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Footprints in the Snow: Tales of Haunted Russia by James L. ChoronFootprints in the Snow: Tales of Haunted Russia
By James L. Choron
Publisher: Zumaya Publications (February 2007)
Pages: 260 – Price: $14.99 author interview

Dr. James L. Choron is a journalist and writer living in Mamontovka, a suburb of Moscow. Born in Dallas, Texas, and raised in the small East Texas town of Center, he holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Stephen F. Austin State University and a masters and PhD from Moscow State University in the same subject as well as a graduate degree in optical engineering. A working journalist for slightly more than thirty-five years, he has columns in numerous publications in both Russia and the United States. Dr. James L. Choron’s latest book, Footprints in the Snow: Tales of Haunted Russia is a collection of true ghost accounts from the Russian Federation. As a journalist, he’s been collecting these accounts for over 25 years and he’s been sensitive to the paranormal since childhood. caught up with Dr. Choron to ask him about Russian haunts and his perspective on the similarities and differences between the Russian paranormal experience and those of the West.

When and how did you first get interested in ghostly legends?

Dr. James L. Choron, author of Footprints in the SnowJames L. Choron: That’s an easy question to answer. I suppose you can say that I’ve always been “interested” in such things. I am what is called a “natural sensitive.” There has not been a single time in my life that I have not been aware of the presence of spirit entities (I hate the word “ghost”). It is a gift that runs in the male line of my family. To an extent, I can communicate with these entities, if they are willing to communicate. I am not a “psychic” and cannot initiate such communication on my own — in most cases. Because of this, I have always been interested in the paranormal. As a journalist by profession it was just natural that I began writing about such things and collecting information on incidents that I ran into in the course of my usual work. This is especially true in this country. I have had hundreds of paranormal-related stories cross my desk over the years and it is my natural inclination to investigate them the same way I would any other news story. If you will notice, the style that I use in Footprints is the same style that is used in any “human interest” story in any “Sunday Magazine” type feature, or the old “see it now” format used by the late Edward R. Murrow. That is deliberate. Mr. Murrow is and always has been one of my heroes. He was a journalist who was not afraid to tell things the way they actually were and to go out and gather the information to support his reports so that his readers could literally “see it now.”

I want people to know the truth. I am a journalist and have been a journalist for over 35 years. People have a right to know the truth about what is going on in the world around them whether it is “normal” news or “paranormal” occurrences. The idea of hiding information from the general public and covering up the truth is repugnant to me. All of the articles in Footprints in the Snow are fully documented and fully researched from the standpoint of any reporter covering any news story. I do not go into any case with any pre-conceived idea. It is my job to collect the evidence, interview those involved, and record the facts as they can be found to exist. It is the public’s right to know these things. I want my accounts to be as accurate as possible and as readable and enjoyable as possible so that those who read the accounts can feel and see what is taking place. I want the truth to be known.

I do not make any judgments in my conclusions. I do not allow my personal feelings and prejudices to cloud my writing. I leave it to the reader to look at the facts, the plain ungarnished facts of an event, and decide for themselves what the truth is.

What brought you over to Russia?

I’ve lived in the Russian Federation (it was still the Soviet Union when I came here) for almost 20 years. It would be improper of me to say exactly which multinational corporation that I was employed by, but I was a senior executive with a major multinational dealing with photo imaging. I retired from the company in 2001 when the company downsized (I had enough years in for an early retirement rather than simple “severance”) and stayed on here in Russia to continue my writing and open my own business.

How accepting are the people of the Russian Federation to notions of the supernatural? How does the acceptance (or denial for that matter) differ from folks in the West?

This was perhaps the most difficult thing for me to get used to as a foreigner living in Russia. The Russian people have always been more accepting of paranormal phenomena than those in the West. It is a part of the culture that is based on an emphasis on education and scientific study. When a Russian, any Russian, sees or experiences something that they do not Understand, their first impulse is to investigate it and determine what exactly it is that they witnessed. This is encouraged by both the educational system and the scientific and medical community as a whole. Some of the best leads that I get for my articles come from police, military, and medical sources. There is also a much more open attitude in this country as to openly discussing paranormal events and occurrences. This extends not only to private individuals but to government and religious bodies as well. Some of the oldest paranormal investigative organizations in the world are in Russia.

I will thrown in a funny little story here that happens to be true. It’s an example of how some very well laid plans can backfire. Back in the 1920s when Lenin’s government set out to debunk all “superstition” and suppress religion, there was as very strong push to collect all possible information available to “disprove” any such claims. A certain problem arose. The more information that was collected, the more proof was accumulated that such claims were genuine. This being the case, the government funded programs and organizations to investigate such phenomena and discover exactly what was happening and encouraged individuals to report, in the greatest detail possible, exactly what they had witnessed or heard reported. This material now forms the basis for one of the largest databases on paranormal phenomena in the world. Keep in mind that the likelihood of any of these claims being false is completely negligible. The reports were made to a directorate within the NKVD (predecessor to the KGB) and those caught lying faced stiff terms in the GuLag (proper spelling) or worse. Consequently those of us who now live in a free Russia where those archives are open to the public have a literal treasure trove of fully and completely documented information as far as the background on various cases is concerned.

Are you seeing a paranormal investigation groups starting up all over the Russian Federation as they are in the West?

One of the major phenomena of Russia, and Eastern Europe in general is that there have always been such groups in existence and they have always been active and actively encouraged. It’s part of that cultural difference that I mentioned earlier. I don’t think we have any more now than we ever have. We certainly have more and far more active organizations than what has previously been seen in the United States and there is a far greater propensity to be open and conduct open discussions and comparative lectures/ programs on the subject. There is also a far greater propensity for the authorities, whether they be police, medical, security, or military to assist such groups with leads and to actually call such groups in (if they are of a high enough reputation) to assist in the investigation of “odd” or “unusual” cases. Many of my best leads are from such sources.

The “phantom hitchhiker” is a phenomenon that pops up all over the United States, in Australia, and certainly around the UK. Have you found similar accounts in the Russian Federation?

There are stories of phantom hitchhikers all over the world. I have one in my current collection. They don’t seem to be as common here, or anywhere in Eastern Europe, as they are elsewhere and I’ve only run into two or three cases that are documentable and verifiable enough to even be considered authentic. I think that this is primarily because we have more of an emphasis on mass transit. We do have quite a few stories, and many are verifiable, about phantom passengers on the subway, trains, and commuter trains. I have two such accounts in Footprints. The hitchhiker story that I included in Footprints is not a typical story of this type and is completely documented.

What prompted you to write your new book, Footprints in the Snow?

It’s rather like I said earlier, I want people to know the truth. The paranormal is real. One of the things that I have learned in this country is that the word “paranormal” has nothing at all to do with the “occult” or “supernatural.” I follow the accepted Russian definition of the word and I think that it is the best that I have seen so far. “The paranormal is that which demonstrably exists but lies outside the accepted normal of the society and culture that surrounds it.” One of my strongest motivations in writing Footprints in the Snow was, and still is, the desire to raise the investigation of paranormal occurrences out of the area of the pseudo-science, parlor faker, and charlatan, and into the realm of a hard science that honestly and openly investigates and seeks explanations for unexplained phenomena. When I hear someone say that something “defies the law of (whatever discipline is mentioned),” I simply reply that this indicates that at the moment, we have a less than perfect understanding of that given law. My purpose is education. I want people to continue to build on what has gone before and to raise the pursuit of the investigation of the paranormal into the sanding or a true science, or a division of several pre-existing true scientific disciplines.

Finally, I want people to understand Russia. Many of my accounts are of historical nature and go back as much as two hundred years. You, the reader, will find that in all cases that the research has been done in the most excruciating and professional historical and journalistic way and that the facts, aside from the paranormal event in question are correct and give an accurate portrayal of Russia and her people.

What’s your favorite haunt from your book?

That’s a difficult question to answer. All of the accounts have had a deep impact on me. One or two of them I have been involved in personally and of course they have a special meaning. Several of them have an emotional impact on me that is hard to describe. My favorite story, although to me it is one of the most tragic, is called “Our Little Hero.” It is about a little six year old girl who died trying to warn her village that the Germans were approaching in the early days of the second World War. Her parents, now elderly, tend her grave every day, rain or shine, sleet or snow. She is there with them. There have been photographs taken of her playing at their feet. Everyone in the village has seen her… except her parents — who do not know that she is there.

Another one of my favorites is one that I have personally witnessed, and I will relate it here:

Tatyana Andrevna is not a beautiful woman: she does not have the “face that launched a thousand ships,” in fact, it is safe to say that on the traditional one-to-ten scale, that is crassly used, worldwide, to rate beauty in women and good looks in men, she would rate about a one. Tatyans’s looks are legendary in Mamontovka: As a child, she was burned horribly when a kerosene heater in her parent’s flat exploded and showered her with the burning liquid. Ever after, she was undeniably the most recognizable person in the village. Her scars didn’t matter: Her late husband would simply smile when someone mentioned them: Then he would state a simple truth: Tatyana is beautiful: physical beauty is not everything. It is not Tatyana’s face that makes her beautiful: it is her soul. You see, everyone in Mamontovka loves Tatyana Andrevna: She has a beautiful spirit:

For years she was the community “Welcome Wagon.” She took it upon herself to greet every new person and family moving into the Mamontovka area armed with the traditional Russian offering of bread and salt: and the warm smile of an angel. In rain, snow, or summer heat, Tatyana was always there.

Four generations of children played under her watchful eye as their parents went about their daily tasks. Since she did not work, it was “the least that she could do.” In times of sickness and times of mourning, Tatyana was there always with a word of comfort and some small offering: home baked bread, a bottle of home made wine, cakes, she was there. Tatyana with the beautiful soul:

In time, age, and arthritis, the fragile bones that come with eighty-odd years took their toll and Tatyana Andrevna could no longer carry out her self-appointed duties. Still, even now, when weather permits she sits in her wheelchair on the balcony of her little third floor flat on Kuznetski Most Avenue, and watches the people pass, waving to each, and smiling brightly. When the weather is foul, as it often is in Russia in the fall and winter, she sits by her kitchen window and watches the street below. Everyone knows her. Everyone waves and smiles when they see her face in the window:

But: no one ever goes to her flat. No one ever goes to see Tatyana. For her, there are no gifts of “bread and salt,” no cakes and wine. For her, there is only the balcony and the window and the smiling faces below. She doesn’t seem to mind. The smiles of passersby seem to be enough for her.

Now, after all the years that Tatyana Andrevna spent making people welcome, after all the sleepless nights she spent sitting with the sick and watching over the bodies of the departed, you would think that those people would be kinder. She might not be a beauty, but she does, in fact, have a beautiful soul. The thing is, you see, the little flat is locked. If you look closely, when the light is just right, you will see that the wheelchair on the balcony is a rusting relic. Tatyana died almost ten years ago. The entire community mourned the passing of their “Welcome Wagon.” It was one of the largest funerals in the history of the village. Everyone turned out. They even let out school in her honor. It is Tatyana Andrevna’s beautiful soul, her spirit, that greets people from the window with the warm smile of an angel.

Did you encounter any accounts of something darker than just ghosts in the Russian Federation… perhaps something considered demonic?

I have never encountered anything that you could call “demonic.” I have encountered some rather “dark” places that have overtones, very real and viable overtones of what I would call “evil” or the residual effects of evil, and I have encountered accounts and at least one personal experience with a site that is still known for this kind of activity. I investigate the presence of spirit entities (I positively hate the word “ghost” it does not convey the exact nature of the entity). I have found that there is a constant involved in all such entities. Physical death as we know it, the change from the physical form that we exist in now to the form of an energy based spirit entity, does not effect our basic make up. That is to say that someone’s loving grandfather is not going to become “Jack the Ripper” at the time of physical death and that “Jack the Ripper” is not going to become anyone’s loving and beloved grandfather. There are all sorts of spirit entities just as there are all sorts of people in this plane of existence. There are the good, the bad, and the average. The vast majority are simply average. Existence does not end with what we call physical death. Our existence is a continuation. It is a progression.

What’s your favorite brand of vodka?

This is the easiest question to answer that you have asked so far. My favorite brand is called “Russian Standard.” It is produced by the Crystal Distillery here in Moscow and is not exported. The majority of this brand is sold to the better 5-star hotels and is kept as the private stock for the Kremlin and the various government ministries. The “over-run” is sold commercially. The price of a half liter bottle of Russian Standard (in terms of US dollars) is rather expensive by Russian standards (no pun intended). It is about $7.50 per half liter. You can buy a half liter of Stolichnaya for approximately $3.00 and a half liter of Smirnoff (which most Russians equate to paint thinner or acetone) for about $1.75.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I am rather prolific and I write about just about everything. I’m probably best known for my paranormal work and it’s the bulk of my published material. I’m one of the most widely published authors on paranormal subjects in the field and people flatter me by saying that I’m one of the three or four most reliable writers in the field with regard to hard knowledge and solid information. I’m not an “expert.” There is no such thing as an expert in the field of paranormal investigation. We are all learning and what we learn adds to the body of knowledge that will one day lift our field into the area of hard science where it belongs.

I also write a lot of history, biographies and human interest pieces. Right now I’m working on a collection of short pieces that I call “Lost in the Fifties” about growing up in a small town in the US in the 1950s and early 1960s. It was a different world then and so many people today have no idea what it was like. I don’t really have a “genre.” I have inspirations of different kinds for a particular story, collection, or book, and start work on it. Footprints in the Snow, my latest book, started out over 25 years ago as a collection of true paranormal accounts that I collected to tell my children and kept growing over the years.

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