It is Tough on Glamour in the Taiga…
By Igor Severgin
Recently I came across the saying: “Even demons will not live in Siberia!” That is not quite true though. They do, it is just that they do not enjoy it much, and they do not live as long. It is just not the right climate. They would rather be in Monte Carlo or Courchevel, but not everyone is so lucky...
Today there are three Russias: The Russia of glamour, land of glossy magazine covers, billionaire ratings, show-business blonds, tickets to the Canary Islands, very expensive psychoanalysts and diamante seamed stockings. It is a country of luxuries and pink limousines. The second Russia hardly glitters diamonds. It is the Russia we are familiar with from the news columns and publications in the western press. If you did not leave your flat for any length of time and followed what was happening via the internet you would be quick to assume that we live in an endless crime report which is occasionally diversified by exchange rates, technological disasters and the elections. Of course, all this makes a particular impression on the citizens of the rest of the world.
Almost nothing is known of the third Russia. This Russia is of no interest to those who collect foreign property, or trade the news. That it does exist is beyond dispute for it does not just abide in the sphere of the news world; it is right here, all around us. It is a multi-million country that has lost its way and yet still vaguely remembers a time when things were different. And the memory has nothing to do with nostalgia for the Soviet past which is amply mooted in the press. It is a nostalgia for what is real. In Russia, old ideas have been discredited, and none have yet replaced them. Russia today is like a bear in hibernation living off previously accumulated stocks. And as we know so well, the next instalment of life in the den can only bring one of two things: spring, or the hunter.
Siberia occupies a special place in this unknown Russia. Siberia is, well, Siberia. It is unique. There can be no other versions of Siberia. And yet, if you ask the inhabitants of New York or Berlin what they know of Siberia you will no doubt hear the same response as you would from the average Muscovite who has never travelled further than the Urals: Minus temperatures, the GULAG, oil, the taiga and once again…bears. This humble collection of associations is as far from describing the real Siberia as the people who pronounce them are from Siberia itself. Try describing America in the same manner. Would Indians, the dollar, flight to the moon, Twin Towers, Hollywood and hot-dogs count as comprehensive information? Siberian history exceeds American history by dozens of centuries. It is here that other peoples including the Indians, Iranians, Turks, and Japanese seek and find their roots, to say nothing of a significant portion of the European nations. Such claims are no flight of fancy. They are substantiated by concrete fact.
Siberia represents the northern homeland of human civilization. But that is not all. It is a well-known fact that it is the Siberian divisions that turned the tide of war in the battle of Moscow. Yet few know that Siberia played no less a critical role in the country’s salvation during the turbulent Time of Trouble, or the final war with Napoleon. When the French Emperor occupied Moscow and proposed that Alexander I sign a peace, the Tzar replied: “I will not sign a peace. I will leave for Tobolsk and from there will continue the battle…”.
Siberia’s vast expanse left the French no chance of ultimate victory. Napoleon was under no illusions; neither was Hitler, who planned to limit the conquest of Russian territories to as far as the Urals. “Victory or Siberia!”, sounded one of the last Nazi war slogans.
However, the inspiration to create a journal that would describe this unknown Siberia did not come from fascinating historical fact, the mind-blowing beauty of Altai and Lake Baikal, or even shamanic ritual… (Although there has been no shortage of mysticism since the journal began). The blame lies in fact with the individuals I was lucky enough to meet during my business trips to Siberia whilst working as a journalist. More precisely, it is the fault of the one trait they all have in common, the ability to be happy. I met all sorts of different people on my trips: writers, bee-keepers, monks, hunters, academics, museum workers, recluses…
It was not clear where all these “peddlers of happiness” had come from. For according to global statistics, even in economically developed countries the portion of the population that considers itself happy is dramatically declining. The wealthy are many, the happy – no more than a handful. The number of cases of clinical depression has increased ten times and in the USA alone the number of people considering themselves happy has fallen by 14 million over the past thirty years. And all this on a background of substantial growth in wealth. So, money, perhaps not the ultimate panacea after all?
Well, not if the Siberians are anything to go by. The people I met during my business trips hardly put on the ritz, but neither did they complain of their lot. The most important thing to a person who is happy is that there simply be enough. We have long understood that the lame are not those who have nothing, but those who desire for much; and those who are truly wealthy are not those who have much, but those who need for little. It is a myth that our ancestors disliked the rich and successful. They simply had no love for the greedy, those obsessed with objects and money, for whom material luxury is a yardstick for the good life. That said, poverty was no honour. The Siberian Old Believers used to say: “God has no love for the dejected or the lazy, and so for the poor”.
It was not the size of one’s wealth that mattered, so much as whether it was honestly earned, what it was spent on, and who controlled what: money the man or man the money. Even now, certain Russian business sharks will acknowledge that it is sometimes easier to knock up a fortune that it is to know what to do with it. As the wise Bernard Shaw once wrote, money brings you medicine but not health, entertainment but not happiness, religion but not salvation. Believe it or not, many people still understand this. The problem lies not so much in the greed of the contemporary business elite, but in the absence of any real development project that could correct the direction our future will take on any deep level. At least if such projects do exist, no access to information is available. Imagine being given the key to a castle and knowing there is a door you must enter but finding that the door has no keyhole. What do you do?
Tired of searching for the keyhole, certain businessmen are coming up with a radical solution. I know of at least six cases where specific individuals have come up with such large-scale projects themselves. The most recent project came to light about a month prior to the publication of this book. Alexander Kravstov, who in his time created the “Expedition” trademark from scratch, plans to build Ruyan-Town on the banks of a Siberian river. Again, totally from scratch. The town itself will stand half-way between Novosibirsk and Tomsk and be funded by private investment. The essence of the project is to create a prototype model for towns of the future, a Happiness Space. And this is in Russia, where not one decent new town has been built over the past twenty years.
It is a crazy idea but as Alexander Kravstov says, it has a magical effect on everyone; or as is it fashionable to say now: “tseplyaet”, it “hooks you”. The effect the project has on everyone who hears about it proves that the memory of the mythical city of Kitezh still lives in the depths of our consciousness. Neither the glamour of capitalism, nor “material values” have been able to root it out of our memory entirely…which reminds me of another story… A couple of years ago one of my friends from Novosibirsk told me about an old man he knew who was always saying that he had to live till he was one hundred and twenty. My friend did not attribute the fact much significance. Who would not want to? But one day, he became curious: why specifically one hundred and twenty? The old man explained it very simply: “We built the entire country with our own hands, brick by brick. Our children and then our grandchildren destroyed it. When everything finally goes to pot, someone will have to advise our great-grandchildren what to do next.” You must admit, that the old man’s logic and the concept of a new kind of town have something in common.
Only one thing seems odd. All sorts of extraordinary stories take place in Siberia but no-one ever gets to hear of them unless of course they are related to power, money, political events or hot scandal. The reason for this unfortunately, cannot be put down to the snobbery of the capital. That is circumstantial. What is even more undermining is that the country’s entire formal system resembles a huge calculator that translates everything instantly into monetary units. Whatever words you use to disguise it: ratings, co-efficiencies, exchange rates… money is in danger of becoming a kind of unofficial “religion”, if it has already become one. The “happiness” category is an abstract thing that does not quite fit with the new faith because it cannot be converted. Dmitry Sokolov-Mitrich gave the journal a perfectly accurate diagnosis of the situation: “A happy person is an enemy of the world economy” because happy people do not take part in the general consumerism rush. They have nothing to demonstrate or prove. Imagine what would happen if a happiness epidemic were to overcome whole nations pushing the number of happy people up beyond the critical mass - the entire global economy would collapse.
Do you see what I am getting at?
We finish with one more true story which admittedly took place in the middle of the previous century. It has been published previously but will be in no way diminished by being shared again here.
An old village man was once asked: granddad, do humans have a soul or are we just made up of reflexes?
“It all depends on the individual”, the old man replied.
“Good people have a soul. Bad people just have reflexes.”
Translated by Joanna Dobson