Across the room an iPhone alarm rages.

I open my eyes. Or at least I think I do.

I cannot tell if I am asleep or awake, alive or dead.

An utterly absolute blackness surrounds me. Eyelids closed: pitch black. Eyelids open: pitch black. It is a very unsettling feeling, as if I could reach out and touch infinity, which I have no intention of doing.

Apparently (I later learn), the photographer I am traveling with decided to get up to shoot the stars just before dawn. He then thought better of it, shut off his alarm, and crawled back into bed.

I realize it is the middle of the night, yet it takes me a few moments to get my bearings. Gradually I remember that we are sleeping alongside a massive Russian stove in a century-old wooden house, which happens to be located about an hour’s drive west of Petrozavodsk and 60 kilometers off the E105.

We are in rural Karelia, in the tiny village of Kinerma, population 5.

Four of those five are the Kalmykov family.

 

Nadezhda Kalmykova, 48, says as a teen she would do all she could to avoid coming here. Her mother had been born in the village and the family would come back to Kinerma for vacations and weekends. And it was all work, something as a teen she obviously wanted to avoid.

But people change. Kalmykova changed. About 15 years ago, when she told someone she was from Petrozavodsk, they didn’t believe her. “You are always talking about ‘Kinerma, Kinerma,’” she recalls them saying. She soon realized that her future lay in the preservation of this tiny village.

In fact, Kinerma is the last extant Karelian village preserved in largely the state it was in 150 years ago. It has been saved by several historical flukes, but mainly because it does not sit on a lake or near a river, meaning it was never a highly desirable location for summer dachas. Also, Kinerma was home to “the only miracle-working icon in the Olonets region,” Kalmykova says. “I am sure that is what has really protected us.”

The village is arranged in a circle about its old, wooden chapel, which nestles in a tall pine copse, its grounds humpy and uneven from unmarked graves. The village has 11 buildings in various states of repair that either belong to those who live in them, or are kept in a family and passed on to descendants. Yet, unlike most Russian villages you come across in the North, only a few of the buildings are in dire condition. “People have started coming here from all over the world,” Kalmykova explains, “and many heirs are living here all summer, and they have already started taking better care of their homes and yards. The village is being transformed.”

Each August there are celebrations in the village on the annual name day for the church’s famous icon, and there is a steady flow of tourists who come by minibus from Petrozavodsk, as part of tours that include the architectural sanctuary on Kizhi Island. Finnish organizations also provide valuable in-kind support.

 

The 120-year old Karelian house we are staying in has been retrofitted to hold up to 14 visitors, which it often does, with Kalmykova cooking and cleaning and giving guided tours (along with her husband and young sons).

“What makes a building Karelian is that the livestock and people lived together under one roof,” Kalmykova explains. “You had the warm, heated side, where the people lived, and the cold side where the livestock lived. Above the livestock was the feed storage, with natural aeration to keep the feed dry… They were built this way because of the weather, so that you could survive for several days without having to go outside, as long as you had a supply of water.”

In this building, where the feed loft would have been, Kalmykova has built a small, tastefully outfitted, trilingual museum to convey the history of the town and of Karelian architecture and life.

Meanwhile, at the center of the building’s warm side is a massive Russian stove. Two, actually – one for the main room, which is both living room and kitchen, the other for the bedroom where we slept. The stove takes a day or more to stoke and get up to proper temperature. A few quarter-split logs are burned in a carefully controlled manner, so as to heat up the huge mass of masonry. Then the flues are sealed off and the stone maintains and emits its heat for hours, days even.

Why did she decide to do this? “The main reason, of course, is to preserve Kinerma,” she says. “It is always on my mind…”

 

In the afternoon, Mikhail convinced Kalmykova to have her sons stoke up the communal banya, so that we could “enjoy” a post-prandial steam.

That evening, after a tasty dinner of locally caught trout, potatoes and carrot salad (and a couple of shots of vodka to get us in the right frame of mind), we stumbled down the hill through the gathering darkness to the “black banya.” I am told it is called a black banya because it has no chimney, so that heating up the main room with a wood fire blackens the interior of the building.

Later, after we are forced to retreat from the heated space until it can air out a bit, I decide the real reason it is called black is because this heating technique creates a huge quantity of carbon monoxide gas that can bring your life to a swift end. As in turning out all the lights.

We strip down to our birthday suits and proceed to sweat all the toxicity from the first week of our travels out through our pores. I am lashed with veniki (birch branches bound together into a bunch) to within an inch of my life, and then we rinse and wash in the hot, damp heat before stepping out buck naked into the blackened night – woozy in our carbon-monoxide, heat-stroke induced state – to marvel at the stars packing the Kinerma sky from one horizon to the other.

It is apparently in this lowered state of mental awareness that Mikhail decides to set his alarm to ring at an hour when, in reality, he has no intention of doing anything other than going back to bed. 

Igor Drozdov

Igor Drozdov, berry seller. Photo by Mikhail Mordasov.

The Berry Seller

Igor Drozdov is sitting next to a fire and a large baby carriage, about 30 meters from the road, when we stop several car lengths in front of five large buckets of cranberries he has displayed on the shoulder. He leaves his fire and walks slowly toward the road, waiting for us to approach.

The camera hanging from Mikhail’s shoulder alerts Drozdov to the fact that this is not going to be a typical buy-and-sell operation. But he quickly seems at ease and talks freely with us about his life and business.

A trim 5’ 8”, he has close-cropped hair, teeth that have put in 52 good years, and wears a smart, sporting outfit of stone washed denim jeans, an Adidas windbreaker and black baseball cap. He has the vise-grip handshake of a farmer or sailor. Tattooed hands peek out of from coat sleeves.

“I just got out in August,” he says after we exchange first names, explain what we are doing here, and ask him to tell us a bit about himself. “It was a 12-year stint.”

What his prison term was for, we don’t ask; that’s his business. We are here to talk berries. The main roads through Karelia – a rich, forested republic – are sprinkled with berry sellers like Drozdov and, earlier in the season, with mushroom sellers as well. They can do a brisk business; Russians like knowing where their forest treasures come from.

“I walked 20 kilometers to pick these,” Drozdov replies when asked if these are the fruits of his own labor or if he is just reselling others’ pickings. “I live just there, in Matrosy,” he says, thumbing over his shoulder to the road through the forest behind him. “There’s no work. I’ve been out two months. There are no jobs in the village, so everyone picks berries to sell by the side of the road.”

It’s a decent business. He and two relatives take turns picking cloudberries, cranberries or bilberries all day in the forest, with one of them sitting by the road for the day. “Sunday is a slow day here,” Drozdov says. But come 5 o’clock, he says, cars can line up in a matter of minutes and he may sell out his entire stock (which looks to be about 30 liters, priced at R200 per liter). He runs through the numbers and we learn he averages about R6-8,000 a day ($100-150) when traffic and picking is good.

In addition to picking berries, Drozdov is a cobbler. He has applied for work in the city – Petrozavodsk, about 15 kilometers away – but does not seem eager to move there. “It’s very dirty… the bushes are filled with trash,” he says.

As we are packing up to leave, Mikhail asks him the question he has been posing to every subject we meet with and photograph: “Do you consider yourself a patriot, and if so why and of what?” Drozdov is the first who refuses to answer, perhaps seeing it as a trap:

Whattya mean? What’s this about? A patriot of berries? Or a patriot in general? Depends on what you mean by patriot. There’s all sorts. I won’t answer that question. I don’t even know. How can I be a patriot? No, I don’t even know what that means. All of the patriots have died off. All that’s left are us survivors.


{This post excerpted from Russian Life magazine. Slightly different versions appeared in Driving Down Russia’s Spine and The Spine of Russia.}

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