An oval portrait of Tsar Alexander III hung uncertainly on one of the larch-log walls of the schoolroom. Wintery sun sliced onto an abacus, a row of low smooth desks, and a blackboard inscribed with looped Cyrillic script. The silence of the Siberian forest seemed to have penetrated the room. How many decades since a child's voice had spoken there?
I was three quarters of the way across Russia, and that morning had stepped off train 080 at Irkutsk, the commercial centre of eastern Siberia. From there I planned to make my way by car down to the northern shore of the fabled Lake Baikal.
The highway was arrow-straight. The Soviets built it in 1961 for the Eisenhower-Khrushchev summit: a combination of poor soil, permafrost and seismic activity added up to a major engineering challenge and then the summit never happened, because of the Gary Powers downed spy-plane episode. The taiga flanking the tarmac was dense with Siberian pine, cedar, larch, birch and aspen. I didn't see a bear, but an arc of willow ptarmigan streaked across the sky, a Naples-yellow moon still gleaming at ten in the morning.
Thirty miles from Irkutsk, at a break in the trees, an arched iron sign announced the Taltsy Museum. There are five open-air museums in Russia, but I wondered, looking out at a scattering of wooden homes, a golden dome and a cluster of verdigris cupolas, if any of the others spoke so clearly of their time, of the loneliness of the taiga, and of the peace those regional heartlands so many thousands of miles from Moscow.
It was gratifying to see Russians doing something well. In the sixties and seventies, the authorities of the Irkutskaya oblast (the latter a geographical division similar to an American state or a Canadian province) dismantled remaining examples of traditional architecture in outlying districts and reassembled them here. Many were the homes of indigenous peoples notably Buryat - and some were the work of European Russians who erected ostrogs (forts) like a necklace when they penetrated Siberia in the seventeenth century in pursuit of furs.
The temperature hovered at a spritely minus 20 not cold for those parts and fragments of ice and snow skittered through the air. My boots crunched over deep untrodden snow , a sound too vulgar for the pure silence of Taltsy. The first building I entered, pushing open a heavy door rimed with hoarfrost, was a small domestic dwelling with two sleeping platforms above a stove the size of a wardrobe. Opposite, in the kitchen area, birch-bark spoons hung from a rough-hewn pole.
The Buryat, the largest ethnic group in Russia (there are more than 500 tribal groups in Siberia with 120 languages between them) flourished in the region for centuries. They grew flax, as Taltsy looms indicated, cultivated wheat cooperatively, farmed cows and herded reindeer, often camping out in their yurt-like gers, several of which were on display. Today Buryat make up 10 per cent of the Greater Irkutsk population. They still breed cattle, but are integrated, or at least more integrated than many ethnic groups, some of whom have fared very poorly in modern Russia. Every morning over the next week I heard half an hour of news on the radio in the Buryat language.
In 1647 a ragged band of freebooting Cossacks erected a fort on a bank of the Angara River. One of the first Russian settlements east of the Urals, the fort lives on at Taltsy. Its Kazanskaya chapel has a gilded cupola shaped like a segment of a puckered tube. When I ran my fingers over the larch walls beneath the dome, I noted that the Cossacks had built them without nails.
The oldest buildings have mica windows (not that different to glass, but they have a bullion effect), though a glass factory operated in the area as early as 1796, facilitated by the sandy banks of the Angara. In that climate windows were always small, set deep into log-cabin-style walls, often with ornate carved shutters. On the three-storey Tower of the Saviour the Cossacks designed an elaborate closed balcony, less an act of devotion than a means of spying on pesky natives.
I said it was gratifying to see Russians doing something well (and stylishly). But almost all the Taltsy buildings had been abandoned as a result of floods engineered in the Soviet rush to industrialize eastern Siberia. Historians will never know how many villages were flooded during the construction of the Bratsk and Ust-Ilimsk dams.
Then it was on to Baikal. Mist hung low over the Hamar Daban mountains. I watched the sun set over the blue water from my eyrie in a guest house on a hill above the shore. The pines beyond, tipped with snow, were interleaved with stands of glistening beech. My amiable hotelier, Tatiana, was smoking omul a white fish indigenous to Baikal - on a brazier in the yard. But this was modern Russia, where Buryat no longer hear the timeless symphony of the forest. When we had eaten the omul, I sat on the sofa next to Tatiana and watched Russian Strictly.
Sara Wheeler is the author of Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica
Words bySara Wheeler
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