Posts Tagged 'Siberia'

Dreaming the revolution

Shushenskoye, in south Siberia, is where Lenin lived in exile between 1897 and 1900. Devoted Nadezhda Krupskaya came to join him, mother in tow, and married him here.

It’s hard to sympathise with revolutionary fervour repressed by a brutal totalitarian regime when you see where they lived. Large light airy rooms in a house with a pillared porch and a vine-covered arbour and flowers in the yard (sweet peas and pansies and marigolds – the same flowers still carefully planted and tended by museum staff). Inside, a desk, a bookcase, a samovar, a hunting rifle. They were even paid a monthly government pension to live here.

Here Lenin read his revolutionary books and wrote his revolutionary tracts, and Krupskaya worked as his secretary and tended the flowers, while her mother kept house for them, and all around the stable-owners and traders and beekeepers and prison officials – kulaks, rich peasants – lived as their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers had lived, snug as bugs in their flammable wooden houses, little knowing what spark burned in their midst.

Lenin’s room. Photo by Sayana Mongush

They are so lovely, these wooden houses (whole streets of them carefully preserved in Shushenkoye museum). So neat and cosy and perfectly designed for long cold Siberian winters;  the bunk above the stove and the fat brass samovar and the scrubbed wooden table under the icons, geraniums in the windows of the parlour, the sewing machine in the corner, birch-bark boxes and carved wooden spoons on the shelves with the teapot and the saucers for raspberry varenya. Outside the horses munched hay in long wooden barns; the families heated themselves to boiling point and sweated and scrubbed themselves with bunches of birch twigs in the banya. Even the poor peasant’s tiny one-room hut is bright and clean, with its flowered cotton curtains and the baby’s cradle hanging from the ceiling.

I have a whole imaginary picture of Shushenskoye in 1898, packed with romantic exiles, Decemberists and Narodniki and Polish nationalists with curling moustaches and old-fashioned aristocratic pronunciation, sitting round the samovar excitedly discussing poetry and art and war and revolution in French, full of the latest news from Petersburg (only four months late), while outside the thick soft snow falls, falls, falls, and the bears roam, and the wild unwashed Tuvans and Khakhassians beat their shamans’ drums round the ova on the hill; deep in the taiga the Old Believers study the bloodlines recorded on the front page of the family bible to see whom their sons and daughters may safely marry; in the snug one-room izbushka Masha and Vanya are curled up on the stove sucking their fingers as they listen to Uncle Petya’s stories…

And at the end of the street in his warm study sits Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, who will soon become Lenin; that new breed of revolutionary, not romantic at all, cold-bloodedly planning the wholesale destruction of this Siberian fairytale.

But I suppose in truth it was not like this at all, and it must have been hard enough to be sent away from urban industrial intellectual revolutionary St Petersburg to this remote backwater where the men drink and beat their wives, the streets are knee-deep in mud and the houses crawl with flies; the rich peasants exploit the poor ones, the village administration locks up whom it likes in the stockaded prison; in her unbearably cramped one room hut the woman worn out with bearing eighteen children knows she will never ever have anything nice for herself, never escape from this one room, and she sits unable to think, unable to do anything but mindlessly rock the cradle where the baby sucks on a rag soaked in pig fat and home-made vodka, the sores blooming round its mouth like a ring of roses…

And I have a whole other imaginary picture of Lenin and Krupskaya forced to attend the festival I went to in Shushenkoye, supposedly to celebrate the ecology and biodiversity of the Yenisei river and protect it from some unspecified environmental threat.

A dreary gathering on a concrete embankment of the Yenisei, adorned with graffiti and broken glass, in the rain. The ensemble of large Soviet matrons in their fifties, gamely smiling under stiff dyed and permed hairdos, knowing they look ridiculous in their turquoise satin gowns and headdresses hung with plastic pearls, singing (out of tune) songs about the water and the birch trees and friendship and smiling children and and United Are We by the Mighty Yenisei, all the cheap rubbishy sentimental rhymes that are so easy to make in Russian, here made up by the local bard, Vladimir Vladimirovich or whatever his name is, Vladimir Ilyich, and I think the original Vladimir Ilyich would absolutely hate it, the petty bourgeois self-satisfaction and aspiration thinly laid over a pit of deep anxiety and despair, the meaningless slogans, the cheap imitation of real culture, real tradition –

but it is all his fault, this ensemble, this scruffy concrete embankment, the crappy slogans (Children of One River, whatever that means, an annual ecological festival approved – of course – by Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin himself, tsar nebesny), the dresses made of cheap synthetic fabric from China, the dark-eyed children from the children’s home dutifully reciting rubbish poetry; orphans, abandoned – all this is the result of the revolution, this is what it made of Siberia.

Photo by Sayana Mongush

Just outside Shushenkoye is Lenin’s shalash, the birch-branch bender where he spent a few hours once when out hunting. As children, a Russian friend tells me, we believed this was where Lenin lived, poor Lenin, persecuted and sentenced to freeze his arse off for years in a birch-branch shelter in the middle of the taiga. We didn’t realise that really he was living in bourgeois comfort in town and went off hunting bears now and then for fun, like some rich oligarch.

Shushenkoye airport, where once plane-loads of pilgrims arrived to pay their respects at Lenin’s shalash, stands overgrown and abandoned now. In the museum, the visitors want to be photographed next to the samovar, carrying the milk pails, with the woman dressed up in traditional Russian costume selling painted wooden spoons.

No one takes a photo of Lenin’s statue. No one buys a Lenin mug.

Where the moon lives

“This here is a churn in which our Siberian forebears used to make butter…”

Thus the guide in one of the traditional Russian houses preserved in Shushenskoe museum in central Siberia. The chattering Russian tourists pose for photos beside the tall wooden churn, holding the paddle, just as they’ve posed pretending to carry the yoked milk pails, pull the plough, work the lathe.

I’ve just come from western Tuva, about 400 kilometers south of Shushenskoye, on the edge of Siberia. It’s a place few Russian tourists visit. There every winter wooden hut and summer aal (yurt) contains a tall wooden churn in which each day the whey (from yak and cows’ milk) is separated from the curds, and the curds dried and then pressed into hard, sour kurut, while the whey is heated over the stove and fermented into araki, milk vodka.

There three silent women in an aal place before us fresh bread baked in a flat round wok on the stove, topped with a dollop of butter-thick sour cream and sprinkled with sugar. The children watch us with wide eyes. We drink endless bowls of salty milky tea poured from the kettle.

We have scarcely a word in common – if the women can speak Russian they mostly choose not to. They are the most courteously taciturn people in the world, the inhabitants of Mongun-Taiga. We tell them who we are, where we are from and where we’re going (S. offering the local names of mountain passes and rivers like talismans to win favour or recognition), but they don’t ask. I can’t imagine what they really think of us, two strangers from Europe (where is it, this Europe?) with our rucksacks and hiking boots, asking for shelter.

With the toddler I play peep-o and tag round the aal; he takes refuge in his fortress (an upturned wooden crate) and shoots me with his gun (a scrap of asbestos roofing) as I attack him with the cavalry (the front half of a tricycle – one wheel and the handlebars). Back in the aal he shows me his one book, of illustrated Russian fairytales, and I learn the Tuvinian words for wolf and fox, bear and goat and sheep and rabbit. When we get to the stories about tsars and yellow-haired bogatyrs, he points to the horses (“aat, aat”) but he has no word for the golden-domed churches and white-walled kremlins, they mean nothing to him.

We sleep lying on the floor all in a row, the children sandwiched between the women under fat quilts of cheap Chinese satin with the stuffing coming out. All night we bake gently in the heat from the stove.

In the morning the air is like ice, and snowy Mongun-Taiga mountain trails swathes of blue and pink mist. Mongun-Taiga  is where the moon lives, in Tuvan folktales. These people wake up to this glorious view each morning; the vast shining golden plain, this loneliness, floating in crystalline air. Why would they comment on it when they are yaks to be milked, sheep to let loose from their pen, home and livelihood to inspect for the night-time depredations of wolves and cattle-thieves?

They say nothing, but when we leave, his mother brings the little boy to the door of the aal to wave goodbye.

Photo by Stanislav Krupar


Or: three days by train from Moscow to central Siberia.

The landscape outside is turning gradually yellower with autumn. Otherwise it might be a reel  rolling around and repeating, repeating, repeating itself. Birches and poplars and pines and larches; villages of square wooden houses with frilled window frames and gardens bright with pumpkins and dahlias; every six hours or so a larger town of Soviet tower blocks, rows of scruffy corrugated-iron garages, a vast river we cross clackety-clack on a metal bridge and then the endless pines birches larches begin again. The larches haven’t yet begun to turn; now the birches have brilliant hanging golden tresses among the green.

We’re already three hours ahead of Moscow time. The attendant turns off the carriage lights at night, the radio on in the morning, strictly according to local time even though the timetable on her door and the clocks at all the stations tell Moscow time.

The attendant’s cabin at the end of the carriage is adorned with strings of mushrooms hung up to dry.

At the bigger stations where the train stops for twenty minutes or more, stray dogs linger hopefully, a tentative foreleg on the step of the carriage as if considering hitching a ride to find a new life, a new kindly owner. A woman from the train walks her ridiculous trimmed poodle decorated with blue curlers along the platform.

A Khakhassian ex-army man on the lower bunk is teaching me to play the khomus (jew’s harp). Opposite a beekeeper from Novosibirsk treats us to spoonfuls of honey from a huge red bucket. “Don’t thank me, thank the bees. I only robbed them.” Further down the carriage a man in camouflage pyjamas is talking about gold and fishing, those two great Siberian themes. By the carriage samovar a baby-faced criminal graduate from a children’s home offers me instant coffee and tells me, in Russian that’s mostly swearing, his short and violent life story. We all sort of know each other by now.

Apart from me, no one has a book to read. Only cheap newspapers full of Putin propaganda. Putin is a constant theme. No one entirely likes him, but no one has an alternative. Only regret for the passing of the good old days of free housing (that you had to wait ten years for), free holidays (in dreary sanatoriums), free entrance to Ukraine and Kazakhstan and Georgia, those pesky republics that have inexplicably decided they no longer want to be part of the great Russian Empire. “Of course we lived more modestly then, but at least we were all the same…” They lie in their pink Russian Railway sheets, doing crosswords, drinking sugary tea, watching this endless Siberia go by, all the same, post-Soviet citizens.

Looking down the carriage I’m reminded irresistibly of a morgue; rows of bare feet and the occasional head sticking out off the end of stacked shelves.  If morgues had pink sheets and played Russian pop hits of the 80s and 90s. Oom-pa oom-pa; lyubov, lyubov

There’s a huge rose and turquoise sunset sky now, and patches of still, gleaming water between the birch trees. Behind us in the west we’re leaving a stripe of vivid gold. At a sedately rocking fifty kilometers per hour we chase the darkness.

Winter comes early in Siberia…

Photos again by the fabulous Mr K..

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