A post-apocalyptic vision of the Russian transition

The story is based on encounters in Chukotka in 1997/98, which was a time of immense hardship for the local population of the small arctic villages at Russia’s north-eastern corner (that was before Abramovich opened his generous purse!): therefore a rather dark and gloomy undertone. People in the region, sea mammal hunters as well as Soviet engineers were exposed to very brutal and corporeal experiences of transition.

The Siberian tundra is spread against the horizon. Rolling hillocks are lost in vast scenery, no more measurable in human paces. Rocky outcrops occasionally interrupt the low scrub covering the ground. Constant frost tears the land and turns it into a pockmarked landscape. A restless wind sweeps over the rippled ground; its continuous presence makes the silence all the more desolate. The sun clings ponderously in a cold blue sky as if struggling against setting. Now, its rays are just touching the distant hills and the snowfields on the steep slopes reflect for the last time the radiance of the setting sun. A dark and heavy cloud is gathering in front of the descending fire.

Night’s frost is creeping over the cold desert plain. In some rocky places the ground is still warm, and it feels like wandering through different chambers; from cold to warm, from warm to cold. In a discouragingly short time the single cloud has turned the whole sky into all-consuming blackness. The silence gives way to the roaring of the gale driving snowflakes through the air.It feels like sleepwalking; strangely detached, stumbling through a storm without feeling the cold. The storm should have pressed down and the dazzling snow barrier should have taken away the sight, but the perception is disembodied.

The tundra has turned into a snow desert by the encroaching fierce blizzard, and the horizon has drowned in a maelstrom of ice crystals. Darkness blurs the dimensions. Out of the indistinct darkness a faint glow appears. A tent, half covered with snow and the linen pressed down by the wind, glows from inside. The cords can hardly keep the wind-torn tent on the ground. Dimly lit human shadows dance on the tent wall. Suddenly the canvas is thrown back and a figure emerges from the entrance. It sinks deep into the snow cover. The released canvas flutters furiously in the gale. Light streams out of the tent and illuminates the body. A fur mitten gets torn from its hand and disappears into the blizzard. The man stumbles forward, the frostbitten fingers covering his face to ward off the piercing ice. And then, a croaky laughter leaves his throat. As if wanting to drown the storm, the laughter grows louder and then topples over. The figure stumbles into the night, followed by his insane laughter that turns into a desperate scream, finally swallowed by the blizzard. All that remains is the howling of the gale.  The image blurs. As if the spirit has been taken away by the storm it drifts through the darkness and loses itself among the icy crystals. The vision wanes and makes way for a recollection.

Night has come to the coastal town of Lavrentiia at the Bering Sea shores of the Chukchee peninsula in north-eastern Russia. The storm rages outside. Inside the concrete building calmness persists. The force of the gale, which pushes on the double-paned windows, can only be faintly surmised. Down on the dimly lit alley the street lights dance in solitude. This evening, I am invited to the apartment of Boris Kimovich, and another guest has just arrived: Anatolii Mutarev, the head of the state farm of Uelen, a village of sea mammal hunters roughly 200 miles north of Lavreniia. It is warm in the kitchen, and even the scant furnishing of the apartment radiates a sense of security tonight. We are sitting on stools around the small kitchen table, focusing our attention on the gift the rare guest had brought to the house. Anatolii has come with fresh whale skin. He gently places the forearm length piece on the table. The pure colors of the gray whale skin give it an almost artificial appearance. Over the pearl-white color of the blubber lies the fine gray tissue of the outer skin. Anatolii draws a long knife made of crude steel and concentrates on cutting thin pieces of the portion. I scrutinize his dexterous movements. The sharp blade cuts through the two layers with ease, and I am almost worried the incision might make the colors run. While I observe the smooth movements and faint clicking sounds of the knife, Anatolii begins to talk animatedly about the political and economic change in Chukotka since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Anatolii is a small, middle-aged Chukchee man. Twenty-five years ago, he arrived in Lavrentiia as an agronomist. He carried with him the dream of starting a reindeer breeding enterprise. Unfortunately, his idea was sharply opposed by the local authorities, as this self initiative seemed much too individualistic and could have undermined the socialist working collective. A resentful shaking of the head is his only comment on that story which happened so many years ago. When he took over the management of the state farm of Uelen during Perestroika time, men like him were needed in vast numbers. However, these kinds of people are rare in a country that systematically collectivized every form of private initiative. Anatolii now dices the fine strips of blubber. He does it with the same precision and patience a surgeon might display.

Currently, a third of the reindeer herds along the coast are in private hands. The rest still belongs to the state farms, which have been transformed into stock corporations without stockholders. However, since the state has removed itself as the main buyer of reindeer meat, the state farms are constantly in the red. As the manager of such a sovkhoz, Anatolii is in a dilemma. On one hand, he is obliged to a turnover of a market that has ceased to exist; on the other hand, he is indebted to the dependent workers of the sovkhoz. To be supplied by the state farm beyond their regular payment was a matter-of-fact during Soviet times for the so-called brigadiry. But since the shipments of good have been severely reduced by the central government, Anatolii can not afford to distribute to the farm workers anymore. The brigadiry feel let down by the state farm, and the sovkhozy feels abandoned by Moscow, which obviously has chosen to forget its border regions.

Meanwhile, Anatolii looks satisfied at the heap of blubber dices in front of him and starts to sprinkle them with salt. Partly following his movements, partly listening to his story, the picture of a tundra planet forms inside my head; the hostile expanse settled by colonists, who had been lured to this far-away place by the high wage bonuses. They had to build and maintain their bases and habitats with an immense effort of energy. However, the political and economic system of the far away home planet suddenly disintegrated and it became nearly impossible to supply the numerous outposts with the essentials. The mother ship had left its settlers behind and had abandoned them on a forbidding planet. The invitation to try the whale blubber pulled me out of my post-apocalyptic vision and I came back down to earth.

Almost all of the professionals in Chukotka have left for the European part of Russia in want of better working and living conditions. The missing engineers and energy technicians are a problem for the communities that strongly depend on working power stations and supply infrastructure. For instance, 170 persons worked in the state farm of Uelen during Soviet times, today only 70 remained.

“It is important to chew the blubber well”, adds Anatolii. The whale skin has a delicate taste, a little like walnut. Its effect is in the stomach. A warm, pleasant feeling is gradually spreading inside of me.

Since the breakdown of the Soviet Union, Chukotka is severely lacking modes of transportation. In former times, helicopters supplied the most remote bases and camps. Since gasoline has become one of the scarcest resources in the region, the helicopter travels only once a week between the two provincial towns of Uelen and Lavrentiia. Apart from that, people depend on the vesdechod; provided there is enough fuel – the heavy, chained all-terrain-vehicle has extremely high energy consumption. Sluggish like a dinosaur, this relic of Soviet times churns through the muddy tundra leaving a black track of disturbed soil behind it. Unfortunately, without these ‘tundra dragons’, supplying the outposts is an almost impossible task. Accordingly, the possession of vesdechod is highly valued. The state farm of Uelen has two in their vehicle pool, just as the local military compound. Also, two vesdekhody are now in private possession.

The heat of the whale blubber has expanded through my body and the pleasant warmth distracts my attention increasingly, drawing it away from the details of the conversation. I take another piece of blubber, chew slowly, and gaze out of the window. It is still dark outside and the storm pushes with the same restlessness against the window. The conversation continues, but I am lost in thought.

I remember. I am back in the tundra, feel the vibrations of a big engine beneath me. Three vesdekhody, their color long ago flaked off, meet in an abandoned settlement, whose crooked shacks barely resisted the fierce winter storms. Scattered between the huts lie rust-colored petrol barrels, partly corroded, and some stacked to piles. The carcass of a whale reflects the pale light of the fog-enveloped sun. The remains of walruses lie strewn in the reed that covered the dunes. This is an abandoned military outpost, occasionally used as a hunting base. A strange meeting in a strange place. Bearded Russians in faded army clothes stand with legs apart in the gravel of the small beach strip between a lagoon and the open sea. Weatherworn faces peek out from under disheveled hair. The front window of one of the vesdekhody is shattered and the men try a makeshift repair. A short conversation reveals that they were out hunting brown bears with the two vehicles. Although it is officially prohibited to hunt bears, out in the tundra nobody seems to bother. Soon the motors are roaring again and the gravel crunches under the heavy chains as they heave into motion. On one of the vesdekhody sits a figure, the legs stretched out for a better hold on the top of the driver’s cabin. Covered in a heavy coat, the fur hat cloaking most of the face, the Russian maintains a firm grip on his rifle; at the same time a status symbol and the tool of the trade. I receive a silent nod from one of the men as a farewell; proud and without doubt as to who has the power in this tundra outland. Suddenly the picture vanishes in the whirling sand. Our vehicle gives a deep growl and continues its way in the opposite direction on the small sand strip along the coastline.

Abruptly I am torn from my daydream. My absence has been noticed and in order to draw me back into the conversation, I am questioned about my opinion on a burning local issue. Tomorrow is the first day of September 1997, the cut off date for a 300 percent rise of the bread price. I cannot think about any better comment than that from now on, Lavrentiia will be one of the most expensive villages of the world, at least as far as the price of bread is concerned.
Anatolii laughs, sharpening his knife to start on a second round of whale blubber: “If you can’t afford buying bread, you should at least eat whale. That is still free!” All that remained was the howling of the gale. They found him the next morning. His body was stuck in the snow, slanted, frozen stiff. The hands rigidly outstretched, as if they had wanted to grasp out for something unreachable; the coat open and filled with snow; the face frozen to a grinning grimace, open eyes staring into space, astonished. The people say Anatolii lost his mind and simply ran out of the tent on that winter night while out hunting. Rumors speak of suicide; some of heavy drinking that led to this tragic accident. What remained was another tragic death.

People say that madness can easily overcome the lonesome hiker in the tundra. They tell stories of strong, tall ghosts in traditional dress that still haunt the old places and that can possess the careless wanderer who strolls in their vicinity. I remember the words of an old Chukchee man who warned me of the haunted places in the tundra: the old cemetery of Ekven with its open graves, Naukan, the old Eskimo settlement, whose population was forcibly relocated over night by the Soviets, and the abandoned fox farm of Uelen that collapsed after the breakdown of the Soviet Union. I turn my back to the sun that has just disappeared behind the snowcapped mountains. The wind picks up, pushing a piercing coldness across the tundra. I slowly walk back through the swampy hills towards the coast.

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