Sunday, March 6, 2011

Highlights from the Trip

(Allow me to preface this post by stating that 20-something-hours of wakeful traveling may have gotten the best of me. While it is great to be back in [still snowy] Ann Arbor, I insist it is still better to reflect on the trip and internalize the feelings that will last in us even as every tiny detail seeks recluse from our recollections.)

Last Thursday morning, our well-clad group headed out of Vytegra and deeper into the heartland. The reason for our journey was a certain poet by the name of Nikolai Klyuev; his birthplace is none other than the unannounced village of Makachevo. Klyuev's home, large by the standards of its time and place, now acts as the cultural center for the villagers. (I think we determined that the baby blue exterior was not the original color of the home.)

The village library boasts over 220 registered users (an impressive percentage of the total population of 380). Although it is small and cozy, the library indeed offers a wide variety of works. Much to my surprise, Sergei found a publication featuring an essay by one of the University of Michigan's own professors: Omry Ronen in the 2011/1 edition of Petersburg's literary monthly, "Zvezda." It was great to see something familiar and recent in a place that was as of yet unknown to me.

But we soon grew to know Makachevo in its details. The earliest date of the village's mention comes from 1654 merchant records; in the early 20th century, it held 6000 average inhabitants. In the following decades, though, over four hundred villages perished indefinitely due to war. Today, a cluster of only nine remain home to a total of 380 persons. Tan clay, birch-lumber, and roof-tiles provide for the village's main industry. Among the farm homes and wooden fences, there are two stores, one post office, a school, a childrens' playground, and an out-of-place apartment complex. Since the nearest church is 10km away, people often view religious services on television broadcast--virtually every household has a TV, and some a computer as well. Consider this against the lack of running water or plumbing systems! The town is not modernly sustainable--and as we are told, "young people almost never stay." The statistics speak for themselves: there are only nine children in school, and only across grades 1-3; there will be only three children starting grade 1 in the coming school year. Young adults most often move to Vytegra or Vologda, of course.

Yet this is not to determine a sketch of a surrendering village. Makachevo is visibly lasting. The women to whom we spoke--the local babushkas and future babushkas (and those future babushkas of even farther-off babushkas…)--expressed an enduring devotion to their Makachevo. A voice from our curious group asked what a favorite part of life in this village was: "Bce!" answered an aged woman in a fast breath. Many of the older residents visit their relocated children/grandchildren and, while doing so, swear to grow homesick for Makachevo by their first or second night away!

Based on our afternoon stay alone, I easily and eagerly trust this sentiment. It is an incredible place to be; it offers a coveted quietude. The frost covering the hay and the snow along the wood deposit nature across the congruous cabins. During our visit to Babushka Tania's, the warmth of her hospitality and of her stove (equally tangible), emitted a naturally contagious feeling of at-home-ness. It didn't hurt that the tea and food--like the atmosphere--were absolutely worth holding onto forever.

This trip has again and again been occasioning realizations about Russia and about ourselves. Andrew and I were discussing it over a lunch a few days ago--mainly, a sort of existential bafflement that underscores each moment of the trip. First, we zoom out of bodies and briefly imagine ourselves as points on a map; next, we invite in the hows, the whats, the whys for questioning (rather, they all come without explicit invitation and startle us); finally, we find no answers. Spring break in provincial Russia challenges the popular search for recognizable meaning in all that we do. Case and point: there is no rhyme or reason to how we all found ourselves on a spontaneous horse-and-sleigh ride through the village. But we sure did and we enjoyed it!

On the drive home from the airport earlier today, popular consensus suggested the visit to Makachevo as one of the best moments of the trip :)

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