Birobidzhan - The Search for a Room

Ten years ago, when Gary and I were in Birobidzhan, we ran into some trouble with the law. The police came poking around one day while we were out, asking our hosts, Maya and Sasha, about the American journalists they heard were there. Maya and Sasha were understandably freaked out -- we hadn't officially registered our visas to stay in the apartment -- and Gary and I had to flee like a couple of desperados.

We raced to the only place we could think of -- the apartment of an American missionary family we met a couple of days earlier -- and told them we needed a place for the night, leaving out the part about the police being hot on our trail. Not our finest moment, clearly.

I somehow lost Maya and Sasha's telephone number after that first trip, and even if I could track them down, they might not be too happy to see me anyway. So this time around, we decided to play it safe and rent a hotel room. But on Friday, when we called from Khabarovsk, we discovered that there were no rooms at the Vostok Hotel and none at the smaller Nadezhda hotel either. Oops! We were supposed to leave for Birobidzhan on Saturday and now we had no place to stay.



The apartment block in Birobidzhan where Lisa and David are staying is comprised of several Soviet-era buildings near the city center.(David Hillegas)

Yulia leapt into action, haranguing the woman who'd been unfortunate enough to answer the phone at the Nadezhda hotel for a good ten minutes. Wasn't there any place the Americans could stay? Another hotel? A private apartment somewhere? "These journalists are flying in from New York to do a story on Birobidzhan!" she insisted. "There must be some place they can stay!"

That did it. A woman who worked at the hotel said she had a one-room apartment near the center of town that was available. If we told her what time we were arriving in Birobidzhan, she'd meet us at the train station and take us there. What a relief! True, it felt a bit strange agreeing to stay in the apartment of a random stranger, but what were our other options?

We arrived on Saturday night, and Raisa Borisovna met us as promised. She walked us to an austere apartment block near the station, and as we lugged our bags up the dank staircase, I felt for the first time on this trip like I was right back in 1995. Our apartment is spartan but clean, with the kind of white lace curtains and blocky, Soviet-style furniture that once decorated most homes across Russia. But in the biggest throwback to those olden days, it has no phone.



The apartment is clean and austere, with all the modern conveniences -- except a phone.(David Hillegas)

It took us half of Sunday to find Birobidzhan's only Internet "café": a small, stuffy room lined with computer screens and packed with boys playing online video games. We'll send our updates from there, or via the satellite equipment we've brought. Our goal now is to find out how the Jewish community is faring in Birobidzhan, the capital of Russia's Jewish Autonomous Region.

By Lisa Dickey |  September 11, 2005; 4:53 AM ET
Previous: Khabarovsk - A Spotless City | Next: Birobidzhan - Back to the Synagogue

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Your pictures are fantastic!

I love the monolithic building of Birobidzhan as much as the picturesque streets of Khabarovsk.
Glad you found a place to shack up.

Posted by: Andrea E | September 12, 2005 11:50 AM

One phenomenon that would be interesting to know more about--particularly if it exists Birobaidzhan--are the Jewish repatriates. Many Soviet Jews emigrated to Israel, the US, Germany or elsewhere, and have returned. Some of the middle-aged and elderly returned to be with their friends. Some of the talented young came back, bilingual and bicultural, to make their careers and fortunes. Some didn't feel the pull of old ties and new opportunities so much as the push of their new country, which ended up being more foreign than they expected. Enjoy the sense of nostalgia in the Soviet-style apartment, and good luck with the Internet cafe!

Posted by: Mark | September 12, 2005 01:15 PM

I once was a student in the USSR, and had a good friend from Birobaidzhan. Your story sparked a lot of good memories from the mid to late eighties. Her name was Jana, and we both studied at Ivanovo State University in the math departement. She graduated in 1988, I actually traveled with her to the train station in Moscow, as she was travelling back home to Birobaidzhan for good.
Enjoy your stay and thanks for the quick journey back my youth.
It would actually be very interesting to read about the social life, job opportunities, and schools in Birobaidzhan. But most importantly why some of those people did not leave in the late eighties and early nineties?

Posted by: Emmanuel S | September 12, 2005 02:43 PM

I once was a student in the USSR, and had a good friend from Birobaidzhan. Your story sparked a lot of good memories from the mid to late eighties. Her name was Jana, and we both studied at Ivanovo State University in the math departement. She graduated in 1988, I actually traveled with her to the train station in Moscow, as she was travelling back home to Birobaidzhan for good.
Enjoy your stay and thanks for the quick journey back my youth.
It would actually be very interesting to read about the social life, job opportunities, and schools in Birobaidzhan. But most importantly why some of those people did not leave in the late eighties and early nineties?

Posted by: Emmanuel S. | September 12, 2005 02:44 PM

We'll be doing more reporting from Birobidzhan, and will try to answer some of these questions. Look for our Road Story later this week, probably on Friday!

Posted by: Lisa Dickey | September 13, 2005 05:57 AM

Your photo of the train compartment is just as I remember during the trips between Moscow and Yoshkar-Ola, where my wife is from. It always took about 16 hours one-way to get there and back. If you are able to visit Yoshkar-Ola, please visit my mother-in-law. It is about an hour by train north of Kazan. We live in Maryland and it has been three years since I have seen her. My wife did visit this past summer. Enjoy your travels,
John

Posted by: John Johnson | September 26, 2005 07:13 AM

Please consider visiting Nizhny Novgorod, about an 8 hour train ride east of Moscow. It used to be the closed city of Gorky. It was a big trading center during czarist times, then closed, then showed a lot of entrepreneurial spirit once it was reopened to trade(it had its own web site as early as 1998). We adopted our daughter from an orphanage near there, and we'd love to hear how the wonderful Nizhny Novgorod couple who helped us are doing. Keep enjoying your travels, Susan

Posted by: Susan DeSanti | September 26, 2005 09:35 AM

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