A TRAVELER IN SIBERIA.

I feel I’ve been selfish in enjoying pf‘s amazingly vivid reports on his wanderings in Siberia, most recently from Aginsk to Mirny to Suntar to Yakutsk, all by myself, and I’ve decided to let you all in on the pleasure. He’s not on any institutionally sponsored tour by plane and train; no, he’s doing it on his own hook, hitching rides from one godforsaken backwoods town to another, and is used to being the only foreigner people have seen (though, astonishingly, there are apparently two other Americans in Suntar [Russian Wikipedia]). Here he is giving a quick, exhausted report on the latest leg of the journey:

I’d like to give a travel update, but I’m a bit boshed. Twenty-eight hours in a car. No, not in a car after all, in fact in an ex-military van with three iron couches welded in the back, but I got to sit in the front. Next to the guy with one tooth in his upper jaw. And that one yellow, and almost entirely naked, like a little tusk bending out of his gums. Behind the sparking wires under the dashboard. And I got to hop in the driver’s seat to open the door for him whenever he got out to make the fifty-kopeck offering he made at every county line, since the outside door-handle had fallen off sometime in between now and 1982, which was when it was made, he told me, in the first spontaneous communication he made directly to me, not through an interpreter. I also got to sit in front of the guy who sat behind me, naturally, who with unnaturally stinky breath kept pawing me and asking me how I was in a language which was clearly not one of his first two, and wanting to know a thousand other things, and only thinking of the words to say them in just as I was drifting off to sleep, which I’d like to do now, but duty calls.

But don’t think this is totally off-topic; he gives a lot of attention to language. From the entry of Wednesday 14 January:

There’s a lot of Ukranian accents up here. They say h for g and put the stress in funny places, and enunciate funnily. It’s perpetually interesting to me, how little regional variation there is in Russian. Russians all insist there are dialects in Russian, but take Buryat for example – Aginsk Buryats have to speak Russian to Irkutsk Buryats to be understood, since in Buryat there’s too little comprehension and too many false friends between the dialects. Nothing of the kind to fear, for your Russian speaker…
Or take French, I totally can’t understand people from the south-east. There’s one rap group (is it IAM? or the other group that isn’t MC Solaar? I forget) from Marseille I have to read the text along with in order to understand. And English, you can come up with your own examples. The mythical Russian ‘o’ dialects (which pronounce unstressed ‘o’ as ‘o’ instead of ‘a’) and ‘a’ dialects (which pronounce stressed ‘o’ as ‘a’ instead of ‘o’), that’s pretty weak stuff, in comparison with real dialects. And plus I’ve never met anyone who окает or акает, and probably never will.
The only Russian I’ve had difficulty understanding is that of those Buryats who grew up in villages where education and administration were all done in Buryat. Which would make it not dialectical variety at fault, but just a Buryat-Mongol accent in Russian.
And I’m reading Sologub’s the Little Demon (мелкий is a good word – it means, of things that come in groups, small, like chunks of bread or kopecks), and it’s excellent. I’ve never read a satire that didn’t give you somebody you had to like. Here, even the people who aren’t flagrant sinners are really stupid. Cynicism unbounded.
Speaking of books, I read Nabokov’s Kamera Obskura – I think it’s called Laughter in the Dark in English – in two days after New Years. That, combined with this, that the cab driver, when I explained I was from America, asked, “So you were studying there, or what?”, means I don’t have to feel bad about leaving Russia: mission accomplished.

Keep going back in the archives—there are ghost stories, poems, and little vignettes like “You’ve heard of people sticking their tongues to metallic things. Well, I just stuck my tongue to my moustache trying to lick frozen beer off it.” And wish him well as he makes his precarious way eastward.

Comments

  1. Whenever I read such commentaries about the former Soviet Union, I remember the phrase they used, except not to describe their stiffling lack of prosperity and horrific quality of life: socialism in action.

  2. Wow, a whole languagehat post! Thanks a million for it.

  3. “Whenever I read such commentaries about the former Soviet Union, I remember the phrase they used, except not to describe their stiffling lack of prosperity and horrific quality of life: socialism in action.”
    While communism was ghastly, this region was just as impoverished and insignificant *before* the 1917 revolution. And indeed the inhabitants may have been more prosperous under communism, for it is precisely in rural regions such as these that people complain about the unfulfillment of the capitalist era and speak of a desire to go back to better days before 1991.

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