Perhaps the most surprising things to come from the past few weeks has been the smoothness with which the Peace Corps has gone about prepping us for our new world here in Kazakhstan. Speech upon speech and meeting upon meeting have hammered the major points: Flexibility, awareness, and cultural sensitivity will combine to make this journey worth the two-year sacrifice. We might as well have jumped into another time, so Peace Corps has prepared us for every potential scenario.*
*These scenarios include, but are not limited to: getting punched in the jaw for dancing too provocatively; getting punched in the jaw for dating a local; getting punched in the jaw for looking like a Russian; and getting punched in the jaw for turning down a cup of tea.
We’ve befriended the entire PC administration of the area, from the Central Asian Desk to the local Language and Cultural Facilitators. All have been warm and informed, professional yet informal, anticipating our worries and assuaging our myriad concerns. There’s a reason Peace Corps has lasted 50 years, after all. They’ve gifted us a soft landing. And they’ve allowed us to meet Dr. Viktor.
Dr. Viktor, who we met within the first 24 hours of arrival, serves as the Kazakhstan Peace Corps Medical Officer (PCMO). Born into the Moldovan SSR under the Khrushchev regime, Dr. Viktor – last name immaterial – turned to medicine at an early age. He eventually rose to the rank of Lieutenant Medical Officer in the Soviet medical corps, serving in the Angolan civil war during the 1980s while his compatriots – thousands of them Kazakhs – faltered in the Afghanistan War. Following his Sub-Saharan spell Dr. Viktor returned Soviet-side, watching perestroika, the coup, and Yeltsin’s rise from the inside.
Though he wasn’t quite nomenklatura, Dr. Viktor’s achievements would have allowed him a cush job within the new government. But for one reason or another he forewent a position in the new Russian power structure to wend his way over to the Korpus Mira (Peace Corps), taking a paid position with his former nation’s blood-sworn enemy. His African experiences allowed him to helm the Madagascar Medical Office for a few years, and in 2004 he accepted his current position within Kazakhstan, where he’s been instilling carnal fears into PCVs ever since.
Dr. Viktor’s approach to implanting this scare-you-straight dread is multi-dimensional. He uses spreadsheet statistics to show us that everything that could have gone wrong already has: puss-filled abscesses, frostbitten fingers, viral infections in places that never see daylight, etc. Kazakhstan goes without the misery of malaria, but that only means that there are bugs here that have adopted for the refrigeration of our winters. This nation houses bacteria that thrive on taiga, dogs that froth rabies, and water that makes Montezuma look peachy. And Peace Corps volunteers, as Dr. Viktor explains, have suffered from all of them.
But the harrowing statistics present just the surface of Dr. Viktor’s message. The other half, the more meaningful and perturbing ingredient that he presents, comes in his approach. A man of terrifying charm, Dr. Viktor looks like something straight out of a Tom Clancy novel. His voice sounds like a truck dragging along a gravel road; his worn face reeks of dark stories; his Stalinist mustache looks like it’s been there since the days of collectivism. You listen to him, and you find yourself unable to move out of enraptured alarm. He commands you without saying a word. Anyone can scare you with statistics; Dr. Viktor makes you feel the sting of streptococchus, sense the resultant nausea, and nearly vomit in your lap as he discusses the ways to avoid food poisoning. You want to apologize for every considering using a butane flame, but by then you’re already onto the next slide, and the cycle begins again. You just nod your head, awestruck, and pray that you never do anything cross him.
The best part about Dr. Viktor, however, isn’t the charcoal in his eyes or his disquieting smile. It’s the fact that, despite his nightmarish demeanor, the man is funny. He has traded an ushanka for a beret, turning him from Soviet to sophistocée, and it’s easy to see that he carries an earnest desire to make sure that these young, flittish Americans do not come to the harm that he so enjoys describing. His bilingualism is near-flawless, and his wit is as dry as the Aral. For instance:
- “My presentation will be like Soviet, and I am former Soviet, but do not worry – I am not Brezhnev. I am Dr. Viktor.”
- “Doctor in Kazakhstan is a god. I am not a God. I communicate with you, so we are friends.”
- “If the worm comes out of you, then it is not an emergency. You may think it is, but it is not. Do not call me.”
- “I took hold of the IV and walked him to the bathroom. He closed the door, and I hear the sound of diarrhea splashing into toilet. Very nice. Like honey to my soul.”
- “I did not know about flossing when I was younger. I was, as you say, stupid. But I’ve never had a single cavity. Why? Fear. When I was six, I went to dentist with my mother because I have cavities in my young teeth. Little six-years-old Viktor is sitting there, no anesthesia, as dentist pulls teeth out. My mother stands around going, ‘Harasho, harasho! [Good, good!]’ If this is so harasho, mother, then why aren’t you in the chair? Was not harasho at all. But I have no cavities since. So fear, not flossing, is best remedy for dental hygiene.”
- [On a photo of a lemur, taken in Madagascar:] “This picture taken by Viktor. Cute, yes?”
Over the last week, we’ve seen Dr. Viktor a handful of times, individually for (nearly a dozen) shots and grouped together for his presentations. Every time, we’ve swung from nausea to mirth and back again. The man dominates our conversations outside the classroom, and had already become one of the best things about this place before we went to see him for more shots last weekend. We thought we’d figured him out.
But as we were gathering to leave after last Saturday’s conference, Dr. Viktor threw us a curveball. The charcoal was still there, but it simmered with a new emotion – pity. Standing before us, Dr. Viktor stared at us, arms folded and voice rocky:
“I have one last thing to say. Twenty years ago, I woke up one morning, and Soviet Union was gone. I woke up, and it was no more. Nobody asked me what I wanted. It was just gone. I was born in Moldova, but I am not a Moldovan. I was a member of the Soviet military. I am a Soviet. I spent my entire life serving the Union. Yes, I wish it were back. But I know that cannot happen. It is gone.
“I am sure you are all proud of your state. That you all love the United States. And you should – you are here because of it. Be proud. Hold that pride. Hold it in your heart, because there is nothing greater than having your nation support you, having your nation behind you. You still have it.
“But I no longer do. The Soviet Union is gone. And now I am a man without a country.”
We were stunned. Here was a man as terrifying as anyone we could conjure, as funny as we could want, making our eyes well. Over the demise of the Soviet Union. Dr. Viktor put on his beret, wrapped his scarf, and closed his computer, impervious and indifferent to our reaction. We sat, the only movement coming as frosted breath escaping our lips. And in that moment, I thought.
I don’t necessarily carry any outward jingoism for America. Obama is still a pol, drones still hammer AfPak civilians, and our national deficit will eventually handcuff my generation. America was great because America was good; now, we’re great because the Pentagon’s budget outweighs all but elderly needs. So be it. We get the government we deserve, and all that.
But I understood why Dr. Viktor’s voice dropped an octave when discussing the dissolution of his former state: Rote self-definition through a third party, be it a nation, a relationship, or even a baseball team, places you in a perilous state of risk. Risk that your relationship will falter. Risk that your team will move. Risk that geopolitics will conspire to dissolve all for which you have lived, all for which you have worked, all in which you believe. The West, consolidating the Soviet bogeyman into a good v. bad narrative, found a surfeit of schadenfreude in late 1991. The good guys won. The bad guys lost. Providence reigned.
But Dr. Viktor, and millions like him, were left. The still stood, but without any order of fraternity. The blanket of national safety was pulled from underneath them, and the new freedom was blinding and unknown. It was terrifying. It wasn’t theirs. They’d held onto the Soviet Union as hard as they could, but it still escaped, turning present reality into historic fact. I’m sure part of Dr. Viktor welcomed the freedom, the added ease of travel, to resultant lack of worry about state-sanctioned sadism. But his land, his theory, his belief – all were gone. And now he stood in front of us, working for the United States of America.
I felt for him. For this man who had given his best to another, and now gave it to us. For this man who pined for an evil empire. For this nowhere man. And that, I suppose has been the most surprising thing of the whole trip: sympathy – momentary, but existent – over the demise of the USSR. Every time I think about it, I’m floored. And yet, there it is. All because of Dr. Viktor.