The blue pay phones hung from a newly painted white wall in the lobby of the Hotel Krasnoyarsk. There were only three of them, three overworked long-distance phones for all of the tough, hard men in the building. The hotel was filled with more than 400 competitors, coaches and trainers who had come to Siberia during the last four days of August for the 32nd World Freestyle Wrestling Championships. The phones were always busy.
The 286-pound Bulgarian, say, would be at one phone, and the 152-pound Iranian would be at another, while the 119-pound South Korean or, perhaps, the 119-pound North Korean would be at the third. The 138.75-pound Ukrainian or the 167.5-pound Armenian or the 286-pound Turk would be waiting, tapping a foot or shuffling impatiently. Only the Americans seemed to be missing. They did not use the phones much. "What time would it be in Phoenix?" an American would ask.
"Well, it's 12 time zones to New York," another American would reply. "So that would be...14 to Phoenix?"
"So what day is it in Phoenix?"
The distance was too great. The process was too complicated. Day in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, was night in the U.S., and night was day, and today was yesterday. Or was it tomorrow? After an American figured out the time at home, he had to explain to a blank, uncomprehending Russian face at the hotel desk that he wanted to spend 30,000 rubles—how much was that in dollars?—to buy a card to insert in the phone, which was still being used by the Bulgarian, and punch out a string of numbers and shout "Hi, love you, bye" to a sleepy voice at the other end because that was all the time the card allowed.
Too confusing. Too much to deal with. Better not to call at all. Better to avoid the frustration and stick to the matters at hand. Better. In Krasnoyarsk, Siberia.
"My wife and I have an understanding," Melvin Douglas, the 213.75-pound American, said. "When I come to a place like this, she's just not going to hear from me. I call her from the airport when we leave. I call her from the airport when we get back. It's tough this time because my third child, a son, was born just three days before I left. He's six weeks old, and I've seen him for only three days of his life. But that's the way it is."
The very name Siberia brought an old cold war shudder, a picture of isolation and exile and Gulag desperation. These U.S. wrestlers had traveled on an airline called Kras Air—the letters printed in green on the side of the aging plane where the name of the original owner, Aeroflot, had been covered with gray paint—for live cramped hours from Moscow to this city of a million people in the middle of the Russian unknown. Krasnoyarsk, Siberia.
"My grandfather and grandmother are here for the tournament," Les Gutches, the 187.25-pound American, said. "My grandfather fought in the Korean War. He said that if you had told him 30 years ago that he'd be here, in Siberia, he'd have figured he'd be here as a prisoner. That the United States would have lost the war. That we'd all be slaves of the Russians."
The red star and the hammer and sickle of communism, faded and rusted, still hang from many of the lampposts on Prospekt Mira, the main street. The 30-foot statue of Lenin still stands in front of the town hall no more than five blocks away. The former KGB office still stands, two blocks from the statue. "What is in the KGB office now?" a Siberian businessman was asked.