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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Incredibly, We've Survived

VLADIVOSTOK, Far East — Early last week, The Japan Times ran a photo on its web site of a flowering cherry tree on the grounds of the imperial palace in Tokyo. A caption noted that the blossom season so beloved by the Japanese was ending.

As I watch Vladivostok's spring creep in — the forests of twiggy poplars that won't bud until May, the sea ice that only a week ago began breaking up into flotillas that melt in ice-creamy smears on the bay — I recall a warning that a fellow Pacific Northwesterner offered in 1997 during my first January in this harsher climate: In Vladivostok you get a Russian winter, followed by a Seattle winter.

But the image of double winters only partly captures the haggard optimism of early April, especially this April, in the Far East.

We are like children emerging from a grave illness.

We head outside wearing too many clothes. It is still too soon for us to play. We sit on a bench beside a babushka who is resting as she lugs a bag of groceries home, and together, wise in our mutual solitude and exhaustion, we watch the other children. Soon we will forget that we ever felt like this, but for now it is enough to venture outdoors on a chilly afternoon and squint under an unfamiliar overcast. We survived.

This winter was a hard one, the coldest since 1949. Our apartments were barely heated, and our lights were out for 15 or 18 or 24 hours at a time, day after day. Federal auditors say the regional administration stole the money for our heat and power (the suspects deny this, and will go unpunished anyway). The mayor's office spread ash on the streets rather than plowing them. All this I have recounted here, and it cannot be of interest anymore for readers far away. Yet it shapes our spring.

A lucky elite escaped Vladivostok for part of the winter: New Russians flew to Thailand, foreigners went home for Christmas, and I headed to the Philippines to cover the presidential impeachment. Manila was bombed while Nonna, her son, Seryoga, and I were in the islands. I spent my time exploring slums for stories, seeking out Moslem rebels, or shivering uncontrollably in the heat due to a tropical fever I contracted.

Yet we recall it as a golden time. We swam in the Camotes Sea at the stroke of the New Year while revelers fired guns and bottle rockets in the air. For three weeks we were never cold, except for the time we paddled on a raft under a waterfall.

We returned just in time for the worst of the cold and the blackouts, but the break sustained us. The less fortunate braved the whole winter here. Even now, stories trickle in about how hard things were. I recently heard about a professor who lost eight toes to frostbite. Elderly widows spent nights wondering whether their last moment of consciousness would come while sitting alone in a black apartment wearing too many sweaters and an overcoat, waiting for their children to show up with some sauerkraut and smoked fish. On the radio, the governor assured us there was no energy crisis.

Now he is gone, and we have become spoiled, taking electricity for granted. The last time I felt that claustrophobic sense that blackouts bring in winter was one afternoon more than a week ago. Seryoga rushed in as I was writing on my laptop and said, "Russik, the lights are out."

"What! No, it can't be; my computer says it's getting electricity."

He flashed a wicked grin. "First of April," he said.

Spring arrives despite the best efforts of a northerly climate, of venal officials, of our own sense of helplessness. Snow may fall again this month, but potted cactuses are blooming in the kitchen. The rose bushes around the apartment, which the neighbors bend to the ground and bury every October, have been exhumed. Young boys with rings of dirt around their mouths sell bunches of pussy willow branches in the local markets. There is still light in the evening sky after 8 o'clock.

Russia has a way of crushing hope in its people and making its friends feel like fools for promising that things will change. Yet you can't help but hope at springtime. The children are playing, and for now we are content to sit with the babushkas and watch.

Russell Working is a freelance journalist based in Vladivostok.