While in Chukotka, it does not take long for love for adventure and glint in one’s eyes to disappear. Pretty soon boundless expanse and scarcity of people wash away the impulse that is neither supported by anyone nor nourished by anything. One calms down, and expectation of the unknown gets replaced with tiredness and indifferent boredom.
A newcomer feels lack of everything here. Because of scarce vegetation the level of oxygen here is about twenty per cent lower than normal. Rocks, permafrost and inclement climate do not let soil produce any fruit; only few Europeans’ stomachs do well with lack of vegetables and excess of protein in food. People get sick when eating Chinese potatoes and cucumbers grown with special chemicals. Due to sudden changes of wind direction and humidity level chronic ailments show up.
There are only few roads here; so local people travel by sea that is rough most of the time. Because of this ships have to wait for a long time till weather calms down. One can also travel by air but strong wind and unceasing fogs sometimes make people wait as long as three weeks before actually going anywhere. Also wages are low here as in any province and prices are high. As they say here, all this is due to “complicated transportation pattern”.
Most Russian settlers work to accumulate funds to move to the mainland. Vacation time is twice longer than usual (to look more significant) – biyearly summer vacation lasts for four to five months, and it is usually spent in Astrakhan or Krasnodar regions. After several years of transpolar work, people are given apartments in Novgorod or Voronezh area, and only then the tide of life we can understand starts for them.
One needs a special attitude not to get disappointed in a far land, a special strength to endure, remain faithful and build a different life. Different, because your life is not going to be the same when you come to Chukotka – this land differs drastically from those where Russians lived originally.
There are very few church-going and strictly observant people here. Church life began not long ago; in most settlements built during Soviet developing of the North church buildings were not provided for. Ten-year old Chukchi Orthodoxy is like a child with pure innocent soul. It speaks honestly and openly, sometimes out of place and at the wrong time, at times it does not understand why questions get no answers and why so much idle gossip and irony is heard about it.
The way of life of the young eparchy is in many respects determined by its marginal location. With rare exception, people with weird and complicated life get here. Some priests and clergymen are in radical mood, but all of them are wonderful in their own way. They should be judged differently since these people live and survive in difficult, often terrible, conditions. Some of them say that when they still lived in the mainland, before they made the final decision to move here, they knew it would not be easy but they could not imagine it would be this hard!
Many priests serve in abandoned settlements. Church buildings made out of a pharmacy or a store are surrounded by completely empty apartment buildings with windows covered with rusty tin. Drunkards lie in the streets and inside buildings; sometimes one stumbles over them or has to step over them. Foul language can be heard next door. It is very difficult to remain human in such environment. In some congregations there are less than ten parishioners, so in order to survive, a priest has to get a secular job.
On the other hand, this is such conditions that attract people to Chukotka. Iliya, Father Superior of the only nunnery in Chukotka so far, admitted that here he found exactly the atmosphere he prayed for and searched for all past years of his monkhood.
“All my life I dreamed of living in a poor monastery. Monks make a vow of non-possession in order not to worry about unnecessary things. But this is not the only reason. It is important not to trust the human power. With money or supplies, one has more temptations. In this case one trusts God’s providence less and it gets more difficult to preserve a living faith. When you have no funds and no chance of getting any, the only thing left is to trust the Lord. And, you know, God is merciful and never leaves his children. Such life is more meaningful to me.”
Here an old dispute between apophatics and cataphatics, just like in other places, is solved in favour of bishop. As a person, bishop Diomid stands side by side with other priests. But as a monk, he truly lives an ascetic life rare for his order: he walks to the temple, every day serves as an ordinary priest – performs baptisms, funeral services, gives blessings. They say that sometimes one can see him with a spade of a pick by the church building, at the construction of a new monastery. In Chukotka relations among people are very close. So mask, if any, soon becomes obvious.
Missionary efforts to bring to church Chukchi and Eskimo people have been put away. Small and not very fruitful experience of Orthodox priests is slowly turning Chukchi missionary work into some kind of volunteer work, an obligatory line in annual reports. To bring Chukchi people to church is difficult and often useless, but this sad story also has its advantages: the nation that is becoming extinct plays a role of a peculiar buffer and reminds of rules that Russian settlers keep voluntarily or not. Crying scenes of death and decay unite people around good causes. In Chukotka it is more important and meaningful to work with Russians who still can and should be saved. The more so since an essential number of newcomers considers Chukotka their home and is not planning to leave.
The Last Natives
Chukchi communal way of life never adjusted to new regime. Chukchi culture is only described in books. The institution of family has been destroyed for the years of Soviet rule. At that time children were taken to boarding schools under compulsion. There they spent ten months out of the year and studied things they would probably never need in their whole life. Kids only came to tundra for vacations and never felt home again.
Life is different in tundra; line separating work and spare time is not obvious here. There is no segregation of duties – one can do just anything here: throw a harpoon, equip a boat, spread and collect nets, fix engines. School changes Chukchi teenagers. When they come home, tundra seems alien to them. Only few manage to live according to the only possible way of life – traditional one.
In recent years downfall and degradation of the indigenous Chukchi population have become irreversible. To remain human, one has to be very strong. Children continually associate with alcoholics, and many of them are their age. They see numerous relatives who are always drunk, and you can never refuse aid to them. The only way out is to leave the settlement. If you have money. But that ’if’ is worth a lot. It is a little easier for many students who study in Anadyr, the only city in Chukotka. It is easier for them to find a job and regulate their life in a new way.
While in Chukotka, I often thought of Otar Ioseliani’s movie Et la lumiere fut, especially the scene in the end where poor black kids sell their idols at the city market. Nowadays no one thinks of Chukchi history once famous for feats and legendary resistance to Russian colonization. Only 80-year old men remember their native language, so Russian is the only local dialect. It is just a dialect because Chukchi people mangle it terribly: they do not use any declensions, and all their verbs only come in infinitive form. Their weird accent is often mentioned in Russian jokes (“Chukchi man is one and Putin is one”, “Bear walks – Chukchi man hears, Chukchi man walks – bear hears”).
Even though pantheon of Northern people is quite numerous, at a souvenir booth you will definitely be offered a legendary Peliken – a small paunchy idol that was invented in 1950-s by Billy Gen, an enterprising Canadian. In spite of short history and questionable origin, Peliken is the main character of festivals and other events in Chukotka and Alaska.