As his part-time shift at the Food Lion in Cockeysville was winding down one recent evening, Robert Chrystal overheard another store employee struggling to communicate with the store manager. When he noticed a Russian accent, Chrystal hurried over to help the two men overcome the language barrier.
Then the employee asked a question that, coming from a Russian who had been in the United States less than three weeks, made Chrystal feel honored.
"He asked if I was from Russia," said the 34-year-old, who doesn't have a Russian bone in his body.
The Parkville resident of German and Irish descent felt "religious transference" called him to be a missionary, but it was his love for the country and its people that brought him to Russia in May 1996.
Chrystal recalled his skepticism when President Ronald Reagan denounced the Soviet Union as an "evil empire."
"I wasn't convinced that the people were what we were told their country was," Chrystal said. "There was a sense of finding out what's on the other side of the curtain."
New home, new son
When he arrived in the Russian city of Kislovodsk, Chrystal spent his time playing music and spreading the Gospel on the streets. A month into his mission, Chrystal and a Russian girl were singing Russian spiritual songs at a train station in Minvody. Russians were getting on and off the trains, and a group of refugees sat to one side of the station. Russians began throwing roses and eventually money at Chrystal and the girl's feet, and they soon raised enough money to buy food for the refugees.
Someone in Chrystal's missionary group noticed a young boy among the refugees and suggested Chrystal buy the child an ice cream cone. Chrystal bought 11-year-old Armen Babayan the treat, and when he heard a knock on his apartment door later that night, found the child standing outside the door. Armen had hopped the train and followed Chrystal home.
"He attached onto me like a leech," Chrystal said of the young refugee. "If you are dark-skinned in Russia, you will have a very hard life."
When Chrystal returned Armen home, he was greeted by the boy's drunken mother and the drug dealer she lived with. Armen's father was dead, and both of his grandparents were disabled.
Chrystal maintained close contact with Armen and took him in within a month of their meeting. Eventually Armen's mother told Chrystal she could no longer compete with the father-son bond the two shared, and Armen's grandparents pleaded with Chrystal to adopt him as a foster child.
Three months after they met, Chrystal became Armen's foster father. Every year on June 6, the anniversary of their meeting, Chrystal and Armen went back to the train station and treated themselves to ice cream.
Chrystal had suddenly found himself with a family in Russia and one step closer to his aspiration of blending into the culture.
"I made it my goal to disappear," he said, "all with the goal of truly connecting to the people and not standing out as a foreigner."
One advantage of being mistaken as a Russian by landladies he rented apartments from was the cheaper rate they gave to nationals. Chrystal paid about $70 per month for the small apartment he shared with his son, instead of the $350 he would have been charged had he been recognized as an American.
Chrystal had to scrimp in Russia, because the religious organizations he worked with did not provide monetary assistance to missionaries. Before leaving for Russia, Chrystal had visited Baltimore-area evangelical churches to discuss their leadership vision and to solicit funds for his trip. Between church money and donations from individuals he knew, Chrystal ended up living on about $6,000 a year in Russia.
Although he fooled many Russian citizens, it was impossible for the American to blend in completely. Russia has a huge police presence, and Chrystal said during a typical drive across town he was stopped by the authorities at least three times.
"The police are the enemy of the people there," said Chrystal, who also had his telephone tapped by Russian authorities.
In 1998, Chrystal had an encounter with the Russian police that would solidify his distrust of the government. When a Swedish missionary couple was abducted by Chechen rebels while walking with Chrystal and others in the town of Mahachkala, Chrystal was taken into custody by Russian officers.
At the start of the 35 exhausting days, the officers denied Chrystal food, so the Russians he had worked with surrounded the building until they knew Chrystal was being fed.
"Talk about feeling loved! After that experience, I was one of them," said Chrystal, who earned the nickname "Little Robik" from his Russian friends.
Chrystal said his experience in captivity was traumatizing but finally made him understand what he said many Russians say about their native land.
"You can't understand Russia with your mind," he said.
After the incident (the couple was eventually rescued), Chrystal spent his time in the city of Rostov doing relief work and helping people there start their own church groups.
He said that on most days, two to four people visited his apartment for some type of counseling, either spiritual, financial or otherwise, and he was often busy from 6 a.m. until after midnight.
Free time was spent walking through the mountains of Russia or watching movies he rented for 20 cents each. Chrystal said went to the market almost daily, because Russian food has few preservatives, and he cooked dinner with his son every night. Several times a week, Chrystal visited refugee families who shared a meal with him while they got to know each other.
Chrystal stayed in Russia until February 2003. When he came home to the United States to renew his visa, as he had every year, the request was denied. Unbeknownst to Chrystal, the organization he'd been working with in Russia illegally requested tourist visas to pass the time until the missionaries received confirmation on their yearly visas. When discovered by Russian authorities, Chrystal and several others found themselves banned from Russia for two years.
Chrystal said he may have stayed in Russia for another year or two had his visa been renewed, but after several attempts to return to the country, he accepted the rejection as a sign that his project was complete.
Now Chrystal splits his time between his full-time job with the Baltimore County Public Library and part-time job at Food Lion while preparing to pursue a master's degree in linguistics. He hopes to earn a doctorate in the philosophy of religious ethics.
Although he has been back in the United States for more than two years, Chrystal said he is still adjusting. He said what has been most difficult for him upon returning home was finding outlets for his need to interact with people.
"If I don't get a chance to connect with someone during the day, that day is wasted," he said. "I realized I have all this to give, but I haven't given back to my own country."
Arkady Fenev, a Russian missionary Chrystal called "a friend and confidant," said in an e-mail message from Russia that Chrystal came to the country not for reasons of personal gain, but to learn more about the Russian people and bring his religion to them.
"If we could have 1,000 missionaries like Rob, then I think there could be a big impact. ... It is very hard to change our country, but I think for such a short time, Robert still had a big impact in the cities where he worked," Fenev said.
Chrystal's sister, Valerie Adelung of Dundalk, said she was young when Chrystal announced he was leaving home to live as a missionary in Russia. Adelung, now 23, said that at the time she realized her brother was making a life-altering decision.
"Russia is not America," she said. "It's a whole different feeling over there. At the time, we were worried for his safety. ... I think it takes a lot of courage to go live in a place that's not your home. It gave me a lot of respect for people that come here."
Adelung spent a month with her brother and his foster son in Russia.
"It was almost as if they were father and son," she said. "It was a really good dynamic."
Speaking on the phone from Russia through Chrystal's translation, his foster son, Armen, described his connection with Chrystal as "a magnet."
"I couldn't figure out what it was, but I knew I had to go after it," he said, describing the moment he decided to hop on the train without a ticket and follow Chrystal home.
Armen said that before he met Chrystal, he was using drugs, but his foster father showed him that he had other options.
"I realized I didn't have to do that," he said. "I did have a choice."
Armen said the most important lesson he learned from Chrystal was to give people chances. Armen suffers from attention deficit disorder and needed to be corrected repeatedly. Despite his constant need for discipline, Armen said Chrystal never grew frustrated with him or treated him like a "stupid kid."
"Even though I consider myself an adult, I need someone around to tell me what I'm doing wrong," Armen said about why he misses Chrystal. "Rob was there for me pretty much every moment of my life."
Finding ways to help
Chrystal continues to find opportunities to help others.
As a start, he gave the Russian Food Lion employee his phone number. Chrystal said conversation is all he can afford right now.
"I have no influence and nothing to give, but I can converse," he said. "It's just brings me to life."