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Shortly after I arrived in Siberia, our British editor, Andy Capper, texted me: “You’ll love Siberia. Everything is so close and the people are so nice.” He was of course being facetious (or British: same thing) because everything is 18 hours by train and the people are very mean indeed. Some might start out nice, but after the vodka starts flowing—which is always—so does the malevolence. There are exceptions to the cranky-Russian rule, but they’re very few and very far between. One such exception was a lovely, lovely man named Billy the Fish—not his real name, of course. His nickname was the Fish, and I added the “Billy” in because I was drunk.
Billy was a local mafia type from a remote Siberian town that had no police and little regulation, save him and his boys. This would prove to be literally lifesaving, because we were after a very dangerous quarry in the middle of nowhere—North Korean slaves—who don’t want anyone to know they are actually there. Billy, clearly game for some hijinks, agreed to take us into the forest to find them.
At the first camp we found, the North Korean guards threatened us and tried to throw us out. Billy the Fish laughed—a great gold-toothed guffaw—and then smiled. “This is Russia,” he growled, eyes glinting. Motioning to the vast expanses around him, he declared, “This is mine.” Then to our camera crew, “Keep shooting. They can do nothing.” So we did.