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...

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