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Feature Story March 3, 2003
By Jake Rudnitsky Browse author Email
Page 2 of 6
By now Misha definitely looked dead - dark purple and bloated.

We'd pound on his heart - occasionally it jerked him into taking a few shallow breaths, but he wasn't getting any redder. Just bluer. We finally got through to a cab company and set about destroying the evidence. I ditched the needles. But before I could flush the remaining dope, Vlad brought me back to Tynda, Earth. "You're not serious, are you?" he said seriously.

Roma, who had come in to help at some point, agreed, "It's worth money." To them, the idea of flushing a few hundred rubles of smack was crazy, unheard of, just like when I told them about how Americans will leave a couch on the curb after they buy a new one. And these guys don't even touch smack. They just wanted cash.

Then, just as we paused our resuscitation efforts in anticipation of the taxi, Misha suddenly came out of it. First his hands, then his lips started to turn red. He opened his eyes like a zombie after a nice nap. That was enough to calm us. The cab was cancelled, Misha was deposited on my bed, and our thoughts turned to how to unwind.

Junkies will often tell you that there's no way to understand what shooting up feels like until you do it, and I have no reason to doubt it. Watching Misha's first few seconds of the smack rush - the warm coating over his face, his eyes, something more than a smile - were enough to convince me that I've never reached that peak. In the same way, it's impossible to describe the hellish reality that junkies inhabit when they're not rushing unless you see it for yourself. Especially when that reality happens to get played out in Tynda, shithole number odin.

Irina Manokha, a "narcologist" or psychologist specializing in drug addiction, at Tynda's Raionaya Hospital, estimates that there are up to five hundred drug addicts in the city, including chronic potheads. Even if that number only represented junkies, most kids claim that it would be a huge understatement. It's hard to say who's right; obviously there's a limit to how many people in a town of 50,000 are willing to stick themselves with needles full of illegal narcotics. But, while Manokha claimed the problem is almost exclusively concentrated on people in their twenties, I've met with junkies ranging in age from 18 to 54 and heard enough to make me wonder just how high that limit could be pushed.

Part of the confusion stems from the fact that there isn't much of an effort to control Tynda's junk problem. Manokha and her equivalent at the other city hospital are the only trained social workers in Tynda paid to handle the epidemic. As if that's not enough, they are also expected to deal with the equally devastating - or worse - problem of alcoholism. With so much on their plates, they just don't have the time or resources to properly analyze the situation. They offer free counseling, lecture at the schools, and track the history of anyone who tests HIV+, but that hardly guarantees that they have a comprehensive view of junk use.

Moreover, Manokha is a bit of a reactionary. "There are no light and heavy drugs," she told me. "They're all narcotics." To her credit, she believes addiction is a disease rather than a sin and anyone willing to work with junkies deserves respect. But she's caught in the Nancy Reagan paradigm of "Just say no," claiming that peer pressure is the main factor pushing young people to shoot up. "They start out of curiosity, to be a part of a group."

That is a remarkably shallow analysis of a society in which the vast majority of people drink themselves into a stupor regularly. Clearly there are much deeper sources at work than peer pressure. But the anti-drug campaign, which is pretty clearly a top-heavy nationwide program designed to please the Kremlin, doesn't try to find them. Like most Moscow ukazi, the important thing is that it exists, not that it functions.

Misdirected programming means the level of awareness about AIDS is also shockingly low. Most people try to use their own needles but, when faced with the prospect of shooting up instantly or getting a fresh syringe, they go for the quick high. There have already been 42 HIV+ tests in Tynda, all but four of which were contracted through needles. That figure puts Tynda at the head of the Amurskaya oblast on a per capita basis, although Ina Lebedeva, who manages the testing program at the Raionaya Hospital, said that the figure is so high only because they conduct more testing here. That's hardly reassuring. Besides, Tynda's testing isn't broad enough; none of the junkies I talked to had their blood checked recently.

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