Monday, 22 August 2016

Farewell, Siberia (for now)

X and I were getting on better than usual. This was because I was hard at work, dubbing the interviews he had shot for his film, and he could have no complaints about my gadding around the village. He would even bring me coffee and praise my work.

The sides of these boxes were cut out and stuck on the walls of peoples' houses.
I never tasted one, but I brought this one home
He was wooing a lady in the village, the schoolteacher, to be his ‘village wife’ - the idea being that she would welcome him on arrival from Denmark and when he returned from the taiga. She was a nice docile creature, I think too sensible to succumb. Also, everyone knew he had a fiancee back home. 

Roza tried to set me up with a nice boy at the village disco that happened once every couple of weeks. I wore my best outfit - black suede mini skirt, black lycra tights a black t-shirt and big bold red beads. I enjoyed several ‘white dances’ - ie with people I didn’t know, and then joined the smokers outside to puff away the mosquitos. I was offered some mosquito repellant that I gladly accepted, except it melted holes into my tights and I went home. 

The Village Council
One day towards the end of our stay, lots of people received advances on their wages: the shop was cleared out of vodka within two hours - five boxes of 16 bottles - 80 bottles poured down fewer throats -  there were 110 people living in the village, including women and children. 

Our host Kolya’s adopted son, Maxim, got wildly drunk, and despite his puny size, attacked X in the middle of the night for ‘insulting his father’. X had recently by-passed the unreliable Kolya when arranging the visit of a Dane to come and set up a saw mill in the village.

Maxim had a wild look in his eye, the alcohol giving him a superhuman strength and tenaciousness. He ripped off his top and strutted up and down outside the house at 4 in the morning, in the constant twilight of the summer northern night, not noticing the mosquitos that were devouring him. X was worried he was going to find a gun. Brandishing a pair of nail scissors - all X could find in my room to defend himself from Maxim - he sent me off to get Kolya, who defused the situation temporarily by pouring the filthiest swear words I had ever heard on to Maxim’s head and dragging him away. He kept drinking for a couple more days. 

Shortly after this we had a final visit to the Taiga with the chaotic Kolya and Akulina Vasilievna, village elder and carrier of the Yukagir myths, and her husband Grisha, a celebrated hunter. It was a huge privilege spending time with them. She told so many convoluted and incredibly stories that I didn't even try to write them down, which I now regret.   

In the Taiga with village elder Akulina Vasilievna
Akulina Vasilievna and her husband Grisha. A dignified couple she was tiny and always talking - he was normal size and silent. She was the carrier of the village myths and he was a skilled hunter.
Akulina Vasilievna in the Taiga
Some of Akulina Vasilievna's handiwork

Akulina Vasilievna kindly made me a sable hat and some salted fish to take home. I tucked the fish in the hat and as a result could never wear it as it smelt so badly. I had also been given by assorted villagers: a baby bear skin, a mama bear skin and a mammoth tooth that I gave to my father. 

In the last week or two, I'd got together with a village boy, Andrei. He wasn't one of the ones I'd had a 'white dance' with at the disco, and Roza described him as 'a bad lot'. He had actually been more interested in hearing about my life as a student in Glasgow than making out. We stayed up night after night smoking cigarettes and me telling stories about drinking in Nice n Sleazy and the annual Halloween fancy dress competition at the Art School. 

The Bad Dane, X and I left together. Andrei didn't come and say goodbye, which stung. On the 9-hour plane ride back to Moscow, X ripped into me, saying I’d sullied his reputation in the village by getting involved with a local, that he wouldn’t be taken seriously because of my behaviour and that I should be ashamed of myself. I was relieved when we parted ways in Moscow. 

Re-embraced by my kind Moscow friends, I lay back in the bath at Sivstsev Vrazhek (the bath plug improvised from a shot glass), in the studio apartment where I had enjoyed my first new year and fallen in love with Russia four years earlier. I looked up at the ceiling and saw where a little bit of newspaper was poking through the paintwork. It must have been insulation or a patch-up job. A kind of ecstasy flooded my body - a feeling of gratitude and relief. I thought to myself:  ‘This is truly home. Moscow - Russia - is a place where imperfections are not hidden, are considered beautiful - it is possible to be free here.’

Two months later I was back, working for the maestro terrible of Russian theatre, Anatoly Vasiliev. But that is another story… 

Coming second in an arm-wrestling competition in Zeryanka
Sunbathing with da girls.
Goodbye Nelemnoye...

Monday, 8 August 2016

Voyage to Siberia Part 6 - The Hunt - (do not read if squeamish)

'You can't come on the hunt,' said X on my return from Zeryanka where I had been buying supplies. 

'Why not?' I asked, 'is it men only?' 

X shifted in his seat - we were in the kitchen, cockroaches scuttled behind the skirting board.
'Well, yes it is,' he said. 

X wanted to go and be a man among men and because I was the interpreter, even though I helped him communicate, I also got in the way.

I went to ask one of the Spiridonovs, the best hunting family in the village. Yuri Spiridonov said seriously,  ‘you can help cook,’ and then gave me a wink when X wasn’t looking.

We set off towards evening, spirits were high. Our party was as follows: 3 generations of the Spiridonov family: grandfather Spiridonov, Yuri and his son Styopa; Vlad the Yakutian village doctor and Slava the Russian shopkeeper. 

We traveled in a retinue of 5 boats in case one of the engines broke down. As it was one or other of them had to be tinkered with every half hour. 

Within minutes of leaving came a sense of the vastness of the taiga. It was magnificent, transporting, sublime. 

artist's impression (mine) of the almost impossible to capture vastness of the Taiga. I will keep trying. 

A transformation took place. On leaving the village everyone seemed to grow by a foot, and a lightness of spirit came upon the party. Slava, with whom I was sharing at boat and who until then had seemed to me a perfectly ordinary, good natured fellow, suddenly appeared to be handsome and strong and ten years younger. I enjoyed watching Vlad, a handsome Yakutian with a strong underbite on his jaw. He moved like a clockwork toy, I wrote in my diary, neat, sure and efficient. 

We floated downstream to conserve petrol

Grandaddy Spiridonov by one of the tents that we pitched 'at night', even though it never got dark. We would fell saplings for tent poles. 

We had a system of waves and signals between the boats. Grandaddy Spiridonov floated by reading a thriller called KGB and gave me a thumbs up. 

Because I was there the men refrained from swearing, and instead did as much as possible to amuse me. This was infuriating to X, who couldn’t do male bonding with them as they kept picking me bouquets of wild flowers, giving me titbits to eat, and making good natured jokes about finding me a husband in the village. 

I remember climbing this tiny hill that they called a mountain. They were worried that as a girl I wouldn't have the energy. The reason for the climb was to survey the territory for winter hunting. 

Even X softened - he showed me how to load a gun and gave me a cartridge in case we were attacked by bears. I put it in a purse that I hung around my neck. 

X was passionate about hunting and in essence it was the reason for this trip to Siberia. He was making a film about the Yukagir tribe for his MA in visual anthropology and this was an essential part of their existence.

There was, for me, no ethical issue with hunting. It was the second half of the 1990s, the soviet union had recently collapsed, there was almost nothing to eat on the shelves of the village shop - what was there was prohibitively expensive and due to the location of the village in the far north, growing season was a mere few weeks a year.

The village subsisted on fish and moose meat, tea, bread and cigarettes. If you were a Yukagir or half Yukagir, who had always hunted, you had a license to kill one moose a year. Alternatively, you could buy a license. Otherwise, it was poaching. On this hunt we were poaching as the Spiridonovs, the only Yukagirs among us, had already used up their licenses and could not afford more. Due to food shortages in the village, all the moose nearby had been shot and we had to go further afield. 

Before we made our first kill we ate meat preserves from tins that were several years out of date, with bread from the village. Everything tasted delicious. We used mosquito repellant that was out of date too. There was no escaping them. We only washed our hands to eat, when dozens of mosquitoes would land on each hand and suck away. I quickly got used to drinking them down with my tea. 

The hunting happened from the boats. The Spiridonovs, with their eagle eyes, spotted moose on the banks and shot from the boats, tho they wobbled beneath them. They spotted a bear once too - but try as I might and to my great regret, I couldn’t see it. Bears were sacred - and out of superstition, or was it experience, talk of them was discouraged on the hunt as it was thought that if we spoke of them they would raid our camps. 

Once we had shot a moose the hard work began - it was dragged into the river to be skinned and cut up. Firstly the end of the antlers was cut off and eaten - for virility (I was included in this ritual) and then the nose would be cut off and stewed together with the liver and part of the small intestine. It was my job to clean the small intestine, in the river. It was soft and silky and full of grass and leaves. 

As this stew of delicacies bubbled away, the men skinned and butchered the carcass. The lungs and stomach floated away downstream, echoing the low mountains in the distance. 

Branches were cut from trees and laid on the shore, and the meat laid upon it, like a great bloody carpet-  fascinating and terrible to behold. 

It was too soon to go back to the village - we wanted to kill more, so we created a ‘permafrost refrigerator’ to preserve the meat for a few days. I watched as the men dug down approximately one metre to the permafrost, laid a bed of branches on the frozen earth, the moose meat upon that, a vivid red against the green, and covered it back over with the earth and grass. There it lay, camouflaged and scentless, safe from the bears who would certainly eat the meat if they found it. We peeled a strip of bark from one of the birch trees nearby, visible from the river, so that we knew where to gather the meat on our return journey. 

keeping the meat cold on the permafrost to allow the hunt to continue

marking where we had hidden the meat so we could retrieve it later.

Over two more days we killed more moose, our total being five, enough to feed the village for several weeks. Before returning, we divided the meat up into bags and floated back to the village, downstream, saving on petrol. 

We lay back in the boats and stared at the sky, sharing smokes and absorbing the sense of vastness in the taiga, before returning to the dull claustrophobia of the village and its grip of backbiting and gossip.

We timed our return for the dead of night. As it was light all the time, this was easy to manage. Arriving in the small hours when the village slumbered allowed us to place a sack of meat on every doorstep without being seen by the Mayor, who did not condone poaching and would have used the information to extort fines. 

The next day, all the faces in the village were cheerful, except that of the Mayor’s family, that had received nothing.