Forbidden Russia

In this excerpt from 'Open Lands: Travels Through Russia's Once Forbidden Places' by Mark Talpin, the author takes the road less traveled through rural Russia.

Published November 13, 1997 8:07PM (EST)

I awoke in Velsk the next morning with a new plan. A mist redolent of mown hay and clover hid the Vaga River and the cottages along its bank. I strolled down the dirt road leading to the river's edge, absorbed in the rustlings of an eight-hundred-year-old hamlet rousing itself for another summer day: the raspy melody of a babushka singing to herself in the kitchen; the wheezy, percussive enthusiasm of the village pump being cranked over and over; the honky-tonk clatter of geese impatient to be fed.

Up above the fast-dissipating fog, the still, steady solstice sky was cloudless, suffused with a light as benign as a saint's visage. Why not improvise a bit, I thought? According to my atlas, there was another route I could follow that ran parallel to the main highway. When I reached the intersection outside of Velsk, I swung the Niva away from my all-Soviet route, into country I wanted to sample rather than skirt.

Never before in Russia had I experienced this freedom to roam, to turn down a road with careless rather than carefully studied intentions. I had no appointments to keep. Nor was there anyone shadowing me, taking careful note of where I chose to stop and start.

Here in the backwoods of the Arkhangelsk oblast, the forlorn scars of the Soviet era were few and far between. Seventy-five turbulent years had glided by, during which these villages barely caught the eye of the notoriously intrusive Communist Party of the Soviet Union. There were no lamentably ruined factories, no maudlin Lenin statues, no long-idle construction sites littered with broken pipes and cracked cinder block. Where there was decay, it was of a graceful, nostalgic sort, like that of a barn bent over with advancing years: the pardonable type of rural disrepair that, in whatever country, has existed in the past, exists today, and will always exist in the future.

Brightly painted cottages lined the road, along with two-story log houses weathered to the color of charcoal. Fathers split firewood, while sons flew handmade kites; mothers and daughters, their faces wrapped in flowered head scarves, strolled hand in hand. Goats and cows, dogs and cats, populated every yard, every field. Here was the preindustrial, premodern Russia that, however diminished, still filled the soul of this great country with its unenlightened, unromantic, undemocratic -- yet undeniably rich and bountiful -- outlook.

Even a mere passerby could feel the ancient rhythm of these places: a song of simple means, modest horizons, and a basso profundo inertia that was as immutable as a boulder at the bottom of a river. It was a folk theme made up in equal parts of exuberance, fatalism, equivocation, anarchy.

Village emotions might run high over where a cow was pastured, or how the communal vegetable plots were distributed. Yet no one was in a hurry to raise their voice, to pound a table, to make speeches over something as inherently ephemeral as politics. Therein lay the reason the Russian peasant so frustrated anyone harboring the mad ambition of remaking Russian society, whether misguided Bolshevik or naive promoter of Western capitalism. This Russia was virtually impervious to revolution; it could be ravished and abused, but not remade.

Perhaps the roads were just another reflection of this convoluted mental topography. The pavement shifted from asphalt to concrete, from concrete to hard gravel, then back to asphalt. A few kilometers later, at a clearing in the forest adorned by a long-abandoned rusty steamroller, the highway leapt back down the evolutionary scale to unimproved mud. A cut straight ahead through the trees hinted at wilted human ambition, but otherwise all signs of twentieth-century engineering had petered out. The way, black and glistening, slipped off the manmade grade toward a marshy flat.

Within minutes the Niva was drenched in ooze, not just across the grill and along the doors but all the way up and over its rooftop. Plowing blindly through mudholes the length of bowling alleys, I was never entirely certain I would emerge back into the sunlight at the other end. The faster I accelerated into the liquid stretches, the more violently the jeep was thrown about, with each rough spot spawning its own hurricane of muck and hurtling chassis.

I forged ahead like this for some time before checking the odometer. I had managed a mere fifteen kilometers. On a nearby rise, I spotted a dilapidated wooden church. I drove up to it and turned off the ignition, intending to give myself and my machine a rest while I sized up the situation.

Most of the wooden churches built before the revolution have been lost. Except for a handful that have been moved to museums, the majority succumbed over the years to a combination of neglect, fire and -- most tragically -- willful destruction. Here, on this knoll, I had happened upon one of the few survivors.

The church was a pint-sized affair, as humble as a worn-out shoe. Yet it mimicked, in microcosm, the conventions of all Orthodox churches. There was the inevitable belfry -- before the Bolsheviks, bells were almost a defining feature of Russian faith and identity -- and a tiny cupola mounted on a steeple that might have more plausibly topped a doll house. I walked off the length of the church -- three lancet windows, twelve paces. Batches of wild yellow violets decorated grass as verdant as Eire.

An elderly man, poking his cane into the soft ground, hobbled up. "So you're interested in the church?" he asked. "Someone came here three years ago and took pictures, too." He invited me into his house, a hundred yards back down the hill, for a salad of green onions and sour cream and a steaming pot of tea. He and his wife, a bulldozer-faced old woman with the unsettling habit of belching at the end of her sentences, had lived there together for their entire married lives. She showed me the back room where she was born, on the day the Tsar abdicated in 1917. "Oh, people used to come to the church," she recalled. "But not anymore. The Reds took away the bells and all the icons. First the church died, then the village. Collectivization, they called it. We're the only ones left now, and after we've come to an end, there won't be anyone to look after it."

They expressed more wonderment at my travel plans than at my nationality. To them, America was as remote as Uranus, utterly unattached to their world. The road at the bottom of their hill was another matter. "You should know better than to try to drive this way," the old lady scolded, "especially now, during the summer." Her husband, too, looked askance at me. "You have to go when the weather is right," he emphasized. I looked through their lace curtains at the dizzyingly sunny fields bursting with chloroplastic life, and beyond, to the openpalmed midsummer sky. When the weather was right?

Suddenly the totality of my miscalculation swept over me, and I burst out laughing. My host and hostess joined in, the old man pounding his cane for emphasis against the painted floor beams. "You mean, during the winter, don't you?" I gasped out. "Yes, yes, after the frost, only after the frost begins," replied the man. From the top of their hill, my stupidity must have seemed astounding. The woman's eyes filled with tears of hilarity. I could not catch everything that gurgled out in her thick peasant brogue, but I did make out her giggling "Not through the mud! Not through the gryaz!" repeated over and over. Yes, it was true. Around here, it was snow and ice that made the roads passable, not the tarlike summer slush.

A bit wiser, I was back on the main highway the following day. My rendezvous in Arkhangelsk with Volodiya and his jazz friends loomed nearer; I only had so much time to sniff about the countryside.

With each kilometer, the landscape, the sky, the human spaces became ever more elemental, ever less trampled by the hooves of our fast-galloping era. Even where the earth had been mauled by one or another modern enthusiasm, the unhurried, unheeding configuration of life in old Russia promised its own brand of redemption, the longstanding, outlasting kind of salvation that marks its way, year after year, in frost, in mud, in flowers.

Consider the many lives of the Siski Monastery, the St. Anthony Monastery on the River Sia. For half a millennium an outpost of piety and learning in the vast northern forest, its extraordinary beauty and tranquillity drew pilgrims from near and far. For other travelers, it served as a welcome way station along the arduous sledge route from Vologda to Arkhangelsk. In the years before the revolution, many a famous figure paused at Siski to rest and reflect. Here, Mikhail Lomonosov -- the runaway teenage son of an Arkhangelsk fisherman -- sought refuge among the monks until he was ready to continue his journey to Moscow. A pioneer of Russian science, the founder of Moscow State University, and a poet of considerable stature, Lomonosov went on to become as seminal a figure in his country's intellectual development as Isaac Newton was in that of England.

Defiled by the Bolsheviks -- who rid the monastery of its monks, then converted the premises into a rest home for the party faithful -- Siski was holy ground anew. The previous summer, the Moscow Patriarch had landed in a helicopter to reconsecrate the site, and to pray for a reawakening of the monastery and its sacred mission.

On the day I arrived, the afternoon air was surprisingly sultry. The half-restored monastery was mirrored in triplicate, once for each of the lakes that surrounded it. A sandy-haired boy frolicked in the water with his dog. His barefoot sister stood on a footbridge of rough-hewn planks, carefully angling a homemade fishing rod. A long, splendid procession of billowing clouds paraded over and past the Siski churches, illuminating the still, heathen water with cumulus visions of heaven.

The monks were just completing their midday dinner, but a space was cleared for me on the long table where they had gathered to eat. They were dressed simply, some in loosely cut cotton shirts and trousers and others in Chinese denim work clothes. Without a word, a bearded brother placed before me a bowl of steaming cabbage shchi and a slice of black rye bread. From the rapt attention my every spooning of soup attracted, I guessed that my visit was the most entertainment my hosts had had in quite some time.

The conversation was friendly enough, but rudimentary. It recalled in no way, for instance, a meal in a Jesuit residence. I was struck by how rustic these monks' gestures were, and by the distinctly circumscribed way they spoke of their lives and their faith. I asked one brother how it was to live at the monastery during the long months of winter. "It's very gray, very cold," he replied, unenthusiastically. "But we're used to it. We hold services; we pray. And we have a lot of work restoring the buildings."

I was about to hand around a batch of Amerika magazines when the abbot intervened, a bit starchily I thought. "I'll put those in our monastery library," he commanded, sweeping up the copies under his arm.

I followed him upstairs to the library, which as it turned out was a bookshelf behind the locked door of his office. For someone with the rank of abbot, Trifon was surprisingly young and vigorous. He faced the world, however, with an expression in the ascetic tradition: lean, alert, and intense. In a more forthcoming manner than he had at first demonstrated, he described the difficulties the monastery faced in making its way in the post-Soviet era. His goal was to bring it back to the self-sufficiency it had enjoyed in the bygone era of a Russia governed by God and Tsar. Pilgrims and tourists, the abbot hoped, would be attracted to the region's serenity -- and generate revenue for the monastery. The lands along the river and the labor of the monks' hands would provide for the rest of their earthly needs. Then he made the sign of a cross.

There was, however, the matter of the brothers themselves. Life at the monastery was hard, and Trifon feared that few had a true calling for the arduous work and discipline that restoring the Siski complex required. The novices, in particular, were not so different from the St. Petersburg architecture students who were helping during the summer with the reconstruction of one of the monastery's churches. "A couple of months working in the middle of nowhere suits them fine, but then they become restless," he observed with a forced sort of smile, "restless for your American television and cinema, restless for their family and friends, restless to do anything but stay here during our long winter."

The abbot had another struggle on his hands, one that to me was less expected. The local council had vigorously protested Moscow's decision to return the monastery to the church. The old-time bosses -- now convinced followers of Adam Smith -- wanted to put the place to more lucrative uses: a cross-country ski resort was one suggestion.

Before long, the affair turned nasty. First the abbot heard complaints, then threats. On the eve of the Patriarch's visit, one of the monastery's main churches mysteriously burned down. Even now, the abbot said, the church's hold on the monastery remained precarious. The former Communist apparatchiki had never really lost control. They were still in charge of their party fiefdoms, still running the sawmills and collective farms that were the region's economic mainstays. "They want us to fail," Trifon lamented, "and I fear that they will stop at nothing to see that their wish comes true."

On the way back out to my Niva, I passed two of the novices returning from the fields, great awkward hoes slung over their backs. They asked me if I had any more magazines. I hesitated for a moment, then had them follow me.

As I pulled away, they were gaping, dumbstruck, at an issue featuring a gyrating Michael Jackson on the back cover. It was an advertisement for the Voice of America. Somehow -- across whole oceans and continents of experience -- the photograph was already drowning out the gentle lapping of the novices' evensong prayers.

By Mark Taplin

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Communism Russia Soviet Union Travel