Articles From the March 1994 Unification News


Soul Of Russia - Life In The Russian North: Hard and Raw

by Erin Bouma

I have now traveled in the CIS east to Kazakhstan, west to Byelorussia and the Baltics, south to Ukraine and Crimea, so this summer it was my turn to look more closely at the Russian north in Karelia. This northwestern part of European Russia, near the White Sea and bisected by the Arctic Circle, was known as Lapland up to the mid-19ths century, when its name was changed to the Kola Peninsula. Eastern Slavs came there in the 11th century and joined the native Finns, Vepsy and Karelian peoples, who today make up only 1/5 of Karelia's population.

The two best-known places in Karelia to the "outside world" are the city of Murmansk, the only big city (400,000) above the Arctic Circle and, until recently, a very closed military port for the Russian Northern Fleet, and Solovetskiy Island in the White Sea. The Island was settled by Russian Orthodox monks in the 15th century, who later built a huge monastery-fortress to live and worship in while protecting them from the attacks of Swedes. Tragically, in 1923, Solovetskiy Island became the site of the first "gulag" prison under Lenin, with the monks and priests serving as the first prisoners.

I didn't get a chance to visit either Murmansk or Solovetskiy Island on my 10-day journey to Karelia in late August, but I did spend a week in a 200-person village in mid-Karelia not far from the small town of Chupa on the railroad line. I lived with my friends-a Russian family with two children-who had spent a delightful month there the previous summer. We shared a two-room basic apartment in a barracks-type building and, along with the village, had no running water or toilet. This village had been settled during the Stalin period and so there was no village church, but several log cabin homes added charm to the picturesque setting of lakes and forests of birch, pine and fir. We were not directly on the White Sea but experienced the dramatic sky changes constantly rearranged by the northern sea winds. The "senior citizens" of the village were generally Russian and Ukrainian and had come there in the 1940s. One grandfather, a handsome, hardworking 70- year-old, is reported to have been sent there as a prisoner, and his wife and her sister followed later.

I tell you after one summer week in this remote area, Moscow really is the lap of luxury. This is truly the place for few distractions. Not every home has a TV, but I was able to see the insides of five houses and apartments, sometimes to watch the American soap opera, "Santa Barbara" (which is very popular here and much better than the melodramatic Mexican and Brazilian ones). I couldn't help but think how different the worlds of glamorous wealth and romance are from the gritty, harsh world of the Russian Arctic. Our building used an especially smelly collective outhouse, a water tap outside (washing dishes and clothes in the nearby lake), one communal bathhouse (banya) for the village, one telephone for local calls only, two TV channels, and fresh milk delivery only on Friday afternoons.

I once went into the sad little general store, which stocked some staples, a little cheese and butter, a few pastries, some onions and vodka, of course. What really shocked me was the scarcity of fresh summer fruits and vegetables. Much of the rural Russian countryside has equally humble living conditions, but at least in summer and early fall their gardens yield apples, plums and assorted berries, as well as tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, leaf lettuce and radishes, in addition to the basic winter fare of potatoes, cabbage, beets and onions. But the diet of northern Karelia is built on their garden potatoes, mushrooms and berries from the woods and fish from the sea (which was only served in its salted version). In the village, two families had chickens, two families had cows, two families had pigs, and several people owned a few sheep which wandered the village together in a flock. My Moscow friends told me that the people must be too lazy to try to raise a greater variety of food for their needs.

In these living conditions I saw a surprising number of young families and couples with toddlers. But it's a hard life: teenagers marry young (just out of high school); grandmothers chop their own wood supply for winter with axes, men are often drowned in the freezing waters when fishing and there is much alcoholism (especially in the winter). There is really no work in the area, but the evidence of a rock quarry and small abandoned sawmill showed that there was more activity in the Soviet period. I had to think of American Appalachian life, rustic poverty, amid natural beauty to find a comparison.

I was clearly the first American to visit the village, and many people couldn't quite grasp that I couldn't understand their questions or answer in fluent Russian. Nevertheless, I was embraced (often literally), given souvenirs of deer antlers to make a coat rack and a small hand-braided rug, and encouraged to come back soon.

My friends, Lorik and Eugene, were very preoccupied with gathering mushrooms and berries to bring back to Moscow for the winter. I chose to spend more time on walks, reading or resting, while I dealt with biting insects which caused me considerable itching and swelling. It was rainy and cool the whole week and we heated the rooms by means of a large wood stove in the center room.

The only signs of religious life were pictorial icons in some apartments and rooms and, probably, some families have Bibles. I learned that Finnish missionaries (I presume Lutheran) visit once a year and offer several days of programs and distribute small gifts and literature. I understand that the event is very attractive to the young people and somewhat exciting but that the older people remain skeptical or uninterested.

While in the village I visited our landlord's family who were holding a birthday party for their 11-year-old daughter. The children had already had some sort of celebration and retired out to the front lawn of the cabin to dance to some music tapes. The adults, family and friends, then took over the small cabin for their party. The parents of the girl had spent the past few weeks cutting wild hay in southern Karelia to make some money and had brought some tomatoes and cucumbers, chicken and beef for the meal. Lena, the birthday girl, particularly impressed me when she received a nice, imported chocolate bar as one gift and proceeded to share it with the adults, including one set of grandparents, before having a small bite herself. In fact, my friends had rented their apartment for six weeks by bringing a pair of school shoes for Lena and a school bag for her younger sister from Moscow as a rent payment.

Few people in the village had cars. More common were motorcycles with sidecars. One trip I made to Chupa and back was in the cab of a small semi-truck (interestingly, with five adults and two children). There is also a regional bus that makes the journey a couple of times a day and that we took upon our departure. Lorik and Eugene held a good-bye party for about eight town residents who then herded us and our belongings across the hilly village to await the bus. We arrived in Chupa about 5:30 and fortunately had a place to stay until our 3:30 a.m. train to Moscow passed through.

Without a doubt, the warm and tough people of Karelia have certainly won my respect and affection. The stark beauty of their landscape, however, is pale compensation for the hardships and isolation they see. I pray that their future will be much brighter than their present.

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