Category Archives: Russia

A Hermit Old Believer in the Taiga

From A Journey into Russia, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2015), Kindle Loc. 4274ff:

When I think back on Agafya today, I hear her voice before I see her face. She speaks, but I do not hear any words, only an unmistakable melody. She seems to be singing. It sounds like a faint, unfinished song not intended for an audience.

For five days and four nights I heard her singing voice almost constantly. Each of its melodic variations impressed itself on me, even if I did not always understand the text. Sometimes I was not sure whether Agafya herself knew the text exactly. When she spoke, it often sounded as if her song drifted aimlessly and at random through fragments of memory and verses of scripture, through family tales and the life stories of people she had known.

While we walked along the river, the evening sun sank behind the mountains. The valley turned red before it paled. I was in a strange mental state, dead tired and wide awake at the same time, exhausted from the hike, electrified by our arrival. I could hardly feel the weight of my backpack anymore, everything seemed strangely light, as if the world in which I had landed was not quite real. Agafya walked in front of me, so close that I could make out the irregular seams in her dress, the dirt under her fingernails, the notches in her hatchet. I memorised every detail with the nervousness of a dreamer who knows that he may wake up at any moment.

I was only half listening when Lyonya told me the name of a smaller tributary which flowed into the Abakan just behind the fish trap: the Yerinat. We continued walking on its shore, until the dense forest suddenly opened up. A clearing wound its way up the mountainside. Three small wooden houses stood about halfway up. Above them I could make out the furrows of a potato field.

The oldest of the three huts was half-dilapidated. Agafya had lived in it until her father had died. The two other houses, which were visibly newer, had been built by Lyonya and his forestry colleagues. Agafya lived in the one on the left. Lyonya disappeared into the right one to unload our backpacks.

I unpacked the gifts I had brought along with me [from Abaza, Republic of Khakassia] the headscarf from Doctor Nazarov, the letter from Agafya’s cousins in Kilinsk, the jar with the home-pressed sunflower oil, a woollen blanket that I had bought as a gift and finally the letter from Galina, the linguist. Smiling, Agafya turned all the objects over in her hands, as if she was pondering their religious adequacy. In the end she put the headscarf, the blanket and the sunflower oil on a woodpile in front of her hut. Only the letters remained in her hands as she went inside.

A campfire was smouldering between the houses, with a pan full of fish roasting over the embers. While I was wondering who had put them on the fire, a very small man with a very long beard suddenly stood before me. He reached out his hand. ‘Alexei.’ The high voice did not fit his beard.

Alexei was a distant relative of Agafya’s. He visited her each year around this time. Usually he would stay a few weeks to help her with the winter preparations. He came from one of the Old Believer communities in the Altai Mountains. As it turned out, it was a neighbouring village of Kilinsk, the place where I had met Agafya’s cousins.

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Siberian Learning Sonsorolese

From A Journey into Russia, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2015), Kindle Loc. 3438ff:

I met San Sanych’s friend Sergey, the most exotic inhabitant of Abaza. He was an instrument maker. His house was stuffed with self-made didgeridoos and shaman drums, which he sold at Siberian folklore festivals. The business was going well; Sergey had almost enough money saved to realise his life’s dream. He wanted to emigrate. Abaza was not remote enough for him. He was drawn to a tiny island named Sonsorol, located in the middle of the Pacific. It had 23 inhabitants; Sergey wanted to be the 24th. So far he had only seen the island on pictures, but through the Internet he was in contact with two residents who supported his relocation plans. ‘They both know the Governor of the island,’ Sergey said proudly. I wanted to argue that with 23 inhabitants, every second one was presumably related to the Governor, but I bit my tongue. Sergey meant business. He had already filled out the visa form for the Pacific Republic of Palau. Now he was teaching himself the local language. Fascinated, I leafed through his rudimentary Russian-Palauan dictionary:

Mere direi – Babushka [Grandmother]

Haparu ma hatawahi – Spasibo [Thank you]

Hoda buou – Do svidaniya [Goodbye]

According to the Sonsorol.com/language page, these are genuine words in Sonsorolese, a Chuukic language related to Woleaian and Ulithian in Yap State, which lies to the north of the Republic of Palau. The Palauan language is very different. One of my graduate school classmates did her dissertation on Pulo Anna, a dialect of Sonsorolese.

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“Fundamentals of Safe Living” in Siberia

From A Journey into Russia, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2015), Kindle Loc. 3404ff:

San Sanych was a teacher. At Abaza’s only school he taught a subject with the curious name ‘Fundamentals of Safe Living’. He instructed Russian students how to protect themselves against Russian threats: alcohol poisoning, terrorist attacks, sexually transmitted diseases, nuclear accidents, savage animals. To supplement his teacher’s salary, he leased the top floor of his house to tourists who came to Abaza for fishing or hunting. Occasionally he organised boat tours, mountain hikes and Taiga expeditions.

San Sanych’s actual name was Alexander Alexandrovich, but like many Alexander Alexandroviches, he used a shortened form of his first name and patronymic. San Sanych’s father had also been called San Sanych, just like his grandfather. Unfortunately, the family memory did not extend any further back, because the grandfather had died early – he had tried to save a church from being destroyed by the Bolsheviks, which the Bolsheviks had very much resented. The grandfather’s widowed wife, who had to make ends meet with an orphaned son, decided in her plight to become an agitator for atheism. Until the end of her life she taught students and collective farm workers that the god her husband had died for did not exist.

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Lenin’s Siberian Exile

From A Journey into Russia, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2015), Kindle Loc. 2435ff:

Moscow, 23 February 1897. At the Kursk train station a young man is waiting for the Trans-Siberian railroad. Ahead of him lies a two-month journey that will end in Shushenskoye. The train compartment is cramped, but not half as cramped as cell 193 of the Petersburg detention centre, from which the young man has just been released. For the crime of disseminating revolutionary literature, Vladimir Ulyanov is to serve the remaining three years of his sentence in Siberian exile.

Compared with the subsequent nightmare of the Soviet camps, the tsarist system of exile is relatively comfortable. Members of the upper classes – Ulyanov comes from a land-owning family – can organise their lives in Siberia more or less freely. The young man takes up residence in a medium-sized country house. He receives mail by the bundle from revolutionary comrades, and he sends back equally large bundles. He buys a hunting rifle and an Irish Setter named Shenka. His neighbours regularly see the two stalking through the surrounding woods. In summer he bathes twice a day in the Shush, in winter he impresses the small town residents with the elegant momentum of his ice skating. ‘When he would skate over the ice with his hands buried in his pockets,’ recalls an admiring witness, ‘nobody could catch up with him.’

On the side, the young man finds time to complete a book that is later adopted into the canon of the holy scriptures of the Soviet Union: The Development of Capitalism in Russia, published in 1899 under the pseudonym Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

The skates hang on the wall as if Lenin had just hung them up to dry. A great man with small feet, I think involuntarily. It is a quiet day in the former home of the revolutionary. There are six of us: the tour guide, a Russian family and me. The hunting rifle hangs on the bedroom wall, above the two beds in which Lenin and his wife slept. Nadezhda Krupskaya was arrested shortly after Lenin’s departure. When they banished her to the West Siberian city of Ufa, she asked to be relocated with her betrothed. The authorities gave their consent, but, as Lenin wrote to his mother, ‘under a tragicomic condition: if we do not get married immediately, she has to return.’

The wedding ceremony took place in Shushenskoye, in a small church that was demolished after the Revolution. Apart from the church, every single stone in the city has been preserved, even if Lenin so much as walked past it. On his centennial birthday, in 1970, the entire historical town centre was freed of inhabitants and turned into a pilgrimage site. Millions of workers were then herded through their redeemer’s place of exile.

Today, with the stream of pilgrims having subsided, the museum has a discernible public relations crisis. Self-consciously they have renamed the site an ‘Open Air Museum for Siberian Village Culture at the Turn of the Century.’ It is a curious place: a pilgrimage site which hides its saint so that the absence of pilgrims is not as noticeable.

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Growth of Trans-Siberian Travel

From A Journey into Russia, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2015), Kindle Loc. 2435ff:

The glamorous luxury cars which Parisian society strolled through at the [World Exhibition of 1900] were never used in Trans-Siberian reality. Far simpler models commuted between Moscow and Vladivostok when the line was completed in 1904. The first symbolic cut of the spade had been performed 13 years earlier on the pacific coast by a young boy named Nicholas, who did not realise that he was digging his own grave – three decades later Tsar Nicholas II rolled to Yekaterinburg in a Trans-Siberian carriage, towards his execution.

Before the line was put into operation, Siberia was linked with the Russian west only by a rough, unpaved dirt road which was barely accessible for the major part of the year – in the winter snow hampered the journey; in the spring, mud; in the summer, dust. The relationship between the two parts of the country was loose, geographically and mentally. Even in the travel notes of Chekhov, who crossed the Eurasian landmass in a horse-drawn wagon shortly before the construction of the railway line, the inhabitants of Siberia spoke of Russia as if it were another, distant country. The endless trip over the Siberian tract must have made it feel like such.

Despite all the hardships, however, the road was hopelessly congested, even during Chekhov’s time. Year after year, since serfdom had been abolished in 1861, a stream of land-seeking farmers flowed into the vast expanses of Siberia. On horse-drawn carts people transported their entire belongings eastward, for 1,000s of kilometres. It happened that at their final destination they bumped into former neighbours, who had fled from serfdom years before to seek their fortunes in Siberia. For centuries the sparsely populated areas east of the Ural Mountains had attracted people who wanted to evade the state’s reach. Runaway serfs hid in Siberia, wanted criminals, escaped convicts, deflowered girls, dishonoured men, illegitimate children. The Old Believers were the most famous, but not the only community of sectarians who awaited the apocalypse deep in the wilderness. They shared their exile with all those outlaws, exiles and madmen who the state itself transported east so they would not cause any more damage in the Russian heartland.

Just a little earlier, there had not even been a road to Siberia. When the first bands of Cossacks crossed the Urals in the 16th century, they dragged dismantled rowing boats over the mountains. Siberia was conquered by water. The Cossacks used the branched river system that traverses the entire land mass between Moscow and the Pacific. From the Volga they worked their way forward to the Kama, from the Irtysh to the Ob, from the Yenisey to the Angara, from the Lena to the Amur. Piece by piece they wrested the country from the Tatar tribes who had dominated it since the collapse of the Mongol empire. The Tatars called their realm Sibir: ‘sleeping country’. The Cossacks, who adopted the Turkish word, woke Siberia with violence. When they reached the Pacific in 1639, not even 60 years after the beginning of the campaign, they had moved Russia’s border more than 5,000 kilometres to the east. Each year they had annexed an area the size of Great Britain to the already huge tsarist empire.

Siberia’s proportions are somewhat terrifying.

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The Moscow Express in May

From A Journey into Russia, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2015), Kindle Loc. 2251ff:

I took the express train back to Moscow. Not because I was in a hurry, but because it is the only real express train in the entire country, the sole long-distance connection where you don’t book a bed, but a seat.

The journey felt like a trip into the future. Everything that usually makes up a Russian train ride had been eliminated: the motherly conductresses, the on-board samovar, the clothes-changing rituals, the physical proximity, the carry-on food, the feuding families, the drunken soldiers, the rumbling heartbeat of the wheels. Even the typical odour was missing, that mix of engine oil and onions and bedclothes. The air strongly smelled of nothing at all. Solitary cappuccino-drinkers and laptop-typers filled the soundproofed compartments. My seatmate discreetly moved her elbow away as I sat down. Without looking up from her computer she replied to my greeting, then grew silent, like the rest of the carriage. There was the same awkwardly maintained anonymity that I was familiar with from the commuter trains in Western Europe. Twenty more years, I thought, maybe 30, then all of Russia will look like this.

For most of the four-hour trip I just stared out of the window, glad to live in the present. The country that flew by outside looked as if it was in a hurry.

Halfway along the route someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around, but there was nobody there. When I turned back around the face of my seatmate was chalk-white. With a hysterical finger she pointed to my shoulder and shouted a word I did not understand: ‘Maiskizhuk! Maiskizhuk!’ I fumbled with my shirt. A huge insect flew off and disappeared through the open compartment door. My neighbour sighed with relief.

Back in Moscow, in Vanya’s apartment, I consulted the dictionary. I was leafing through it when a scratching sound distracted me. Irritated, I raised my head. Directly beside my face a fat May beetle was crawling over the window pane.

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Reactions to Moscow Subway Bombing

From A Journey into Russia, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1330ff:

When I woke up the next morning, I began to write down the experiences of the previous day. I stayed in the apartment the entire day. In the evening Vanya came home.

‘Damn traffic jams,’ he cursed. ‘I sat in the taxi for three hours.’

‘Why didn’t you take the subway?’

Surprised, he looked at me. ‘You don’t know?’

‘What don’t I know?’

‘A terrorist attack. Two bombs, this morning, in the underground; 36 people have died.’

Without knowing exactly why, I set out for the city centre. In the meantime, the subway had started running again, but the cars were as good as empty. The few passengers exchanged nervous glances. Shortly before the train reached the Ring Line, a dark-skinned woman boarded, apparently from the Caucasus. Two Russians, a man and a woman, left the car immediately.

At the station Park Kultury, where one of the two bombs had exploded, a silent crowd had gathered. All traces of the attack had been eliminated; there was nothing to see. The people were staring at a shrine of flowers and other offerings which had accrued spontaneously in the middle of the platform. No one spoke. Only a bearded man with an opened liturgical book in his hands whispered a requiem. Like all the others I stared silently at the shrine, where new offerings continued to be added. A pot of crocuses. A ten rouble note. Two icons of the Virgin Mother, one made of cardboard, the other of wood. Eighteen white tea lights, nine yellow icon candles, three red grave lanterns. A lighter, a box of matches, six chocolate eggs, two Snickers bars. A handwritten note: Vy zhivy – ‘You are alive’. Roses, carnations, asters, tulips, gerbera, pussy willows, fir sprigs.

Just as I was getting ready to go, a man walked up to the shrine. He was the type of man I characterise in my personal Moscow typology as a perestroika rocker: not young anymore, long hair, black leather jacket, very oppositional facial expression. He took two bottles of vodka and a stack of plastic cups out of his army backpack, placed them down with the other offerings to the dead, turned around and left. Mechanically, I counted the cups: 36, one for each.

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Chornobyl, 988-1986

From A Journey into Russia, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2015), Kindle Loc. 705ff:

The Yakushins were a family of priests. Nicholas’s great-grandfather had served in the Church of Saint Ilya, Nicholas’s grandfather as well. Then the Bolsheviks came. They hammered on the church door and cried: stop praying, Father; man has no soul. The grandfather did not agree: man, he said, most certainly has a soul, and it is immortal. The Bolsheviks detained the grandfather. When he was released, he was old. That was his good luck. He died early enough to escape Stalin’s terror, which hardly any clerics survived. The grandfather’s son, Nicholas Yakushin’s father, did not become a priest. The times were not right.

Nicholas was nevertheless baptised, secretly, at home, the way most Orthodox were. Those who baptised their children in the church had to reckon with work-related harassment. When Nicholas was born, shortly after the end of the war, the church was closed anyway; the local kolkhoz used it as a grain silo. Thus Nicholas got to know his forefathers’ church: filled to the dome with wheat. On the ceiling a besieged Christ faded away, his hands spread over the grain as if in self-protection, not in blessing.

The town of Chernobyl, or Chornobyl, in Ukrainian, is old, ancient, even if it does not look it anymore. None of the original buildings are left. First the Mongols razed the city; later came Lithuanians, Poles, Bolsheviks, finally the Germans. Today there are only a few wooden houses standing between the concrete blocks, none of them older than two centuries. But Chernobyl was founded at the same time as Kiev, and when prince Vladimir had his subjects baptised in the year 988, the citizens of Chernobyl were amongst the first Christians of the Slavic world.

To those for whom this past was still present – despite the futurist ecstasy of the Soviet period – it was no surprise that here, in Chernobyl, 1000 years after the Slavs’ baptism, time should come to an end, just as it had been proclaimed in the Book of Revelation:

The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star is Wormwood. And a third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters, because they had been made bitter.

This John wrote in Chapter 8, verses 10 and 11. But in Ukrainian ‘wormwood’ means: Chornobyl [lit. ‘black stalk’, Artemisia vulgaris ‘common mugwort, wormwood’, to distinguish it from the lighter-stemmed wormwood A. absinthium].

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Origins of Russia’s Old Believers

From A Journey into Russia, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2015), Kindle Loc. 176ff.

In the not exactly bloodless history of Russia, the 17th century was one of the bloodiest. A bizarre religious controversy divided the country: people argued over the question of whether to make the sign of the cross with two fingers or with three. The Moscow Patriarch, who advocated for the three-finger cross, persecuted the followers of the two-finger cross viciously; he had unruly believers’ hands chopped off, and their priests’ tongues ripped out. Many rendered the mutilations unnecessary by simply chopping off their own thumbs in order not to have to blaspheme God with three fingers. Whole communities barricaded themselves in their churches, set their altars on fire and watched as the flames ate away at their hands, two fingers outstretched to the very end.

The conflict had been sparked by one man who exerted all of his dubious ambition to rectify the course of history. Around the middle of the century Patriarch Nikon, head of the Russian Orthodoxy, introduced a church reform. He invoked the origins of the Orthodox faith: the Russians had adopted Christianity from Byzantium in 988, when the Grand Duke of Kiev baptised his subjects according to the Greek rites. Over the centuries the inevitable happened: little by little, the Russian Orthodoxy developed its own, non-Greek traits, arising partly as a result of incorrect translations of Greek liturgical texts, but more often through the everyday practice of the faith. No Russians considered these characteristics to be a betrayal of their Orthodox roots. Patriarch Nikon alone was embarrassed when he received Greek dignitaries in the Kremlin, whose astonishment at the customs of the Russians did not escape him.

With his reforms, Nikon attempted to rectify the most obvious deviations of the Russian liturgy from the Greek. At first glance, they were trifles: the Trinity was no longer praised with two hallelujahs but with three; one letter was to be added to the name of the Lord, ‘Iisus’ instead of ‘Isus’; there should be not seven loaves but only one on the altar during the Eucharist; finally, the sign of the cross would no longer be made with two fingers but with three, the way the Greeks did it.

These interventions might have been accepted without complaint if at the same time much more drastic changes had not been overtaking Russia. The long isolated country was opening up to the West. Things appeared that had never been in Russia before; tobacco, tea and coffee; trimmed beards; sacred images with saints barely recognisable, so outlandishly were they depicted; foreigners, summoned by the Tsar to modernise the country, brought foreign manners to Russia, foreign languages and foreign gadgets. On the main tower of the Kremlin wall a huge mechanical clock from England appeared, the first in all of Russia. Its message was unmistakable: the times were changing.

All of these upheavals had one thing in common with Nikon’s reforms: they made Russia look bad. Many Russians did not want to admit that the traditions of their fathers should suddenly be worth less than the inventions of foreigners, be it English clocks, Dutch paintings, German books or Greek church rules. The Old Believers, as the opponents of reform were soon called, rejected Nikon’s heresies as vehemently as the ever-advancing West. Their two-fingered cross became a gesture of resistance against a Russia that was betraying its roots in every respect.

The times were changing. And perhaps, as the Old Believers in fact suspected, the world was actually approaching its prophesied end. There was evidence. As the religious controversy reached its bloody climax, people in Russia wrote the year as 7174 – their calendar started with the creation of the world. But in the West, where the years were numbered from the birth of Christ, a different number appeared on the calendar, a terrible one: 1666. There could be no doubt: the foreigners were messengers of the apocalypse.

While Russia drifted towards the west, the Old Believers fled towards the east. Persecuted by the Patriarch’s henchmen, they withdrew to the sparsely populated, peripheral regions of the Russian Empire. They founded communities where time stood still, where nothing diluted the spirit of old Russia, no tobacco and no coffee, no razor and no clockworks, not one hallelujah too many, not one altar loaf too few.

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Rebuilding the Crimean Bridge

From Troubled Water: A Journey Around the Black Sea, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2022), Kindle pp. 31-32:

Paradoxically, the two [Armenian] Hotel Fortuna employees were the most miserable people I came across in Taman. Everyone else in the small town was in high spirits; I met barely anyone during my three-day stay who did not rejoice in the bridgebuilding. Those who had found work on the huge building site, or who were hoping to make a living from tourists from every corner of Russia who would soon pass through their town on their way to Crimea, rejoiced. Those who had relatives on the peninsula rejoiced that they would no longer have to take the sluggish, chronically overloaded ferry to visit them in the summer. The director of the local history museum rejoiced because her display cases were now full to bursting with archaeological artefacts – Cimmerian horse harnesses, Roman drinking vessels, Genoan coins – found while the bridge’s groundworks were laid. Last but not least, the joy of Taman’s residents was shared by the 2,500 entrants into a nationwide poetry competition that the office responsible for the bridge’s construction had recently launched to encourage patriotic eulogies of their feat. The victor had not yet been chosen when I was there, but here is a sample of what I read:

Crimea and Russia
Forever inseparable
Wedded by a bridge
That looks like a temple

The bridge was indeed something of an unexpected windfall for Taman. The town, with a population of 10,000, had hitherto wallowed in such oblivion, even by Russian standards, that its old name of Turkish origin, Tmutarakan, had become a national byword for any godforsaken provincial backwater – a kind of Russian Hicksville. Soon though, thanks to the bridge, Taman would no longer be a dead end on the tip of a promontory but Russia’s last stop before Crimea.

There was as yet little sign of this earth-shaking change. The bridge was a building site, the holiday season had not yet begun, and Taman seemed to be only just stirring from hibernation. The local museum was open but deserted, the model Cossack village on the edge of town still closed. A Soviet tank on blocks in the market square stood as a memorial to the Great Patriotic War, and its aerial counterpart, a fighter plane, greeted you on the road into town. Both of them were mounted on concrete pedestals with the constantly cited – and constantly wrong – dates carved into them: 1941–1945. As everywhere else in the former Soviet Union, the hushedup war years of 1939 and 1940 – when Stalin was still making common cause with Hitler to carve up Central Europe – were missing.

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