Friday, September 16, 2005

Birdwatching and the KGB

What do you get when you mix a camera attached to a 400 mm lens, a Russian nuclear power plant, and a small Siberian bird?

A mandatory trip to the local police station in a police car!

My husband, Dima, has a hobby/obsession - photographing birds. And the lenses he uses on his camera are BIG. Even on Long Island he gets second glances and sometimes questions from strangers.

Man: Wow! How far away can things be for you to take a picture of them with that lens?
Dima: Well, I just took a picture of the setting sun.
Vaudevillian drum: Bomp Bomp

(personally I thought this was a little mean and would have given the man the kind of answer he expected but the confused look on the man's face went over my husband's head completely)

Anyway, back to the story.

The main purpose of our trip to Russia was to visit with Dima's elderly parents and his sister. He hadn't seen them for five years. They live in a small town (pop 20,000) about 30 miles from Yekaterinburg, a major city in the Ural mountains of Russia. Dima's hometown, Zarechny, was built specifically to support the nuclear power plant. The river was dammed to create a large lake to be used a sink for the heat generated by the power plant. It is a beautiful town in many ways. There are many trees, tall Siberian pines and beautiful white birches.

There is the huge lake.

These features make a nice place for birding and bird photography and we had planned to do this. We weren't planning on site seeing, we wanted to spend time with family, but as everyone knows, you can't spend every minute of 10 days with family and remain sane. Our morning birding trips gave use fresh air, exercise and some space. Unfortunately they caused some trouble too.

In Russia, most people live in apartment buildings, even in small towns like Zahrechny. Dima's sister's (Olya's) building had about 30 apartments in a 3 story building. Behind every building is a yard of sorts. Behind Olya's building was a sort of weed strewn lot with trees, benches, and playground equipment. It is not clear to me how much of this wildness was due to poverty (no money to pay someone to cut the grass and tend the plantings) and how much due to a preference for more natural settings. Certainly Zarechny is poorer than Moscow but it is more traditional too and is not trying to be a Western city with Western priorities. Anyway, these yards are a good place for birds. On our first day we were birding locally in these connected backyards near Olya's building, me with my 10x binoculars and Dima with his BIG lensed camera. Three men step out of one of the buildings. I know right away something is up. They are all dressed in black suits. They are bulky, tall and strong. (I, at 5'2'', am average height in this town so I think tall people are reserved for special jobs). And they walk with purpose towards us. I don't want any miscommunication or questions so I firmly say 'Hello' to their Russian greeting 'Zdrastuitya'. They keep walking towards Dima. He talks to them. He shows them the pictures he has taken with his digital camera. They speak some more. The men, who I later find out are KGB, or more modernly called FSB agents, walk back to their office in the nearby building. Walking with Dima I learn that they told him he couldn't take pictures outside their office with a 400 mm lens. I was not a little upset by all this but, as Dima pointed out, the good thing is we now know exactly where we could and could not take photographs. Off limits were the FSB building, the nuclear power plant and the dam. The rest was ours, in the translated words of the FSB officer 'It's a free country.'

To be continued......


Gary LaPointe said...

Wow. I guess it could have been a lot worse than a talking to. I guess that's a big advantage of the digital camera, he could actually show them what he took the photos of.


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