KHABAROVSK, Russia -- Karel Zalenka, who fled the Russians in Czechoslovakia in 1968, has arrived here from his home in Owings Mills to help put his former oppressors back on their feet.
He's an advance man for Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, dispatched to lay the groundwork for food supplies that will arrive in mid-March. The assignment brings him to a bustling city the size of Baltimore that is as far from Moscow as it is from his hometown, so far removed from the old center of the former Soviet empire that it has often been starved for supplies.
There's no through road to Moscow from here, and it's 5,300 miles by train. The distance has created an independence and resilience that Khabarovsk must now use to save itself as the vast Russian territory grapples with economic collapse.
The chronic shortage of food and the availability of trains and ports capable of handling an infusion of aid brought Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services here to help.
"People here are used to hardship," says Mr. Zalenka. "They've never been pampered by Moscow. They're very resourceful and self-reliant."
Mr. Zalenka came here first at the end of December as part of a six-person team sent by CRS to determine whether the agency should offer help.
"We knew almost all the donors were concentrating on the European part of Russia, particularly Moscow and St. Petersburg," Mr. Zalenka says. As usual, Khabarovsk was a forgotten place in the far distance.
The CRS team found that the hardships were just beginning here, that frantic hoarding at the end of last year would carry people for a while, but that soon the situation would be desperate.
Potatoes make up the bulk of the diet, and doctors in the region report a higher incidence of respiratory infections caused by a lack of vitamins. Public institutions are in serious danger. The 5-year-old Children's Hospital has only two incubators, and Dr. Sergei Klimenko says materials are in short supply.
The scalpels are dull and have to be resharpened continually. Some benefactors have sent disposable gowns and surgical cloths, but the hospital has used almost all of them and would prefer washable materials. "Then we can sterilize them and use them for months," Dr. Klimenko says.
A provincial hospital told Mr. Zalenka that its single incubator couldn't be used because it had no humidifier and a baby would quickly die in it from dehydration.
The government is talking about setting up health insurance to pay for hospital care that is now free, Dr. Klimenko says, but no one is sure how that would work.
"Maybe we'll have to start making parents pay," he says, although that seems an equally unworkable prospect in a country where families can barely afford to eat.
Catholic Relief found all these troubles and more. Returning to Baltimore, the team drew up an aid proposal for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the source of the food that it distributes.
Although the agency was hoping for a year's supply of food -- and still wants to find a way to extend it to that -- USDA approved a plan to help feed 500,000 people for six months.
Infant formula, dried milk, cooking oil, flour, rice and peas valued at $29 million will be sent to hospitals, nursing homes and orphanages in Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, Birobidzhan and perhaps as far north as Magadan.
Catholic Relief sees this help as short-term emergency assistance until a new economy based on privatization and land reform can begin working.
"What we would like to do is traditional Catholic Relief stuff," Mr. Zalenka says. "We want to advise the small individual farmer."
With that as a long-term goal, Mr. Zalenka has returned to Khabarovsk to get the more immediate logistics of the emergency aid under way. Catholic Relief has hired a local subcontractor to distribute the food, but Mr. Zalenka had to start constructing the framework.
His briefcase bulged with copies of letters he wrote trying to set up bank accounts and arrange communications.
Such things are not easy here. Only the Bank for Foreign Economic Relations is set up to accept money transfers from the United States.
Because no one accepts checks here, foreign businesses typically pay their bills by transferring money from their accounts to the accounts of their creditors. But Russian firms awaiting those transfers complain that the dollar-hungry bank keeps the money.
The phone lines are so poor that the faxes that elsewhere fly between businesses are not easy to send here. It takes 10 days for an express letter to reach Baltimore from Vladivostok.
So Mr. Zalenka is trying to buy a satellite phone for communications. Then he needs apartments for the CRS people who will live here while running the program.
But he is confident that the system of ports and trains and warehouses is strong. "It seems this part of the country is totally different," he says. "Everything works."
Much of the distribution will be run by a budding local businessman, Semyon Roznatovsky. Mr. Roznatovsky was deputy director of a ship building plant until private businesses became legal.
He formed a joint venture with a Portland, Ore., man, and bought Soviet army tanks to sell for scrap metal.
"Everyone is a businessman in his soul," Mr. Roznatovsky says, "but only some people can apply it despite the conditions."
"This assistance will help until our own economy starts working," he says. "Once it does, we may be able to help you."
Catholic Relief was founded in 1943 by Catholic bishops of the United States to provide help outside the country. Its 1990 budget was $227 million and it had food aid programs in 24 countries. The headquarters moved to Baltimore from New York in 1989.
Mr. Zalenka, the charity's Eurasia region desk officer, fled the Russians in 1968 when they invaded Czechoslovakia. He was 25, and found sanctuary in America.
He speaks with empathy and compassion about the people of Russia who once oppressed his people. He finds himself astonished at how the propaganda he heard as a youth differs from the reality of life in the former Soviet empire.
"I don't feel any bitterness," he says, "but it is one of life's ironies."