The Russian riverside can explain how American gold ended up on the framework of Orthodox icons, why Kremlin’s triumph over Crimea is a pyrrhic victory and how Josef Stalin squandered the Russian nation.
It all began 12 centuries ago, when Vikings learned how to use rivers in what is now Russia and Ukraine to get fur, slaves and amber from the Baltic to the Black and Caspian seas, to Byzantine Greeks and Arabs. The Viking-dominated Russian state emerged along the trade route, and furs, dubbed “soft gold,” became its major source of income.
But the population of sables, ermines, beavers and lynx took years to recover, and the hunters had to push farther and farther, into the unexplored territories in Russia’s wild north and east now known as Siberia. Rivers became Russia’s circulatory system. They kept Russian provinces in communication with each other and the capital, and profits from fur trade came back as Western silver and gold that often came from Spain’s American colonies.
Rivers that made Russia bigger and richer.
The 1917 Bolshevik revolution and the Soviet regime changed the country beyond recognition, and the riverside was now used to move other raw materials such as oil and ores along with timber. Villages and their people lived on. But the Soviet economy was based on labor, not entrepreneurship. In that sense, the Soviet Union wasted Russia, and Stalin wasted the Russian people physically.
And now, the new, post-Soviet Russia sells raw materials, oil and gas, in bulk, but the people, along with the rivers, are getting less and less significant. Villages die everywhere, fields lie fallow. Whether the villagers curse the government or praises it, they still rely on it because their entrepreneurship is mostly gone.
“My yourth of course. I didn’t think about anything. And now…now I really don’t think about anything, because I'm retired. For. me it’s like, it doesn’t matter. They’ll raise my pension a bit , if there is inflation, they will add some more" contemplates Vasily Rasskazov, the only remaining resident of the Vorobyovo village.
The merchants of czarist Russia did not depend much on what the Kremlin promotes now as “programs to support small and medium businesses.” They dispatched their ships to Russia’s North and Far East, relying on themselves and their kin.
The guns of Putin’s Russia thunder along its borders and beyond them, and that’s how we find ourselves part of Russia’s new history. We believe that this is the way to resurgence, because one can’t just be proud of the past. Proud of the wooden architecture that became Russia’s contribution to world art and that disappears fast following the disappearance of the rural dweller. Proud of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov, of the first man in space. We are still proud of what happened years ago, still talk about these people and achievements.
This is the story about today’s people living by the liquid roads of the past, living on the ruins of the gone river civilization. A disintegrating church built by river merchants is still reflected in the waters of the Sukhona river right next to the rotting cow sheds of Soviet collective farms.
Have we come to terms with our past? Have we introspected on it?
How can we live the present without such terms and introspections?
Are we just going with the flow hoping that the river will take us to safety the way it happened already?
Or are we trying to fix the burned down roof of our ant house like individual ants? Because otherwise we’re going to freeze to death, and winter is coming.
This is not an isolated story about a distant backwater. It’s easy to find similar people and similar villages along Russia’s countless rivers because there are no others.
“I believe in Russia’s resurgence. I want to believe in it. I think that things are getting slightly better, something is moving along,” says Lubov who carries icons to a destroyed wooden church in her village.
“All we have left is to await a large catastrophe, God forbid.
But the Lord said ”do not be afraid, little flock” Still, a little flock” elaborates Zhanna, a woman who sweeps the floors in a church in the village of Ust-Pechenga. She has been looking after the church for 10 years.
“The Kremlin increasingly resembles a fortified medieval castle, a nest of native elites that enrich themselves on natural resources. We allowed it to happen. An unhappy nation with a great history, we hope not to disappear,” concludes Sergey Filenko, a carpenter and traveler from the city of Petrozavodsk.
Perhaps, Filenko is the only living Russian who paddled more than 6,000 kilometers from the Onega Lake to the Arctic Urals in his boat having traversed the liquid roads of medieval fur traders.