ON THE AFTERNOON OF OCTOBER 4, 2009,
the last syllable of the Russian word for “hotel” disappeared from the lettering atop the southeast corner of the Hotel Geser in downtown Ulan-Ude, in the Buryat Republic of Russia, in eastern Siberia. The next morning, the two letters were back in place, as if they had never gone. I disappeared from Ulan-Ude in the summer of 1992. When I reappeared, seventeen years later, it was as if I had never been there at all.
I was the day’s only visitor to Ulan-Ude’s fine art museum, and a guard rewarded me with a guided tour. At one point she stopped the lecture and asked where I was from. I told her. She considered the answer for a moment and asked, uncomprehending, “Who are you?” What I thought was: That’s a very fair question. What I answered was: “I am looking for a friend.”
IN THE SUMMER OF 1990, as the Soviet Union was unraveling and I, at twenty, was not yet myself, I used a student travel grant to photograph my journey by rail from Moscow to Khabarovsk. I had hoped to make it to Vladivostock, but in that odd summer, in which history lurched forward and back, like a train stopping abruptly in the wilderness at night, the old imperial port city had been gripped by a cholera outbreak. Soviet citizens were gathering on squares to demand regional autonomy, or blocking traffic because the tobacco kiosk was empty. In Moscow, the first Pizza Hut was opening. In the provinces, change was measurable in people’s willingness to describe their business plans and dreams of travel, their extortion rackets and erotic fantasies, to a young American with a camera.
On this first trip to what was still the Soviet Far East, I visited a number of cities and made countless promises of eternal friendship. But when I returned to Russia in 1992, I came to Ulan-Ude, to visit Aleksei, or Alyosha. He was a waiter at Myth, the first private restaurant to open in that city. The business operated like a happy commune—realizing old socialist dreams through stylish new capitalist means. Song-filled company picnics were funded by the cash-throwing enthusiasm of the emerging trader class in this frontier town.
Alyosha and his friends had founded Courier, probably the first hip-hop dance troupe in Siberia. They performed across the region—Alyosha often wearing the Boston Red Sox shirt I had sent him—and were even featured on Buryat television. Dinners among my Ulan-Ude friends invariably featured a TV in the corner playing back videotapes of Courier rehearsals, performances, and afterparties. At some point in every recording, Alyosha would turn toward the camera to address me directly, as if I lived in the technological stream to which this video organism was tethered.
Alyosha was obsessed with Depeche Mode. Den moonwalked without warning, wore a single white glove, and spoke in a strange, urgent whisper. Their downcast friend Dima was in love with Demi Moore.
The refusal of perspective was ecstatic: This week, VCRs, CDs, and private restaurants; next week, a date with Demi Moore. And there I was, with my cameras and my journal, exulting in the spectacular spatial flattenings of photography and the solipsistic collapses of scale that Romantic young diarists so love.
For Alyosha’s friends, I was an exciting bauble, or a talisman of their connection to some otherworld. But Alyosha had a more intense and faraway look in his eyes. He saw me more clearly, and we viewed our affection for and likeness to each other as self-evident facts.
In 1994, Alyosha married Julia, his ethnic-German girlfriend, and emigrated, with her family, to Berlin. A trickle of letters with glossy color photographs appeared for another five years, then abruptly stopped. In 2006, I found a Berlin phone listing for Alex Weikum (his adopted German name). I called, and his father-in-law, also named Aleksei and also a Russian from Ulan-Ude, answered the phone. A comedy of misrecognition ensued. Finally, he explained that Aleksei had returned to his family in Ulan-Ude. He gave me that phone number and wished me well. I wrote it down on a piece of paper, and then I lost it.
IN 2009, Alyosha proved impossible to locate via phone or Internet directories. His former in-laws had moved or switched to cell phones shortly after my contact with them. And so I thought: I will go to Siberia and find Alyosha. That is obviously the only way.
I traveled thirteen time zones to Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryatia, an ethnically mixed region of Russianized Buryats (a Mongol people) and Russians who had settled there over several hundred years of imperial and Soviet rule. Searching for any trace of Alyosha, his family, or his friends, I found myself wandering a city that didn’t recognize me at all; and I was at great pains, after seventeen years, to recognize it myself. But I had come to Ulan-Ude as a detective, and I was determined to stick to the role.
ON THE THIRD DAY, I attempted a rational approach to my search. I went to the city’s main research library at Buryat State University and marched past the reception desk, as if I knew where I was going. The librarian on duty seemed just bored enough to give me a minute of her time. I requested, insisted on, and, after much shaking of the head, finally was rewarded with what she considered the best resources for me:
1. A 2007 Ulan-Ude yellow pages
2. A 2002 Ulan-Ude yellow pages
3. A cheaply printed book from the late ’90s relating the history of Buryat State University
4. An even cheaper volume detailing the administrative structure of the university
I walked to a desk, sat down, and flipped briefly through the university books, lingering over the Shroud of Turin–like photocopied faces of Soviet-era academic deans. I waited long enough to suggest respectful inspection but briefly enough to communicate the utter uselessness of this material: about five minutes. So much for scholarship.
ON THE SOUTH SIDE of Ulan-Ude, where Tereshkovoi Street merges into Babushkina, is the recently constructed monument to the veterans and dead of the wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya. The north side of its central promenade houses the Afghan memorial—obscured at the time of my visit by an enormous cracked tree limb, its green leaves brushing in the wind over the names and photographically etched faces of soldiers.
Mirroring that structure across a median planted with frost-murdered flowers stands the Chechen memorial. It offers a row of etched portraits, a series of small, engraved names, and a central epitaph recording the tally of soldiers from the Buryat Republic:
39 were injured
1 disappeared without a trace
I am looking for Aleksei Tsvetkov in Ulan-Ude.
Seven days into my trip, I posted on a regional message board, under the subject “Acquaintance in Ulan-Ude”:
I am in Ulan-Ude for only a week, trying to find my old friend, or his old friends. I was here 17 years ago, and my name is Nick. Please write with any information about Aleksei, his family, and friends. Thanks. Nick.
Expressed in my own simple Russian, without nuance or poetry, the posting seemed especially abject. Eight months later, 292 people had read the post, and not a soul had replied.