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Unfiled January 22, 2003
Tynda Update
By Jake Rudnitsky Browse author Email

Tynda's the first place I've ever been that's got permafrost. The ice is never more than a yard underground. That means, if you get buried here, your body forever stays as fresh as it was on the day you died. No rot, no worms, no odor. With some clever marketing, it could become a real selling point: "Tynda, a safe place to die."

There are entire fields of human Popsicles out here, decked out in their best Soviet suits, with Hero of Labor medals pinned on their lapels and faces molded by an underpaid mortician into appropriately severe death masks. It's nothing less than a modern terra cotta army, intricately detailed frozen Soviet shock troops guarding the afterlife of communism. All those dead cogs, so irrelevant in life, will create a more durable legacy than they could have ever dreamed of when building the BAM. In death, these aged komsomoltsi will carry the gospel of communism ever onward. Centuries from now, some up-and-coming archeologist will make his name with their discovery, or maybe future ZEKs will thaw them out and eat them with relish before the authorities realize the value of the find.

But Tynda's resurrection is still far off, and for now the city's main task is to die. It took me about a month to understand that. At first glance, Tynda's post-Soviet collapse seems no different than the rest of Russia's provincial cities. It's actually slightly more obscured: the streets are kept clean, the buildings were solidly built and all of the essential services function. People go to work in the morning, talk about the relative severity of the day's weather and go home. But don't let that fool you; this city's raison d'etre is posterity.

I almost missed it at first, although even then I sensed something eerie about Tynda. The reality dawned on me slowly, first taking shape during my apartment search. I asked every person I met, read through all the local papers' classified and visited the city's lone realtor and still didn't find a single option. The local TV channel runs a scrolling line of announcements at the bottom of the screen and there, in between ads selling potatoes and condolences to the families of the deceased, plenty of people were looking to rent. But nobody was letting out an apartment.

There wasn't a single apartment for any price. This city has seen its population decline by a third in the last decade and there are still no apartments on the market. What could have possibly happened to them all?

Ultimately I found a babushka willing to rent me a room. When she told me she'd be leaving to Samara at the end of November for a couple of months and the apartment would be mine alone, I fell into her trap. See, I didn't fully understand my surroundings yet. In retrospect, it all seems so obvious, the old bait and switch.

Everything went fine for the first several days. Over meals she would run through her list of dearly departeds, talk about her grandchildren (there was 18-year-old Kolya, who neither drinks nor smokes, 23-year-old Olyesa with her toddler in Samara and others), complain about her poverty and tell amazing stories about the War and '47 famine in Ukraine. Everything was vintage babushka. She portrayed herself as the gentle matriarch of a functional, happy family.

She liked having me around because I listened to her and made extravagant purchases, like real butter. Not long after my arrival, and right after I paid two months rent up front, she announced her intention to stay in Tynda as long as I'd be here. So I wouldn't go hungry, she said. And I still didn't get it. I cursed my humanitarian butter purchases, thinking she was staying because she hadn't eaten so richly in years.

And then little inconsistencies started to appear. The faults seemed insignificant enough, until they piled up. She didn't mention Kolya's younger brother much. Her dead son, the apple of her eye, hadn't just died tragically. He was hit by a train. Her faultless dedushka didn't expire from old age; he had a massive coronary rupture when drunk, tinkering on his car with Kolya. He was a raging alcoholic, according to Kolya. Kolya, it's true, doesn't drink or smoke tobacco; he's a stoner who's into kickboxing. Only, instead of pot he smokes a tar-black marijuana extract distilled in spirits called khimiya, or chemical.

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