Love is Stronger than Heroin

The kitchen, where everyone makes sure the guests get double helpings!

In Irkutsk the pathway to recovery lies outside city limits and down a long dirt road. At the end of that dusty lane freedom awaits those who dearly want it. Nestled among Siberian firs and ever present birch trees sit several rustic wooden buildings. Here, young men and women trekking the freedom trail smile warmly or shyly upon your visit.

Puttin’ in good old-fashioned farm work.

Sharing a laugh in between chores.

The Lost Generation

(Follow this link to find out more about the Lost Generation.)

These are the children of Perestroika, the lost generation; so many of whom died in dark, squalid holes and cold alleys across Russia, teeth clenched, needle still in their arm. Heroin addicts are literally the living dead. The rage, chaos and unquenchable drug thirst left their parents hopeless and society literally consigning them to the grave while they still walked the streets. In the west Perestroika, or Restructuring, was hailed as bold and insightful on the part of the Soviet regime under Gorbachev, but in Russia it was viewed entirely differently, more like a ship cutting away its own anchor. It led to the Soviet Union ultimately ending up in the trash heap of history, and her youth to navigate a world they were entirely unprepared for. As the Soviet Union was shaken to its foundations, a heroin tsunami from Central Asia smashed across her defenseless borders and into the veins of her directionless youth. In Irkutsk, most of my friends are from the lost generation. Many many of them are recovering heroin addicts. Across Russia, when all hope was lost and people had counted their child/parent/friend as dead, there is one group who refused to give up on addicts, and that group is the church. The Church’s incredible success in seeing addicts return from certain death is astounding and sadly unrecognized by a government who would be wise to support its efforts.

Showing off the boss of the bunnies. Holding a bunny can calm a restless heart.

Return to the Living

People who used to rage the dark streets return to the scene of their downfall, to help other addicts up out of despair. Their message is simple: “There is freedom. It is a hard road. We will help you make it.” The alternative is . . . that last hit on the needle. It takes time and perseverance, but when addicts see former addicts clean, live and thriving, it is hard to say no to life.

Peeling dinner’s potatoes.

Smiles and a bed in a warm room welcome them to the rehab center. You get assigned chores at the center, which is a working farm. Feed the pigs, muck the stalls, collect the eggs, and milk the cows. There is Bible study, prayer, and community. There are ears to listen when you are ready to voice your pain, and someone to sit by your bed while you suffer through withdrawal.

Joy is real. I see it in the eyes of my friends who are learning to live again at the center.  As Sergei, a graduate of rehab told me, “At the center, I walked around for days with a scowl on my face. But everyone returned it with a smile. Their love broke through all my fronting.” That love demolished the walls in his heart, that love quenched the mad lust for drugs. Love is stronger than heroin.

Proving that love is stronger than heroin!

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Vitya’s Frocks and Smocks

A king in his kingdom.

My friend, Vitya, asked me to come photograph some of his offerings at his knitwear store. He is building a website and needed to add photos of women’s apparel. I agreed gladly, glad that I could help him out, glad that I could spend some time with him, glad to be doing something new. Man, was I glad! So I hopped in his ride, and we went downtown to the Central Trading Center, which is something like a mall, only it is full of scads of little stores. The majority of these stores sell women’s apparel, and if you are looking for short skirts or high heels, you have hit the jackpot!

Vitya, like so many of my friends here in Irkutsk, has recovered from heroin addiction. He was studying to be a doctor before his foray into the drug world, which is why he has the nickname “Doctor”. He is married with one son and another child on the way, and he is supporting his family through this apparel store and by traveling to different points in Irkutsk where he sets up a mobile store to sell bedding.

Vitya’s family is pretty representative of a young family trying to make their way here in Irkutsk. His family lives with his Mother-in-law. They have been trying to get a loan, so they could buy a place of their own, but no loan is forthcoming. Here in Russia housing prices are astronomical when compared with a young families income. In fact, as I think about it, most of the young couples we know live with their parents or grandparents. They dream of a place to call their own. Dream, dream, dream. Vitya said to me while we drove downtown, “Russia is hard to understand, we have more land than any other country! It should be easy for me to buy land and build a house, but it is like pulling teeth.” He echoes the thoughts of young couples all across this immense land.

Vitya putting up an advertisement over his shop.

I confess, I am somewhat of an artist. I can get carried away with imagining how fabulous a project could be. We could really make his website compelling with some captivating photos of bathrobes, pajamas and summer dresses. So here is an excerpt of our conversation, in which we figured out how we were gonna photograph the outfits, or I should say, how I imagine the conversation now. Actually it was in Russian, and I am lacking some basic words when it comes to the fashion and apparel industry. For fun, let’s imagine my Russian is perfect.

This is Lena, seller of clothing and store keep.

Lena and Vitya deciding what to photograph.

“Vitya, if we put someone IN the clothing, it will sell itself! Maybe we should get a model, no?”

“No, that would be too fancy for my site.”

“Oh, OK, well let’s get some really nice white material, which will set off the colors of the clothing for a background.”

“We don’t have any white material, how about this furry, cream colored blanket we are selling?”

“Really Vitya, you want summer dresses on a furry background???”

“Alex, I don’t need anything fancy, people just need to get an idea of what they can find at my store. Don’t try too hard, keep it simple.”

So we hung up the fur, hung the dresses over it with the help of Lena, Vitya’s employee, and click, click, click, sun dresses, frocks, chemises, bathrobes, housecoats, I shot them all.

The store is about twelve by twelve!

I really admire Vitya and all the young men and ladies who took a turn down a really dark road, but found the Hand of Hope reaching to them in their despair. They are making a go of it, walking in faith, and it is beautiful to witness.