Lifted perspectives. From Russia to Estonia.

When travelling it’s often so that you start giving new values. For example, after visiting Uhta, Vorkuta and other communist intimidations Voronezh represented it as a beautiful green town with historical architecture. (versus Riina’s words two months earlier: “No matter how hard I try, Voronezh is an ugly grey concrete town at it cannot be thought of as something beautiful!”)

We were hitchhiking from Uhta towards Estonia and it

was about 400 km to Moscow and 1500 till home when it felt that zavood was already very near.

But when we again and again were stuck at empty roads, spent nights in Komi, then finally the Russian plains and fields started to remind us of those in Estonia.

When we arrived in Moscow and wanted to pay our FSB fine we were really surprised that they really agreed to deal with us, because at all the other banks they’d refused to do so. I was even more surprised that the clerk didn’t yell at us nor shrug her shoulders and walk away. Instead a manager came to us and apologized (!) we’d had to wait and gave us a badge, as a present. For a long time we were speechless, because we had thought for the whole time that this is us who’d have to, according to the good old Russian service culture, give something to them, as a thanks for not sending us away for being a bit too annoying.

When we arrived in Petersburg it felt as if we were back in Europe. When we asked the lady in the luggage room to give our bags for only a moment, she agreed and then put them back on the shelf. She did all that without asking any extra money, and she didn’t revile, too. After spending four months in Russia and having seen that, I was ready to collapse, so big was my surprise.

And finally Estonia. I already imagined who there are no Zhigulies nor babushkas on the streets, all houses are pretty and renovated. People smile at you. In a shop they’ll say you “see you again!”. But actually the difference wasn’t so big after all. Ugly bedroom suburbs haven’t gone anywhere, and there are many babushkas, who haven’t forgotten how to yell at people. The ones who truly wish you all the best are Russian taxi drivers, and it comes from their heart.


The ugliest town on earth. Vorkuta.

Hello! Please tell us which way the city centre is?  

The guard grins.
Take a random bus. Go to… well, guess where to. Just like in every city in Russia the centre is nowhere else than on Lenin street. 

We reached Lenin street. Nothing was older than 66 years. The architectural impression it left us isn’t hard to guess. There was nothing besides slums, slums, slums, which hospital blue paint was peeling off from the panels. The streets were empty, between those ghost houses only a few people wandered. The ground was covered with a layer of wet snow. And although the houses had sometimes been painted, the town was as gray as a town could be.For some unexplained reason the people were friendly. We met some of them at the museum, which was closed for lunch but which could be opened for the foreigners. It’s not worth mentioning that the hall introducing Gulag prison camps was the most spellbinding. And not because of the information they gave us, but because of the information the ladies in the hall didn’t give us. The story of building Vorkuta and a big theatre stage, where prisoners dummies performed plays, dominated.  For all our questions that concerned deportation we heard the lady mumble “none of us knows anything about it” or “for exact numbers you have to check the books…” So she guessed that about one hundred thousand to two hundred thousand people died in Gulag.

When on the street we asked for direction we became acquainted with a young boy, who later ran after us and offered to put us up for the night. We lived in one of those blocks of flats we had previously observed with eeriness. But from the inside it was no different from a flat in Estonian suburbs that had had a very good make over.  Dima put a pot of soup in front of us and when we had finished eating he took the spoon I had used and continued where we had left off.  Dima’s family looked forward to moving away from the town. Namely the weather was told to be there all the time.                   Finally we asked our dear friend to show us around the prison camp, we didn’t dare to go there on our own. It was on the opposite side of the river. Black chimneys fumed. A bridge with rotten tiles took us to the houses which only difference from the houses in Vorkuta was that they had no windows and no doors. Everything else was as ghastly. Gray, cold, cut – one could go away from this tundra town only by the railway. We weren’t alone. A few gangs of youngsters were there. Chicks in high heels leaned on the wall and drank gin. It was told to be a peaceful place to have a stroll. I couldn’t see anything peaceful, only anguish.

 We said our good byes to Dima the next day, he gave us two pairs of gloves for the road. It’s unbelievable that in such an ugly place there could be people so nice.

Tomorrow there is a shaman at my place

 We had already almost lost our hope when  suddenly Andrei came to my mind.

On the train Andrei had had his bed under mine, he was one of those men who had worked out a lot, and who was sharing some hunting stories with other local dudes. From time to time he silently gave me an apple or a chocolate bar, and was worried about where I was going like that. To meet the shaman people, I see.
And when we had almost lost all our hope I got a text from Andrei: Tomorrow there is a shaman at my place.
Walking through tundra
The Ural Moutains
Without a longer thought we took once again the weird means of transport, batuska, to cross the river and went to Labõtnang, where Andrei  picked us up with his Zhiguli. We spent the next few days at his place.
There were two handi shamans, Lazar and Slava, actually they were both more like 50/50 shamans as they liked to call themselves. Both had had grandfathers who had been very good shamans at their time. It is said that Lazar’s grandfather had caught a bullet with his bare hands. A great shaman like that.
But then history with its sad turns intervened. Namely, both grandfathers were killed by the communist government, just like most of big shamans in Siberia. My eyes were filled with tears when Slava told about this. He had been ten and thus had had only 3 years during which his grandfather had had a chance to teach him. Now he as a shaman has a problem, he can call the spirits but he doesn’t know how to send them back. Playing his shaman drum he can put you in trance but he can’t bring you back. So he couldn’t play us his drum for too long.
Andrei’s house
The first night one of the most important wisdoms in Russia revealed: In breakfast table in Russia you first have to drink vodka, and only after that people start talking and themes developing. This is why the shaman boys didn’t want to talk too much. First we proudly had to whoop toasts and clink glasses. For sakuska (snacks) we had Siberian national dishes:
Strogonina – raw and frozen fish which is very thinly sliced. The slices can be dunked into a sauce or salt. Like ice cream but actually it’s fish, raw fish.

5-minutka – the same fish slices but now they’ve melted. They’re covered with several herbs, kept under a lid for 5 minutes and it’s ready!
Reindeer sausage and reindeer meat
Uhhaa soup.
By the way, Slava made us eat fish brain, too!
All in all we had the most classic nights in Russia. We and the men sat around the kitchen table, drank vodka and tasted exciting sakuskas, the sun was shining constantly. Andrei was a fantastic cook.
When the vodka was already doing its job our discussions took more intriguing turns, which means we talked about Handi culture and Siberian shamanism. Still they were a bit tongue-tied when we touched those themes. For example:
Me: Could you travel between three words with toadstool?
Lazar: What? How do you know things like that?
Me: Well, could you feel the different worlds?

Lazar: Hmm… You know, you have to do a lot of work with it. It’s all I can say.
After a few shots he told me a bit more.
For a while we were left alone with Slava. He organized a little shaman session. He played bubin (shaman drum), danced shaman dances and while playing the drum above us he tried to find  the most problematic areas considering our health. After a short play on the drum he could, with a surprising accuracy, describe our characters. He also gave us some advice for the future.
A common characteristic of Siberian shamans is that they all wear an eye cover when in session. This is for the reason that nobody could see the shaman’s eyes in trance. A shaman in trance can travel in other universes gathering necessary information. The back of the shaman costume is covered with a metal ornament. It should protect from the evil spirits that could attack the shaman behind his back.
The shaman belt has the following elements:
– a hare
– a cold flake
– love for Mother Earth
– a reindeer (probably the most important friends for the Nordic people)
– love between a man and a woman
– a pentagon. That took us with a surprise, but the explanation was the following: for the Russian power wouldn’t kill any of us.
– symbols of the USSR – sickle and a hammer.
Now we were really surprised.
Slava explained:
„The USSR killed all great shamans. To keep the shamans not being shoot at they put symbols of the power on their belts.”
Later that night when everybody was still in the kitchen whooping toasts, I sneaked into the other room to play bubin. I enjoyed the shaman drum’s powerful dim sound and practiced the rhythms Slava had taught me. Then the neighbours knocked on the door. Oh, it must be too late.
But the neighbours weren’t angry because of our noisiness.
„Nilzjaa, nilzjaa, nilzjaa! What are you doing here?! You shouldn’t be inviting spirits! Stop inviting the spirits! Nilzjaa, nilzjaa, nilzjaa!“

Exploring Chinese nanotechnology

By this time we had started to hate Salekhard. We had been there a few days, looked for helicopters that would take us to the north, went to the local government offices, and been nabbed by the FSB. Our only wish was to finally go away from this horrible town. Although Riina was panicking like a madman about the militia catching us at the oblast border and putting us into jail, we decided to pay the fine in Moscow and beat it from the sight of the Big Brother as soon as possible.

While we were buying train tickets a talkative old man in a jacket was a bit too much interested in us. He talked and talked and we ignored everything and everyone who wanted our attention in this town. In the middle of the river crossing he caught us again. He looked deeply into my eye and said: “You know, you have good energy. I think your grandmother is a shaman, am I right?”
Although my grandmothers like folk wisdom I would never have thought of calling them shamans.
„Come with me. I’d like to introduce a technology. Only half an hour. I’m dealing with something really interesting…”
We could only think about getting away and didn’t want to hear anything about the old man. Four of us started waiting for the bus. But he went on talking. In Russian of course and about some weir things we couldn’t quite understand.
„I’m interested in Chinese philosophy… you know that Chinese doll that is poked with pins… shamans in there also deal with energy… meditation… herbs heal you…”

He kept talking at incredible speed, at the same time being very convinced about the topic, so finally he managed to raise interest in us, too. For a moment we were intrigued and agreed to go with the man. He took us to a weird house, where I think several bureaus were. He pointed at a name plate next to the door of a financial director, and said that this is a shaman, let me introduce you after the session. Then he took us to a room that was abut the size of a classroom, told us to sit and started talking before the blackboard.
EHe first draw a picture of Yin and Yang. When Terje made a remark that the dots were in the wrong place, he replied: “Well, it doesn’t matter, you understand anyways.”
Going on, he pointed at a poster on the wall which was to illustrate the basics of some Chinese philosophy, and behind these there were elements that would be important for your health if you were to follow this philosophy, that is. Then he started one by one pulling out little cans and capsules:
„There are eight meridians in your back, see, here,” he made a motion somewhere in the air. “These are important in Chinese philosophy and in your body, too. This is Ying Yung Wung, it helps blood go through the eight meridians.” Then he took another capsule, was sorry to say that it was broken and empty, butas we are smart girls we understand that this magic pill was “Weng Shui Hung, that cleanses our lungs, according to Chinese philosophy (of course) circularly from up to down…” And so he talked, showing empty bottles and capsules. When he had succeeded in explaining us the brilliant Chinese “nanotechnology 10 to the power -9” he started talking about money. That he’d like to see us as the Chinese nanotechnology marketers in Voronezh. We said that we were going back to Estonia. Then he thought that they’d be glad to make a partnership agreement with Estonians since there’s no importer there. Of course he didn’t leave the money business aside. The first little payment we’d have to do would be 750 euros, but the more we sell the richer we become. If we understood correctly then about a half of Russian youth has enormous houses and top notch cars thanks to the Chinese nanotechnological wonder.
He asked for our birth dates and found that we all were very special, girls with a mystical talent and we’d have to carry it in the history. We smiled studiously and were trying to do everything so that our smile wouldn’t turn into a a tameless laughter.

How the Russian power caught us

At the polar circle. On the other side of the Ural Mountains. Jamal Nenets autonomic district. Salekhard.

This was the most beautiful town of all I had seen in Russia. The streets were clean and houses decent. There were only a few Hruchovkas, which normally are very common elsewhere. I’d say that with its one or two storey buildings alongside with concrete houses that had an innovative touch, I felt as if I was somewhere in Scandinavia. But the town was lifeless. There were no cafés nor bars, no culture what so ever. We were forced to browse grocery stores that had already become monotonous, and where prices where about 30% higher than everywhere else in Russia.

Nights are light. The town doesn’t sleep but is in a dozy mode. In its ghastly visionary state it lives like a revived dead. We had walked the streets for days. And there was nothing to do.
The next day we went back to the government buildings, just like the man in a black suit jacket had suggested. Later the man got a nickname “Monkey”, and for a totally understandable reason. He had told us we could go up to the tundra but we’d need a visa for that. Normally it would take months to obtain one, but we would get it in an hour. Monkey promised to take us to the right office.
The weather was bad. The snow was melting and streets were covered with muck. Between the streets there were the  buildings of the newly-rich, who had got their money from selling oil.
Being on a taxi it took us long time to find the place. Finally Monkey called to the institution, after which our ride arrived. At first I didn’t recognize that it was like a mafia bus. Black, with tinted glasses and without a license plate.

The next moment we stepped ito an office where a bunch of important men, placed behind a glass, looked at us. On the walls there were soviet time heroic pictures of powerful leaders and of the forcefulness of the power. We’d travelled back to the time when the KGB kept an eye on people, at least this was the feeling I got.

But this was supposed to be an institution where an official permit for travelling to the Nenets and tundra was supposed to be given for us. We, full of hope, gave them our passports and started waiting. Monkey was satisfied and took a hike.

We waited for an hour. Things looked fishy. We smoked a cigaret and Berit opened doors for a gentlemen carrying a heavy black box. It seems that the work they do here is fine and complicated.
We waited one more hour.
Then a man with a wide smile came from the back room and announced honorably: “Now you have to pay a fine!”.
I bursted out laughing. We still didn’t quite get where we were and why we were there. We had only wanted the best and hoped to get our papers cleaned and then they come with their fine talk. I asked the men in button-down shirts to return our passports and promised to start going southwards instead. It was cold and gray and unpleasant there.
But the men didn’t give up – we had already broken the law. We had entered the border zone without a permit. If we don’t want to be fined we’ll be put in jail. We had different strategies and kept arguing with five men for about half an hour, meanwhile the men carried out their first psychological tests on us:

“You live at Nina Alexandrovitch’s, don’t you? Did you know that she’s just had her birthday, 27 May?” We, of course, hadn’t heard anything.

Finally we were taken upstairs for interrogation. They were already quite sure that we were Estoian spies, and at least one of us has to be a journalist. Then they started questioning us. The questions were from my brother’s academic perspectives to personal relationships, family history and reasons for coming to Russia. They threatened us with lie detector. I couldn’t help but notice important documents on the walls that lead me to an understanding that the place where we were was the infamous FSB… border service…former KGB.

I replied: „Of course. I came here to study your super nice pamjatniks (memorials).” And I actually was – for my MA research, which was about political symbolics, though political symbols in popular culture.

“And of course the Russian rigmarole.” I added.

The man stood then up: “I have no more questions.” 
Three minutes later he returned with handcuffs.
„But do you now have something to add?” he asked, forgetfully wiggling the handcuffs before me. “Do you know what these are?” 
They took our every single fingerprint and took photos from three sides. The hardware for the torturing had been in the same big box Berit had opened the door for an hour ago.  We were finally allowed to go in the evening. But I guess they still didn’t understand that the three girls they’d dealt with were three vagabunds who had simply wanted to hear the shaman songs of a nation related to their nation.

When we were back at home we asked Nina about her birthday, just in case.
“It was only recently. 27 May.”

A journey on a train into the light night of the tundra

If you spend 48 hours on a train a lot can happen. Especially when the train rolls from Moscow to the other side of the Artic Circle.

Most frequently changes your company.  You can share your “cubicle” with a lady in a sweat suit, a boy with smelly feet, road constructor, and at some point in the afternoon of the second day, if everything goes smoothly, your Estonian friend catches the same train. Of course there are more people in the car, in the first hours you know none of them and in the final hours you wish them all luck and promise to call if you’re in trouble. These are normally either elderly men who offer you whisky and greasy fried potatoes with speck in the morning, or young boys who approvingly smile at your every move, but only when their own girlfriends don’t see. And of course the car attendants, who finally sit on your bed and secretly sip their vodka.
As frequently as the company changes, changes information.  One shouts, why are you going there! Without a permit you can go nowhere. The next says, that of course you can! You always can if you have to. Then the third notes that the river is impassable, it is ice-clad. The fourth says that cross the river by car. The fifth knows that the ice is soon going to start moving and nothing can be done. Finally the sixth one writes on a piece of paper Maladjošnõje politiki and tells us to go directly to the city government buildings.
But on the other side of the window there is a new picture every day. In the beginning I wear short sleeves when I go to village shops to get some beer. I lick ice cream on the platform and enjoy the sun. On the second day I put on an autumn coat. Village shops have been replaced with ladies who come as soon as the train arrives and sell pies. At the night of the second day, when it’s already midnight, the sun’s still shining. And in the morning when I wake into the sunshine my watch says exactly 3.40, no more or less. On the third day nothing is the saime. Civilization has been replaced with empty white plains. Far away I see the Ural Mountains. There are no village shops nor ladies on our way. There is nothing. When I go outside I wear a fur hat and a winter coat. And from the window I see I sign: ЕВРОПА – АЗИЯ. 

Moscow open-air trance party!

„Yes, I’ve seen videos about parties held in Russian woods on youtube…” is normally the reply when you tell an Estonian something about Russia and trance.  

I hadn’t seen the videos but I had heard about the events. The party is normally held in a forest away from the city, without any publicity, with underground organizing, and of course under the open sky, and the exact place is announced at the very same night, a bit after ten.  You know that there is a party, but you don’t know where – you won’t know that before you’re on your way.

I had my last night in Voronezh, Berit was already on her way to tundra. I’d bought my friends a bottle of Vana Tallinn (400 rubles, you can find it from one certain shop), we were secretly sad and didn’t go to sleep until the morning. Natacha was supposed to go to an open-air party in Moscow…
Having woken up I couldn’t forget about the forest rave. At a momentous hour in the same afternoon everything was clear. I sold my train tickets and bought bus tickets to Moscow instead. The problem was that I had only two hours for packing, clearing my papers, moving out from the dorm, saying good bye to the teachers and doing all the thousand things you have to do before permanently moving out your former hometown.
Two wild hours later, as it’s proper in Russia before going on a trip, I was sitting with my rave companions, Sasha and Ljoha, on a bench. Eight hours later we took a route taxi and rattled 40km out of Moscow. On the taxi pathetic trance played and people were rather sloshed already.
Then we arrived in the forest. Under the luminous sky in a black forest there were three stages thumping three different styles of trance. Reality is lost the best when listening to totally artificial, or even robot-like dark trance. This is where I lost myself. And I guess that through artificiality as deadly as this, you can make it to the new spiritual level called trance… At least this is how I felt when looking around me. Sasha, wearing a luminous neon mask, was twitching with others in ectasy. All in all, masks and costumes seemed to be very popular. And India was totally the thing. People were dressed in Indian style from head to toe and dreaming about a trip to Goa.
My early morning rave

We walked the whole morning in the waking forest, the clunking barely in a hearing distance. We sat around a bonfire and dried our socks. Then we went to the nearest village, took an elektritchka and went back to Moscow. A few guys were still twitching in trance, a chick with afro braids opened her bag, took out knitting needles and started to knit.  Next to us old ladies rushing to the market were sitting, but we were still tangled and laughing all the time. It was 10 in the morning.
In Moscow a zombi day begun. We spent several hours in a metro. Finally we landed in a friend’s apartment.
Zombie crash in the kitchen of a random flat in Moscow

In the evening I was sitting in a train to Siberia. I was surrounded by tattooed men who were sharing their hunting stories and boozed a lot. Behind the window there were four figures – my good Russian friends. I understood that I owed thanks to no one but them, because now I knew how in such a chaotic and controversial world like Russia is today, it is possible to find the positive and safe “land of freedom”. It really is there.

The train started moving, my friends ran along the platform until he couldn’t hold his hand against mine on the other side of the window. Until they slowly disappeared into the distance. I sank into the bed.