Monday, 27 June 2016

Voyage to Siberia continued (2). Arrival at the village. July 1997

At the airport we were met by the broad and rosy Rosa, a Yakutian and the sister of Kolya, the former mayor of the village, Nelemnoye, our final destination. We were taken from the airport to a house ‘to rest after the road’. This was literal. The generously sized Rosa was keen on resting - ideally taking the form of sleep - this was an important activity to be indulged in at any possibility. She was lazy, with a sly look in her eye, and had the entitled air of the sister of a former mayor of a Siberian village. 

After a liberal snack of tea and homemade doughy pastries, I was shown to an empty upstairs room and one of the beds lining the walls. These homes were large, spacious, communal - there was enough room after all - but it was a matter of balancing size with the importance of keeping the cold out. And there was a dank smell in the house despite the fact it was summer: in the winter the windows are closed and muffled against draughts at all times - in the summer only one or two will be open, and covered with gauze netting to keep out the clouds of mosquitoes. I had never seen anything like these bare rooms - I was used to ‘interiors’ that had been styled and decorated. My mother was a journalist and wrote about interiors for magazines. My parents’ bedroom had recently been redecorated in yellows for a photo shoot. My mother had coined the phrase ‘shabby chic’ but this didn’t fit into that reference framework. These were simply rooms, whose size were dictated by the size of the kitchen where the stove was, from which everything emanated. There were few walls - personal privacy was not part of life here - people ate together, washed together in the bathhouse, slept in one room, sometimes one bed.

What shaky sense of time had returned to me post jet lag, fell away once more for we had entered the land of eternal sun and the light barely shifted until late at night. I have no idea how long I ‘rested’ on that bed. For all I know I’m still lying on it, a purgatory. The entire materik, is a purgatory, teeming with its own characters, rules and narratives.

The house was next  to the infamous Kolyma River itself, home of the Gulag. After an indefinite amount of time had past, we descended with our bulky bulging knapsacks to a tiny tinny open motor boat, that was being tethered to the shore by a twitchy swarthy-faced little man with a crooked nose and shifty eyes. This was Kolya.

Rain was melting from the grey sky: Rosa produced a roll of laminated wallpaper that she tore off and handed to me to cover my knees, (X, as a man, was not given any). Our bulky knapsacks pooled in water at our feet. 

Rosa whispered into my ear as we set off up the river ‘Kolya’s in trouble in the village. He sold his car to two different people today and they both are furious.’ I look up in amazement at the wiry man at the rudder - he was ducking and swaying to see over our heads and around the next corner and gave the impression that he wasn’t too clever with the motor. Soon we were lurching against a shore and Kolya was clambering up in order to deposit a cannister behind a tree. Benzin. This and dvigateli (motors for the boats) were in severe shortage that summer. Benzin was rationed - you could not be found with more than a certain amount, so Kolya stashed it up and down the river, leaving marks on trees to indicate where it was hidden. This was my first introduction to the language of the taiga - runes hiding corrupted petrol for knackered old motors.

The landscape unfolded around us. Within minutes of setting off we were alone in wild, unpopulated territory. We met no other boat for the duration of the journey. The shores were steep and covered in scrub and birch forest - the river twisted and turned, tho the water was deep and calm, ruffled only by the rain. My thoughts were focused on what was ahead, my ears full of the sputtering of the motor, my eyes straining ahead, the water seeping through the scraps of wallpaper that were disintegrating over my knees.

 After some two hours we turned a corner and saw a few boats lying on a small sandy patch and a group of people huddled on the beach, holding up coats against the rain - a welcoming party. We beached. The rain was heavier now. Leaving the bags to the men, and shouting hellos in Yakutian to the gathered party, Rosa pulled me up the slope and ushered me into the first dwelling we came upon - a small wooden hut. It was dark inside. As my eyes grew accustomed I saw that the hut was full of women - about 5 of them, lying over two beds. A television was on. They looked up at me - I was soaking wet and shivering with cold.

 ‘Snimite vsyo’ - ‘Take it all off’ - said Rosa. It seemed impolite to refuse and within seconds I was naked before the ladies and being ushered towards a bucket behind a curtain. I crouched over it and peed, trying to divest myself of embarrassment as well as my clothes. My pee made a tinny sound - the first sound they heard out of me even before I said hello. Roza handed me a pair of shiny nylon tracksuit bottoms and a baggy t-shirt and scratchy sweater which I pulled over my still wet, still cold body. Enclosed in these dry clothes I was invited to sit at a small table for tea, bread and moose meat. 

Monday, 20 June 2016

Voyage to Siberia July 1997

We had been in Yakutsk for a week. A week in the unrelenting July heat of central Siberia, everything covered in a film of brown dust. I was with a Danish post grad student, X. We were en route to a tiny village on the Kolyma river to make a documentary film about the last members of the Yukagir tribe for his MA in documentary film making at Manchester university. We were due to fly to Zyryanka - the nearest town to the village where the Yukagir lived, further upriver. Flights left randomly and while we waited we were being put up in a tiny apartment on the outskirts of the Yakutsk by an acquaintance of X’s, a teacher. 

Three months earlier, I had decided to accompany X at my own expense, having heard some of his hair-raising stories about hunting with local trappers in the forests of Siberia. One of them had particularly shocked me. X had been hunting in midwinter, with some shady types - skiing and with guns on their backs. Shady means that they were not very respectful of the law, or of much at all - they shot endangered birds and day to day life was rough. After some days of only eating bread, meat and sala (salted fat), X had become constipated to the point that he was in serious pain. One of the trappers had approached him with some rubber tubing and set up an impromptu colonic using snow. Not long after this humiliating experience X had developed flu and had to be carried some of the way. That day the trappers had killed a bear. They had stopped at a cabin in the forest and X had collapsed on to one of the hard wooden bugs and fallen into a feverish sleep. He had been awoken at knife point and dragged out into the snow where the trappers had skinned the bear and splayed it on a spit to roast. ‘A skinned bear looks remarkably like a skinned human, it was terrifying seeing it over the fire,’ said X - ‘they told me to fuck the bear.’ He had pulled out a knife and refused. It was a great story, that I now doubt the veracity of for several reasons. At the time that and another story that involved him hiding out in a forest hut for 6 weeks under constant siege from rats and bears after the dubious party of trappers had been caught in the local town selling endangered species of bird, were beguiling and frightening enough for me to want to accompany him to Siberia. 

We had had two days in Moscow where we had bought electric goods for our Yukagir hosts. Things between us didn’t start well: X, who was engaged, had seduced an english friend of mine in Moscow, and we had had a row in the airport as we had too many kilos of luggage and X was furious that I had bought a 1kg jar of marmite with me.

Yakutsk was an ugly charmless city. We were in an in-between state and my jet lag had made me sleep walk into our host’s kitchen at all times of the day and night, muttering and moaning. From the kitchen window the city stretched to the horizon in housing blocks and shacks. Day after day, there was no flight. We passed our time drinking tea and visiting the local natural history museum and looking at the stuffed mammoth. 

Finally we heard a flight was in the offing. The plane was small and wobbly, and as we shook through the air it was as if we were entering a different dimension, the old connections were left behind - the ties of logic and acceptable forms of behaviour. We were entering a land where different rules apply - the rule of the Gulag. The town of Zyryanka was built by Soviet prisoners in the 1930s and was inhabited by those serving the prison system from that date onwards. Moscow friends’ eyes had grown wide with astonishment when I told them I was going to the Kolyma. It was a place of unspeakable conditions, of death, of the most terrible human abasement, of prison ballads and myths - it was another land within Russia. Those who lived there call it the ‘materik’, slang for the motherland, a diminutive of the word mat’, mother. It is part of Russia, but separate - it is  landlocked and accessible only by air, or via Vladivostok by boat - a country within a country - and certainly not somewhere a foreigner, or Russian, would wish to simply wander into - there were portals, physical, and mental to discover and find a way through. 

The Gulag system was a distorted and extreme parallel version of Soviet reality. It may have come to an end under Gorbachev, and the Kolyma camps shut earlier than that, but it was still inhabited. While the majority of prisoners were desperate to leave when their sentences were over, many also stayed and served the system - they had been on the materik so long, had lost all ties with their families, were possibly scared to go back, but more to the point were accustomed to the ways of the Gulag system and did not want to go back to the other Soviet reality, where the same rules applied but behind an elaborate masquerade of apparent order. Many had been brutalised and were fearful to go back and start over. They may have decided to become a prison guard, or begun a family with another former prisoner from one of the women’s colonies. So, many of the people we met in Zyryanka were descended from the prison system - from prisoners and from guards. I didn’t know this at the time, I didn’t know much about the Gulag system, but I was not immune to the strange atmosphere of the town - there was something hollow and ghostly about it. Some places have a ghastly atmosphere. When I was in Chechnya, as correspondent for The Times, in 2003, I remember feeling physically ill from the atmosphere of Grozny. I had spent the afternoon in a garage, listening to the story of some parents whose son had gone missing, suspected taken by Russian soldiers or the FSB. They were telling stories of torture - how rampant it was, and how many people went missing and never reappeared. It was a part of everyday life. Leaving the garage - they had given me a quince as a present - I felt like this was the closest to hell on earth I had experienced. In retrospect, Zyryanka was the grandmother of that place. The horror had happened earlier - in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s. It had had a chance to subside, be partially absorbed into the permafrost ground and ensuing generations. 

When we landed I noticed that the ladies were beautifully dressed, going about their business in high heels, their hair coiffed, their nails polished. Except there was water only two hours a day and the food in the shop was either prohibitively expensive foreign imports, or cheap food that was made locally. The further away from urban centres, the more expensive was the imported foods - due to fuel costs. Fuel was in short supply, we were about to discover.  The rouble had devalued to the point that everyone was dealing in tens and hundreds of thousands of them. The town was a collection of single storey wooden houses with no plumbing, and low rise concrete prefabs.

To be continued. 

I have lots of pictures - in the form of negatives - am planning to develop and upload for future blogs. 

Sunday, 12 June 2016

The night I fell in love with Russia - New Year 1993 (final installment)

That night Sveta had baked some kidney beans and sprinkled them with parsley - lobio - Georgian style. The grassy fragrant smell of chopped parsley was the first hint of freshness I had experienced since I had arrived in Russia and it seemed to be something magical. 

Sveta is half Ukrainian. She has finely plucked eyebrows and a sloping blonde bob, as in a medieval painting. Her lips are a perfect cupid’s bow. She is famous for her stories: they take off into the air like a runaway fairground ride, just a little beyond the possible, and they weave our delight into them and before we know it we are all part of the story.

That New Year’s night in 1993, behind the kettle in the masterskaya was a photograph of Pilatovo - the village where the Vashchenkos have a dacha, some 400 kilometres north east of Moscow in the Kostromskaya District, near the town of Bui. The photograph drew me in long before I actually visited the place. It showed a steep sandy bank down to a river, and a dark strip of pine forest visible on the other side. The sky is enormous and full of giant flat-bottomed fluffy white clouds. These great sculpted forms are reflected perfectly in the still water of  the river. The sky and water fuse together and the illusion is only broken by the awareness that there are two small figures walking along the sandbank - these are Ira and Sveta in red headscarves. This looked like paradise on earth and was given as prominent a place in the apartment as an icon - possibly even more prominent.

Yuri was saying something to me, his voice brought me back to the here and now. He was sitting back in a wicker arm chair pointing at an angel figurine that was hanging off the low lamp over the table. He was talking about our mutual friend Liza, through whom I had met them - ‘when she sits on a chair she doesn’t touch the chair, and the chair doesn’t touch the ground, and when she walks she doesn’t touch the ground.’ I enjoyed the poetry Yuri was weaving out of his limited english - I swooned and hoped that one day he would compose such lines about me. In the meantime I nodded whole-heartedly and said ‘da da da, Liza prevoskhodnaya’  - a formal way of saying Liza is wonderful.

Around the corner at the big table in the studio proper Ira was sitting with her French boyfriend Emmanuel who was smoking gitanes and talking with Tisha, who had come to join us. He was 15 and flirting with me unabashedly, calling me ‘bebe’ in a persistent, nasal voice, and singing the only english song he knew, all the while gazing at me with large swimming eyes: ‘oh ze lemon tree is pretty, oh ze lemon tree is sweet, but the fruit of ze poor lemon is impossible to eat.’

That night Lex and I stayed with Ira and Emmanuel in Sveta’s studio across the road. This was in a nondescript 1920s building at the top of five flights of stairs. ‘Don’t speak in english on the stairs,’ Sveta said to me as we were leaving, ‘I don’t want the neighbours to hear I have foreigners staying in the studio, it might cause trouble.’ This studio, given to Sveta by the artist’s union, was shared with another graphic designer Igor. As Sveta wasn’t working, Ira was living there with Emmanuel. I loved that flat. It is, in fact, where I fell in love with Russia - and it happened that night. 

Lex and Emmanuel played chess and smoked until the blue dawn glowed in the sky. Standing in the doorway I noted their dark silhouettes over the chessboard, and the smoke of their cigarettes, mingling with the dawn light. Ira shooed them out, and put up a camp bed. I lay down on my side, awkwardly, the camp bed springs digging into me, and found my face lying close to a cupboard. Perhaps it was the vodka I had drunk, but I suddenly felt an extraordinary feeling of warmth and camaraderie, of soul. It swept over me like an ecstasy as I gazed at this cupboard, that had a curtain instead of a door. I thought to myself ‘this is a real place, of real communication, of real love and intimacy and friendship - where it is all about people, all about being together, and where imperfection is seen as beautiful and celebrated. That is it, it is decided, I love this place and I want to be here.’ The compact had been made and it was more powerful than I thought: I had given my heart to that flat, that family, that group of friends, that city and that language.

I was to live in that very apartment many times over the years. That rickety camp bed in that paint-peeling studio, where we washed up in a bathtub and cooked on a single ring, was the springboard from where I explored Russia, departing from there to Siberia a few years later, where I lived as a correspondence for The Times, and which caused me to get involved in the campaign to save Moscow’s buildings in 2004, when it was demolished. 

Sunday, 5 June 2016

The man who saved St Basil's - a graphic story about Pyotr Baranovsky / Комикс о Барановском.

I have been interested in Pyotr Baranovsky (1892-1984) for several years, studying his life, and the buildings he restored and saved from destruction. At the end is a map showing all the buildings he worked on in Moscow. This story that I did in 2013 focuses on St Basil's and Kazan Cathedral on Red Square. 

© Clementine Cecil All rights reserved 

Map of Moscow showing architectural monuments Baranovsky worked on during his lifetime - below is a key

1. Surveyed architectural monuments 
2. Architectural monuments for which restoration projects were devised
3. Restored architectural monuments
4. Architectural monuments saved from demolition
5. Architectural monuments that were demolished
6. Architectural monuments that were reconstructed with consultation from, or using materials from, Baranovsky.