Open Lands

Travels Through Russia's Once Forbidden Places
By Mark Taplin

Steerforth Press

Copyright © 1998 Mark Taplin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1883642876




THE YADRIKHA STATIONHOUSE COWERED in the threadbare light. Behind it squatted a row of ragtag log cabins. Acrid coal smoke spun over the tracks. Travelers in dull dun overcoats struggled down the icy platform, hauling bags of supplies brought from Moscow.

The train suddenly clanged to a start. Wistfully recalling the warm compartment I had just vacated, I watched the cars slowly squeak and clack out of the station. I struggled to work the straps of my backpack over my down jacket, painfully aware that among the other disembarking passengers, I looked as out of place as a cosmonaut.

I made inquiries. Yes, yes, I was told, there would be a train to Velikiy Ustyug, "soon." Although my toes were already numb from the cold, I was wary of settling down inside the waiting room. If I missed low compartments outfitted with wooden benches and shelves. There was enough room in each one for six people, uncomfortably. Suitcases and homemade bundles were strewn up and down the corridor.

These cars are heated, one might say, with unstudied diffidence. If the wagon attendent feels so inclined, she has the passengers seated above the coal bin get up from their bench so she can dig out a few shovelfuls of coal. Into a tin bucket goes the coal, and the attendant waddles back down the corridor to throw the fuel into the hiccuping boiler at the end of the car. In the dead of winter, there is a long interval--about the length of any trip--between when the little furnace is fed and any warming effect the passengers may feel.

I was scrunched up in the corner of one of the compartments, blowing onto my hands for warmth, when I encountered my first gang of silver desperados. It was, admittedly, only a duo. Slava, the older of the two, looked me up and down. With a faint smile, he slid his suitcase down the bench opposite me and sat down. Sasha, his partner, had the unshaven face of a young racketeer. He quickly took the space next to me.

They both looked tired and irritable. It was obvious they had been traveling for days. Slava, in his forties, had thinning red hair and the pinched, wiry face of a terrier. One sensed that he had a wealth of life experience, some of it inspired by what an earlier generation referred to delicately as "spirits." Still, even if he was a bit frayed around the edges, he looked like he had plenty of spit left in him. Sasha was his cocky young sidekick, lounging confidently against the wall of the compartment, ready to take on the world. No one had laid a glove on him--yet.

"So, you're an American. I've never met an American before," Slava said. Sasha ran his hand over my backpack as if the nylon were the skin of a spaceship. It was time for a drink, he announced. I begged off, pleading the morning hour. We settled on instant coffee, or, more accurately, the ersatz chicory-based brew most Russians drink, with Sasha badgering the attendant until she provided a jar of hot water.

Slava described himself and Sasha as traders. He was slicing open a can of meat with a large penknife. I asked them what it was they traded. They looked at each other, then peered out of the compartment. Slava's voice turned conspiratorial. "We trade in silver," he said in a low growl.

It was an answer that for some might have conjured up images of the Hunt brothers buying and selling warehouses full of silver ingots, but Slava quickly put things in perspective. For centuries, Velikiy Ustyug was one of Russia's silver-working capitals. Thanks to its strategic position on the trading routes from Siberia, the city had ready access to inexpensive silver. Craftsmen in Ustyug specialized in niello, the art of using a sulfur alloy to create intricate black designs and patterns on metal. The niello produced in Velikiy Ustyug was famous for the durability of its blackening alloy--and for its artistry.

It was all taken very seriously. The secrets of preparing the powder were passed like a prized family recipe from one generation to another. One nineteenth-century master would begin to prepare the niello alloy only after fasting for several days and taking a hot bath. With the help of a special awl, a craftsman would make his engravings deep, shaping and flattening the metal without affecting the quality of the niello patterns. The Ustyug silverwork found its way into many applications: jewelry and snuffboxes, goblets, bracelets, reliquaries, book covers, serving plates, flasks, even the richly decorated staff of the archbishop of Velikiy Ustyug. Drawing from the Bible and Russian folklore, the Ustyug masters created whole worlds on metal, often at the order of rich noblemen and merchants.

The Bolsheviks managed to undo most of the trade, persecuting both the craftsmen and their patrons. In the thirties, though, they had a change of heart. The last local man who knew the niello formula passed the secret on to a new workshop backed by the Communist authorities. He was, according to the old-timers, a mediocre artisan. Yet he had the satisfaction of being hailed by the Party as a hero of socialist labor.

As the years went by, the "Northern Niello" operation grew into a small factory, turning out jewelry and tableware for Party bigwigs and tourists. The humdrum pieces churned out by these proletarians could not be compared with the exquisite works created in past centuries. Still, demand was high in the chaos of the post-Soviet era. In the face of runaway inflation and a rapidly depreciating currency, buying silver seemed to many a good investment.

My two companions were from Tyumen, three days by train to the east in the frozen Siberian marshes. Every few months, they came to Ustyug to buy silver pieces from a special "friend." They might spend anywhere from a few hours to a few days in Ustyug, looking over the scene, waiting for their business associate to provide the goods, sealing the deal. Once they had made their purchase, they would head for other places and other "friends" who were eager to buy their wares. Typically, they did best in port cities on the fringes of the old Russian empire, where business with the outside world had been given new impetus after the fall of the Soviet order: cities like Murmansk, Arkhangelsk, Khabarovsk, Vladivostok. Sometimes, they would sell the niello items to a seaman headed for Europe or Japan. Slava said, with obvious pride, that they had cleared over a million rubles during the past year--several thousand dollars.

I asked him if I could see what some of the silver objects looked like. He pondered the idea for a moment. "When we get to Ustyug, we can show you some," he replied. "But we will have to be careful."

I asked why. Slava weighed his words carefully. He was not sure what kind of simpleton I was. "We do not deal directly with the factory," he explained. "Our friend has contacts there, and provides us the items at a special price." Sometimes, he explained, there were "complications."

At this, Sasha opened his coat and pulled out a shiny, stubby revolver. He placed it on his lap and laughed: "That's why I carry this. For the complications." He was obviously devoted to his gun. He had pulled it out both to impress me and himself, and his feline eyes fixed on me as he looked to see how I would react. I thought of Behemoth, the man-sized, pistol-toting black cat in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita.

Slava motioned to Sasha to put the revolver away. "He likes to joke," Slava said nonchalantly. The conversation drifted to American films. "Does everyone in America carry a gun?" Sasha asked. Out came the revolver again. He scratched his head with the barrel as he listened to me explain that many Americans did not even own a gun. Slava looked on with mounting disapproval. The revolver went back under the coat.

The coffee had grown cold, and all that was left of the meat was the empty can, the jagged lid wrenched open. The glasses fidgeted nervously on the table underneath the window as the train poked slowly through the forest. Sasha pulled out a pack of cigarettes, pushed one into the corner of his mouth, and lit it. The cigarette smoke smelled sour, like a trash fire in a junkyard.

Before long, the wagon attendant appeared, all indignation. "Comrades," she began, using the salutation once favored by figures of authority, large and small, in the Soviet Union. "It is strictly prohibited to smoke in the compartments. As you know. Smoke outside, or put your cigarette out immediately."

At first, Sasha tried offhand charm. "It's only one time cigarette. I'll be done in a minute."

"Don't give me that," the attendant scowled. Her grey hair was pulled back into a tight bun. Her hand, like a metronome, was tapping impatiently on her hip. "I told you to smoke out there," she continued, raising her voice and motioning toward the end of the car.

Then Sasha tried reason, of sorts. "Listen, it's cold out there. I'm not bothering anyone. No one has complained."

"I don't care," she snapped. "If you don't put that cigarette out right now, I'll get the guard to throw you off the train."

It was a showdown between the old order and the new. Sasha unbuttoned the top of his coat. "Fuck you and fuck your militiaman," he said, pronouncing each word slowly and evenly. Then he turned away from her, gazing out the window, I thought, a bit theatrically.

To my surprise, the attendant was not intimidated. "I've seen your filth before. You should be ashamed of yourself. If you think you can talk to me that way, you're wrong."

It was an ugly moment. Sasha, exuding a psychotic calm, turned back to face the woman. He pulled back one side of his coat to expose the revolver, the butt dangling out of an inside pocket. Slava, who had watched in silence as the confrontation gathered momentum, leaned toward his partner and said sharply, "Ne nado, ne nado," forget it.

The attendant wheeled around. "We'll see about this," she cried out as she marched angrily down the corridor and out the door. The eyes of a passenger standing nearby followed her exit, turned toward us, and then uneasily veered away. No one said a word. I wondered whether we would see more of her. We never did.

* * *

I was happy enough when the train finally pulled into the Velikiy Ustyug station. It was snowing hard. Slava was utterly solicitous toward me, his new American friend. He wanted to know if someone would be meeting me. My answer probably sounded vague. "Come to the hotel with us," he insisted. He motioned for Sasha to carry my bags. Their business partner, built like a boxer, was waiting for them in a world-weary Moskvich car. Somehow, we managed to put all the luggage in the trunk and all of ourselves inside. We left the rest of the passengers stranded at the bus stop as we skittered off over ice and packed snow several months deep.

The Hotel Sukhona--the only hotel in Velikiy Ustyug--was, in a manner of speaking, mobbed. Milling about its lobby, which was equipped with two ragamuffin lounge chairs and a plastic palm, were clusters of toughs in different sizes and shapes, all sharing the hungry, unscrupulous look of the modern Russian trader. There was something unmistakable about them; perhaps it was the no-name-brand track suits, the hefty gym bags, the gold watches, the insistent leitmotif of unshaven coolness. Here was Hollywood's contribution to Russian reform. Somehow, young Russians on the make had confused the image of sleazy drug maven with that of yuppie entrepreneur.

I wondered if they could not help looking unsavory because, deep down, they felt that what they were doing was unsavory. For at least three generations, there had been no such thing as a respectable Russian businessman. To most of their countrymen, they were still spekulantiy, speculators who made their way in the world by fleecing the common folk. Real, honest work was done in front of a steel furnace or on a factory floor. Manufacturing made a country strong; everything else was capitalist smoke and mirrors. The idea that profit could be justified by a middleman's effort to bring a product closer to the consumer, or to expand the range of goods available to the public, was little understood or appreciated, especially outside of the big cities. The average Russian felt in his or her bones that there was a natural, fair price for any given item. For many decades, the stilted prices of the state stores had served as the standard. To pay "more" for a given product, even if it was never available before, was still, for many people, wrong. Unaccustomed to prices in the outside world and the mischief brought on by inflation, people were tearing their hair out over ten-cent loaves of bread and one-dollar bottles of vodka.

This conservative habit of mind runs deep in the Russian psyche. It is rooted in the peasant world view: insular, parochial, and doggedly resistant to change. The traditional village was largely self-sufficient; the peasant collective held much of the village property in common, including the land. Typically, individual prosperity produced more envy than admiration.

After the revolution, wealth became for many a veritable death sentence. Both Lenin and Stalin made use of this invidiousness (along with plenty of prodding at gunpoint) to drive a wedge between the better-off peasants, the so-called kulaks, and the rest of the villagers. In so doing, the Party destroyed what equilibrium there was in Russian agriculture, and plunged the countryside into famine and ruin. Lenin's New Economic Policy, or NEP, which gave small-time traders some breathing room during the twenties, was soon abandoned. It gave way almost overnight in favor of Stalin's rigid central planning and collectivization. The hustlers of yesterday, the "NEPmen," were chased from the scene and denounced as "parasites." Many of them had probably thought that there was no turning back. They were wrong. And no one wept for the NEPmen once they were gone.

Scandalizing the dour ladies at the reception desk, I paid the outlandish sum of four dollars a night for one of the hotel's suites. Suites were intended for two or more people; I was expected to confine myself to a single room. From then on, I was saddled with the reputation of a profligate. Even my explanation that I wanted the room for its desk and its view of the church across the street only went so far in mollifying the hotel's management.

I was anxious to wander about the town, to admire its urban ceramics in a winter's glaze. As long as one had a warm pair of boots, walking was the preferred means of transport. There was no effort to remove the snow from the roads. Instead, it was simply pushed about from time to time by a truck with a plow attachment. In a typical year, one might go for six months or more without seeing the asphalt--or mud--underneath. In any case, there were not a lot of motor vehicles about: only a few city buses, trucks, and jeeps. It all reinforced the happy illusion that if time was not exactly standing still in Velikiy Ustyug, it was at least curled up on an old Russian pechka, or stove, peacefully snoring away the winter nights. It took no spectacular leap of imagination to picture horse-drawn troikas dashing up and down the streets steam pouring from the horses' nostrils, the drivers' faces ruby red from the cold, their beards glistening with frost.

Velikiy Ustyug had the good fortune to be founded at the intersection of three river systems that mattered: the Sukhona, which flows northeast from Vologda and the heartland of Russia; the Vychegda, which leads down to the Russian north from the Urals and Siberia; and the Severnaya Dvina, which crosses hundreds of miles of taiga and swamp to meet the White Sea at Arkhangelsk. The first settlement was erected at the beginning of the thirteenth century near where a tributary, the Yug, flows into the Sukhona; hence the name "Ustyug," meaning "the mouth of the Yug." Appropriately, Velikiy Ustyug's coat of arms portrays a gray-bearded man pouring amphorae together.

From time immemorial, rivers were the highways of choice in Russia. They were wide and gentle, and gave access to regions that otherwise would have been virtually impossible to reach. Even when the waterways froze over, they provided a ready route for sleighs and sledges. Until the age of the railroad, which only began around the end of the nineteenth century in Russia, commerce and prosperity followed the rivers. To this day, river freighters and barges continue to ply the country's water routes.

The Mongols mostly bypassed Velikiy Ustyug, which was sheltered deep in the northern forests. Once, an official dispatched by the Golden Horde to collect tribute was given the choice of baptism or death by local residents. He hastily converted to the Orthodox faith. Likewise, Ustyug was spared many of the tribulations of Ivan the Terrible's reign and the subsequent "Time of Troubles," which sent most of Russia reeling into chaos.

Instead, with the founding of the White Sea port of Arkhangelsk in 1584, and the first Cossack forays into Siberia, Velikiy Ustyug rapidly grew into a center for trade and commerce. It was an important stop on what was then the only trade route open from Russia to Europe. Barges carrying Russian grain, furs, leather, and flax for export floated past the boom town in ever-growing numbers. Arkhangelsk saw a tenfold increase in the number of foreign ship calls during the seventeenth century. This trade was in large measure stoked by the merchants of Velikiy Ustyug. The riverboats heading back to the Russian heartland also multiplied; they were loaded to the brim with the luxuries of Europe, including wine, tobacco, clothing, and medicine. Twice a year, Velikiy Ustyug held a fur market that attracted buyers from all over the continent. Ustyug's merchants and tradesmen became rich. Their newfound wealth they invested back in their hometown.


Excerpted from Open Lands by Mark Taplin Copyright © 1998 by Mark Taplin. Excerpted by permission.
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