Vladivostok - The Lighthouse Keepers
On Sept. 5, 1995, Gary Matoso and I walked down a bumpy dirt road to the very southern tip of Vladivostok's Egershelde Peninsula. There, we met Vasily and Valentina Ilchenko, the couple that took care of the small white lighthouse that had stood for 85 years.
Our visit unsettled Valentina, who didn't like the idea of a couple of foreign journalists poking around. She reported our visit to her superiors -- as lighthouse caretakers, the Ilchenkos were employees of the Ministry of Defense -- and then refused to talk with us. But Vasily happily showed us around and invited us to stay for lunch. Two days later, when we returned hoping to do a story about them, Valentina had finally relaxed a bit, and we were able to talk with them both.
At that time, a joint venture company was starting to construct a new landing for its ships nearby. The Ilchenkos had heard rumors that a new commercial port would be built and they worried that their little state-supported lighthouse might become a relic of the past. "If they want to build this port," Valentina had vowed, "they will have to make room for us... they will not drive us away."
On Sept. 3, 2005 -- almost exactly ten years later -- David Hillegas and I walked down that same rutted dirt road. We could see the lighthouse in the distance, and the cottages on the shore where the Ilchenkos had lived. Before, there had been nothing but that bare strip of land stretching out to the lighthouse, which felt like it was perched at the very edge of the earth. Now, I could see a few dozen cars, a ferry boat, and sunbathers lying out along the banks. There was even a café on the shore nearby, with giant umbrellas and deck chairs facing the water.
As we approached the cottages, I saw Vasily in the garden. "Vasily Ivanovich!" I yelled, and he looked up. He motioned for us to walk to the door of the metal wall that now surrounded the cottages (in '95, there was a smaller wooden fence). He pulled open the door, and I said, "Hello! It's Lisa Dickey, the American journalist who came here 10 years ago! Do you remember me?" He thought for a minute, then smiled. "Ah, I remember you," he said. "Was it really ten years ago?"
He invited us in, calling out, "Valentina, we have company!" On a small patio at the rear of their cottage, Valentina was doing laundry, stomping on sheets barefoot in a giant tub of soapy water as though stomping grapes for wine. When she saw me, her eyes lit up. "Liza!" she said immediately, using the Russianized version of my name. "Is it really you?" We hugged like old friends. She said, "Wait a minute, let me clean myself up," and disappeared into the house.
Now 61, Vasily had the tanned, weathered face of a man who'd lived his life by the sea. He'd grown a mustache, and incredibly enough was even leaner than in 1995, when he was already scarecrow-thin. Valentina had aged well, her rosy cheeks filled out and her hands and arms still strong. We spent the day with them, reminiscing about my brief visit 10 years ago, and talking about what had -- and hadn't -- changed at the lighthouse since.
"For us, everything's the same as it was," Valentina said, before adding, "Oh, wait. Back then we had one grandchild. Now we have four." She thought for a moment, then went on. "Some other things are different, too. Before, when you came, I was afraid for some reason. I felt like I had to call my boss to report that you were here. But now it's more free. You can come and go as you like, take whatever photographs you like." I asked her what had changed. She chuckled and said, "Democracy." Although she said it in a joking way, it seemed clear that whatever remnants of Soviet-era secrecy she'd felt constrained by in 1995 were now completely gone.
These weren't the only changes. I asked the Ilchenkos about the flocks of sunbathers lining the narrow strip of land between their cottages and the lighthouse. "They come here because now you have to pay to go to most beaches in Vladivostok. They used to all be free, but not anymore. Here, it's free. Even that small beach just there" -- she pointed at the nearby stretch of sand where the café sat -- "is platniy [for pay]. It costs fifty rubles. So people come down to our little bit of land instead."
We sat down to a table laden with beef stew, mayonnaise-drenched salads and boiled potatoes smothered in butter and fresh dill. Vasily opened a bottle of vodka with a picture of a lighthouse on the label, and poured four shot glasses full. We toasted to friendship, then heaped food onto our plates. Vasily couldn't resist poking fun at us for not draining our glasses to the bottom. "Oh, you Americans are so weak," he said dryly, before Valentina shushed him with, "Vasily! They won't understand that you're joking."
I asked them about their fear in 1995 that a new commercial port might drive them from their home. "For two or three years," Valentina said, "they hauled dirt down here, like they were really going to do something. But after a while, they stopped. I suppose they ran out of money, I don't know." When I said this must have been a big relief for her, she replied, "Of course. Our life out here is good, it's peaceful."
We stayed for a couple of hours, talking and taking pictures, and I told Valentina we'd like to come back one more time before leaving Vladivostok. I'd brought them some printed photos from the first trip as a gift, but I'd forgotten to bring their second gift, a picture book of Washington, D.C. "Just call me on my cell phone tomorrow, and we'll figure out when you should come," said Valentina -- another big change from 10 years ago, when the Ilchenkos had no phone.
On Monday, David and I went out to the lighthouse one last time. I gave Valentina and Vasily the book, and as we chatted, I commented again how nice it was that they could stay in their home and care for the lighthouse as long as they wanted. "Well," she said, "we've heard rumors that they're planning to build a bridge from Russian Island to Egershelde Peninsula. They have three options for where it would go, and one of them is right over our piece of land. If they build it there, we will have to move -- but they'll give us an apartment in town."
Not again! Just when I'd thought this Road Story had a happy ending, it seemed the lighthouse was under a new threat. Yet Valentina seemed more philosophical about the possibility of leaving than she had before. "We don't have any running water out here; it's not that convenient as we get older. Of course I want to stay until we're ready to leave, but if at some point we move to the city, that might not be so bad." When I asked if Vasily felt the same way, she said, "No. He was born here, and he wants to die here."
When it was time to leave, Valentina gave us jars of preserves and honey to take with us. I hugged Vasily goodbye, and he shuffled off toward the shed to work. Then, as Valentina and her four-year-old granddaughter Diana walked us partway up the dirt road, I found myself becoming a bit teary-eyed. I barely knew her, but she and Vasily had welcomed us warmly, and it felt like we were old friends.
As I watched her lead her granddaughter back down toward the cottage, I turned abruptly to walk with David back up the dirt road toward the bus stop a half-kilometer or so away. And that's when Alexei drove by in a car, beeping his horn and waving. What were the chances we'd see him yet again? If we hadn't left the cottage at precisely that moment, we wouldn't have. David and I just looked at each other and laughed. Now we're half-expecting to run into him in Khabarovsk tomorrow.
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