THE RUSSIAN ECONOMY WAS IN A STATE OF COLLAPSE BY NOW. Most people were earning far too little to survive. Many of those still in work were not being paid for months, while their bosses, or the banks, speculated with their wages. So why were people not starving? Each family was its own mystery, unfathomable from outside. Professionals were abandoning their jobs and turning to trading. Someone’s daughter was selling herself to foreign businessmen, someone else was selling their father’s wartime medals. Grandparents were growing potatoes for their children’s families in the city. Teachers were fainting from hunger in classrooms. In the last year of communism the average life expectancy for men was sixty-eight. By 1995, that figure had plunged to fifty-eight.
By the end of 1994, the mass privatization program was over. But despite this huge shift in ownership, the old Soviet factory managers were still in charge of industry. The attempt to give citizens a stake in the privatization had failed; speculators and those in the know were making fortunes. Foreign investors were also realizing that chunks of Russia’s industry could be bought for a song.
The main goal of Yeltsin’s reform team now was to get inflation under control. For until that happened, the economy could not grow. But a battle was raging at the heart of government. While the reformers were trying to kick-start capitalism, the Central Bank was pumping money into the economy in the old Soviet way. The result was hyperinflation. By the end of 1994 consumer prices would be 2,000 percent higher than in 1990.
By 1995 Chubais had managed to lick inflation, but he got little credit. For a new problem had emerged: the government was running out of money. It was borrowing on capital markets. Soon, this would spiral out of control, sowing the seeds of the great financial crash of 1998.
Among the gamblers, a handful had emerged with vast assets. At this level, it was a rough game, involving bribery, blackmail, and violence. Each oligarch was running his own intelligence corps and corporate army. By 1996 the relationship between them and the government was entering a dangerous phase. Chubais offered the oligarchs a deal. They could take shares in Russia’s oil and mineral wealth in return for lending the government money. He knew that it was risky handing them such power. But he reckoned that they would make better owners than the old Soviet factory managers.
By now, two of these oligarchs were running television channels. Vladimir Gusinsky’s NTV was joined at the end of 1994 by Boris Berezovsky’s ORT, a partnership with other oligarchs. This channel reached every home. Though not owned by the state, it had sworn loyalty to Yeltsin’s government. In the spring of 1995, ORT’s executive director was gunned down at his own front door. This murder shook Russia. People assumed that the assassins worked for someone in the state security services who was unhappy to see Berezovsky controlling the channel.
Russia had entered a murky period when the really significant changes that were happening were taking place in secret, a long way from the public eye. This was not helped by the fact that by 1995 Yeltsin’s health had broken down and he had retreated from public view. The country was awash with rumors about his drunkenness and the corruption of his inner circle. The election due in 1996 looked bound to return the Communist Party. Yeltsin’s cronies were urging him to cancel it.
Back in 1994, they had persuaded him that a brief, triumphant military campaign in Chechnya, to put down the secessionists, would boost his ratings. Instead the government was now bogged down in an unpopular war. Gusinsky’s television channel, NTV, was partly responsible for its unpopularity, as it had been capturing huge audiences with its reportage of bloody scenes.
The outcome of the coming election looked certain. Polls showed that the cheated, impoverished, humiliated, exhausted Russians wanted a strong leader to put things right. Gennady Zyuganov’s Communist Party was on the way back.
Zyuganov joined the election battle in the spring of 1996. Until then the frail president’s entourage managed to keep him isolated even from his own key ministers. He was about to succumb to their pressure to dissolve the Duma, postpone the election, and break the constitution when Prime Minister Chubais forced a meeting with him. Only then did Yeltsin learn what his entourage had been hiding: that only 3–4 percent of Russians were going to vote for him. Shocked, he rallied from his sickbed, accepted backing from the oligarchs, and set about stealing the election from Zyuganov.
Despite Zyuganov’s massive popular support, Yeltsin commanded all three national television channels, thanks to the oligarchs. After waging a very dirty campaign indeed, he went on to win the June election by a narrow margin, collecting 53.82 percent of the vote to Zyuganov’s 40.31 percent. After that, he returned to his sickbed, while the oligarchs joined the political scene.
Does the end justify the means? Nine years later, from his prison cell, the richest of those oligarchs, Khodorkovsky, would conclude that it does not: that by stealing the election for Yeltsin, the oligarchs had poisoned democracy’s chance of taking early root in Russia. “This was when the journalists stopped constructing public opinion and started serving the master, while independent social institutions became voices for their sponsors,” he wrote.
President Clinton, however, praised Yeltsin’s election victory as a milestone in Russia’s democratic progress. Russian voters had “turned their backs on tyranny,” he exulted. But Khodorkovsky was right. It would have been better if the Communist Party had been allowed to win that election, by democratic means. The Westernizers had won the battle, but lost the war.
LEGEND OF THE GOLDEN WOMAN
Moscow was like Babel that summer. Everyone and everything was for sale. The city had cast off its penitential monochrome Soviet style, and with it all restraint. There was a terrible energy on the streets, and color, too: hoardings had appeared, bright dreams of Chrysler cars, Snickers bars, and cat food, dreams which felt like foreign conquest to an older generation. When the sun came out, the city stank from the piles of uncollected rubbish. Homeless people milled around the railway stations. The pavements were choked with struggling people, traders, beggars, drinkers, thieves. But the sound of the city was changing: above the ground bass of traffic rose the screech of car alarms, the signature tune of a new propertied class. And now and then the sinuous form of a glamorous young woman threaded through the shabby crowd.
On the streets, the mafias were in control, and shootings between rival gangs were not uncommon. Benya had turned up again, penniless, after a year’s disappearance, lucky to have escaped with his life. He was a determined loner, and his friends feared for him now that the mafias were organized.
Ira was just back from shooting a documentary film about Zarafshan. Late into the night she poured out stories, consulting her notes, showing me documents and scraps of film. From the start, Zarafshan’s was a tragic story. A deported Soviet German geologist called Kinder had discovered the site after the war. Wild with joy, certain that this would clear him of the charge of collective treachery which was still hanging over the Russian Germans, he peppered the Party with reports. They took no notice. When they did take a look, in the 1960s, they got terribly excited, too. But they ignored Kinder’s role. In despair, he hanged himself. Even that was not easy. For he was a tall man, and the ceilings of Tashkent’s residential blocks were so low that his feet trailed on the ground.
They used convict labor to build the settlement. After two years of working under the desert sun, short of water all the time, the prisoners staged a desperate revolt. They were gunned down by their Caucasian guards, and a fresh batch of prisoners completed the work.
Zarafshan was one of those secret, closed towns run directly from Moscow by the Communist Party headquarters. Its mines were incredibly rich. They produced sixty tons of the purest gold a year, as well as uranium, silver, and tin. The housing was good, the shops well-stocked, and the pay high. But when Uzbek nationalism resurfaced under Gorbachev, Zarafshan’s elite workers, who were mostly Russian, found themselves stranded: it was rumored that Uzbek nationalists were planning to cut the water pipe. When the empire fell, they lost the remaining privileges that made their jobs worthwhile. Inflation shriveled their pay and Zarafshan became a prison.
That was when the visions began. In Ira’s footage Zarafshan’s ex–Party bosses described how terrified people started coming to Oscar, the mayor, begging him to make “them” go away. The stories then became a flood: shifts of two hundred miners were all seeing the same silvery shapes, leaping sideways, disappearing, defying the laws of gravity and thermodynamics. Next, some mediums from the city of Tomsk, hundreds of miles away, reported receiving cosmic messages addressed to Oscar. Oscar delegated all this to Vasya, and said nothing to Party headquarters, fearing the men in white coats might come for him.
Then one day, a UFO brought work to a standstill in one whole section of the mine. For hours, in full view of the workforce, it hovered there, training its searchlights over one of the great machines which separated the ore from the rock. Normally, the machine was used day and night, but the operators refused to go near it while the silver disc hung there. Once the “visions” started affecting production, Oscar let Moscow know. To his surprise, they flew in teams to investigate.
The Ministry of Atomic Power and Industry produced a report which tentatively suggested that this remarkable outbreak of the paranormal was connected to the fact that “people are living in conditions of maximum extremity …” In other words, Zarafshan was an ecological disaster. The mines were not ventilated, and the incidence of lung cancer was high. The cyanide being used to separate the ore from the rock had poisoned the desert for miles around. There was also the problem of water. The nearest river, the Syr Dary’a, was seriously contaminated with pesticides, thanks to the cotton-growing settlements which had been built along it. In addition, extravagant extraction of water during the Soviet period had caused the world’s largest inland lake, the Aral Sea, to shrink to half its former size. Pesticides from its dried-out bed were being carried all over the region. Wherever they landed, people sickened.
What struck me about Ira’s footage was the way Zarafshan’s bosses kept trying to get Ira to understand, really understand, that all this was as real as their conversations with her. Their accounts suggested a widespread acceptance of the idea of aliens at a high level in the Communist Party hierarchy. This time, even the pragmatic Oscar admitted to Ira that “it happens everywhere—the only difference is that we accepted it.” He said that he had started taking the cosmic messages seriously when “they” pointed his men toward rich seams of ore the miners would have missed. Serious accidents had also been averted thanks to those messages, he said.
Official interest in Zarafshan came to a head two weeks before the Party’s attempted coup, in the summer of 1991. A message for Oscar from three hundred aliens, refugees from some planetary disaster, was intercepted by the Ministry of Defense’s mediums(!). They wanted Oscar’s permission to settle near the town. Without telling Oscar, the Party dispatched a helicopter full of troops to Zarafshan, led by one General Nazarov. The mobilization orders bore Gorbachev’s signature, and that of the last Soviet defense minister, General Yazov, ringleader of the Communist Party’s attempted coup, whose trembling hands would be captured by CNN’s cameras as the tanks rolled into Moscow.
General Nazarov and his men landed in Zarafshan, waited all day, arms at the ready, and finally received a message from the aliens, relayed via the Moscow mediums: “Your intentions are aggressive—we’re going to Orion instead.”
• • •
This deluge of weird information only compounded the problems I was having writing this story. I was reminded of the legend of the golden woman which European travelers to Russia had been bringing home with them for centuries. The Vikings were the first: they reported she was made of solid gold. Seven centuries later, when Muscovy threw off Tatar rule and reestablished links with Europe, the story resurfaced. Baron Sigismund von Herberstein, dispatched to Russia on diplomatic missions by the Habsburg court, featured her in his Description of Moscow and Muscovy, in 1549. The statue consisted of three figures, one inside another, he said, and had a hollow “singing” interior. A few decades later, when Richard Chancellor came home from Russia after his abortive search for a northern sea route to China, he brought back news that the golden woman was an oracle. Giles Fletcher, dispatched to Russia by Queen Elizabeth in 1588, even sent an expedition off in search of her. He concluded that the “golden hagge” was just an old wives’ tale, inspired by a rock shaped like a woman. But even in the mid-twentieth century there were still said to be Russians here and there in the countryside who maintained that there really was a golden woman hidden somewhere in Russia’s forests.
Some of those travelers must have believed, or half-believed, in the golden woman while they were in Russia. But by the time they reached home, she was just a tall story. I had no idea what had gone on in Zarafshan. But I had started to appreciate that quite a lot of Russians really did see reality very differently than I did.
THE PATH NOT TAKEN
My friends in Marx were muddling through somehow, concentrating on getting through from day to day. But they, like me, had expected that democracy would take root in Russia after the fall of the Soviet empire. With every year that passed, that was looking less and less likely. Now, they seemed depressed, rudderless. A huge, unresolved question was hanging over their lives: who are we now if we’re not communist? What does it mean to be Russian?
Under communism, nationality was meant to fade away, replaced by a new Soviet identity. Now, whatever their other difficulties, Russia’s ex-colonies in central Asia, Caucasus, and the Baltic states were enjoying a newly recovered sense of self. But for the Russians it was not so easy. Ethnicity was not enough, for the Russians were not all Slav. Territory could not be the defining factor either, for this vast land straddling Europe and Asia had no clear borders to the west or south.
Before the Revolution, the Orthodox Church had bound Russia’s imperial subjects together. But although opinion polls showed people were now fascinated by belief, they were not interested in their Church. As yet only 10 percent identified with it. This was hardly surprising. Orthodoxy had been savagely persecuted in the Soviet period. All but eight thousand churches had been destroyed or reused and some two hundred thousand churchmen lost their lives, the finest among them. As an institution, it had survived only by submitting itself to control by the militantly atheist state. The Church was going to take time to recover its voice and place in society.
All this was very much on my mind when I read an extraordinary story in the paper: some geologists on a field trip in the forests of Siberia had come across a community of Old Believers. They had been cut off from society for so long that they knew nothing about airplanes, let alone communism. They were survivors of the great schism in Russia’s Church in the eighteenth century, which had split the country in two. In order to escape persecution, they had fled to remote parts of the country. Under the tsars there were still thriving sectarian communities all over Russia, but after the Revolution information about them dried up.
I was amazed that these people, who had turned their backs on the very notion of progress, could have escaped communism while remaining in Russia. Surely these Russians must be part of the answer to that question: who are we, if we’re not communist? I started dreaming of visiting an Old Believer community. But it was only a dream. When I began traveling in Siberia, I found that, though there were sectarian villages all over Siberia, most were falling apart, their young having left for the cities. Even if I could identify one that was still vigorous, I could hardly turn up there on my own. For as an independent woman, a nonbeliever, and a Westerner, I represented everything they abhorred.
It was a rare piece of good fortune that I happened to meet one of the few people in Russia who could help me. Vladimir Nikolaevich Alekseev was on a visit to the British Library as part of a delegation of librarians. He was tall and deep-chested, with a bushy brown beard, and he ran the country’s greatest repository of Old Believer books, in Novosibirsk.
Every summer for thirty years, he told me, he and his wife had spent traveling down rivers, into the forests in search of outlying Old Believer communities. The Old Believers’ lives revolved around their old texts, he explained. As their communities dwindled, many were no longer being used. They did not relish the prospect of their books falling into the wrong hands and were happy to let him acquire them for Novosibirsk’s library.
In due course, when I met his wife, Professor Elena Ivanovna Dergacheva-Skop, a formidable personality and distinguished scholar of the Old Believers, they asked me to join them on their next trip. They were going to visit their favorite Old Believer community, where they considered the Old Belief was best preserved. The village was called Burny, which means “stormy,” and it lay deep in the forest, far way from any road or railway. To get there involved traveling north up the River Yenisei, then east down the Stony Tunguska River in boats. I did not appreciate as I traveled to the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk for the start of the expedition quite how intrepid the Alekseevs were to organize it at that juncture. Inflation was still running at 19 percent a month; the economy was barely functioning and transport was paralyzed for lack of fuel and passengers.
Thirteen of us boarded the sturdy river steamer. There were a group of Elena Ivanovna’s students and a couple of other Britons: a history lecturer called Alan and his wife, Kirsty, who taught Russian. I sat on deck, my back to the throbbing engine, looking out over the cold, boiling waters of the Yenisei. We had left behind the rusting industrial hulks of Krasnoyarsk. Soon we would be passing the hidden bunker city which had been carved out of the ground in the paranoid Cold War years. I scanned the banks for signs of it. I had come up from below to get away from Alan, who was irritating me intensely. He knew a lot about Russia on paper. But never before had he been in a place where things did not work. He did not speak the language either. With every day that passed his plump, rubicund face was looking more aggrieved.
The Yenisei rises in the mountains on Mongolia’s northwestern border and runs through the landmass before debouching into the Arctic Ocean. It marks a natural boundary between the low swampy plains of western Siberia and the virgin forests of the central Siberian plateau. To the east, the forest stretched away, unbroken in places, for thousands of miles all the way to the Sea of Okhotsk.
The river was so wide here that the banks had shrunk to two green strokes of a pencil on either side. For centuries, these waterways were the main thoroughfares through the landmass. The Cossack commander Ermak brought his little expeditionary force down this network of rivers when he subdued the Mongol khanate of Kuchum and conquered Siberia in 1581. His was a commercial venture, paid for by rich merchants pursuing the fur trade. Later, from the mid-eighteenth century, rivers became the main conduit for transporting convicts and rebels to Siberia. The leaders of Russia’s two great early peasant rebellions, Stenka Razin and Emilian Pugachev, sailed up the Yenisei into exile. So did the Decembrists, those dilettante revolutionaries who tried to overthrow the tsar in 1825, after catching the democratic virus in Europe when they drove Napoleon’s troops back from Moscow. Stalin traveled up this river into exile, too, as did hundreds of thousands of Soviets consigned to the Gulag.
A day and a half later, the steamer dropped us off at the mouth of the Stony Tunguska River. It was ten o’clock at night and raining, but still light, being so far north. As we hauled our rucksacks up the wooden steps from the foreshore Alan lagged behind, attaching trolleys to his large cases. “This is no place for luggage trolleys!” snapped Elena Ivanovna. “Leave it to the boys!” “Oh, shut up. Leave me alone!” growled Alan.
We were laying out our sleeping bags in the barrack-like hostel when Vladimir Nikolaevich summoned us to the largest dormitory. “I know you’re all longing to get to bed,” said Elena Ivanovna, holding us with her blue determined gaze. “But I have to say this: the chipmunk is a bird, and it flies low. In other words, from now on we’re an Expedition, and an Expedition has only one leader. However absurd the order, I’m the boss and you do what I say. There’s only one way, and that’s mine.”
Day One. Bor consisted of a muddle of wooden barracks at the mouth of the Stony Tunguska River. Balanced on the edge of a vast reach of forest, it must once have been a bustling transit point, servicing the gold and copper mines and expeditions of geologists. Now the only other guests in the hostel were a group of drunken, gap-toothed ex-convicts. The airport at the end of the dust track was a graveyard of rusting planes. Planes passed overhead, but they no longer stopped at Bor. Vulpine hunting dogs sprawled on the track lay undisturbed. The original plan was to travel upriver along the Stony Tunguska in two large flat-bottomed boats. But one was missing, presumed holed in the shallows upriver. The only other one large enough was expected back tonight. Meanwhile, the Alekseevs asked that we refrain from speaking English outside the hostel: if word got around that there were foreigners in Bor, the price of transport would soar.
Day Two. The boat was back, but there had been so little rain that it could not make the final stretch of our river journey. Now the Alekseevs were trying to get hold of a plane. We made the odd foray to the two wooden huts that served as shops. The students played cards. Alan fretted, and I retreated behind a book.
Of all the rebellions against the Russian state, that of the Old Believers was the one that caught the popular imagination. Ostensibly, the schism was provoked by a series of what to us seem tiny changes. Patriarch Nikon ordered for Church rituals and texts in 1653: the spelling of Jesus’s name; the number of Hallelujahs in a service; the number of fingers with which worshippers crossed themselves. His reasons for doing so were pragmatic. Since the fall of Byzantium, Russia was the last great power in Eastern Christendom not overrun by Islam. It aspired to leadership of the Orthodox world, but in order to achieve this it had to bring its own religious practice into line with the rest of Orthodoxy. The priorities of the Old Believers were different: for them, all that mattered was the tradition they knew, and that was inviolable. They fled to the forests and outlying regions. Tens of thousands retreated into their wooden churches and burned themselves to death.
Of course, the reasons for the schism lay deeper, in the issue of Russia’s destiny: should it open up to the West, or not? Over the next two centuries it became more overtly political, embracing a fifth of the population. For merchants and those with land, Peter the Great’s reforms offered a way forward; but not for the poor. The Old Belief became a movement of resistance to the encroaching power of the modernizing, power-hungry state.
In Krasnoyarsk, before we boarded the steamer, another scholar of the Old Believers had been saying to me that most Russians today did not understand them: “They see them as quaint, with their stern expressions and long beards. They think of them as having valuable icons and books—yes, it’s a dangerous time for them, they’re being robbed, even scholars steal things from them! What they can’t see is that the Old Believers are an essential part of Russia’s identity. They’re the living continuation of that first rift which opened up in Russia in the seventeenth century. They’re vital to our understanding of ourselves. Ever since then it has opened up again and again whenever there’s a civil war. As there was during the Revolution. As there is today! Look at the struggle between Yeltsin and the parliament—it’s the same old thing. Our history only begins to make sense when you see that it doesn’t move on like Western history—it just goes round and round!”
That was what interested me about the Old Believers. For centuries Russia was a backwater, its peace occasionally disturbed by elites bringing modern ideas, which resulted in sudden upheavals. There was Christianization, there were Nikon’s reforms; Peter’s determination to turn Russia into a European nation-state, and Lenin’s to impose communism. These ideas were all visited on the country top-down, from the center, and they succeeded in laying down veneers of change. But how much did things change underneath that veneer? And would these present upheavals result in changes that would affect more than an elite?
In the evenings, when we met up for our improvised meal, Vladimir Nikolaevich would talk about life in Burny. While I adored these stories, Alan was growing increasingly jumpy. For he was writing a paper about Burny entitled “The Last Medieval Village in Europe.” The reality we were hearing about was rather different: yes, in theory the villagers lived off the land; built their houses, and avoided machinery and labor-saving devices. But this evening we learned that the men traveled to their distant winter hunting grounds on snowmobiles. “What’s that if not a labor-saving device?” exploded Alan. The students fell about laughing, but the Alekseevs looked deeply distressed.
Day Three. Today Alan blew our cover by ringing the Alekseevs at the airport and asking for them in his few words of Russian. Elena Ivanovna was so angry that she could hardly bring herself to look at him.
Everyone was jumpy. Tomorrow was Saturday. Unless we left then, we would be stuck in Bor until Monday. Each additional day here meant one fewer in Burny, as Alan and his wife had fixed return plane tickets. It was looking possible that we might even find ourselves returning to Krasnoyarsk without reaching Burny. The Alekseevs were looking worn out.
Meanwhile, the restless Alan had found an empty floor of clean rooms with curtains, doors that locked, and even bedclothes. They were pitifully cheap by Western standards, but not for the Russians. Alan moved in with his wife, and offered to take rooms for the whole expedition, but Elena Ivanovna refused: this was an instance of the chipmunk flying low. I dithered: I knew I should choose the solidarity of the group. But I was sleeping badly, thanks to a snoring student. Shamefacedly, I joined the Britons.
It was an immense relief to be alone. Now, my only companion was a six-foot balsam whose pink fleshy blooms had dazzling yellow stamens. The fragile branches were suspended from the curtain rail by strands of wire. In this dead-end place it seemed like a vision of Sophia, goddess of wisdom and femininity. I gazed at it, thanking all those lonely men who had resisted stubbing their cigarettes out on her roots, or crashing into her after a night’s drinking.
Day Four. Last night, Vladimir Nikolaevich told us we were not far from the site of the Tunguska explosion of 1908. That famous event flattened eight hundred square miles of forest and was heard seven hundred miles away. The first scientific expedition reported that huge trees had been uprooted and whole herds of reindeer killed. One of the few witnesses—from a long way away—was so terrified that he lost the power of speech for seven years.
Finding no crater, the expedition concluded that whatever caused the explosion, it was definitely not a meteorite. By the 1950s, scientists were saying that it looked nuclear: it had devastated an area twenty times larger than Hiroshima. Could a comet have created its own, natural nuclear explosion? Still, nothing explained the size of it. Some suggested that only a black hole could have made such a bang. Others suspected some lethal combination of matter and antimatter. Inevitably, there were suggestions that a cosmic spacecraft had exploded in midair.
Day Five. The Alekseevs had secured transport: a rusting military cargo plane that did a weekly round of isolated forest settlements. The flying bus rose out of Bor with a deafening roar. We flew east, following the glittering thread of the Stony Tunguska River, touching down here and there to collect men going to market. The plane was soon crammed with men, clucking chickens, a pig in a crate, kegs of salt fish, and barrels of berries.
I had known that we were entering the largest remaining reach of virgin forest in the world. But only now did the vastness become real. Undulating over the hills, the woodland looked like the hide of a sleeping beast: cloud shadows, moving slowly, threw dark patches over its flanks and gave it breath. Then, without warning, the pilot looped the loop over a clearing; bodies crashed, barrels rolled, pigs and chickens squealed. Chuckling, the pilot brought down the plane and spilled thirteen of us out, disheveled, onto a spit of land in midriver.
THE LOST HEART OF RUSSIA
As the sound of the plane faded an awesome silence settled in. What I had thought of as silence was only ever a muted roar. This had depth and presence. It beckoned, like a new dimension.
Shallow water chuckled over the smooth pebbles on that spit of land in midriver. The fractured surface was flecked with sunlight. Beyond there was only the dappled forest. I knew this landscape from a thousand Russian iterations: paintings by Shishkin and Levitan, forest wallpapers in cramped apartments, postcards, tapestry cushions, plastic trays, poems and eulogies of mushroom picking. My Russian friends loved the idea of this landscape. But few of them can have been in forest like this. It was their archetypal landscape, however, the ancient place of their belonging.
A flotilla of dinghies carried us up a tributary of the Stony Tunguska. The rippling waterway was refracted into a million fishy scales of light. To one side, the water gleamed darkly purple, on the other it ran chalky green. Standing on the foreshore to welcome us, surrounded by bearded, headscarved villagers, stood an upright man with bright blue eyes. This was Philimon, about whom we had all heard so much. He was the village’s redoubtable lay preacher, and the Alekseevs’ special friend.
The headland behind was dotted with log cabins. Across the river reared an escarpment of pink granite. A muddy track wound through the village, with a thin, raised boardwalk. Dogs, cows, and children wandered freely, girls in faded print dresses dragging muddy siblings in their wake.
• • •
Our hostess, Photinia, blue-eyed with honey-colored skin, darted round the room, piling the table with food. Next to Elena Ivanovna sat Philimon, Photinia’s father. His face, with its blue eyes framed by red-blond hair, was striking for its air of authority. Two blond children ran around the table, while in the open doorway a muddy two-year-old was hugging a sheep. By any sociological definition these people were peasants. But in Russia the word does not conjure up a Tolstoyan ideal so much as something narrow and dark. In living memory, Russia’s government engineered famines that killed millions of peasants because they were blocking the path of progress. I needed another word to describe these Old Believers. They radiated confidence and intelligence, the assurance that they were anything but marginal, that they lived at the center of the world.
The Russians have a legend that when the Mongols invaded Russia, the Prince of Vladimir took refuge in a town called Kitezh. A spy gave away his hiding place. But even as Khan Baty’s warriors bore down on the town the waters of the lake engulfed it. They say Kitezh is the lost heart of Russia. It seemed to me as I sat at that table that I had found that heart.
• • •
That evening I sat on the pebbled foreshore of the River Burny, reveling in the space, after our days of confinement in Bor. The deep green of pines and cedars was broken by paler splashes of birch and a hectic rash of larch. The shallow water chattering over the stones was dark now. From somewhere along the riverbank came the sound of shooting. Late though it was, it was light enough for boys to be firing at tin cans.
I had come down here to get away from Alan. The foreigners were lodging in the house of a village elder with a grave, iconic face. Our host, Maxim, was part of the army which pursued the Wehrmacht out of Russia, right back to Berlin. He was badly wounded on the battlefield: “In fact, they told my family I was dead, but God watched over me.” Coming home from the devastation of that war with his Old Belief reaffirmed, he had proceeded to make his house and many of the contents, too: furniture, cross-country skis, the families’ boots. To work with your hands was a kind of prayer, he said.
Next day he was leaving for Krasnoyarsk for an operation, he told us. So if we had any questions, now was the time to ask them. I had asked Alan to hold off posing one particular question, that first evening at least. But being Alan, he could not resist. As the dinghy rounded the bend in the river, he had been the first to spot the satellite dish jutting up over the village. So they’d come to escape from modernity, had they, he gloated; we’ll probably all find that they’re watching television, too.
“Do you have a television?” Alan duly asked Maxim.
The Old Believer drew himself up and said with an air of chilly finality, “We do not.” After that the conversation froze over.
To be honest, Alan was not the only one who went to bed disappointed: Burny, with its electricity and snowmobiles, seemed much like any other remote village in Siberia.
Next morning, at the service held in Maxim’s house, to pray for the success of his operation, I realized how wrong I was. The life of the village was organized around the old calendar of religious and agricultural festivals, with its forty-four saints’ days, twenty-seven major holidays, and services lasting for hours. We woke at dawn and watched as the red dot of a woman’s headscarf appeared, sailing through the mist like a boat. She was followed by a stream of people hurrying along the wooden planks raised above the muddy track through the village. They gathered in Maxim and Galya’s largest room, the men in high-necked embroidered shirts, tied with sashes into which their women had woven prayers.
Other branches of the Old Belief had priests, and their services were elaborate, colorful rituals. But this village belonged to the strictest branch of the splintered movement. Russia’s Quakers, they had no chapel and no priest, not since their last bishop was killed off by the Orthodox inquisition three centuries ago. Since then they had lived unbaptized, unmarried, unshriven, answerable for their actions only to their God.
The service, which I watched through a crack in the curtain, was a revelation. Ten centuries ago the ambassadors of the pagan Prince Vladimir came back from Constantinople dazzled by the ritual of Eastern Christianity. “We know not whether we were in heaven or on earth,” they said, “for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere on earth.” Vladimir was converted and the Russian Orthodox ritual has continued to entrance believers ever since with the drama it enacts. But here there was only a lot of men and women praying and singing directly to their God.
The service was conducted by a frail, bearded old man who needed prompting now and then by Philimon. All the other elders, including Philimon, had returned too recently from visits to the outside world. Before they could take a service, or be fully reintegrated into the community, they had to undergo a ritual period of cleansing. The longer the villagers spent away from Burny, or the more serious their transgression against the community, the more extreme the spiritual quarantine imposed. This was the community’s way of dealing with threats to its cohesion. Sometimes the penance involved a long period of solitude in the forest. The villagers were free to travel out into the world of sin. But afterward they had to go through this strong, purifying ritual of return.
After the four-hour service, and the communal meal that followed, I went for a walk. The sun had burned through the mist and threads of smoke were rising from the wooden houses. The cows had been let out of their barns and were wandering around, foraging for grass. Yes, that was it. In the Russia I knew, power was imposed from the top. It pressed down on people, filleting them of initiative, determining so much of the behavior we consider typically Russian. These people were different. They had responded to the schism by taking power into their own hands. In mainstream Russia, there was always someone to blame. These people did not live like that. They could choose to bring in a satellite dish if they wanted to. But they had to answer for that choice directly, to their God.
Just then a middle-aged woman with startling green eyes came running up, pushing her hair under her headscarf: “Hello! I’m Anfissa, Maxim’s sister-in-law. Come and have a drink!” It was nine o’clock in the morning.
“Could I drop by a bit later?”
“No, no. I’m out all day, it’s got to be now! It’s very important. You see it’s my name day!” Traditionally, the feast day of the saint after whom you were named was more important than your birthday. I was making my excuses when Anfissa exclaimed: “Look, there’s your husband!” I turned to see Alan emerging from Galya’s front gate, on his own. “That’s not my husband!” Anfissa rushed off after Alan, while I made my escape. Not fast enough. Alan soon caught up, panting, contrite, trying to be charming: please could I translate?
Anfissa’s dilapidated house was furnished only with a metal bedstead, a table, and a few stools. The sills were thick with dust. She grinned, following my gaze: “Why bother with housework? That’s what I say. When we were kids our house was swept away by floods not once but twice, but we’re all alive and kicking. It’s not things that matter, but people. I’ve always kept open house, like my ma,” Anfissa said, pouring us glasses of her homemade beer. “The boys come and say, “Anfissa, can I chop some wood for you?” As long as I’ve got enough brashka … Pity you weren’t here a couple of days ago for Stepan Stepanovich’s wake. You must’ve heard—he drowned in the river. Did we put it away! We saw him off well!” The deceased was Photinia’s father-in-law, and the accident happened when we were in Bor. Was that the real reason we were stuck there for so long? Perhaps the Alekseevs were worried that we would come here and find the villagers all blind drunk.
“Oh, just lend me your husband for a night or two,” Anfissa was saying. “He’s not my husband.” “We’d get on just fine—don’t mind me, it’s just Anfissa rabbiting away—I’m all mouth really …” A widow, she lived on her own. “A little more? It’s good, clean stuff, made it myself,” she kept saying. “My sister—no, not Galya—was staying last night,” Anfissa said to me in a stage whisper. “You know what she said: ‘I feel like a good fuck.’ ” She roared with laughter.
By the time Alan and I staggered out of Anfissa’s house the village was a blur and our differences were forgotten. A motorcycle was roaring down the narrow mud track through the village. The rider’s long fair hair streamed out behind. The track led from the river where we had landed to the far edge of the clearing. Beyond, the forest stretched for hundreds of miles. When the young man reached the end, he turned his motorbike around and raced back again, and again.
IN THE WILDERNESS
News of our drink with Anfissa traveled around the village in no time. Philimon was not amused: Anfissa was the black sheep of the village, it turned out. After that, I had the distinct impression he was avoiding me.
Now I sat with a group of young people on top of the high escarpment, looking down over Burny. From here you could see where the waters of two small rivers flowed together down below. While the River Burny ran purple, the Vel’mo was pale green from gold panning farther upstream.
All afternoon we had been picking berries in the forest. From up here you could see how fast the community was growing. A ring of new buildings, bright with freshly cut wood, had gone up around the edge of the village. All over Russia, Old Believer communities were falling apart, but this one was expanding. What was its secret?
My companions could not tell me, for Burny was all they knew. But I learned a lot from them. The village was in fact well connected with the outside world. Three of the fifteen extended families in Burny were not even Old Believers, just refugees from the chaos of mainstream Russia. As for the Old Believer families, ever since they came out of hiding in the 1950s their children had been obliged to attend boarding schools, and their young men to do military service. Other sectarian communities started losing their young to the cities from that time on. But these young people had no intention of leaving. Things were better here, they said.
Some of the children from Burny’s secular families were even converting and marrying into the Old Believer families. Grigory, husband of the beautiful Photinia, was a convert, for instance. It had taken him three years to win Philimon’s approval for their marriage. Pious and bearded, he looked every bit the Old Believer now and had recently been elected mayor of Burny.
Down below we watched boys spreading grass out to dry on the roofs. Philimon’s wife, Natalya Semyonovna, was working her vegetable garden with two of her youngest daughters. Across the street, the convert Grigory was cleaning fish in his backyard. Maxim’s wife, Galina, was carrying jars of pickled cucumbers from her summer kitchen in the garden to the storehouse.
It was harvest time. In a few weeks the sun would lose its warmth. Then the permafrost, which had receded enough to till the ground, would grip earth and water again for the next nine months. From first light, everyone in the village young and old was busy gathering food or preserving it. Every hour counted. When the village was still cloaked in mist, a group of the men had set out in their flat-bottomed boats to cut grass. Every household needed a barn full of hay to feed their animals through the winter. In the forest pasture was scarce and for each successive boatload they had to travel farther downriver. They would not be back till late tonight.
The village paid their state taxes in kind, and berries would be part of the tithe. We had started by the river, where the canopy of trees was high. Siberian cedar, spruce, larch, and birch vied to reach the sun, and the light that filtered through was tinged with green. Boulders and fallen trees made walking difficult. As we progressed slowly up the steep slope, clambering over huge fallen trees, long-legged blond children bestrode the trees like mountain goats. Gradually, the trees grew smaller and more sparse. We were looking for cranberries, but in the crevices of the rocks there were blueberries, raspberries, and blackcurrants, too.
When we got back the young men would set off downriver for a night’s fishing. “That sounds like fun,” I said. They laughed; they’d rather stay and watch the Mexican soap opera, they said. But there was no time for that: it was only a few weeks before the river froze over.
On a fallen tree yards away a chipmunk sat nibbling a nut, chattering, watching us unafraid, its striped tail garish. Earlier, while we were scattered among the trees picking berries, the silence was broken with little cries. This was how the villagers kept in touch in the forest. Even on a sunny day you could never be too careful. Not so long ago Photinia came face-to-face with a bear as she was picking berries. When she felt two hands on her shoulders she thought it was one of the boys. She turned around to find a bear standing behind her. If she was terrified, the beast was even more so; it was just a youngster and it wanted to play. It fled, pursued by the hunters. When they tracked it down they found that it had died of fear and exhaustion.
The shadows were long by the time we climbed down the rocks and crossed the river to the village. It had been fun. By comparison with young people from the cities these young seemed so carefree. They promised to take me to the haybarn where they all met up in the evening.
But in fact these Old Believers lived with danger every day. Photinia’s father-in-law had drowned in the river only days ago. Maxim and Galya had lost two of their sons in accidents. Even at home they were not safe: for the last two years the snow around Burny was so deep that when it thawed, the houses nearest the river, including the one where we were staying, were flooded up to the windows.
Hunting was the most dangerous occupation. When the Old Believers came out of hiding in the 1950s, the state recognized that such skillful hunters could be a valuable source of hard currency. They were offered a deal: if they would sell all the sable they trapped to the state, they could carry on with their lives. This was still their main source of income. The animals had to be trapped in deep winter, when their coats were thick. Temperatures could be as cold as forty to seventy degrees below freezing. Each family had its own hunting grounds, a long way away from the village, and the men would stay out for several months at a time. Every decision, every day was a matter of life and death.
One of the boys who came berry picking had already started hunting with his father, whose prowess as a hunter had earned him the Order of Lenin in Soviet times. “When it’s really cold you’ve got to keep moving all the time—you can’t sit down, you can’t even eat. You’ll probably cover ten to fifteen kilometers a day, checking snares all day. The work’s too finicky for gloves—you’ve got to take them off. And each time you do the cold gets in.
“The first few years are the most dangerous for a hunter, Father says. The young are too rash, he says. Like my brother Ivan. He was just back from military service. He went out with Father and another brother, Peter. They were all working on their own. He’d checked his snares and reached a hut. But it was still light, so he thought he’d go on to the next hut. He wrote a note to Peter, saying catch up with me at the next hut. He hadn’t realized there were these open stretches, where you sink right into the snow. Anyway, it got dark when he’d gone about halfway. He couldn’t see a thing. Kept losing the path, bumping into trees, falling into holes. He was dead beat, so he thought he’d just stop and have a rest. He started making a fire, then his axe broke. I’ll just have a little sleep, he thought. It wasn’t that cold. What he didn’t know was that the temperature was dropping—by next morning it would be twenty-two below.
“Well, Peter reached the hut and read the note. He was dog tired, but for some reason he couldn’t get to sleep. He got up, thinking I’ve got to catch up with Ivan, and set off into the night. It was madness. Ivan hadn’t even said which hut he was going to. On and on he walked, bumping into things. Then, amazingly, he came on Ivan, fast asleep in the snow. He couldn’t wake him up. He had to beat him with a stick to bring him around. Ivan would’ve been dead by morning.”
THE TIME OF THE ANTICHRIST
A shaft of evening light shone through the window onto Philimon’s fair hair, picking up its reddish tinge and the tips of his curly beard, leaving his face in shadow. Today he was much more relaxed. His friendship with the Alekseevs went back many years. They were more than scholars of the Old Belief: they were his allies, guardians of the tradition, mediators between the Old Believers and a Russia which regarded them merely as backward peasants.
Vladimir Nikolaevich was showing me Philimon’s collection of books. Some were brilliantly illuminated. Some dated back from before the schism. Many were handwritten, including one, unusually, which was copied by a woman, Philimon’s mother’s godmother.
Philimon had been talking about the difficulties he was having. There was rising nationalism among the Evenki, native hunter-gatherer Siberians. After the fall of communism, this territory was designated as their homeland. He dreaded to think what would happen if the Evenki started trying to get them out. The Old Believers could not, would not, go out into the world.
The village was also facing problems with the local authorities. The scale of the corruption was new: “They’re squeezing us dry … If it were up to me I know what I’d do. I’d just pack up and go. Move on as we’ve always done, deeper into the forest.” But although Philimon was the chief village elder, these decisions were arrived at collectively. On top of all that, there was the problem of prosperity: the rest of Russia might be on its knees, but here the villagers were managing well, too well for Philimon’s liking. Prosperity brought choices like television and snowmobiles.
Philimon sighed deeply: “We live in a decadent age. All these distractions and labor-saving devices take us away from the physical work which brings us to God. The sins we commit we wash away through work, through prayers and tears.” He sighed and closed his remarkable blue eyes. “Man cannot serve two masters. This is the time of the Antichrist. We’ve got to escape from his snares. We will have to do it, before we meet our Maker. It will take fortitude. Determination. Self-discipline.”
Philimon spoke with a peasant burr, but the cadence of his speech and his vocabulary were grand, fashioned by the sacred texts. “Any day now the Antichrist will come. We have no idea when that will be. We are so wrapped up in our lives that we won’t even notice. He will creep up on us unawares. He will be sitting right beside us. We must take ourselves in hand. Repent. But …” He paused.
“You mean the community isn’t ready?” Elena Ivanovna prompted him.
“That’s exactly what I mean. It’s the path of the few, I’ve got to accept that.”
However much they revered their starets, their lay preacher, this flourishing community was not going to leave everything behind and follow him. That was the tragedy Philimon faced. He sighed: “But then again—how could I leave my family?” His face looked tortured.
Philimon had never expected to become Burny’s starets. His father, who held the position before him, was revered for his piety and leadership qualities. When he resigned the villagers elected Philimon. In those days he was something of a rebel in Old Believer terms. He was, and remained, the best hunter in the region: his average winter harvest of two hundred sables was four times more than most men’s. Back then, he read voraciously, and wrote poetry—he used to compose verses for each newly built house and write them on the walls, they told me. The community, who were charged by tradition with arriving at a unanimous choice, hoped he would show his father’s talent for leadership. Philimon accepted the challenge. He changed his life to embrace the myth of original purity behind the Old Belief.
All of our cultures were once defined by such myths of purity, I had been reflecting; myths which could not be changed if they were to retain their meaning. But for the Jews, the story of the Garden of Eden was succeeded by the promise of a New Jerusalem. Looking to the future as it did, it unlocked the concept of modernity for us.
Yes, I reflected, this is it, the secret of Burny’s success. It is vested in this man with his blazing commitment to his faith. He asked a lot of the villagers. But he did not do so by telling them what to do so much as by challenging them to live up to the example of the books. Philimon was a long way off retiring, but I wondered who would succeed him. Might it even be his madcap oldest son, Ivan, the boy racer with his motorbike? More unlikely things had happened.
These Old Believers saw their lives as a gradual spiritual progression. Little was expected of the children and Burny’s teenagers danced, smoked, drank, and loved rock music like their counterparts anywhere. Only once they married, which they did early, were they expected to start taking their inner life seriously. From then onward, it occupied a progressively more important role in their lives, until in the end the serious men—the women did not appear to have this choice—retreated to a hut in the forest to devote themselves to the life of the spirit. That is what Philimon’s father did when he retired as the village’s starets, and Philimon himself would doubtless do the same in due course.
I took my leave and walked back along the raised boardwalk to Maxim’s house. Over the fence, Ivan was taking his motorbike to bits. A group of children in rubber boots were driving cows home through the mud. Photinia was taking her washing off the line.
• • •
Sociologically, Philimon was just a peasant. Yet, in respect of everything he valued, I was the primitive one, and in his presence I felt it. He had turned his lively intelligence inward and developed resources in himself which were mysterious to me. Philimon was not in a confrontational mood this afternoon, but face-to-face with him I felt him measuring my spiritual poverty, and that of my world.
PHOTOGRAPHY IS A SIN!
Disaster. On our last night in Burny Kirsty, Alan, and I were invited to attend a special five-hour saint’s day service at old Anisim’s house. The service was due to start at 4:00 a.m. The room was packed. I felt honored to be included. We had come a long way since that first service glimpsed through the curtain. Alan was particularly pleased, as he had been given permission to photograph the service.
But at the first click of the camera—Alan did not even use a flash—Philimon stopped the service and thundered at him, eyes flashing like a prophet from the Old Testament: “Photography is a sin! Get out!” I reeled out into the night along with Alan and Kirsty. What had Alan done wrong? As we edged our way in the dark back to Maxim’s house along the narrow wooden boards Alan was fulminating.
For the rest of the night he stormed up and down Galya’s front room, while Kirsty and I tried to calm him down. Had Vladimir Nikolaevich given Alan the go-ahead without checking with Philimon? By the time the sun came up we were all exhausted. I sat around at Photinia’s, pretending to help make jam, while Kirsty shuttled back and forth between the Alekseevs and her husband, trying to broker a peace.
Picking over the berries, I came to my own conclusion about Philimon’s outburst. Whatever misunderstanding there may have been over the photography, he was angry with Alan for other reasons. Ever since he arrived Alan had been asking the villagers about television: did they watch it, did they own one, and so on. He discovered that although there was hardly a set to be seen in Burny, most of the villagers loved television. They just kept their sets well hidden from the village elders. One of Philimon’s sons had gone so far as to hack out a hole in the frozen ground and lower the television into it when it was not in use.
Philimon must have known about those televisions. My hunch was that he was in a rage with Alan for undermining the community with his questioning. The young people had been telling me about the community’s attitude to rules. “Imagine a full glass of water,” one of them put it. “You can tip it this way and that as long as you don’t break the skin. But if you break it, the water’ll be gone! It’s your own business how you behave—what you mustn’t do is upset the community.”
This was it, the elusive, almost mystical concept of sobornost, togetherness. A crucial element in the social DNA of Russia, it often lurked behind those things Westerners took to be a charade in her political life: those Soviet elections which voted in leaders by 99 percent, or the value people placed on political stability at the expense of individual rights. From Philimon’s point of view, as the community’s starets, Alan was creating mayhem by pointing a spotlight at the village’s secret vice.
Later on Philimon did invite us for supper. The sun shone low through the window onto a table heaped with blueberries, pine nuts, and honey; fresh jam, smoked grayling, and aromatic gray bread. The scene looked as tranquil as a Dutch still life. But pull back the focus and the faces were troubled. Philimon was telling hunting stories, making an effort to be hospitable. The real man had retreated inside. Elena Ivanovna sat frowning. Alan displayed his injured pride like a war wound. Kirsty’s eyes were puffy from tears. Vladimir Nikolaevich was cracking pine nuts in his teeth, shelling them, and adding them to the pile in front of him. Then he sat back and pushed the pile over to Alan.
Philimon’s intervention had drawn a line and I was torn both ways. I loved this thriving, iconic community, this buried heart of Russia. Philimon’s unyielding authority supported it like a steel girder. But its survival in the modern world was a delicate balance, an act of defiance. The casual curiosity of an outsider could set it wobbling. In my world, however, curiosity was no sin. How pleased Philimon would be to see the back of us.
MUSIC OF THE FOREST
The last dinghy had just disappeared around the headland on its way back to Burny. We were standing on that island of pebbles in the middle of the river, waiting for the plane to pick us up. It rose out of the forest around us, a sustained chord that appeared to come from an immense choir hidden in the trees, a choir that never drew breath. Soon the air was ringing with sound. It was growing louder all the time. It filled the sky, sonorous as the Om of a cosmic Buddhist meditation. The lowest notes of the chord rumbled darkly, as if a host of great Russian basses were hidden among the trees. The high tones piped childishly true and clear. The forest was ringing with song, the music of the spheres.
“Listen!” I cried. “Listen!” My companions paused only briefly before resuming their conversations. Then I became very afraid. They could hear nothing. What did that mean? This trip to the Old Believer community had been my fairy-tale wish. I had willed it into being. But it had been difficult. Perhaps it had all proved too much? Had I become a tuning fork for the tensions in the group? Was this glorious music the sound of my madness?
As we traveled back to Krasnoyarsk the memory of it did not fade. It rolled on and on inside me. But I locked it away and told no one about it.