The Silky Way Adventure
Slices of Armenia
Chapter 6 – Russian Pickles
Previous chapter : Abandoned
The woman had red cheeks and a scarf on her head. The man wore a long salt and pepper beard and his hair had the same seasoning. Both were gesticulating and even slightly raising their voices as they answered Arytom’s question in Russian. We were near Filietovo, a Russian village in Armenia. Before walking down to the main street, my colleague had wanted to put out a few feelers. It turned out the man and woman selling cabbage on the side of the road were shouting their hospitality at us.
“That is not the least true! We are not a closed community! In the summertime, we often let tourists who ask camp on our land. We welcome everybody, even journalists. They live with us for a few days and then see what they write about us, that we are a closed community not tolerating anybody from the outside! We don’t like them. But no worries, you can just walk about in the main street and if no one spontaneously offers you a place to stay, knock at any door and you’ll find somewhere to sleep. We would take you in, but the house is really full at the moment. Mind you, there are plenty of elderly living alone in big empty houses!”
As we were making our way down the mud path towards the village Artyom translated the conversation that had just taken place and logically adapted the instructions. “So, this time we are writers, not journalists, alright? Don’t even mention this word, or we’ll end up being in trouble.”
As we slowly walked down the main street, the daylight was quickly fading. A main street, that’s all the village was anyway, a big main street in the valley with long and narrow plots of land perpendicular to it. On our right, the far end of the land plots were almost touching the feet of the mountains. On our left, they curled up back to the road. And on each plot of course, adjacent to the street, a big house. It was cabbage-season. Here and there a cabbage left on the electricity meter would indicate that this year’s crop hadn’t been all sold yet. Ahead of us, Armenians were busy loading a white Lada. Every little available space, from floor to ceiling and under the passenger’s feet, was being filled with a pale green cabbage bigger than a basketball. “Are they going to sell them at the market or in a shop in town or something?” I asked Artyom. “No, they will pickle them for their own consumption” he replied. I was utterly impressed with the quantity they had just bought.
Filietovo is a Molokan village. Molokans are some sort of sect of Christianity. They were originally Russian peasants that refused to obey the Orthodox Church. Many of them flew away at the tsardom times. They established themselves in villages and communities in different places in the world, and managed to retain their language, cult and tradition along with a simple and rural way of life, close to nature. Many Molokan villages are to be found in Ukraine, but a few also exist in Armenia, Canada and in the United States. In those communities, endogamy tends to be a strict rule which means that traditionally, one cannot marry someone outside the community itself, unless they convert.
Kids wearing rubber boots were running around. Blond locks of hair escaped from under their winter hats, they had blue eyes and skin tanned by their life in the great outdoors. Our first attempts at getting in touch with the locals were rather unsuccessful. We tried talking to a few women, but Artyom wasn’t sure that their religious tradition allowed them to talk to a male stranger. I don’t speak Russian, so I was rather useless. The women only nodded politely back at us, staring suspiciously. We started asking people if they knew where we could sleep. Someone mentioned the roof of the cultural centre. It was starting to get cold, now that the sun was gone, so we considered this option an emergency one.
We kept walking. Unsure of where we would sleep that night, and being hungry, we went in a shop to buy some food. Some bread, a few biscuits, and I had some of Manushak’s jam in my backpack. We were hoping for some cheese, but they wouldn’t sell us any, for the simple reason that each family was producing its own, so there wasn’t any need for it in the shop. But if we were to ask at any house, they would surely sell us some, we were kindly told.
We kept moving forward in the main street. Soon on our right, we noticed many well-dressed people walking towards a very normal looking building. The women were wearing beautiful lace petticoats and skirts and their finest scarf, the men a three-piece suit and, again, proud long beards. We assumed they were on their way to a religious service in the simple building that serves as a church. Artyom knew from his research that they did not allow strangers to their ceremonies, so we didn’t try to get in nor did we ask questions. Near the informal church, we asked a man if he knew where we could find some cheese, and maybe also a place to sleep. He pointed towards the house of an older man for the cheese and was also the first one to offer us to stay with him. The room was upstairs, unheated, he explained, but at least there were beds. The only problem was, we would have to wait two hours for him to come back from the service. He told us how to find his house but the indications he gave were lost in the translation. When Artyom tried to repeat them to me, it was already quite confusing. So, we had a place to stay, only if we were able to find the man’s house, or the man himself. And waiting two hours in that cold wasn’t a particularly rejoicing thought. We resumed walking.
A hundred meters later, Artyom stopped a young man with a rather long but still blond beard and piercing blue eyes that were shining despite the night. His name was Sasha. He was pushing a two-wheeler with some sort of home-made side-car attached to it. In the side-car were sitting to little girls with hair so blond they appeared to be white. “Take the strangers to the house and tell Mother to give them some cheese” the man ordered the older of the two girls after a short conversation with Arytom.
We followed the child in the night. We soon left the main street to take a steep rocky side path that proved quite tricky to climb with our backpacks and no light. Stay left, avoid the three hardly discernible people going down on your right,… Take care, another group of them – oh no, wait, it’s a heifer going down. And another one. Out-of-breath and luckily without falling once, we made it to the top where a tall and strong woman was waiting for us with a torch in her hand.
We were already sitting in the kitchen with a cup of tea in front of us when Sasha rushed in, panting, to tell his wife “Give them something to drink, something to eat and some cheese but don’t ask any money from them”. He had obviously run back to give her this important information and disappeared straight away. We started chatting with Tania, his wife. She was very friendly, smiling a lot with her big blue eyes. When Sasha came back a while later with the two young girls, the atmosphere of the room changed. Less smiles. Tania ceased giving her opinion or chatting with us. Sasha was obviously an old-fashioned patriarch. When he is in the room, he does the talking and the others have to remain silent unless asked to participate…
Tania kept depositing new items of food on the table. The cheese that brought us there, some bread and honey, some countryside grated carrots with a deliciously simple black pepper seasoning, some jam and a little bit later, a jar of stunning pickled mushrooms. Hand-picked from the forest, the mushrooms were swimming in a light marinade without vinegar, and were one of the most refined and divine food I had ever eaten. We also got a nutritious potato soup with dill and a few spices. Artyom was into deeply philosophical topics with Sasha. The word prostota, “simplicity” in Russian, came back quite a few times. Man is intrinsically bad, Sasha argued, so one must endeavour to do only good. That’s what he was trying to do everyday, living a life of simplicity, sharing love and kindness. The conversation went on about religions. Sasha told the story of how he ended up living alongside a Muslim community, and how good he felt there, how close to them he found himself to be, spiritually. At some point, I asked him if there was any music tradition in their cult. He evasively answered that there was sort of a music tradition indeed, but that my profane ear wouldn’t get its beauty.
As Artyom was receiving Sasha’s point of view I found myself interacting with the house’s children again. The little ones were tremendously excited to have some visitors from the outside. They would shyly smile, giggle a lot or constantly try to get my attention. The younger one, freckles under mischievous eyes, looked like she had a resilient character already. She was handling without any fear the big kettle full of boiling water to make some more tea for herself. She then poured the water from the cup into the saucer, cooling it a bit in the process and drank thereof. I was listening to the older girl telling me – in Russian – everything about her school life and showing me her notebooks. In a reading book of hers, I recognised a story I used to cry to when my dad was reading it to me, “The lion and the little dog” by Tolstoï. I was then given photo albums to look at. The photos dated from the nineties. Sasha in a leather jacket. His wife in a short flowery dress. A baby in a basin – it was the older of the two girls. I asked Artyom discretely if he thought we would be allowed to take some pictures that evening. He assumed that yes, considering the album I was currently holding.
When I felt the moment was appropriate, I asked Sasha through Artyom if he would let us take a few portraits of his family. His defiant blue eyes pierced right through me.
“And why do you want to take pictures?” he asked.
His reaction unsettled me. It took me a few seconds to hesitantly answer.
“Well, because here everything is fundamentally different from where I come from, and because I think you are good people, and that I can show both on a picture. Then I could show my family and friends and tell them about you. And later, I will be able to remember your faces and this moment thanks to those photographs.”
“Is that really important?” Sasha said. “The moment is already in your heart. And if you really think that we are good people, and you want to touch other people with that, you don’t need to take pictures either. Just do the same, be good, act good, live simply like we do. Be an example to others, it’s worth more than a thousand pictures.” He pointed at a random picture, his wife in jeans, near a tree. “That’s what you call a souvenir? What does this piece of paper tell you, years later? No, no photographs. It’s superficial. No photographs.”
I was struggling on my own. Artyom, who sure enough wanted to take pictures as much as I did, was enjoying his position as a neutral translator. I tried one last time.
“Of course, such a picture isn’t much (the framing was indeed pretty bad). But I believe in stories. And I believe that you can tell stories with different means. With words, with music and with pictures as well, be they animated like in a movie or still like photographs.”
He wasn’t receptive at all. He wasn’t even trying to understand my position. He had found his Truth, he was wanting to share it with me, but he was not the least ready to hear mine. The conversation lingered a while on photographs -a long awkward moment – until Artyom signified to me it was time to let it go. I was glad to do so, but Sasha himself came back to it several times.
The pictures I had seen dated back to a time when he had wandered away from the traditions of his community. Taking pictures wasn’t a problem for him back then. Then, it remained unclear when and why, he decided to go back to the traditions his ancestors had brought to Armenia a hundred and sixty years ago and he became more religious, living a life of spirituality, drifting away from materialism. In the Molokan cult, there are no icons. No images. Simplicity is the key-word, as proven by the building that served as a church, a plain ordinary building. And no images. Even if I understood his point of view and thought there was some good to it, I was somehow sad to witness the enthusiasm with which the little Masha was showing me pictures of herself in the basin as a baby. Those photographs would be the only ones she’d have from her childhood.
We kept talking. It was warm in the kitchen, we were given beautiful food (those incredible mushrooms!), once again we were sharing time with a family, and yet the atmosphere was completely different to the previous day’s. Something was off. Something very hard to identify. A very light shift. A mysterious and slightly obscure aura around this man. At the beginning of the evening, he had had these words for us: “Whatever happens, do not leave. I am so happy to have you here, I would be very sad if you were not to stay with us tonight and whatever happens, please, please do not leave!”
There had been an altercation with the grand’ma, Tania’s mother. An old woman talking in a lapidary tone. And she did not accept our presence in the house at all, did not want us to stay for the night. “We don’t like her” Sasha said. “She is never happy, always complaining. We constantly try to show her the bright side of everything, but it’s all lost on her, she’s hopeless. It puts my wife in a difficult position, she is still her mother. It is not easy for her.”
Was that all this uncanny atmosphere was, this delicate situation with the grand-mother? The unsaid, lurking around? Or did it have to do with the nervous giggling of the two girls, who never looked totally relaxed in their own house and seemed to be dreading something at the exact moment they were about to burst laughing? Did it have to do with some of Sasha’s comments that made me uncomfortable, loaded with ordinary machism as they were? Of Tania, a beautiful woman, he said, earnest and in her presence “Ah, my wife… she used to be pretty, for sure!” Or was it the fact that that very evening, when she was showing me to the washroom and as we were away from her husband, Tania herself never frankly answered any of my smiles? Was my being there making her feel uncomfortable? A bit earlier though, she had defended me against her husband who wasn’t ready to accept that I might not have been the ignorant western city-dweller he wanted to see in me. The answer eluded me but I wondered whether this going back to a rural and religious life deprived of most modern comfort (there was a washing-machine, but that was about the only concession that had been made to modernity) had been devised by both Tania and Sasha or imposed by the latter, without his wife being totally on board.
That night I ended up sleeping on a couch in Sasha and Tania’s bedroom, where their newborn was also sleeping. Artyom stayed on another couch in the kitchen near the stove. I was cold that night. I had been prevented from taking my sleeping bag out and did not dare ask for one more blanket.
The next morning, I saw the young mother once again radiant and smiling during the fifteen minutes she got to spend alone with her baby. Back in the kitchen and after a cup of tea, they gave us a big portion of cheese. Tania was very curious when I told her my dad was also producing cheese. She asked for the details about its making – the process is actually very similar to hers. We didn’t want to linger on for too long, warmly thanked them and left without seeing the bitter grand’ma again.
Next chapter: Fresh night
Artyom depicts the Russian night on his blog as well.