Monday, 18 July 2016

Broken engines and Viktor the alcoholic hunter. Voyage to Siberia part 4

X and I slept long that first night in our new beds. The next morning we had our first request for money - 8 million roubles for a new engine for the Kolya’s boat. Inflation was off the scale in 1997. This made bartering and negotiating even more trepidatious. Just getting one’s mouth around the thousands and hundreds of thousands slowed one up by a half second and let doubt and brazenness in. The engines were not built to last: that had never mattered before, as new ones had been dished out every year, but this was no longer the case. If you didn’t have a working engine you couldn’t get to Zyryanka, the nearest point for supplies, nor could you hunt, to put food on the table. Kolya’s motor, like so many in the village, was 2 years old, and kept breaking. 

In the summer months - between May and September, you needed a boat to get around. The other months you needed a vezdekhod - an all-terrain vehicle. Or skis. These people, now settled, had no choice but to rely on the support of the government. 

My work as interpreter began in earnest at this point and I translated as X negotiated. On this occasion, he resolved the situation by leaving the room. We went to see Slava the Yakutian schoolteacher. He was a serious individual, who would have been more at home in a university corridor than a village in the Siberian taiga. He advised against lending the money, saying that Kolya’s protestations that he would get it back to us within a week were hot air.

Kolya and Dusya asked us repeatedly for the money for the new motor over the next few days. It was extremely awkward but we held our ground. It was a good thing we did as we were to need the money later.

Requests for money became regular occurrences, from all quarters. This would, I imagine, have always been the case - in Soviet times it may have been for coveted goods, but now it was simply for hard cash. These people had nothing, and those who didn’t hunt, or didn’t run the shop, had only tiny, irregular pensions. Wages for the village doctor and school teacher hadn’t arrived for months. Money did get through every now and then but it was unpredictable.

Available food was as follows: bread baked in the village shop, where you could also buy fresh butter brought in from a dairy in Zyryanka; moose meat - if you were able to shoot one; condensed milk and other preserves also available in the village shop. And sometimes, strangely enough, granny smith apples at vast expense. Moose meat is delicious: they are herbivores and the flesh is sweet and fragrant, despite the villagers’ ability to render everything grey and tasteless. During the 2 months we spent there, I also tasted: finely sliced frozen deer liver, swan baked in tiny pies, fish freshly caught, and once, a potato, a cucumber and a tomato. People decorated their apartments with empty Uncle Ben’s Rice and Choco-Pie boxes, but I never saw them on the table. 

The people in the village who ate well were the shopkeepers, Slava and his wife. They were Russians from Crimea who had been tempted to this far off region by the hardship wages. They had moved here in the late 1980s planning to save up for a quiet old age in Crimea. Then the Soviet Union collapsed, the rouble inflated and they could barely afford a ticket home to visit family. Nevertheless, they had a more comfortable life than most in the village, simply because they had access to food. There were major ethnic tensions in the village - between Yakuts, Yukagirs and Russians. The village was predominantly Yakutian and it was the language that almost everyone, apart from the handful of Russians, spoke. Everyone could speak Russian, although many of them spoke it primitively and with poor grammar. 

The animosity occasionally shown towards the Russian shopkeepers was, I think, as much envy as it was racial. On our arrival in the village, for example, we drew up alongside the shopkeeper in our boat. She had a bag of onions between her knees. Rosa said to her ‘I thought it was the Russians, and that I wouldn’t bother saying hi.’ ‘Bitch,’ was the reply she got. 

This was an introduction into the intense bickering and conflicts that determined the life of this tiny village in the middle of the taiga in northern Siberia. Around us was infinite space and wilderness, but when you are in the village, you are cooped up in pokey houses with small windows all day, sheltering from the mosquitos. There is little distraction from everyday life - people take refuge from this boredom and, especially at that time, uncertainty, in petty squabbling, drinking, and scheming. There were healthier, refuges too: sewing, buildings houses, making toys, planning the next hunt. 

For his film for his MA in visual anthropology, X decided to focus on three stories - two portraits of people in the village, and the third story would be the hunt. 

The first story was about an alcoholic hunter called Viktor. He approached X and I on one of our first evenings in the village and asked to borrow 45,000 roubles to make a phone call from the telephone exchange. That also happened to be the price of a bottle of vodka. We didn’t give him the money, but we agreed on a time to come and interview him.

Viktor was one of the best shots in the village - a dark, handsome man, with a beaten up face, his brother had been killed in a terrible drunken accident the previous year, and his wife and children had also left him. When sober he was kind and gentle. When drunk he was morose and melodramatic. 

Viktor would shoot at the swans that migrated in a great arc over the village. The day before we interviewed him he gave me a swan’s foot with a metal tag on it. The swan was converted into tasteless little meat pies by Rosa that night. Viktor sold everything he shot, and more. There is a Russian word - пропить - propit - meaning to drink through. When X and I went to film him in his house, we saw how we had  ‘drunk through’ it, for it was entirely bare, apart from a dresser with a mirror, around which were some pictures of his wife and daughters, and a mattress and blanket on the bare wooden floor, that was clear and shiny in the sunlight - its emptiness glaring and bleak. He grabbed my hand as I walked in and said ‘you don’t believe me, you don’t believe me do you. Look!’ He handed me a birthday card from one of his daughter, that was full of formal birthday wishes.

As soon as we trained the camera on to him, Viktor sparked into angry animation. I wrote in my diary at the time: “Viktor thrives under the camera, he talks to X through it, begs and pleads and persuades him, it is as if the camera multiples the audience a hundred fold. He has a sad fate ahead of him. He was meant to be on an archaeological expedition last week but he drank through all the money with Kostya. He is meant to be going to the senokos (hay cutting) the day after tomorrow but he will probably have a terrible hangover and the helicopter will go without him.”

After shooting him in the house, we took him down to the graveyard that is situated at the end of the village. Because of the permafrost, the graves slip and slide and the crosses protrude feebly at obtuse angles from the earth. These bodies are simply frozen: if the ice melts, which it slowly is doing, they will float to the surface in a semi-frozen state. The graves are home to the dead of Nelemnoye, some of whom met old age, and the many who died young in alcohol-related deaths.

There was a wooden table and benches in the graveyard that provided a morbid backdrop to Viktor who dived into the story of all those he knew who were buried there, with great relish - the alcoholic’s lament - parents, brothers, cousins. The interview was exploitative, and as empty and depressing as his house. Viktor didn't tell us anything - he just gave us a portrait of a broken man. He did the interview in exchange for a bottle of vodka. X was delighted with the results. 

In the meantime, plans for a hunt were afoot and we spent every spare moment in discussion with those we were going with. 

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