“Russia – people and places in an almost unknown country”

by Gisela Liebe

The idea for this extraordinary book came from Heino Wiese, who, as an entrepreneur and political advisor, has long-standing economic and personal ties to Russia. In 2013, he sent two teams, each consisting of a young journalist and a photographer, on a journey through the largest country on earth. They were to interview Russian people there in the most diverse regions and present them in their everyday lives and their respective living situations. The team with Jessica Schober and Olga Matweewa travelled through Russia’s west from Kaliningrad via Smolensk, Sochi, Moscow, Volgograd and St. Petersburg to Kazan. Vlada Kolosova and Evgeny Makarov set off on a journey through Siberia, starting from Ekaterinburg, the city with over a million inhabitants that is closest to the Urals and thus to the border between Asia and Europe, via Novosibirsk to Magadan and Vladivostok, both around 10,000 km from Moscow. In a total of 30 places, they met a wide variety of people, often spontaneously and by chance, and listened to their stories. The result is a diverse kaleidoscope of people living in their cities and landscapes. The reader thus gains an insight into Russia’s great ethnic, religious and cultural diversity. From the caretaker of Yeltsin’s dacha to miners, artists, scientists, bath attendants and politicians to the conductor on the Trans-Siberian Railway, the reader gets to know a total of 42 people. The vivid texts are accompanied by numerous photos of people and places that awaken the almost irresistible desire to visit this great country and get to know its inhabitants personally.

Choirmaster in Transbaikalia

The book begins with a choir leader in a village of 700 inhabitants in Transbaikalia (5,665 km from Moscow), where a religious community of so-called Old Believers has been living since the 17th century. They were banished by Tsarina Catherine the Great and have been living their cultural and religious traditions ever since. Their famous polyphonic chants are now part of the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage. Today they live with the internet, but still in wooden houses without sewage systems. The book ends with Volgograd, the former Stalingrad, where the memory of the horrors of the Second World War is kept alive by the so-called “search granny”, 73-year-old Dea Wrazowa. She collects all the information, memories and documents about the war period. “You have to know the history of the place where you live, your little homeland,” says Wrazowa. Her 91-year-old comrade Zinaida Petrovna Stepykina is also reconciliatory towards Germany, the former enemy of the war: “I have no grudge against the Germans,” she says. “We realised back then that not all Germans are fascists, that there are different people.”

Chess and
Buddhism in Kalmykia

Elista (1,261 km from Moscow) is the capital of Kalmykia, a southern Russian province near the border with Georgia. The national sport in Kalmykia is chess, which every child learns from an early age. The best are allowed to train at the chess academy for four hours a day. The head of the chess academy, Alexander Abashinov, is proud of the fact that three Russian champions and three European champions have come from Kalmykia during his tenure. One grandmaster once played on 30 boards simultaneously. Elista is also home to the Churul, the temple of the Buddhist community. Telo Tulku Rinpoche is the spiritual leader of the 160,000 Buddhists in Kalmykia. Born in the USA, he was sent to a Buddhist monastery in India at the age of seven by his parents, who were of Mongolian origin. “I was there for 13 years. When I was 21, I accompanied the Dalai Lama on his first trip to Kalmykia. He asked me to stay. That’s how I got to know my roots.” Kalmykia is not only the oldest Buddhist region in Russia, but even in all of Europe. “In the early nineties, there was nothing left of Buddhism here, no monastery, no temple, not a single monk. But someone was urgently needed who could take over the reintroduction of the religion. I was asked to do that. I knew I couldn’t assume much familiarity with the population, but it surprised me how many prayers and rituals the older generation had still preserved.” Since then, around 30 temples have been built in Kalmykia.
    Many of the people featured have several professions. Anton Kuklin from Vladivostok (9,127 km from Moscow, but only 150 km from the Chinese border) trained as a sailor, studied engineering in the fish industry, celebrated great successes as a kickboxer and, after many detours in life, now works for a bank.

Permafrost in Yakutsk

In Yakutsk (8,352 km and a six-and-a-half-hour flight from Moscow), the average winter temperature is minus 42 degrees. The Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), whose capital is Yakutsk, is as big as India but has only one million inhabitants. The entire Republic of Yakutia lies on permafrost soil, which only thaws to a depth of two to three metres in summer. Viktor Schepelev, 71, is deputy director of the Permafrost Institute in Yakutsk, the only institute in the world that studies permafrost soils. Sixty-five per cent of Russia’s land area is permanently frozen, sometimes up to a kilometre deep. In the institute’s laboratory twelve metres below ground, the temperature is a constant minus six degrees. Viktor Schepelev is concerned about man’s treatment of nature and comments on the huge untapped mineral resources in Siberia. “In my opinion, Siberia should be left alone. The North and the Arctic are cleaning factories of our Earth. We must not break the world filters. Instead, we should think about using the natural resource of our region: the cold. For example, we could use the energy of crystallisation – energy that is released during freezing. The permafrost is also an archive of world history: well-preserved mammoth carcasses and other pre-historic animals can be found here. Permafrost is also a natural deep freezer. You could dig cellars here and store food in them for centuries. Let me tell you: Frost is a wonderful preservative. Look at me! I’m 71, I haven’t been on holiday for twelve years and I feel like I’m thirty.”

Research and dacha

The Tyumen region (2,120 km from Moscow) is considered the Saudi Arabia of Russia – 64% of Russia’s oil and 93% of its natural gas reserves are stored here. Here in the city of Tyumen, 31-year-old Ekaterina Matyushkina works as an endocrinologist in an institution for old people and does research on geriatric diabetes. Her 65-year-old mother looks after her little daughter while she works. “Without them, it would be hard to combine child and career, or child and studies – which many still do here. Without grandmas and grandpas, it wouldn’t work like that. And this feeling of being needed keeps you young. According to the motto: I mustn’t get sick, I have the dacha, I have the little ones.”

“Learning from those you love”

In the small town of Shchyokino, 210 km from Moscow, Vlada Kolosova visits her former teacher Nadezhda Khryachkova, at whose dining table she spent many evenings as a pupil. Her pedagogical conviction: “I believe that you can only learn from those you love”. Her former pupil Vlada Kolosova remembers that she loved her teacher dearly and that she brought her grandmother’s pierogis, her worries and even street cats home to her. The teacher’s doors were open at all times of the day. “Perhaps it is a Russian tradition to be a round-the-clock teacher. Many of our writers also saw themselves as teachers,” says Khryachkova, referring to Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.

The Mufti of Tartarstan

Kazan, a city of millions on the Volga (808 km from Moscow), is the Muslim centre of Russia. 52 % of the population living here are Tatars, who speak Tatar as well as Russian. When Kazan celebrated its 1000th birthday in 2005, the large Kul Sharif mosque was also inaugurated. In the 1990s, there were only 20 mosques in the autonomous republic of Tatarstan, whereas today there are around 1500. The Mufti of Tatarstan, 28-year-old Kamil Hazrat Samigullin, explains that in Soviet times Muslim scholars were deported to Siberia and many believers prayed secretly in the direction of Mecca. The rebirth of Islam came in the nineties; meanwhile, 60 % of the 3.7 million Tatars profess Islam. Russian Orthodoxy is in the minority here. Girls are allowed to wear headscarves at school, which is forbidden in some regions of Russia. Regarding the coexistence of the religions, the Mufti explains: “The rabbi, the patriarch and I are directly connected. Many things run in parallel, for example, we have our own print shop, the Christians have their own. In private life, however, many Tatars and Russians, Muslims and Christians are friends. At school, the children, regardless of denomination, learn about the common history of the religion.”
    Russia belongs to Europe and, with its cultural diversity, its history and its lovely people, it is a country with which we are connected and which we should get to know better instead of alienating ourselves even further. •












Book dedication by Heino Wiese

I dedicate this book to my father Otto Wiese, who had to march into the war with Russia in 1941 at the age of 18, who spent almost three years as a prisoner of war in the forests of Nizhny Tagil sharpening the axes of the tree-cutters, who returned home at the age of 24, seriously ill and emaciated to 38 kg, who visited Moscow and Leningrad in 1985 and returned enthusiastic, and who taught me that Russia is beautiful and the Russians are warm and kind people.

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