Irkutsk: Tracking Down Karim's Family

While Gary and I were on the road in 1995, we got an email from someone named Karim Khamzin, with the subject line "Family photo from Irkutsk." Karim was a Russian citizen living in Canada, and as he wrote, "I left Russia almost five years ago and since then I didn't saw my wife and my two boys. I'm wondering if you can take their picture and send over the Internet. I hope they will join me here soon..." He included their phone number in Irkutsk.

We went to see Karim's family, and Gary photographed his wife Irina, his sons Artem and Damir, his father Mukhamed and his sister Gulnara. We recorded his sons speaking to him, and invited the others to write him short notes, which we then translated and posted on the site.

In 1995, Damir Khamzin was a shy six-year-old in Irkutsk; now he towers over his mother Irina and speaks only English.(Photo courtesy of the Khamzin family)

Gary and I were excited about being able to use the Internet and digital camera in a truly interactive way, and we looked forward to hearing Karim's response to the posting. But we never did hear back from him. I often wondered, in the years since, whether the family was ever reunited.

Three months ago, in preparation for this trip, I tried to track down Karim. He'd been living in Toronto, but I had no luck finding a number for him there. I called a few other cities, and in one -- Vancouver -- an operator told me that although she didn't have a number for "Karim Khamzin," she did have one for an "I. Khamzina."

I called the number, and a woman answered the phone. "Is this Irina Khamzina?" I asked.

"Yes it is," she said in only slightly accented English.

"The Irina Khamzina who used to live in Irkutsk?" I asked.

"Yes," she said, "I used to live in Irkutsk."

Wow! I couldn't believe what I was hearing -- not even so much that it was the same Irina, but that her English was so good. I told her who I was, and she said, "Yes, I remember you! We moved to Canada the year after you came to Irkutsk." She and her sons, Artem and Damir, had finally been reunited with Karim, though in the years since then Irina and Karim had divorced.

Artem Khamzin and his mother Irina moved to Canada in 1996, six months after meeting Lisa during the first Russian Chronicles project.(Photo courtesy of the Khamzin family)

I explained to Irina that I was doing the Russian Chronicles trip again, and asked if she could send a photo of herself and the boys. A few weeks later, I got an email in perfect English from Artem, now 23. He wrote:

"A lot has happened in the last ten years, and, in certain ways, my mom and I feel much removed from our years in Irkutsk. For one, English has become the language of choice around our house, partly due to its convenience, partly due to the necessity of communicating effectively with Damir, who does not speak Russian, though he still understands it. I must say that I remember, with some difficulty, not being able to understand you ten years ago. Back then, English sounded like a single, drawn-out sentence, and the people speaking it seemed very alien. Of course, you and your friend were the first Westerners we had ever encountered at that point."

He went on:

"We immigrated to Canada in May 1996, after waiting about two years for all the applications to be processed by the various, affected government agencies on both sides. We came straight to Vancouver, BC and have lived here ever since... Damir took the transition with some difficulty, though, thankfully, he was at an age where such trials are not fully understood, but are simply dealt with.

"He adjusted well, in the end. For one, he was introduced to a new and alien language just as he was embarking upon the discovery of Russian. Then there was the introduction of a new family member (Dad) and a new authority that tradition ascribed him, where before that authority was derived primarily from me. For a long time afterwards (and sometimes still) Damir asked my permission for things for which permission is required, after securing the ok of our parents."

I remembered how, even at 13, Artem considered himself the man of the family in his father's absence. Even in the short time we'd spent with them in Irkutsk, I'd noticed this dynamic between him and Damir. He went on:

"I graduated high school in 2000 (yes, I am 23 ;o) ) and began my studies of history in a local college. Shortly thereafter, I moved out of the house and lived on my own until 2004, when my mom kindly offered to house me while I make arrangements to begin my Real Estate career.

"Damir has finished Grade 10 this year. And is about to return to school in September. He is already taller than I (I stand at a little over 6 feet). Mom reaches only to our shoulders now. I'm not sure what else would be of interest to you, so I shall wrap up the narrative section of this e-mail here, though I'd be happy to answer any questions you may have."

Karim now splits his time between Thailand and Canada, and sees his sons when he can. Artem sent me his father's email address, but though I wrote Karim a couple of times, I didn't hear anything back. I hope he has a chance to see this new, "10-years-later" posting on his family.

As for Artem, I know he's reading, as he's been faithfully posting comments to the site since we launched on Sept. 1st. Greetings from Irkutsk, Irina, Artem and Damir!

Tomorrow: Joining a scientific expedition on Lake Baikal.

By Lisa Dickey |  October 3, 2005; 9:15 AM ET
Previous: Ulan Ude: Familiar Faces from 1995 | Next: Irkutsk: The Research Institute Has Survived


Please email us to report offensive comments.

I think the pictures/descriptions might have been mixed up. I am actually the guy in the sweater, with the hedgehog hair and the epic expression; my brother, Damir, is the guy wearing the "Italia" t-shirt.

It feels so weird to read stuff I had written on here. I feel published ;o)


Posted by: Artem K. Khamzin | October 3, 2005 12:13 PM

I've just applied for a Fulbright to study theatre in Irkutsk. I love this blog! I've been anticipating your arrival in Irkutsk since I first discovered the site. I won't know if I'll be awarded the grant until 2006, but I'm still really curious about Irkutsk. Do you have any words of advice/wisdom?



Posted by: Elisabeth | October 3, 2005 09:32 PM

Hi, Artem - there seems to have been a little internal mixup at the captions are fixed now, and you are hereby properly identified as the man with the hedgehog hair and epic expression!

Posted by: Lisa Dickey | October 4, 2005 03:28 AM

Hi, Elisabeth - We haven't spent much time in Irkutsk, as we raced off right away to Lake Baikal for the expedition. But what I've seen is impressive -- lots of traditional Siberian wooden architecture, a relatively clean downtown, and lots of trees. Of all the places in Siberia that one might spend a year, I think this would be high on my list. Good luck getting your grant -

Posted by: Lisa Dickey | October 4, 2005 03:33 AM


Here are couple of suggestions for people and things you might cover.

Many people have posted about adoptions. Can you visit a facility somewhere?

You mentioned a supermarket. How have the markets changed?

When I was in St Petersburg, there were many small businesses. Are those types still in existence or has bigger business taken over?

You mentioned old cars still being used. If a citizen wanted to buy a new car how would he go about it?


Posted by: Harv | October 4, 2005 11:44 AM

Hi, Harv - Here are a few answers for you:
We are considering doing a story on adoptions, as we've had many, many questions and comments on this. Stay tuned. Supermarkets have changed in that there are many more goods from the West, and more selection generally. Small businesses are still plentiful, with more opening every day, it seems. And I'm not sure how one would buy a new car -- I assume it's much the same as buying a new car in the States, though I don't know how people go about getting credit here. The whole credit industry is just starting to get going here, from what I can tell...

Posted by: Lisa Dickey | October 13, 2005 07:39 AM

I'd like to know if these chronicles will be put into a book? I'd love to read them in book form. THANKS.

Posted by: Karen | October 14, 2005 10:45 AM

This is such a wonderful entry, so moving! Thanks! (I can't wait to read the rest.)

Posted by: neeka | October 14, 2005 01:14 PM

The writing is wonderful but we need some real pictures that tell a story-all I am seeing is postcard shots of buildings and teakettles. Show me about their lives-not posed portraits.

Posted by: mjenkins | October 14, 2005 05:40 PM

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