The Russian Far North is a fascinating place — severe, inaccessible and enigmatic. For centuries it has been inhabited by people who were pushed into the background of Russian society. The "schismatics" settled there, the free peasantry and prisoners from the Soviet camps. Now mixed with the native population, they have created a unique ethnic blend.
Mariusz Wilk's new book is a guide to this dangerous, but beautiful land. It is an extremely vivid account, underpinned with historical source material discovered and studied by Wilk in monastery libraries. He had no hesitation in leaving Europe and all the wonders of consumer culture to settle on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea. He travels about and describes this strange, ambiguous world, its prehistory and most recent events. The title, Voloka, means a portage, in other words a route boats are dragged along when rapid waters make it impossible to continue their journey by river. This sort of crossing is not easy — our feet keep getting stuck in mud, and the weight of the boat becomes unbearable, but the prize is the beauty of northern nature and the people we meet on our way. But above all it's the journey itself.
Voloka describes a three-fold journey. The book is only outwardly about the exotic nature of the Russian Far North, its inhabitants' customs and the building of the White Sea Canal. In describing the White Sea coastal region Mariusz Wilk tells us about the whole of Russia — the Russia that is not just geographically, but also mentally remote from the big cities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg. He never ceases to cast doubt on the common stereotypes about Russia and the Russians. In Voloka he also makes a journey through language. He tries to free the Polish language of modern foreign influences and what he views as an excessive number of Anglicisms, and thanks to the Russian language to give it back some strength and meaning. Thanks to this compound narrative, the reader can get to know the true face of today's Russia.
- Kacper Wańczyk
Furthest on the left are Vasilich and Kirillovna. I have already written about Vasilich, so I’ll just add that he’s got roughly hewn features, bushy eyebrows and kindly eyes. Nadyezhda Kirillovna, my foster mother, always comes out looking plump in photos and you really could sink into her, both from joy and from weeping. Kirillovna is as fat as the lard from Hohlandia (as the locals here call Ukraine, where Kirillovna comes from) and will always gr-ease your heart, especially when you’re in trouble.
Next to them sit Dontsov and Mikhailovna. In the picture they look like white mushrooms, or boletuses. Both are over seventy, robust, though furrowed. He often goes fishing, in summer for cod and in winter for perch through the ice. She makes wonderful fish pies and in a voice that’s still resonant she sings songs about the North and about seagulls.
They met on Zhizhgin, a small island in the White Sea; he was born there into the family of a kulak exiled from Ukraine, and she went there in the 1950s for the money. Old Dontsov can’t stand monks (he calls them spongers!), doesn’t trust politicians (he often argues with Vasilich) and gave me a telling-off as soon as we met. He was annoyed by the toast I raised, “to life”. “How can you drink to that bloody torment?” he shouted.
Then there’s Svetlana, daughter of a top professor of Chinese from Leningrad, who disappeared without trace in the camps at the end of the 1930s. Sveta came to the Islands many years ago in the hope of finding some vestige of her father here, and even though she didn’t find anything she stayed, because she had never seen such beauty in her entire life, not in the Urals, where she lived with her mother in exile, nor in Adzharia, where her first husband took her, an army man who always let fly with his fists after a few too many drinks, nor near Kaluga, where she lived with her second husband, an engineer who tried it on with every bit of skirt he met. In short, life has not been over-kind to her.
On the Islands Sveta is living out her days alone. In summer she helps in the monastery kitchen, and in winter she does sewing for the monks. She also likes to sing in the church choir, watches a Brazilian soap opera on TV (and then confesses this sin), and is afraid of devils. She lent me a book by Likhachev, in which the word “devil” had been blacked out every time it appeared.
Valentina Vasilyevna is peeping out from behind Sveta. The poor old dear can hardly walk, but she manages to shamble to Muksalma for cloudberries, picks them there in the marshes and comes home with two buckets full: altogether that’s over forty versts… And all just to be happy that her sons (both like to drink themselves blind) will have cloudberries to cure their hangovers. The mother shoulders responsibility for four cows and two bulls, the whole farm, but the wretched sons think of nothing but how to haul off the potatoes and sell them so their ma won’t notice. Last year they even sold the seed potatoes, so she had to ask her neighbours for some.
Vasilyevna goes fishing herself in order to indulge her sons with fresh fish and feed her nine cats at the same time. She doesn’t believe in God, she believes she’ll die and there will be no other life after this one. She lives for her sons, even though they’re complete shits, she dreams of having grandchildren and has no time for illness… Every autumn we buy a bull’s tongue from Vasilyevna.
On the way in there are burbot roes and beer she’s made from berries.
Then came Nadyezhda Alexandrovna and sat down next to Valentina Vasilyevna. Nadyezhda Alexandrovna has remained an old maid, with grudges. Her mother was the conductor of the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic and was exiled in 1934 to the White Sea Canal where she conducted the camp orchestra, whose first violins once played in Vienna. I’ve seen posters for their concerts in the museum at Medvezhyegorsk.
Nadyezhda Alexandrovna was born on the Islands; her mother taught singing here in the school right up to her death (two years ago), Nadyezhda was brought up here under her mother’s stern control and she works in the library here, hence our close friendship. Once every two years Alexandrovna goes to Saint Petersburg in order, as she puts it, to do some catching up: she goes to concerts and exhibitions, then comes home and tells endless stories about it. In short, she thrives on what she has seen by the Neva, until her next trip.
Pinagorski came with his wife, who is like a little mouse in his paws. Pinagor is one of the “sown-up” deputies of our Solovetsky Parliament, in other words he’s “sitting on a torpedo”*. And like every “sown-up” alcoholic he’s mean as the devil, especially when people are drinking in his presence… Not long ago he collected signatures for a petition to have the local government on the Islands closed down, because it’s better to be full and not think, than have to rack your brains on an empty stomach. Pinagor has had a lot of experience in politics.
Fokin looked in for a while too. Only for a while, because he was in a hurry, as usual. Fokin is a trudogolik – a workaholic, a man who’s addicted to work. Once I asked him to dismantle an old shed, and I promised to pay by the hour, so he tied a watch around his neck on an elastic band and started smashing up the boards. After fifteen minutes the veins on his neck were bursting, his face had gone purple and his eyes were popping out of his head, and if it weren’t for Veronika, who knows, he might even have choked to death.
Foka is cunning. Once he came running over to tell me he was getting christened. I stared at him in amazement. “Why, Foka?” I asked. “Because it’s free,” he said.
Of those invited only Brat didn’t come. He’s busy making crosses for dollars for the new Russkies now, because you should know that among the new Russkies there’s a new fashion that’s all the rage, a fashion for crosses to bow down to in the garden. The bigger the cross you put up, the more status you have. Brat knows his own value – for a ten-metre cross he gets fifteen thousand bucks, which is a thousand dollars per linear metre. So it’s no surprise he hasn’t time for a banquet.
I didn’t invite Petrovich. For days on end he’s been up to his ears in a bout of binge drinking. Nikolashyn might have come on his own, but the trouble is he never emerged from the binge, or rather he did, but on the other side… Morozov certainly would have come by too, if not for the fact that on New Year’s Eve he “fell off his torpedo”* and his heart couldn’t hold out. Now they’re lying next to each other in the Solovetsky cemetery waiting for Petrovich, just as in life they drank as a threesome.
Last to appear was Shabunya, our new Head of Administration. Shabunya’s been head for two years, and before that she taught geography at the school. In view of her obesity she always takes up the most space at table and seduces other women’s husbands (her own left her), to the annoyance of their wives.
“You’ve put on weight again,” Pinagor greeted her.
“My dear man, the Empress Catherine the Great was the first to observe that what counts for a woman is height, weight and bust.”
Meanwhile various dishes had appeared on the table: herrings “in their overcoats”, ravioli with Ukrainian fried pork cubes, burbot baked with garlic, and vodka, and wine – something for everyone… Also salted mushrooms, Provencal cabbage, Azerbaijan (spicy) cabbage, and bull’s tongue with plums. For dessert, cheese with olives and kvass made from rye flour, cranberry jam and tea.
At the table they were arguing over which grows old more quickly, the body or the soul?
Later on they started singing.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones