability, is full of humor—yes, humor. It was 1998, the time of, what’s her name? Monica Lewinsky. It was winter and I was drinking a Dr. Pepper and eating almonds in the departure lounge of Sheremetyevo I, waiting for Transaero Flight 141 to St. Petersburg when our group was approached by a short man in the uniform of a captain of the MVD, the police arm of the Ministry of Interior (like the KGB). He had short cut gray hair and an Asian face.
“I heard you speaking English, who is the American here?” he said. My friends were quiet. I pointed to me. He grabbed my arm and faced me straight on, enveloping me in an alcoholic mist, and said, “I have something important to tell you. You take this message to Bill Clinton. You tell him the people of Yakutia are behind him 100%.” He held my arm tighter, “If we had such a man in the Kremlin, we would know that he was healthy and able to govern.” (This was the time of Yeltsin.)
His two friends tried to pull him away as his plane was leaving for his far-away home, but he shoved them away. “You are welcome in Yakutia.” He scribbled his name, Vladimir, and phone number on a scrap of paper. His friends dragged him away.
He struggled back and said, “You bring no money, just come to Yakutia where the cleanest river in Russia runs. Seven hundred kilometers and you can see to the bottom all the way. Come in July when the ice has melted.” Three big friends hauled him away again.
He struggled free and bounded back up the stairs and grabbed me, “No, bring a dollar fifty.”
“What for?” I asked,
“For the rowboat,” he said. He again scribbled his name and address on the backside of the same scrap of paper.
I said, “I know that river flows north, and I am afraid I will not be able to row south fast enough before it freezes again. But, thanks.” Four guys pushed him down the stairs for the plane to Yakutsk, where it must have been minus sixty degrees that time of the year and where they only have diamonds and bears. I failed to pass this on to Bill Clinton, but no doubt he would have been comforted to hear this message.