TO RUSSIA WITH LOVE
[article appears courtesy of The Age]
[i'll fix the formatting soon, sorry]
Shortly after Christmas this year, I received a phonecall from a stranger, Philip Birzulis, an Australian-Latvian visiting from Riga. He asked me if I knew I had an aunt living in Siberia.
I was aware my father Vilis's only sibling, Marija, had been sent there from Latvia during the waves of deportation that followed the second world war. I knew little else. I had no idea if she was still alive, and only a sketchy impression of her story. The phonecall was to change that. It led to the most remarkable journey of my life.
Since my father¹s death in 1980, I had made various attempts to contact either Marija or her offspring; my letters translated by Latvian acquaintances, using near to illegible addresses transcribed from the back of old envelopes. I received no replies. Really, it was a desultory effort. Melbourne is a long way from Latvia, and my ancestry there seemed to have no direct relevance to my life here. I have always kept an eye on the affairs of the tiny nation. I wear the Namejs ring my father gave me. But until recently, this was the extent of the relationship.
My father was a conscript in the Latvian Legion of the SS which retreated along the Eastern front before the Red Army. He spent the years directly after the war in a displaced persons camp, emigrating to Australia in 1950. He died before I developed an interest in the stories of his past, but I know he was a recidivist deserter and spent a lot of time digging trenches. He permanently damaged his kidneys lying in the snow feigning death while Russian troops passed nearby. In the aftermath of the war, on the black market, he had his papers altered to read Wehrmacht¹ rather than SS¹, and had a telltale tattoo removed. Though his was strictly a fighting unit, the SS designation would still have been enough to complicate his emigration plans.
After years working in a timber camp as part of his resettlement contract, and after a lengthy stay in a TB sanatorium, he settled in Melbourne, marrying and raising a family. Latvia was lost to him, consumed by the Soviet Union. That it might one day be liberated was a pipe dream.
When freedom did come in 1991, ten years after his death, I could only regret he was not alive to see it. With my father in mind, I watched the unfolding of the Singing Revolution¹: the linking of a hands across the Baltic territories, the collapse of the Moscow putsch, the declaration of an independent Republic. Since then, from time to time, I considered visiting Latvia - but it was never more than a vague intention. That is until the phonecall from Philip Birzulis. # Sydney-born Birzulis was working as a journalist in Riga when he befriended Ingvars Leitis, an eccentric Latvian nationalist who had travelled across Siberia in Soviet times with only a backpack and a bicycle. Whilst in the district of Khakassia - a region including the city of Abakan and bounded on the south by the beautiful Sayan mountains - Leitis heard mention of a community of ethnic Latvians inhabiting the isolated village of Lejas Bulana. What Leitis found was a remarkable time capsule of Latvian culture. Bulana is the oldest of a number of Latvian villages dotted throughout the vastnesses east of the Urals. It was founded in 1857 by Latvians deported by the Czar, and there had been little contact with the homeland since. The residents spoke a 19th Century version of the language and held to antique traditions: there were funerary customs, folksongs, techniques of farming and weaving, all of which were long abandoned back home. By the time of the revolution, free settlers from Latvia - lured by a fertile microclimate and the promise of gold in the Sayans - had pushed the population to nearly two thousand, but by Leitis¹ arrival, it had shrunk to little more than two hundred. L. Bulana had suffered under Stalinism. In 1937, 65 men, accused as kulaks [rich farmers], were shot by the NKVD. During the mass collectivisation of agriculture there were periods of starvation. Religion was suppressed, and the old women of the village took the part of priests, presiding at funerals and baptisms, preserving a stock of illegal Bibles. With Latvian independence and the Baltic reawakening, there was a natural interest in such settlements. During the early nineties, an ethnographic expedition was mounted, and teachers volunteered to work in the village school. Inspired by Leitis, Birzulis decided to write an article and travelled to the village himself. Whilst there he formed a relationship with Vera Gutmans, the headmistress of the school. When he visited his parents in Australia late last year, Vera accompanied him. Before leaving Bulana, she had been approached by her aunt, Marija Gutmans, who explained that Vilis, her brother, a war-refugee, may have a son still living in Melbourne. She asked if they might look up the name Sejavka in the phonebook. I met Philip and Vera a few days after the phonecall. Vera produced photographs of a desolate, almost medieval looking village and a smiling old babushka, standing in the snow in a big woollen coat, buttons done up wrong. This was far from my experience. I was amazed, fascinated. When Philip suggested I go with him when he returned to the village in mid 2001, I took a long breath and floundered. My first thought was to my own safety. The word Siberia has a particular ring to it, conjuring images of weather extremes, desolate expanses and post-Soviet lawlessness. My second thought was that this was a rare opportunity, and it was not long before I made a decision to the positive. I wrote to my aunt and she replied, describing my visit as tantamount to a miracle. Why do you have no children?¹ she asked. Do you drink?¹ Do you go to church? If not, why not?¹ # In late June, after spending a month in Latvia itself, I left for Russia with Philip and Ieva, another Latvian journalist. There was a train to Moscow, then a nervous flight to Abakan on Air Vladivostok. At the lumpen Soviet-era Intourist Hotel Khakassia, teenage prostitutes with their teenage pimp lurked expectantly by the lifts, and at the reception desk there commenced the obligatory half-hour of heated, inscrutable negotiations peppered with nyets¹ and nadas¹. The next morning, early, we were met by Vilis - a surly over-sized Barney Rubble look-alike from the village - who drove us the 200 kilometres south to Bulana. Though I had seen photos of the village, had it described to me in fair detail, when it came down to it I had little notion of what to expect. Spawned by middle-class Australia, the way of life there would certainly be out of my ken, and at the time I was wondering what if anything my aunt and I would have in common. I caught my first glimpse of Lejas Bulana, nestled amongst soft green hills, under an endless blue sky, beside the fast flowing Kebezu river. On the edge of town, we passed the cemetery: cast-iron crosses and masses of coloured plastic flowers obscured by weeds. The village consisted of four unmade streets, lined with aging cottages, some abandoned and left prey to the elements. There were a few people about - boys roaring past on dusty motorcycles, a dour old man urging along a horse and cart loaded with blackened churns - but more in evidence were the beasts: cows, goats, pigs in fair profusion and horses, perhaps thirty of them, some crudely hobbled, travelling en masse from place to place with clear purpose. Later, I was to observe these horses congregating in the disused kindergarten - milling about on a carpet of compacted shit, among gaily painted murals of cockerels and bear-cubs - as if the place was a kind of equine parliament and they were the true power in the community. The village retains some functioning infrastructure: the tiny library still operates and the school has won commendations from the regional education department. But the town hall is boarded up, the church was demolished in communist times, and films, extolling the virtue of labour and the struggle of the proletariat, have not been shown at the tiny cinema since the demise of the Soviet system. In the past, there were more streets, more houses and people, but Lejas Bulana is dying. There are fewer children every year, and almost all of them move to larger towns. Alcoholism is an ongoing problem. Once there were seventy men working on the village collective, now there are twelve, their wages are in arrears and there are murmurs of corruption. Generally, people subsist on what they grow in their own gardens. # Marija¹s house was a decayed structure partly shaded by a sprawling ieva tree and defended by a red-eyed bandog. From behind a rough picket gate appeared a tiny gnarled figure with head scarf and walking stick, clomping forward in traditional Siberian gumboots, clutching flowers in her bony brown hands and weeping. The woman was a stranger, but she was my closest living relative. Our paths had converged after the vagaries of fate, war and Stalinism had worked to put as much of the world as possible between us. It was an unforgettable moment. Marija was so excited, she told us later, she couldn¹t remember how to walk. My appearance from another world was at least as unreal for her as it was for me. She clutched me around the chest with all her strength. I think, in her mind, I had become her brother, lost these sixty years past - and indeed for some days after she addressed me as bralitis¹ [little brother]. # The rest of that day was spent sitting in Marija¹s yard, with Ieva and Philip, talking, eating, consuming the vodka I had brought from Riga. Marija sat beside me, held my arm, dabbing tears from her eyes as she spoke and occasionally touching my face. As the night wore on, she began to punctuate her conversation with verses from an apparently limitless repertoire of folk songs. I spent two weeks living in Marija¹s cottage, sleeping on a camp bed in the single room, which had been freshly whitewashed in preparation for my coming. Among the photos of her children and grandchildren taped to the wall, I found an image of my father, standing cheerfully in front of the Freedom Monument in Riga on a cloudless day, sometime during the German occupation, with a new suit and haircut, looking to his future. Upon receiving my gift of an Australian wildflowers teatowel, Marija added it to this gallery. There was a language barrier, of course, but in Philip and Ieva I had sensitive translators who shared our company most evenings. At other times we made do with sign language, the odd word of German, and the mishmash of Latvian and Russian I had picked up along the way. Besides, life in Bulana involves few concepts requiring elaborate language - words such as sleep, eat, drink, pig, good, dog, bad, seem to cover most situations. Since my return, I have often been asked how we communicated, but when I think of the experience now, I recall no language disparity at all. Marija is an alert eighty-two, tanned, but with smooth skin for her age. She is an upbeat, charming woman with a certain canniness derived from having survived some of the most adverse circumstances on Earth. She is stooped, mutters under her breath from pain, and often uses two walking sticks, selecting from a collection of broom handles and fence palings placed randomly about the yard. Though blind in one eye, she still reads before sleep and is an energetic writer of letters. Her work ethic is intimidating. She was rarely inactive in daylight hours: weeding, cooking, pumping water, or strenuously milking Dumala¹, an obstinate beast with an eye-catchingly large udder, which habitually would camp itself in awkward positions around the property. More than once I witnessed the tiny Marija panting and cursing as she abseiled a long slope of unresponsive flesh on her way to the kitchen. She vows to rid herself of Dumala, indeed she vows to close up shop altogether and accept the invitation to live with her daughter Elvira in nearby Yermakovsk, but I doubt if it will happen soon. Dumala¹s presence accounted for a surfeit of dairy products in the house. Upon opening the fridge, I would be presented with an object lesson in what it is possible to do with milk - every possible gradation between fresh milk and cheese was represented there. In this village, I soon learnt, there is nothing you can eat which is not improved by sour cream or yoghurt. I drew the line however when I was urged to spread butter on cheese. Marija was constantly cooking up something on the wood-fired stove in her tiny kitchen. Piragi were a specialty, filled with jam or pounded meat, also tapioca with blackberry jam, pancakes, fresh pike caught from the river and fried in a pan. For me, it was a time of forced feeding. I was considered deathly thin and no matter where or when I sat down a plate of something was placed in front of me. It was difficult to politely refuse. By far my most useful Latvian phrase was esmu paedis¹ [I am full]. # Since her husband¹s death, the forces of entropy have had their way with the property. Weeds fill the unused spaces: rue, thistle, caraway, and the ubiquitous nettles. Outbuildings teeter on collapse, propped up with sticks and rusted sections of farm implements. All manner of objects hang off nails: scissors, coathangers, hatchets and unidentifiable metal doodads. Disintegrating gumboots are upturned over fenceposts among trails of impromptu electrical wiring. Dominating the yard is Marija¹s prodigious collection of battered pails and churns - much used receptacles for either milk or the murky brown water from her well. Tilting over the animal-yard is a wooden box atop a long pole, where a certain black bird¹ is encouraged to roost in the Spring and help reduce the insect population. In its own way the place still functions. There is a tomato patch, a pig pen and an old crate housing a mother hen and her chicks. Several tonnes of firewood are stacked in preparation for a winter that is still far off. Behind the house is about an acre of tilled land, planted with potatoes. But keeping things going is more than she can handle by herself - it was difficult enough for me to complete some of the chores I was alloted. Yet Marija¹s survival skills run to social manipulation as well. The village has a good percentage of alcoholics, mostly Russian, who willingly work Marija¹s property in exchange for vodka. # Among these workers is Marija¹s next-door neighbour, an inveterate drunk, whom I came to know as Other Marija. Though younger than my aunt, she looks older, with an unpleasant black coagulation oozing from each nostril, a thick growth of beard trimmed to about a centimetre and a willingness to harvest nettles with her bare hands. Other Marija survives on spirits and little else. She sees through the winter by burning sections of her property. There are tales told of her working the fields with a bottle of vodka in each pocket - to be found sprawled comatose on a haystack at the end of the day. When her husband was on his deathbed, Other Marija took the opportunity to squander the money he had saved for his funeral feast - for which she ultimately provided only a single stale pig¹s head. But there is something caring in the relationship between these two Marijas. Though Other Marija is a thief and her proximity demands a constant eye on valuables, Marija often speaks of her with kindness. She has no guilt setting her to work and paying her in alcohol - that, after all, is a matter of survival - but I think that without Marija close by the Other Marija would barely make it from day to day. # Bulana is no paradise for animals. They exist on sufferance and usually for a specific purpose. Marija¹s dog Shariks¹ is permanently tied to a stake by the front gate. It receives no affection, is regularly beaten and poorly fed. As a result, its nerves are bad, it drools and its eyes are baleful - the perfect deterrent to roaming drunks. Marija has no name for her cat, which is imprisoned in a dark storage room as a defence against mice and cries pathetically between efforts to gnaw its way out. Many of the village pets have lost their ears to frostbite. Some walk with an arthritic gait that may attest to past freezings. A good example of Siberian expediency was provided by the case of a neighbouring dog, a tiny grey-haired thing which had been shorn to provide materials for a pair of socks. When I showed Marija a photo of my house in Melbourne, she pointed to each of the trees in turn and asked what it produced. I was embarrassed to say nothing. Things are very different in Bulana. Everything pivots on survival. # Most evenings were spent outdoors at a flimsy wooden table covered with a plastic sheet, defending against mosquitoes, the jailed cat mewling neurotically and Other Marija grumbling over the fence in her man¹s voice. Some nights, Marija would allow herself some vodka from her store... For her - as for most people here - Australia might have been another planet. From time to time, she would frown and ask me questions: Is there underground water where I live? Do you have carrots there? Potatoes? Rivers? She was particularly surprised by the fact that Australia was an island. I trawled for her memories of my father, but over the expanse of sixty years they were vague and fragmented. Holding her broken glasses to her face, she pored over a wartime picture of Vilis, and announced he was wearing the same clothes as when she saw him last, suitcase in hand, a city-boy on his way back to Riga to fight for the Germans and to disappear without a word. Clearer were Marija¹s memories of exile, and over the period of my visit the details surfaced. She was arrested in August 1946, at 25 years of age, allegedly for feeding the forest brothers¹, Latvian partisans who fought the Red Army in the years following the war. Separated from her three children, she spent a year in Daugavpils prison - praying each day from morning to night¹ - before her deportation to Siberia. She remembers travelling north on the River Yenisei, terrified. Her upbringing had prepared her in no way for this, and the language of the women prisoners scared her as much as anything. And she was surprised at the women wearing pants, as this was never done in Latvia. Within a month she had acquired a pair of her own as a barrier against the some of the worst biting insects on Earth. She spent two years in a strict-regime gulag near Kansk, incarcerated with criminals, sawing cedar logs in the taiga. In 1949, a new law for political exiles came into force - extending the period of her sentence. Not long after, she received word that she would never be allowed to return. Sometimes Marija¹s descriptions were short on detail, and there were certain things of which she would not speak. But along the way, perhaps in a transit-camp, she met Martins Gutmans, another Latvian. There was no romance as such, just an agreement that life would be easier if they functioned as a team. Released from prison, they were required to join a farming collective in the village of Verhne-Imbadsk in the far North. While Martins hunted, Marija hand-milked cows from dusk till dawn at the kolhoz dairy. Though a Latvian speaker, Martins had never been to Latvia. His birthplace was Lejas Bulana, and when the political climate eased, he asked Marija to return with him there. Having abandoned hope of ever reuniting with her husband and children, she agreed. It was not Latvia, but there were Latvians there and she could start again. She did not bother getting a divorce - such details were not relevant in the Siberia of the time - and they married, arriving in the village in 1962. Marija has lived there ever since, cementing her place in the little community where she is universally known as Marijas Tante [Aunt Maria]. She raised two more children; Elvira and Vilis, who has disappeared among the oilfields of Yakutia. Martins died 10 years ago. # Lejas Bulana left an indelible impression on me. The cracking of distant lightning in vast purple skies. The sudden storm which broke up a fine day and the plague of tiny frogs that followed. The line between heaven and hell is blurred there - in my photographs of lush forests and wildflower fields you do not see the hosts of vicious insects. I remember Marija polishing a red apple we gave her as if it were a precious oversized jewel. I remember searching for a place to empty an ashtray and Marija warning me never to throw anything away after dark. The extremes of the environment are mirrored in the human heart; there is cruelty and caring in equal measure. It was hard for me to really grasp the horror of what Marija must have been through - it is of another order to anything I have experienced. That she remains good-humoured and kind is a testament to human nature. She asked if I would ever return to Bulana and I was uncertain how to answer. If you do, she said, be sure to visit my grave. I doubted if she was being morbid, just Siberian. I recalled the overgrown cemetery with its rusted crosses and plastic flowers, the stands of birch trees, the river and the hills, and told her I would try. Sam Sejavka, Melbourne 2001 [with thanks to Philip & Ieva]