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Siberia: not to be learned from books


I opened my eyes, looked over my dawn-filled hut, and was immediately struck with fear.

Olkhon Island, Siberia I jolted up from bed and bumped my head into an…upper bunk? I grabbed my head to rub out the pain and right when I was about to unleash a string of curse words I became distracted in remembering if I even had an upper bunk. A pestilential reek also lingered about of which I failed in pinpointing its yesterday and, as all my senses were now regrettably stimulated, I failed to remember where I was, or even where I laid my head the night before.

I saw cobwebs of hoarfrost hanging in the ceiling corners and a broken window near the bed. The window had a build-up of ice a few fingers thick and the pane was so old that its rough splintery surface could have looked like iron filings standing on a magnet’s end. The window’s shutter was at the wind’s mercy beating violently against the pane, permitting a shrilly, gelid draught to enter and circulate the hut. The draught blew in some flakes of snow. For some reason, this reminded me of man named, Anton. I didn’t know who Anton was, but somehow, Anton’s words stuck in my conscience from a conversation in a cafeteria line-up.

“In Russia, muzhiki [guys],” he said, while accepting a ladle of watery soup, “the folklore you should give heed to is regarding Death and nothing else, especially in these here parts of the world. Because Death comes whenever he pleases; at night or day; rain or shine…when happy or sad…maybe during childbirth or while gathering harvest in the fields. In our sorry circumstance, Death comes in the form of an icy draught, surreptitiously entering a room and tickling our feet while we sleep. But the fated individual knows not his fate, only in the subsequent days, gradually, a surge of cold is unleashed from the impoverished feet and climbs up your already hollow limbs…you shiver, then you sweat; then you tremble convulsively followed by sweating profusely, and then, finally, you die – it is simple as that. In Siberia, muzhiki, one thing you must know is that Death freezes our heart’s to death.”

Still rubbing my head, I looked down at my feet. Indeed they were deathly titillated and wore an iceberg blue color; blood had escaped their tissues to an almost permanent stiffness leaving nothing to prevent Death’s surge of cold from rising.

My attention was suddenly drawn outside the window. I saw thick sleeves of snow weighing down the boughs of pine trees and worst of all, the blue, rising sun sitting on the horizon was wearing a crown of barbwire. Right then and there, I unfortunately realized where I was – in no other place but imprisoned, in a Soviet Gulag.

I looked over my bed and was doubly taken aback. My mattress was filthy and I saw a grimy shred of linen for a pillow. This couldn’t be, perhaps someone had played a prank and substituted my real pillow for this thing which looked to have been pulled from the throat of a hungry, mongrel dog. Did my bed rock back and forth last night, too? Did it sway when I sat on its edge? I have no recollections of anything but certain bits and pieces, maybe it was some sort of selective amnesia, I don’t know.

Olkhon Island, SiberiaMy bunk wasn’t the only bunk in the hut, in fact there were a few numbered rows of rickety, wooden bunks, occupied by fleas as much as snoring men. Of the latter, I knew that they were malnourished and overworked political prisoners transported from all over the Soviet Union in cattle cars; and of the former, out of sight but painfully irritating, probably descending from a pedigree living in the seams of the uber-soiled prison getup I was wearing.

I remember sleeping in the heat-conserving foetal position. I didn’t have a blanket on me or socks on my feet, only the other torn half of my “pillow” draping my upper body with my legs desperately squeezed into the sleeves of a timeworn coat; which probably would have turned away the elements of rain, wind or shine better than prevent me from getting frostbite, on my feet, without even knowing it. I began to shiver; I felt my bottom lip start to tingle.

I also remember waking up during the night and instinctively being concerned for Anton, a fierce critic of the regime. Not to sound fatalistic, but remembering his story I was surprised that he was still alive and that the guards didn’t get to him already. I even questioned myself throughout the night if the rhythm of Anton’s snores naturally abated as he entered a pleasant realm of sleep – a kind which prisoners would kill for if they were woken up from – or if he had soundlessly passed away while sleeping.

All of a sudden, a loud and resounding jangle came from outside. From a sleep which seemed to have been hovering around sub-wakefulness, the men shot out of their beds, as if the jangle was a loud gong tolled at their bedside. They then turned into walking corpses with scrambling feet and were heading for the broken door, single-file, without any morning exercise or changing out of their nightwear. The circus of men before me was so frenetic that it looked as if they were all programmed to anticipate a severe and imminent scourge. Then someone yelled out to an unlucky straggler, “Get outside, you dog! The hammer is banging reveille on the rail – Get out and line up the work parade!!” – that unlucky straggler was Anton, unreceptive, for he lay blue and stiff as a board. Indeed he had died in his sleep, the irony.

My mood suddenly changed. My head began to spin and I was getting nauseous. Making things worse, I saw in the hot clouds of my panicky breath a vague scenario of my tragic ending. It wasn’t a Death-manifested-wind, but a britva, a blade, thrusted into my back by a prisoner during lunchtime. I then fully lost consciousness and wilted over onto my mattress. I passed out from the soluble mixture of one part anxiety for the present and one part fear for the future.

Waking up a second time things were back to “normal,” in other words more familiar; and right away I had nothing or no one to blame for this night terror but literature itself. I sat up in my sturdy bed, cautiously looking above to see if there was still an upper bunk, and concluded the following: Siberia is not to be learned from books.

My surroundings were less dreamy, or shall I say, less nightmarish. There was no prison or prisoner; no demoralizing and merciless giver of a programmed pain and no dispossessed and unresisting receiver of it.

The truth is is that I wasn’t sleeping in a ramshackle hut but in a pleasant and woody, two-person cabin; and I didn’t have a band of political dissidents for roommates, only a modest but witty French girl named, Sophie, a dissenter in her own right of modern French culture for her exile was more self-imposed and her protest to travel the world alone for a year. Fortunately, the unfortunate lot of dissenters were only living within the confines of my head and also in the pages I’d been reading these last few months.

What more is that the dead winter was far off and I had a whole blanket bearing a similarity to a crochet doily covering my body. Under my head, a soft, pliable pillow filled with the finest of feathers, and my feet, covered, and far from being frostbitten or suffering any sort of discolouration, only a few calluses, blisters and some flaky patches of dead skin on my instep from backpacking all of Russia.

What penetrated dream from reality was the jangling sound coming from outside. It wasn’t made by a warder banging a hammer on a rail, but by a man named, Sergey, an amicable Orthodox priest with an unorthodox beard, knelling the church bells of Khuzhir to an uplifting musical enlightenment; of which I should mention, a routine which had served as my alarm clock for seven days, at times even beating out the cock`s crow and the morning dew`s appearance. It was at Sergey’s church I was staying at, with Sophie, a fellow traveller I had met upon arrival.

But why did I dream of penal servitude in the middle of a Siberian nowhere? The answer is quite clear and could easily be found in my conviction for Russian history and literature; in that I routinely overdosed on books about Stalin’s Purges before coming to Siberia; about stories of deportation, exile, censorship, interrogation and torture – the whole of the Soviet Union’s system of political repression. This reading was on such a scale that in the morning, my senses, wild imagination, and readings had all conspired to have me think that I was a prisoner in a gulag.

But after Sergey ringing the bells, I then thought to myself: If I wasn’t being summoned to break boulders with pickaxes or to lay down train tracks, then what was I being summoned to do in Siberia? Read about Siberia from books on Siberia in Siberia? That sounded absurd as much as preposterous. As a result of this epiphany, I picked up all my literature and articles and guides and tossed them into the corner of the cabin.

During my temporary loss of marbles, Sophie raised her head – keeping her French composure – saw what I was doing and quickly dropped her head back not even wanting to hazard a question.

But the night before she asked, we both did; we hypothetically asked the starlit firmament our purpose on this planet, while we were lying on the beach, drunk. We asked about God and Mother Russia; we asked about our economy going to shits and if we would ever deign to go back home and work those measly jobs; we asked about existence and being and the nothingness of our existence and being, among other subjects which made our jaw flap cheerlessly. We covered the whole gamut of drunk-talk, with a bottle of zhigulevskoe per head, a lager named after the zhyguli car, a Lada model, known for being a strong car, for the strong people of the Eastern Bloc, just like the strong tasting beer itself.

We both came, and then came to conclusions that the fil conducteur of our lives should be to be “lost” and never be “found.” The feeling of loss-ness – or maybe it was a romantic melancholy under Orion’s belt dropped in front of a lusty Cassiopeia – was certainly shared between both of us.

We were fed up. The good books do is undeniable, but we were simply plumb tuckered out with having literature and textbooks run our lives – the bloodshed scriptures had caused; the insight and worldviews books perpetuate – but that is it! How they can sometimes formulate a gnarled understanding of the world for you, and lock you out from further understanding.

In my fit of a subtle rage, I grabbed my cameras and left the cabin. Sophie raised her head again from the pillow, “Are you still going Gulag hunting?” she said with a raspy morning voice. “I don’t know,” I replied back gloomily. I then took off to explore Khuzhir, Olkhon island’s main village, fresh and anew, without a book in my hand.

Olkhon Island, SiberiaThe church I was staying at sat atop a lumpy hill overlooking the village. It was a tiny place of worship with two blue cupolas and a fresh bone-white paint job. It was as if some structure was abducted from Mykonos and relocated to Siberia. The town’s houses were all built out of plank wood or logs and had corrugated metal roofs of a variety of colors, from orange, pine green to even a bright turquoise. Window frames and fence posts were just as bright but a shade darker, losing their vibrancy over the years.

I was immediately put under the town’s spell as I walked around snapping photos of everything which fell into my viewfinder. I was finally happy to have my head out of parched, yellow pages; and judging by how light my thoughts were, probably nearing the wispy, thespian clouds overhead. All in all, I was happy to be exploring Siberia, in situ.

In the time I was there, I learned that the island is covered with cow-grazed steppes, sandy beaches and a few patches of desert on the Western coast; and on the Eastern coast, evergreens standing tall like sentry guards. Thinking that I was from the United States, a Russian man bragged to me and said that Siberia, in all of Russia, covers a land mass the size of your country. Its proportion indeed exists on the island as it is the most dominant biome.

All around me there were hilly landscapes which, closer to the coast, precipitously and dangerously turned into jagged rock sinking deep into the unknown depths of a deep blue water. The scent of smoked Omul – the “postcard” fish of Siberia – was so potent that a full-breathed whiff was enough to suppress an appetite for the day. This of course was just as impressive as the aromatic flowers that Siberia had to offer, in perfect bloom, with its scent hanging about like bone-lazy street dogs.

Olkhon Island, SiberiaBut I was interested in the locals as much as the diverse landscapes. The idlers, the smoking men with leathery faces casually leaning against their wartime, side-car motorcycles; the overly bashful children not a hat’s toss away from their Buryat mothers and from finding refuge in their gypsy skirts upon seeing a strange, foreign man walking with cameras. I spoke to the peddlers under their tarpaulin kiosks who were selling antique souvenirs as well as used clothing. There were the diggers, who I thought worked non-stop for the time I was there; the bricklayers, the shingled roof craftsmen who looked like experts in protecting the domicile from Siberian elements – all were of interest to me, and when occasionally the conversation bypassed the commonplace exchanges, all spoke of a Russia devoid of any of the stock words that Western journalists and writers use to describe the region. Words like “cold,” and “barren” were wholly absent from their lips, more so words like “for health and for love,” or “livestock” or “the Motherland.”

I managed to ask a man in a local pub what Russia meant to him, and despite his face buoyantly flush from the drink, I felt that he had given me a first sincere answer of all the people I had asked. It was put in a way I will never forget, nicely summing up the local mentality as well as leaving a solid imprint on my Western psyche. He said – “Russia is this, my friend” as he began counting on his sausage-like fingers, “eating, drinking and being merry!”

Walking through town, it felt as though things were backwards – and I don’t mean atechnological or lacking progress, for the island possessed modern amenities – but that things appeared to have slowed down to the pace of a three-toed sloth. Time slowed so much that it may have even receded back into time itself. I also noticed in the people that life gradually and unworriedly moved forward to the subsequent stations of the cross, without a restive feeling, sense of impatience, or a neurosis in desiring to own the whole of the world. There was no rush to get things done – no queues, no frenzy, no traffic. When a Soviet UAZ-452, or, bukhanka (literally translated as ‘loaf’ as in ‘loaf of bread’ for its likeness to the staple food) zipped along the main dirt road, the dust even took its precious time to settle back down; just as the babooshkas, with flower-printed headscarves wearing heavy sweaters, pitter-pattered to the local grocery store confident that they would find some bread and fish to their delight.

Olkhon Island, Siberia

High Street, Khuzhir, Olkhon Island, Siberia

The people of Khuzhir didn’t worry about the credit crunch, the crisis or the Russian oligarchy, things were lax and occasional. The only crisis they worried about was getting the phone call that another family member had died from a cirrhotic liver. Seeing that alcoholism is considered a “national tragedy” in Russia, the reality always lingered about, like that Death in the draught.

But those men who weren’t hooked on the antifreeze tasting inebriant were good husbands and loved their wives and children as much as being bound to household duties. I saw these men, walking to the banks of the lake to fill up their plastic bottles of clean and naturally purified water of Lake Baikal, a voluminous supply which is said to be able to sustain the world for fifty years. Is this Siberia? I thought to myself. I hadn’t been subjected to any other Siberia, except for the one which immediately conjures thoughts of camps and the cold.

Because of its laid back character, Olkhon island serves as a perfect respite from the major cities along the Trans-Siberian railway, the closest city being Irkutsk, a good 250 km away. But, unfortunately, the distance from Irkutsk to the island is covered in 4-6 hours by mashrutka, mini-bus, on a road which I was convinced would break off all my tooth-fillings from its teeth-chattering ruggedness. The drunk lady who fell asleep on my shoulder wasn’t too concerned for her teeth as I was, because she didn’t have many, or the few she even had were gold-capped and well-protected. At least her body leaning onto mine was like putty standing up a stick, stabilizing my bouncing around. Nonetheless, the acrid pollution and landed spaceships for residential buildings are nonexistent on the island. And despite tourists appearing more frequent, it still bears the status of being charming and quiet – a Siberia away from Siberia – and this is felt even more the moment one steps on the empty ferry which takes you across to the island. A fact which interestingly adds to the cachet of being a secluded, faraway town – one which Sophie and I were happy being lost in forever – is that Khuzhir has only 1,500 inhabitants, on the third largest lake-island in the world, on the most voluminous lake in the world, in the largest country in the world.

After walking around, I came upon an area near the water’s banks which strangely looked familiar. I saw a man in the short distance with two medium-sized dogs. A few cows were further off grazing a thin strip of grass amidst a small area of desert. I approached the man. He was wearing a bucket hat and had one collar open and the other messily and unknowingly tucked in his undershirt. He appeared to be doing nothing, standing around with his hands on his hips. As I walked closer I noticed that he was acutely observing the behaviour of the cattle, his cattle I assumed. In my broken, Polonized Russian I greeted him.

“Good day” I said. He looked at me with that characteristic Russian scowl. He probably thought I was a spy or government official and not a travel photographer. “It’s a beautiful day today, isn’t it?”

He nodded his head suspiciously. He looked at me with annoyance, as if I was interrupting his invigilating or standing meditation, and that under his breath he was repeating a mantra I wasn’t supposed to hear, probably just chumbling to himself. Suddenly he grunted and out came some barely coherent words.

“Where are you from?” he said.

“Well, Poland and Canada.”

“How could you be from two places at the same time?” He cheekily responded.

“Well, I was born in Poland, but during martial law, my parents fled to Canada. This happened when I was a year old.”

“So how do you feel? I mean, do you feel Polish or Canadian?”

“Well, it’s complicated, a citizen of the world I suppose, seeing that my work takes me everywhere….well, truthfully, in Canada I’m not considered ‘Canadian,’ only a ‘Polish immigrant’ and in Poland, well, I’m ‘Canadian’ and not quite ‘Polish.’ All in all, maybe I’m considered a “hyphenated Canadian, a Polish-Canadian.’”

“Well, you have a very Polish face, your nose is long and straight.” I chuckled. He suddenly put on a different color, a brighter one, upon hearing that I was Polish; maybe in dissecting my Slavic physiognomy he concluded that I am just like him, a member of the Slavic brethren. Or maybe it was something else.

As I had experienced during my travels, since the plane crash of the President and the whole of Poland’s political elite, I had received a whole lot of warmth and sympathy from Russians, as if by their new, disarmed aura and openness they were implicitly apologizing for what had happened.

“How’s that plane crash being handled?” he asked.

“Ah, the usual, the conspirators, the religious zeals…they will never rest the issue.”

“Yes, well, we don’t really know much about it here, only that Poland is blaming us for it. I don’t blame them for wanting to blame us, well, with the Soviet occupation for what? 44 years? And with the Katyn massacre – I suppose you Poles have the right to be angry. Anyhow, I don’t really pay attention to the news anyways or read books about the matter.”

“Likewise.” I said, my nose very well growing in the lie.

The sun was directly overhead beating down. I pulled out my handkerchief and dabbed the sweat from my brows, coincidentally wiping gently the LCD screen on my cameras. I was needing a rest, to find a little café back in town and to rest my cameras as well, seeing that all my photos taken from now until dusk would turn out having ugly shadows. I hate shadows in pictures, but not in ghost stories or Hitchcock films.

“Have a good rest of your day” I said. He nodded his head with gratitude and I began walking away. I then stopped and turned around inquisitively. “Do you know about the gulags here, on the island?” I said, “I’d be really interested to hear a little about them, maybe take some photos, if they haven’t sunk into the Earth or been taken apart already.” The man raised his brows, exhaled a half-lung of air and said:

“Well, in all seriousness, it’s probably best if you read a book about it, maybe some, uh…some Sholzhenitsyn. My dad always says that he’s a master in describing the penal colonies in the Soviet days…you are better off learning more from his book than to walk around and ask people questions and bothering them. I don’t even know where the remains are. Anyhow, what does it matter, was Soviet times. That era has been condemned to history, not even relevant anymore.”

I nodded my head, also giving a nod to my first extra-literary history lesson. I then put my cameras away, turned around, and headed back into town – resolved, and happy to be in Siberia.

More by Mariusz Stankiewicz on his own website.

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