Cities without landmarks
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
The pale pewter haze of a dawn stillborn in leaden clouds suffused the sky. Snow was falling on Krasnoyarsk, in eastern Siberia, whirling earthward in squalls that wandered over shanties and factory walls topped with barbed wire, roaming over apartment barracks materializing in the gloom, barracks whose cement hulks were studded with sepia lights set in windows layered with grime and creeping soot.
I left my hotel and trudged down the road past the apartments. In the doorways huddled threesomes of bums passing around bottles. Their faces were booze-swollen and cracked, like overripe fruit, from the cold, their hands were gashed from brawls and falls on grit-blackened ice. I fell in with the legions of proletarians plodding to work along slush-splattered sidewalks, their heads lowered into the blowing snow, their faces wearing a hangover pallor. It was a weary march amid a nullifying tableau, and I felt my spirits sag. The day would be a maddeningly brief spell of foul weather and faint light, the night would fall early and last long, bringing on an ache of cabin fever and a twitchy yearning for escape into a vodka-drenched oblivion.
I left the crowd to make my way around a traffic circle where grimy Volgas honked and sprayed slush as they passed and Zhigulis dodged trams with headlights flashing yellow through streaks of soot, and started across the long bridge over the Yenisey River. The air was frigid and the Yenisey, one of Siberia’s great waterways, should have been iced over, but it was feverishly warm: a fog — a febrile, slightly fetid vapor — rose from it in curls and miasmic wisps and brought on a sweat and a penetrating chill. Since the construction of the thermo-electric plant upstream at Divnogorsk, the Yenisey rarely froze, and the city had warmed up. The fierce Russian frosts (“frosts so strong they burn your face,” as Siberians like to say) had become a matter of lore, like horse-drawn droshky and dueling counts on gentry estates.
I was on my way to the church clock tower on top of the yar — the slope above the city. Krasnoyarsk derives part of its name from the slope: Yar means “slope” or “steep bank of a river or ravine”; krasny, “red” or “beautiful.” I wanted to see the tower: It was one of the few historic sites left in town, which had been built almost 300 years ago as a stockade outpost during the Russian conquest of Siberia, but which had suffered decades of Soviet “renewal” that left it modern in a pockmarked, Stalinesque way.
I crossed the bridge. The yar rose ahead of me, bald and dun-colored in places, dusted with snow in others, with the tower at its top. Leading up toward the tower was a wooden staircase with great gaps through which not just a foot but a body might drop. Clutching my coat collar against the wind, I climbed and climbed, bounding over the missing stairs where I could, dismounting the staircase and scrambling up the incline where the gaps were too big. About three-quarters of the way there, the stairs ended and a foot path began, which I followed until it faded, then I trod the unmarked earth the final 50 yards or so to the tower.
At the door I stopped and took in the view. Beyond the city, in every direction, spread a panorama of snow and low mountains scattered with scraggly pines, raced over by sub-arctic winds. The vista appeared vast, but it was no more than a tiny swatch of the Siberian territory that covered 6 and a half million square miles. Siberia, for people who travel it, is more than mere landscape; with its dwarfing dimensions, humbling desolation and stultifying monotony, it is a diminisher of hope and a slayer of pride, it enforces a sense of helplessness that prods even atheists to conjure up the gods.
Footsteps resounded behind me, echoing as if from a stone chamber. Startled, I turned around. The tower door creaked and swayed on its hinges, then shut softly. I approached it and knocked. No one answered. I reached for the latch but as I touched it, the door swung back and away from me. My heart skipped a beat and I almost cried out.
In the shadows of the tower’s interior stood a tiny woman wrapped in black. “Don’t be afraid! I’m sorry if I’ve given you a fright,” she said in a soft voice. “I thought maybe someone was knocking. Come inside!”
I entered. Candles flickered in front of an ornate gilded iconostasis and a tiny oaken pulpit; from the icons, saints and the Virgin Mary gazed down upon us. The woman introduced herself as Vera, the caretaker of the tower. She was bundled in a black shawl and shod in onuchi, fur-wrapped boots secured by leather straps winding upward from her ankles. Her face shone, numinous with candlelight, and her Russian had a soothing lyrical lilt.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t know anyone was here. I thought the tower was abandoned.”
Her face flickered in the candlelight. “Our tower has never been abandoned, not since it was built more than 300 years ago. From here, our Christian Cossacks kept watch for the hordes of Mongols and Tatars that used to attack our fortress.” Her voice echoed over the icons; her words brought on a solemnity. Outside, snowy gales began howling over the city and around the tower, entering through cracks in the window panes, lessening to drafts that played on the candles and quivered their flames.
“It must have been closed after the revolution, though,” I said. “Didn’t the communists do their best to destroy religion?”
“They closed the churches and locked the tower, but we came anyway. We never abandoned it.”
My eyes adjusted to the dimness. Vera, whose name means “faith” in Russian, looked to be in her 50s, with clear, broad cheeks and a dimple in her chin. Her skin was free of wrinkles and her eyes sparkled. Her scarf hid all but wisps of her hair, which looked to be a rich black. In her youth, I couldn’t help thinking, she must have been a beauty.
She walked over to the pulpit and straightened a crooked candle. “I was born in 1937 in a village near here,” she said. “You know the year [the year of Stalinist purges that saw millions executed or exiled into Siberia]. It means something that I was born then.” She looked at her hands. “God is forgiving and will pardon the sins of those who committed the crimes of 1937, because they did so out of ignorance, not knowing him. God will forgive the drunkards you see on our streets today because they do not know him. God forgives.”
“Would God forgive everyone? Even Lenin?”
“When we were children we discovered that if we took matches and arranged them to spell Lenin, the same number of matches could be rearranged to make 666.” She demonstrated this to me with matches from the altar. “666 is Lenin, it is Lenin’s sign, the sign of the Devil. We knew even then that Lenin was Satan. But we kept silent. We were afraid. God will forgive those who grow up today in ignorance. But he will never forgive Lenin and those who helped him, because they were educated in God and chose to destroy the church. Lenin had our priests killed, he turned our cathedrals into barns and our monasteries into prisons, or he razed them. The revolutionaries were the destroyers of our faith, and for that reason, of our nation. They deserve only hell.”
The wind rattled the glass in the window frames. Vera went on.
“We are those who glorify God in the proper manner. The Russian Orthodox Church sustained us and gave us character. What made us truly Russian and allowed us to survive was our Orthodox faith and the forbearance it taught us. We endured. We were stronger than any other people. We survived the blizzards of Siberia and famine and war and the Mongol invasion and Napoleon and Hitler — all with strength and patience granted by God. Lenin incited people to renounce their patience, he destroyed our traditions and weakened our character. He set us on a path to ruin without God. Look at our streets in Krasnoyarsk: Drunks and thieves are everywhere, you cannot be safe. They are children born of the fourth generation without God. They believe in nothing because they know nothing of religion; they have no hope. It is ignorance of God that is destroying Russia today. Lenin must pay for this. No, God will never forgive Lenin. Lenin deserves hell.”
Vera’s face was golden in the candlelight. However condemnatory were her words, her eyes exuded an entrancing quietude. She seemed not of this world, certainly not of Krasnoyarsk.
“How did you come to your religion?” I asked. “Did you go to church, even under communism?”
“All the churches here were closed then. My grandmother taught me to love God. She tried to teach all of us children. I listened. When I was young, that’s all I knew about religion — love of God. I didn’t know of sin. I didn’t know of hell. Grandma taught us love but as there were no churches, our education was incomplete. Only later, in the past few years, in fact, did I learn and study about God. By then I had four children and a husband. I gave him an ultimatum: that he was to live as God ordained or I would be his wife no longer. At first he did not listen, and I moved into a separate room. Only last year did he accept the church.”
Vera shifted her weight from foot to foot in her onuchi and rubbed her hands together from the cold. The gales abated to a low moan.
“I’m a pensioner now. I have devoted my life to God. Should someone come up from the town, like you, I tell them about Orthodoxy. It has happened that boys addicted to drugs and thievery have come up here ready to end their lives out of despair; I have shown them the way to God and they have been saved.”
Vera’s eyes searched mine. I looked away, feeling uncomfortable for reasons that I couldn’t grasp. She continued. “I can tell by your face that you’re tired of this world. You will find peace in our church tower, not in the thievery and drunkenness of the streets below. If your heart is ready for God, you need peace, a peace only our Russian Orthodox faith can give you. We have to remember, God has given us the true faith.”
The door opened and a young woman in fur entered. For an instant the wind whipped through the tower, ransacking candles, and the icons seemed to come alive, to dance in the wild light. The door slammed. The woman asked Vera for a candle — she wanted to light one in memory of her husband, who had passed away recently.
Vera and the woman lit a candle and faced the icon, lowering their heads and mumbling prayers. I lowered my head too, but not to pray. A feeling of unease stole over me. The Russian Orthodox Church had collaborated with the KGB in order to keep its status during the Soviet decades; during the Second World War it blessed Stalin after he had murdered more people than had Hitler. Throughout Russia’s history, the church had supported the state; its interests had been entangled with those of the state. It was not for me to argue this woman out of her belief, but her words about the church and the true faith put me off; they put me in mind of the elements of the Russian past that set Russia apart from the West and made it an enigma to Americans and Europeans, that assured that Westerners would stumble once they crossed onto Russian soil.
But that wasn’t the essence of my unease. In this dim tower, above the Siberian wastes, listening to the murmured incantations, peering at icons only half-distinguishable in the shadows, the dark chasms of Russia’s history seemed to open before me: medieval Mongol horsemen tearing through towns, slashing and raping and pillaging, setting fire to churches and looting monasteries; centuries of serfdom; savage peasant uprisings that lasted for years and soaked the earth in blood; Cossack pogroms carried out for the glory of Mother Russia; shackled prisoners marched thousands of miles into Siberia; gulag inmates mining uranium and dying when their lungs filled with radioactive dust; Ivan the Terrible and his orgies of bloodletting followed by bouts of forehead-banging contrition at the altar; Stalin and his ruthless extermination of millions; the KGB and class war and revolution …
So much history in Russia was a chronology of barbarity and slaughter and righteous zeal elevated to the level of crusade and national myth. Until this decade, Russians had lived for myth — for Orthodoxy, for the triumph of communism, for the sanctity of the Motherland, for ideologies and czars, for tyrants and holy madmen. Now, they were lost. I suddenly understood the fatigue on the faces of the crowds with which I had walked in town: What was there left to believe in?
By my own path, I had arrived at the same question, and could find no answer.
With her candle lit and her prayers said, the young woman, facing the icon, walked backwards, bowing, and left the tower. Vera turned to me and smiled. I felt myself responding to her warmth, but I lacked the heart to tell her that I was not Russian nor Orthodox nor interested in conversion; I couldn’t reveal my thoughts to her. The abyss between us stretched too wide, and I wouldn’t dare impose my ruminations about history upon her faith-based solace. I told her that I had to return to the city, thanked her for telling me about the tower, and said goodbye.
The sky was an iron cauldron, the river a sheet of hammered steel overhung with islets of fog. When I reached the bridge, I looked back at the tower. For a moment I wanted to return to it, but if I did I would have to explain too much, so I kept on my way.
Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at the Atlantic. His seventh book, "Topless Jihadis -- Inside Femen, the World's Most Provocative Activist Group," is out now as an Atlantic e-book. Follow @JeffreyTayler1 on Twitter.More Jeffrey Tayler.
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia
Mount Rushmore, South Dakota, U.S.
Eiffel Tower, Paris, France
Colosseum, Rome, Italy
Taj Mahal, Agra, India
Siena Cathedral, Siena, Italy
Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Arc de Triomphe, Paris, France
Lost City of Petra, Jordan