26-Jul-2012 – Actor Jesse Eisenberg, his friend Anna and I were in the middle of a trip to what I would refer to as a ‘way-out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere’ part of Russia. You might say the leafy, verdant region along the Vyatka River flatlands just west of the Ural Mountains is particularly void of well-known places and sights. We were first drawn to the remote village of Zuyevka because it was apparently the town in which Anna’s father grew up during Soviet times – at least according to our admittedly patchy collection of sources and information. Her grandparents were Jewish immigrants fleeing the war and the Nazis.
Our fascinating quest for clues from the past in Zuyevka may have only whet our appetite. We desired something unknown, wanted to welcome serendipity, venture into the unknown and interact with our newfound environment, one that was alien to us and therefore all the more intriguing. Yet, as nothing about the Russian countryside seemed daunting or harrowing, we would innocently embrace the unknown and later find that it brought a more twisted escapade than we had bargained for.
We would not have been able to sleuth around Zuyevka’s cemeteries and museums if it wasn’t for our driver Evgeney and his maroon 4-door Nissan Almera. Although he only spoke Russian, which limited him to conversation almost exclusively with me, he was full of interesting subjects to talk about. He was innately curious and Zuyevka had been just as mysterious to him. Once we had mentioned going to the confluence point, Evgeney was all over it. Though he often talked about his time in the military, not a particularly happy time for him because it had, among other things, cost him his marriage, it, at the very least, helped him acquire a fondness and familiarity for the GPS.
He also had a genuine love for the local countryside. As we drove south on a well graded unpaved road through forested regions, he told us that this region was the best for a specific type of mushroom of particularly high value. He told us that local people would explore the forest for particularly proliferous patches of mushrooms for their own picking, and would then never tell another soul where they were located. Between the patches of forest were grassy areas speckled with purple or yellow flowers. In some area there were large cleared plots of farmland that were either partially overgrown or furrowed but not well-tended.
As we headed out in the direction of the confluence, Anna was supplying us with a map from her smartphone. Although it certainly didn’t have a lot of details other than green and white patches we knew were farms, it did however show the road we were on. We continued further and further south on this road with almost no signs of civilization.
Finally we came upon a road crossing where there were homes and an old dilapidated church. This was such an event to us, as if we had discovered a hidden place. Even so, there were no amenities and no people. The confluence was beckoning us still further to the south, so we forged on.
As we continued south on this road, the confluence became more and more east of us. Suddenly, several kilometers south of the hamlet, we reached a patch of deep mud and puddles that blocked the entire road. We all got out and strategized how to go through it, but after debate we came to the consensus that we’d better not risk it. We headed back to the crossroads to seek inside knowledge about getting to the confluence or, possibly, even a better car.
Just as we got back to the dwelling, we saw a man pass us in a sidecar motorcycle. Nearby was a weathered man in a gym jacket and hat standing in the driveway of a house. I told Evgeney to stop.
“Do you know where we can get a motorcycle like that one to cross the big muddy puddle to the south?” I asked. Evgeney got out and talked to him too. There was a lot of discussion and other people from the village came over. The general answer was “no”, but after about 10 minutes the banter seemed to have a change of heart.
Within minutes a white, four-wheel-drive Russian Lada Niva, a type of tiny jeep, pulled up. A shirtless, pudgy man in his 40’s who was nearly bald with a buzz cut and a string, dog-tag necklace was behind the wheel. He had an expression that looked like the bully in your high school, and when he saw us he grimaced as if he wanted to start a fight.
“Where do you need to go?” he asked in Russian. I tried to explain the confluence hunt, showed him the GPS and explained that we needed to get to that latitude and longitude. He looked totally displeased by our answer.
“Why do you need to go there? What’s there?”
I explained that it was a sort of a project and it was sort of for fun. He looked unconvinced. Finally he commanded, “Get in”. We all got in, including Evgeney.
He sped down the road in the direction of the deep muddy patch. I tried to ask him how much this was going to cost but he was unresponsive. I was nervous we were going to get trapped into a situation where we would be tricked into spending a lot of money, a situation that is certainly a reality in Russia.
He didn’t seem to care about anything we brought up and wanted instead to dominate the discussion. He was speeding down the graded road at about 80-100 kilometers per hour (50-60 mph), and most of the time he was looking at us, not at the road. He had reclined his seat way too far back so that he was in a laid-back position with far outstretched arms as he sped down the road. Too our horror, it was also becoming clear that he was very drunk!
He kept wanting to talk to me. I had given him the Russian version of my name, ‘Grisha’.
“Grisha, Grisha!” he kept interjecting, very often interrupting us when we were just starting to tell him something or have conversation amongst ourselves. His questions were mostly about wondering what the hell we were doing in this backwoods part of Russia and what this point was that we were searching for.
We reached the mud stretch/puddle and stopped momentarily, but then Pavel gassed the accelerator. The tires dug into the mud, sprayed brown mud waves as high as the jeep, and there were no further issues.
Pavel proceeded to constantly interrupt us. He took an affection for Anna, “Anna you are beautiful”, and then he would say to me in Russian, “Grisha, Grisha, tell Anna I think she is beautiful.”
“Is Anna married?” he asked.
“She isn’t married, but she has no interest in marriage,” I said.
He just grumbled something.
Carelessly and drunkenly he continued to careen down the road at high speeds.
Next, he started accusing us of being spies, “Grisha this is very strange. Why would you be using your device and going out to that area? There’s nothing there. Only…it’s a radioactive zone. That area has high radiation. I think there’s something you’re not telling us.”
Anna, became nervous, “Wait, there’s radiation in this place we’re going?” she asked anxiously.
“Anna, I love you”, said a lustful Pavel.
Evgeney could speak more naturally with Pavel because he is a native speaker, but he too was constantly cut off and rejected from contributing to the conversation.
Pavel became very mistrustful about what we were doing. Soon he expressed that he didn’t want to have anything to do with this confluence hunt. He criticized us as if we were in big trouble.
We were now heading so far south that confluence was starting to become directly east of us. I very cautiously tried to relay this fact to Pavel to which he grimaced a face of “why are you even bothering me with this, in your quest to head to a place I do not approve of?”
As he sped at breakneck speeds and slouched in his driver seat we noticed that he had a huge ‘train-track’ of a scar along the side of his bulging belly. He also had a few military tattoos. He reached over to bother Anna.
Now a sense of urgency made me want to correct our driving path which had brought us now very far south of the confluence.
“We have to get fuel. We are headed for fuel,” he finally informed us.
So it was, apparently, and Evgeney reaffirmed this. Apparently the Niva was low on fuel and the closest fuel was in a village considerably far to the south. We continued straight south on this road for what seemed to be another 20 kilometers, all the while responding and countering Pavel’s forced domination of the conversation.
We reached a small village and pulled over for fuel. By now, from what we could tell, the sun was below the horizon. There was still that high-latitude brightness of the day, and it didn’t seem dusky yet. I tried again in earnest to make sure we would not be paying a high price for this harrowing Niva ride, one that almost certainly now would not deliver us to the confluence in time.
Pavel finally retorted that he wanted us to pay for the fuel. He then stretched out his demand to include a bottle of vodka. I relayed this to Anna and Jesse, and while we decided that paying for the fuel did not seem to be a big deal, we did not want this man to get vodka and drive even more drunk!
Now that we were out of the car, Pavel was better able to express his affection for Anna, “Anna you are really beautiful. Grisha, Grisha! Tell Anna that I love her.” He gave her eyes of affection and tried to embrace her. Obviously things were getting creepy and we were all rather unnerved. This was a dicey situation and Pavel was really unpredictable.
I bargained our new deal to Pavel but he wouldn't have any of it, “You will buy me a bottle of vodka!”
After we fueled the Niva and I paid, we drove just down the street to the liquor store and parked.
“Grisha, what is going on? You will buy me the vodka. What is the deal here?”
Pavel basically grabbed my arm and forcibly led me into the liquor store.
Somehow I managed to get in a few words with Jesse and Anna. “Well, we can’t really NOT buy him the bottle of vodka. We have to do everything we can to make sure he doesn’t drink it,” was our last gasp for some sort of reason.
At the cash register Pavel threw a few other small items in, like a cigarette lighter. The vodka was surprisingly inexpensive. I paid and that was the end of the deal apparently. Pavel stopped mid-stride to give Anna googly eyes of affection.
We had now found ourselves in a situation that we really wanted to get out of quickly. Evgeney could not be of help and just shrugged his shoulders. We got back in the Niva.
It was at this point that reality sunk in that we would not be able to pursue the confluence point. The long, high-latitude dusk was beginning, but more than anything we wanted to just get away from creepy Pavel.
We didnt want to spend another minute with this drunken boor but mused that we might still want to take advantage of the fleeting small window to get the confluence and realize the goal we had set out to accomplish. However, we let better sense prevail and strategized how to get back to Evgeney's car and out of Pavel's control as soon as possible.
“I was thinking of taking [a specific] road, but it will be difficult,” Pavel said. “And, Grisha, once we get to this point we can toast it with vodka,” he said enthusiastically.
“No, we are not going to the point. There’s not enough time. We’ll just head back to Evegney’s car,” I responded.
“Aw, we have to go to your point. Grisha, Grisha, we really need to go to this point.” The tables had turned now and Pavel was becoming quite emotional about reaching the confluence point.
Jesse and Anna backed me up, “No, Pavel, we can’t go to this point.” I had to translate.
Pavel almost cried, “I don’t understand – First you say you are going to go to this point and now you say you can’t,” he said remorsefully. He acted as if he felt he had been rejected.
We heard it from him over and over again, “Grisha, let’s please go to the point.” Could he have finally gotten excited about going to the point? Or, perhaps he just wanted an excuse to drink his vodka – to ‘christen the site’ by drinking vodka.
About 30 minutes later Pavel pointed out the road he had in mind. It appeared as two tire tracks headed out into the gently rolling pastoral grasslands and scattered stands of forest. We drove about 300 meters down the road to where it got more difficult and we got out of the Niva.
This was it – our closest approach to the confluence: it was 12 km slightly north of east from where we were. We posed for a few pictures with our GPS. Pavel reached out for Anna, tried to grab her and nearly kissed her before she broke free.
He took Anna aside, got down low and looked at her seriously and called me over to translate.
“Anna, will you marry me?”
‘Shocked’ would be an understatement of our feeling. As we all squirmed away, Pavel looked as if he had been hurt by being rebuffed.
Pavel asked us to break out the vodka. We refused, to which we were given the response of sad, pouty face expressions. Now the apparent brute, at least temporarily, seemed not to be as much of the dangerous man we had imagined. He shrunk back into more of an intimidated man who had been rejected and shunned.
We had to do one more group shot with the GPS. “Anna you are beautiful. I love you,” he said again. He took Anna and embraced her in an unnerving, too-cozy-for-comfort bear hug with Jesse and I at his side. This was our final ‘confluence’ photo.