Cover image for Dispatches from the former evil empire
Dispatches from the former evil empire
Threlkeld, Richard.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Amherst, NY : Prometheus Books, 2001.
Physical Description:
295 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm
General Note:
Maps on lining papers.

Includes index.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
DK510.763 .T49 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



For almost three years, as Moscow Correspondent for CBS News, Richard Threlkeld was a close observer of the scene inside Russia and many of its old Soviet allies. This broad canvas of a book is his engaging memoir of life in the remains of the former Soviet Empire during the waning years of Boris Yeltsin's regime. Through colorful vignettes the reader is taken from the crime-ridden Wild, Wild East of Siberia to the glitzy casino world of the new Russian rich in Moscow. Along the way we visit the mountain people of Azerbaijan, some of whom at age 120 are still alive and well, and native Arctic tribes in the far North of Russia, who still live much as America's Sioux or Cheyenne did two centuries ago.

Equally fascinating are the characters who people the murky world of Kremlin politics. Dispatches goes behind the scenes to chronicle the decline of "Czar Boris" as well as the intrigues of Russia's new Rasputin, financier Boris Berezovsky and his ally, Yeltsin's ambitious and willful daughter Tatyana.

But the real heroes and heroines of this story are the ordinary Russians, long-suffering as always: The Kuzbass coalminers who line up for cold cuts in lieu of a paycheck; the rural schoolteacher who every day stoically instructs her shivering and hungry students; and the fellow in Zaraisk who took his son with him into the voting booth to show the boy "how this democracy idea works."

Threlkeld depicts a fascinating, sprawling land where the funny and the tragic are ever side by side. And as with everything in Russia, it is all larger than life.

Author Notes

Richard Threlkeld (Tucson, AZ), veteran correspondent for both CBS and ABC News, was the CBS Moscow Correspondent from 1996 till his retirement in 1999. Threlkeld is one of the most experienced combat correspondents in broadcast journalism. He covered the Persian Gulf War for CBS News and was one of the first journalists to report live from the front during the ground war along the Kuwait-Iraq border and from Kuwait City immediately after it was liberated. Threlkeld also reported extensively on the Vietnam War and, in 1975, was among the last journalists evacuated from Phnom Penh and Saigon before those cities fell to the Communists.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

CBS news viewers will recognize veteran correspondent Threlkeld, whose pre-retirement assignment was Moscow from 1996 until the end of 1998. Here he offers an anecdotal overview of that period, from the weeks before Yeltsin's reelection through the Russian economic crisis. Some stories eventually appeared on one of CBS's TV or radio broadcasts; others were simply part of an experienced journalist's background information. Threlkeld was not restricted to Russia; his volume includes descriptions of other places, including Baku in Azerbaijan, the former Yugoslavia, and Cuba. But the most common subject here is the Russian people, "funny and sad and stoic and angry and ambitious and lazy and gracious and rude all at once." Russian scholar Stephen Cohen, author of Failed Crusade [BKL S 15 00], angrily described the corruption and mismanagement that leaves many Russians without money, food, and other necessities; reporter Threlkeld probes the daily lives of those who struggle with these tragic realities--and of those who have given up. Not an essential acquisition, but valuable where interest in Russia is strong. --Mary Carroll

Publisher's Weekly Review

In a series of brief snapshots, Threlkeld, CBS's former correspondent in Moscow, provides a surprisingly comprehensive portrait of life in contemporary Russia. Threlkeld handles the familiar troubles the economic woes, the political corruption, the nouveau riche in a breezy, journalistic style that makes what can be a difficult subject accessible to the general reader ("Russians are yearning for some kind of raison d'etre that doesn't melt into thin air"). Indeed, virtually no aspect of the decrepit Russian society, whether post-Soviet medicine or the Russian Orthodox Church, goes untouched. But some of the book's strongest moments come when Threlkeld investigates more obscure topics. His description of the oil boomtown of Baku, Azerbaijan a combination of the Hamptons and Istanbul, with oil derricks thrown in lingers in the mind. Despite the difficulties he describes, Threlkeld remains surprisingly optimistic about Russia's chances: "Russians are survivors who've had to triumph over everything from the Black Death to Bolshevism.... And I've no doubt that, given time, this new experiment forced on this new generation of Russians will succeed." Threlkeld generally treats many things Russian with a gentle exasperation typical of a sympathetic outsider. Occasionally, his familiarity with his subject and his unblushing anti-Soviet stance borders on smugness: he derides Soviet-era "Kremlinologists" who "would speculate for months on the meaning of who was standing next to whom," seeming to forget our vulturous propensity in this country for feeding on quasi-political gossip and speculation. Readers may not share Threlkeld's high hopes for capitalism in Russia, but they will learn a great deal about the country's "challenges." (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

As a CBS news correspondent covering Russia from 1996 until his retirement in 1999, Threlkeld carefully documented his encounters with the Russian people. He draws upon his notes and experiences to offer a partial portrait of contemporary Russian society and culture. Each chapter provides a snapshot of a place, an event, or a person. Boris Yeltsin is a regular subject, with attention given to such matters as his health, his claimed official annual income of $5500, and a reflection on his two-month fishing vacation in July 1997. Other chapters focus on everyday people like four-year-old Tanya Kobenikov, who needs surgery to repair a hole in her heart, or Mirzahan Movlamov and the celebration of his 122d birthday. All chapters are arranged chronologically and resemble newspaper feature articles. Threlkeld's affection for the Russian people provides a unifying theme for the seemingly disparate chapters of the book. This well-written account is recommended for all public libraries as well as academic collections that focus on contemporary Russian life. (The foreword by Walter Cronkite was not seen.) Judy Solberg, Gelman Lib., George Washington Univ. Lib., Washington, DC (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

School Library Journal Review

Adult/High School-Threlkeld, the CBS news correspondent in Russia from June 1996 through December 1998, kept a computer journal of his thoughts and impressions. Those impressions form the basis for these 43 dispatches. In the tradition of television journalism, the essays are succinct. Most are human-interest stories that give readers glimpses into the lives of the Russian people after the fall of Communism. The author finds Russians who seem to epitomize the essence of the country today, from Alexi, a coal miner from Kuzbass whom the government can no longer pay a salary and is left to live on "promises, promises," to Mrs. Sarzonova of Zaraisk, who on election day tells Threlkeld, "If we're going to make life better for ourselves, it's up to us, and voting is part of it."-Judy McAloon, Potomac Library, Prince William County, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One The Wild East (June 1996) It's a long way to Vladivostok. From Moscow it's seven time zones and about four thousand miles. It's not so far from America; about nine hours as the jet flies. And there is a jet, an MD-80, Alaska Airlines Flight 103, that makes the trip from Anchorage a couple of times a week. In Moscow, there's a perennial Russian presidential candidate, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who promises that if he's elected, he'll make Washington give Alaska back to Russia. Never mind, Vladimir. Alaska's already back. Alaska Airlines now flies to four Siberian cities.     This flight's about half-full. There are some businessmen, Russian and American. A couple of oil workers from Texas or Oklahoma, judging by their drawl. A Russian family, expensively dressed, coming back from an Alaska holiday. And a smattering of tourists. Plus Betsy and me, off to the hustings to see how the Russian presidential campaign's going in what the Russians call their Wild East.     For Alaska Airlines, adding Russia to the schedule has been something of an adventure. The usual fuel stop is the Russian island of Anadyr, just past the Aleutians. Not anymore, says the flight attendant. Last week when they pulled in, the Russian military commander at the airport parked a tank in front of the jet and wouldn't refuel it until the crew agreed to increase his "landing fee" by five thousand dollars cash on the spot. Western academics are always writing about the advent of "new regionalism" in Russia. Maybe that's what they mean.     So now the stop is Petropavlosk on the Kamchatka peninsula, five hours from Anchorage. You can see why they call this wildly beautiful piece of the top of the world, from Japan to America's Pacific Northwest, the "Ring of Fire." Petropavlosk nestles between two snowcapped volcanoes, Koryaski and Avacha. Today, Avacha is smoking.     Before we take off, there's some business to be done. A military jeep pulls up, and a squad of men in combat gear emerges, armed with assault rifles. A couple of canvas bags come off the plane, filled with what the flight crew confides is two million dollars. The money, the guards, and the jeep disappear. Money for whom? And for what? And whatever happened to wire transfers?     Betsy chats with one of the guards, who speaks a little English. She gives him a copy of the magazine Mirabella she's been thumbing through since Anchorage. He gives her some military insignias from his uniform. "Is this a good time to be young in this country?" she asks. "We'll see after the election," he says carefully.     It's another three-and-a-half hours to Vladivostok. We land a couple of hours late, just at dusk. The airport is a carbon copy of most every Russian airport except Moscow's. It's mostly military. Tattered buildings with holes in the roof and holes in the windows. Grass sprouts on the runways. Old warplanes are still parked where somebody walked off and left them long ago.     The customs and immigration building is in the same state of disrepair. The immigration booths are done in the old forbidding style of the Soviet days. But instead of the hammer and sickle painted on the front, there's the handsome double eagle of pre-Bolshevik Russia. Time was when the formalities were lengthy and full of stern questions and suspicious stares. Now they are quick, courteous, and apparently efficient. Somebody has observed that Vladivostok looks like San Francisco would look if the Communists had got hold of it. It's a beautiful natural setting, a panorama of hills and islands across Golden Horn Bay. The city itself is a dump.     One summer day in 1860, while Abraham Lincoln was campaigning for president far away in America, a Russian warship sailed into this bay and claimed this place for the tsar. It was probably just as gray and foggy then as it is right now. A lot of history has transpired since.     While the Communists were taking over Moscow and Petrograd in 1918, the Western powers, scared to death of all that Bolshevik talk about world revolution, sent an expeditionary force to Vladivostok to help out the anti-Bolshevik "Whites" against the "Reds." For a couple of years, Americans and Canadians, French, English, Italian, and Japanese boys fought Russian boys all around here. Eventually the allies gave up and went home. Then the Czech Legion, which was just trying to find a way to get back to Prague, took over the Trans-Siberian railway, rode it to Vladivostok, and proclaimed an independent non-Communist Siberian Republic. Until, in 1922, the Bolsheviks triumphed, and that was the end of the Siberian Republic. And the end of the Czech Legion, too.     In the 1930s Stalin removed, by one means or another, most of the large population of foreigners in Vladivostok and made it a way station for prisoners en route to his Siberian gulags.     In the 1940s, two-thirds of Allied Lend-Lease aid to the Soviet Union for the war against Hitler came through here. Not far from downtown, there's a memorial to the thirty thousand lives lost in Vladivostok during the fighting.     Eventually, Vladivostok became the headquarters of the Soviet Pacific Fleet and was closed not only to foreigners but even to Russians until 1992, unless they had Moscow's permission to be here. Perhaps because Vladivostok's only a few miles from China and North Korea, and the Russians have always been paranoid about both of them, you have to look pretty hard to find a Russian face here that doesn't look like its owner was sent here a long time ago from Pskov or Yaroslavl or someplace safely European. And you have to look even harder to find a smiling face.     On the evidence, it's hard to imagine why the Soviets wanted to keep Vladivostok a secret, unless they were simply embarrassed. Most of the once-mighty fleet is anchored in the harbor, mothballed or just rusting away. The government can't afford the upkeep these days.     San Francisco is all pastel and fog. Vladivostok is dirty, gray, and smoggy. If the city were for sale, it would be advertised as a fixer-upper. What public buildings and apartments there are were built after World War Two by Japanese prisoners of war. And it looks as if nobody's touched them since.     There is some desultory construction going on. The South Koreans are putting up a small office building. And they're working on what's supposed to become the city's first twenty-four-hour supermarket. The only sign that Japan is just over the horizon is the occasional Toyota Land Cruiser, packed with beefy Russian men in crew-cuts and leather jackets. They don't look like they are joyriding.     Saturday night we're entertaining ourselves at the Hotel Versailles, a prerevolutionary relic above the harbor, restored to something like the original by Japanese investors and Chinese construction workers. There's a casino on the third floor but no drawers or closets in the rooms.     In the bar are two tables of young Russian women smoking up a storm, and nearby, two tables of Korean businessmen and their Russian escorts, all quite drunk by now. Toward midnight, the Koreans stagger off to their rooms, and the Russians return and pick out the girls their clients have selected. The girls hustle off, except for one who missed the cut. She remains at the table, chain-smoking.     Those Koreans aren't the only ones who will wake up with a hangover. There are a million Vladivostokians, more or less, and on any Sunday afternoon, a good portion of them are falling-down drunk.     Vodka is on sale most everywhere most all the time, including an especially nasty version that comes in an eight-ounce beer can with a skull and crossbones on the label. It's called "Black Death" and after consuming a can of it, come Monday morning, I expect you'll know why.     There's certainly reason enough for people here to take to strong drink. At the Far East Shipworks, the city's biggest employer, the workers just got their first paychecks in three months. Says the manager, "Moscow's taxes are outrageous, and the navy won't pay its bills."     So Vladivostok's wage earners go unpaid, and since the city hasn't got the money to keep up public services, the buses and trams break down and the heat and lights go out from time to time.     It doesn't have to be this way: Vladivostok is sister cities with Tacoma, Washington, and San Diego, California, among other places. Tacoma and San Diego are two harbor towns that have prospered in part because they collect customs duties on everything that gets shipped in or out. That's how they help keep things running. It's the way most every harbor town in the world has run its finances since the days of the Phoenicians.     Not in Vladivostok. The customs house is empty and falling apart. For seventy years, in the peculiar pattern of Soviet economics, all Vladivostok's money went to Moscow, and Moscow sent enough of it back to keep things going. Communism's gone, but like most Russian cities, Vladivostok is still waiting for Moscow to pay the bills, and Moscow is strapped. Apparently the powers-that-be here figure that demanding customs duties would be impolite. Also dangerous. And so the customs house stands empty.     But the local politicians sound as if they are figuring things out. The mayor, Konstantin Tolstoshein, appears to be accustomed to speaking without fear of contradiction. He's a big, rawboned fellow who looks like a construction engineer, which is what he used to be.     He wears a gold Rolex and sits behind a big desk surrounded by seven telephones. Including a red one. "That's for Yeltsin," he chuckles.     Tolstoshein was appointed mayor, replacing a predecessor who fell out of favor when he began making noises about cleaning up civic corruption. But this is the new Russia and this fall, Mayor Tolstoshein is standing for election. He has hired a political consultant from Fresno, California, to run his campaign, but refuses to be drawn out on that subject. Behind him, out the window, is the port of Vladivostok and Golden Horn Bay, with not nearly enough merchant ships at anchor. With a nod in that direction, the mayor observes, "I can see Vladivostok through my window a lot better than they can see it from Moscow." The mayor seems to have concluded that if Vladivostok is going to prosper, it will have to do so without Moscow. But how? In the new Russia, no one has explained how cities and regions are supposed to relate to one another, much less to the central government.     Can they levy their own taxes? Collect their own customs duties? Spend their money as they please? How much, if anything, must they send to Moscow? And what can they expect in return?     And even if Mayor Tolstoshein could solve those mysteries, he still has to reckon with his superior, the governor of the local region named Primorsky Krai. Governor Evgeny I. Nazdratenko presides in the "White House," the government complex just down the street. Nazdratenko took it over from his Soviet predecessors and set up shop there several years ago. He's well-manicured, sharply dressed, and sits behind an even bigger desk than the mayor's, surrounded by no less than eleven telephones. Hasn't anybody here heard about switchboards?     While he's chatting with us, secretaries and burly aides scurry in and out through doors recessed in the mahogany paneling. The governor always greets new visitors by showing them his prize possession: a framed news photo of himself with Boris Yeltsin, barricaded in the Moscow White House, right after the famous moment when Yeltsin mounted the tank to foil the 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. The message is that Evgeny I. Nazdratenko is not someone to be trifled with. The governor, as you might imagine, is a big fan of revenue sharing, by which he means Moscow needs to share a lot more of its revenue with the Primorski Krai region.     And Primorski Krai, he thinks, should be sharing a lot less of its revenue, such as it is, with Moscow. Judging from the way the governor and his office are outfitted, he's been doing a fair amount of revenue sharing himself. "All we want," he insists, "is government of the people, by the people, and for the people of Primorski Krai." But you can't escape the feeling that the people he has most in mind are Evgeny I. Nazdratenko and the cronies and relatives of same. When Betsy and I ask him about the presidential election, which at this point seems in some doubt for Yeltsin, the governor fixes us with a hard stare. "Let me ask you reporters a question," he says. "Don't you think there is far too much Western meddling with our election process, and don't you think Russia should have the option to postpone the presidential election if conditions are not right for it?"     I reply cautiously that I don't think Western democracies should expect to export their own forms of democracy to Russia, and that Russia must find its own way in this as in other matters.     "Exactly!" he shouts. "Hmmph!" says Betsy. At which point the governor leaps to his feet, rummages through a large cupboard behind his desk filled with what looks like the entire contents of the duty-free cart in the first-class section of Air France, and presents Betsy with the biggest bottle of Chanel No. 5 we've ever seen. Time to say good-bye.     Outside on the street, Betsy says, "Do you think I should have accepted this?" "Evgeny I. Nazdratenko is not someone to be trifled with," I reply. "Besides, see what you can get if you just keep your mouth shut?"     Just as we were about to write off Vladivostok as one more unhappy consequence of Communism, we found ourselves trudging up a muddy street in the north end of town, trying to deliver a box of nails. Finishing nails.     We were doing a favor for that flight attendant on Alaska Airlines who'd carried the nails from somebody in Anchorage for delivery to the Most Holy Mother of God Roman Catholic Church in Vladivostok.     That sounded interesting. We didn't know there was a Roman Catholic church in Vladivostok and neither, apparently, did anybody else, which is why it took four hours of wandering around the factory district to find it.     We didn't see the church at first. We heard it. Church bells on a Sunday morning, coming from what was left of a church steeple, attached to an ancient red-brick building that looked something like a storehouse. It wasn't until we got close and peeked behind the black fencing on the windows that we saw the stained glass. Inside they were celebrating mass; two hundred people, plus a choir of a dozen or so, accompanied by a small electric organ.     There were two celebrants, in full vestments and reciting a liturgy that was a hodgepodge of English, Latin, and Russian. The Reverend Myron Effing of Evansville, Indiana, was short, stout, and in his fifties, with the countenance of a stern cherub. Reverend Dan Maurer from Benton Harbor, Michigan, was lanky and in his late forties with a shock of dark hair that seemed always on the verge of flying out of control. Father Myron and Father Dan are members of a Roman Catholic order they founded to serve the faithful of Primorsky Krai. It's a religious order of just two. They have seven parishes now and they are the only Roman Catholic priests for thirteen hundred miles.     This church alone has a congregation of four hundred. "Mostly old and young folks," says Father Dan. "The old remember God. The young are now searching for something new, and we're trying to help them find it. As for the middle-aged, most of them haven't yet come to terms with the loss of their faith in Communism. We need some middle-aged folks. We also could use a tenor or two for the choir." Father Dan is also the choirmaster.     The older worshipers here are survivors. But then, so is the church. It was built in 1921, for the Roman Catholic bishop of Vladivostok and the fifteen thousand Polish Catholics in the area. But the Bolsheviks took over a year later. The bishop and most of the Catholics, along with the other Europeans here, wound up like the Czech Legion, or as Father Myron puts it simply, "martyred."     So the church became a government archive. They built two new floors around the nave and stuffed them with documents. In 1991, when the Soviet Union became Russia again, and religion was no longer frowned upon, Rome asked for its church back and got it. So now Father Myron and Father Dan are supervising reconstruction. The old Communist records are gone and the Most Holy Mother of God Church is starting to look like a church again. What they need most just now is finishing nails.     And so ready or not, the church is back in service. Among those attending is a tall dignified woman in the front row. She's dressed in white like her two daughters, who are here for their first communion. Her name is Olga, and every Sunday morning she bundles her daughters on board the train and rides seventy miles each way to come to church. Her husband was a helicopter pilot for a government rescue unit. Several years ago, when a nuclear reactor exploded far away in Chernobyl, in the Ukraine, Moscow called for volunteers to rescue victims. Olga's husband and his comrades were among the first on the scene. Maybe they didn't know about the radiation, or maybe they knew and didn't want to think about it; first things first. Now they're all either dead of cancer or dying of it. Olga's husband died last summer.     Next to Olga's little girls is Jadwiga Zelenskaya. Seventy-five years ago, she took her first communion in this church. She survived the Bolshevik's local pogrom, but her little brother didn't. He's among those who are remembered on a little monument to Vladivostok's martyred Polish Catholics that they've erected in a forest above the city near where, it is said, the foreigners were liquidated en masse. The monument is on a hiking trail and every so often they have to come up and repair it, because someone keeps knocking it down and spray-painting swastikas on it.     Jadwiga Zelenskaya has lived long enough to celebrate two communions; her first seventy-five years ago, and the one today. She stands erect and proud at the communion rail alongside Olga and her two little girls. As for Father Myron and Father Dan, they figure to spend the rest of their lives here. Why? "Well," says Father Dan, "we thought, if not us, who?" I'm not sure how we would have felt leaving Vladivostok if we hadn't happened upon the Most Holy Mother of God Roman Catholic Church. But I'm certainly glad that flight attendant gave us those nails.     And the presidential election? You know how that came out. Boris Yeltsin never came to Vladivostok. But he won anyway. Copyright © 2001 Richard Threlkeld. All rights reserved.