Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Voyage to Vytegra

The bus ride from St. Petersburg to Vytegra was quite the journey. Almost immediately, upon exiting the city, the wilderness began. The snow-covered landscape was beautiful beyond words, and soon enough, the distinctive paradoxes of the Russian provinces began to emerge.

A brief stop at a cafe in the countryside was an interesting experience. The cafe was nice, offered a decent variety of foodstuffs, and had a modern look to it. But then there was...the restroom. I walked in and it seemed like a normal and relatively clean restroom, with stalls and sinks, and I saw attractive and stylish women entering them. But once I opened the stall, the weirdness began. In front of me was a hole in the ground. No toilet paper, no seat...just a hole. This may be a crude topic for discussion, but striking nonetheless. I immediately felt like all of the Western qualities of St. Petersburg were flushed down the toilet (or a lack thereof). 

Soon we reached the village near the Alexander-Svirsky monastery. Before touring it, we ate a traditional Russian meal in a small restaurant. Upon entering the room, I immediately noticed the icon in the corner, the sweltering heat inside, and the decor that was vaguely reminiscent of an "izba" (peasant hut) out of a folktale; a quite different atmosphere than that of the European style of St. Petersburg.

The Alexander-Svirsky monastery and its architecture were as white and smooth as the abundant snow around it, blending in as if it were part of the landscape itself. It seemed as pure as the fresh, crisp air that afternoon. The priest and monks, dressed in black robes, stood in stark contrast to the blinding whiteness of the untouched snow-strewn field and ice-covered lake adjacent to the pallid monastery.

The monastery's buildings were stunningly beautiful and the setting transported my mind to another time... I immediately thought of the monastery in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, and of the elder Zosima and his apprentice, Alyosha. 

A chorus sang for us in the cathedral. Their voices were powerful, perfectly harmonized, and resonated through the remarkable acoustics of the cathedral's interior. It felt holy, ancient, and authentic... but then, of course, came the Russian eccentricity. The chorus turned out to be a quite famous travelling chorus. After they finished their song, they strapped on their leather jackets and preceded to encourage us to purchase their CDs. One of the chorus members started conversing on his cell phone.

But apparently Russia is not the only possessor of "backwardness". Our group was instructed to enter a room containing a holy relic, where we could not take photographs, and we could either kiss the icon, cross ourselves, or merely observe. But we were given one instruction: "Do not turn your back to the alter". As we stood nervously near this holy relict, we stood facing the intricate golden altar near the icon. We then preceded to walk backwardly out of the room, awkwardly shuffling, terrified to turn our heads. The other visitors and pilgrims gave us strange looks.  As it turned out, we had not quite understood the instructions. We were supposed to not stand facing our backs to the altar, but we were allowed to walk away from it normally!

The rest of the bus ride took us through vast, seemingly never-ending forest. The snow-strewn conifers stood silently and stately. Occasionally we would see location signs, and the further we drove, the less Russian the names were. I wonder if they were derived from the Finno-Ugric people that originally inhabited the area.

It soon became dark. We were told that we were not far from our destination. Staring out my window, I caught glimpses of tiny, wooden houses with warm, glowing light streaming through their windows. What were behind those windows? Was there traditional Russianness, warmth and comfort, old babushkas and their families tending to the stoves, heating their samovars? Or were there drunken gatherings, rowdiness, secret lust and hidden demons... Here we are. We have entered the heartland.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the update, Kristina...enjoyed the "play-by-play" from St. Petersburg (why do I want to spell that like "Pittsburgh?")...I can definitely relate to your hole-in-the-ground "toilet" being here in Kenya...Looking forward to your next post! Peace!