Silences of the North

This month the Dark Mountain editorial team are delving into the archive, unearthing some of the gems in our 20 book collections to showcase online. Our second post is a compelling account by Julia Loginova of a train journey home across the oilfields of Russia, chosen by our subscriptions manager and proofreader Mark Watson, first published in autumn 2018.
completed a PhD at the University of Melbourne to raise awareness to rapid transformations in indigenous people's lives and remote environments driven by resource exploitation and other anthropogenic interventions. Later, she was inspired to tell the tales that do not fit the academic papers.

Dark Mountain’s Issue 14 TERRA is based on the question of what it means to belong in a ‘world of radical shift’. The book voyages through many different countries and realities, each writer or artist responding to the theme from the territories where they find themselves. 

This multi-levelled piece takes in the rapidly changing landscape of the author’s native Komi land in the Russian North, as she travels home from Australia to investigate the effects of the oil industry. Loginova interweaves her train journeys (meeting her friend at the Square of Three Stations in Moscow for a traditional Russian ritual of departure, edgy encounters with oil workers in the overnight train) with her observations of the changes to the physical and social fabric in the Komi Republic, and how the oil spills in her native land and its exploitation link to the exploitation of native cultures elsewhere.

The writing is intensely physical and immediate. You can almost smell the reindeer, and the mushrooms reeking of oil, and hear the frightening scream of a fellow passenger in the night. And whilst there is feeling, the piece is also unsentimental and in no way lecturing. Because of this I could accompany the author on her journey in all its visceral nature without turning away. MW

 

When I come to the north, the silence is what I breathe. Only here is it possible to think clearly and to check myself for resilience. But the north has been changing so fast. Each time I visit, another silence unfolds. The more I know it, the more foreign it feels. But increasingly, I fear not having an opportunity to come back to the north I know.

The north has accepted many interventions. It has always challenged the frontiers of human capacity and imagination. Its remoteness and wilderness continue to attract those who do not sit still. Its silence is comforting to those infected with the fuss of cities. It becomes an emerging necessity that needs to be satisfied. Many find an escape here from the failures of the world order. Many find a refuge, for their souls and their hearts – temporarily or permanently. What is permanent anyway? But can the north reject the shackles of the many attempts to capture its resources?

How many silences does the north hold?

Let’s be quiet

I have always travelled in Russia by train. The happiest moments of my childhood were spent on trains. Every summer, a three-day journey would transport me from my home in the Republic of Komi in the northern latitudes to the Black Sea coast. I shared the joy of these train journeys to summer camps with boys and girls from other parts of Russia and Ukraine. They believed that in the north we ride reindeer on the streets, eat bears and have no showers.

These are only partly accurate. I tried bear meat only once, but nothing can replace reindeer meat for me. I prefer banya – a steam room – to showers. They are a place for cleaning not only bodies but also thoughts and souls. As a child, I was surprised that my new train friends had never tasted cloudberries, and that they didn’t speak my Komi language.

Today, many Komi do not speak the language either. And few pick cloudberries. Lives in remote forests and tundra have changed dramatically for the indigenous Komi population. Many places for herding reindeer, fishing and hunting have been lost to the oil industry. Back in 1994, the largest land-based oil spill in history damaged lands and waters in the Pechora River basin. Neither nature nor our people have fully recovered yet. More recently, numerous oil pipeline leaks made national and international news and provoked public protests, which are uncommon in Russia.

In recent years, my train journeys have taken me all over northern Russia, including the Republic of Komi, for research. Now I am one of those infected with the fuss of city life. The silence of the north comforts me.

For decades, train travellers from all corners of Russia and beyond have crossed paths in the Square of Three Stations in Moscow. It is a place of motley conversations and encounters. I try to meet my childhood friend Anastasia at this square whenever I transit through the capital. She moved from the north to ‘the city that never sleeps’ for a job in the event industry and for warmer weather. She didn’t want to work for the oil industry back home.

Posidim na dorozhku‘ (‘Let’s sit down before hitting the road’), I said to her one morning in May after we had exchanged news over a cup of tea at the Yaroslavskaya train station. It’s a travel ritual common in Russia – taking a silent moment together before departing, to think of anything forgotten, or to reflect on the journey and on the people and memories left behind. I had flown in from Australia that morning and we had managed to meet before I caught my afternoon train to the Republic of Komi.

We sat quietly for a while. Playing with my train ticket, I was thinking how, as a child, when passing through this Square of Three Stations, I used to fear going to the wrong station and ending up bound for the Arctic or Siberia instead of Sochi or Crimea.

Anastasia asked me why I was going north this time. On my phone I showed her a Guardian article I had sent her recently: ‘The town that reveals how Russia spills two Deepwater Horizons of oil each year’. When I told her I was going to do fieldwork in the oil fields she didn’t say anything. Perhaps she disapproved. Her parents had been involved with the aftermath of the 1994 oil spill and from them she knew the lowdown on being on the oilfields, which I had yet to learn. They had actively participated in cleaning the banks of the Kolva River and nearby pastures, as well as demanding a response from the government. The government pushed them to stay silent. They opted to move to Moscow in search of alternative job opportunities, and perhaps another life.

I didn’t know yet what it was like to deal with obscure bureaucracy, to negotiate access to the fields, to unveil polluted sites, and to beg for government or company responses. Nor did I know how the oil spills looked. I only had a vague idea of how it was to navigate the male-dominated oil industry. But my motivation was strong because it was the lands of the Komi people, where I belong.

I only had a vague idea of how it was to navigate the male-dominated oil industry. But my motivation was strong because it was the lands of the Komi people, where I belong.

The Moscow–Vorkuta train departure was announced, and we made our way towards my 2nd class carriage: number 7. As I boarded the train, Anastasia stayed silent on the platform and only waved following the signal of the departing train.

I entered my carriage with trepidation. When I had established that one of the four berths in my compartment was occupied by a young woman, I was relieved and made myself comfortable. I hadn’t slept much the previous night, wired after the long-haul flight from Australia. I lay down on the upper bunk and started listening to the wheels turning on the track. Thirty hours of the journey lay ahead of me.

How precious that time is. In all of my train journeys, so many cups of tea have been drunk, unending conversations have been had, and hasty decisions have been rethought.

That time, I was thinking of all the preparations required for the expedition. I would be joining a group of researchers, volunteers and activists going to document evidence of environmental violations by the oil industry in the Republic of Komi. The exact locations and amounts of spilt oil were needed to demand a response from the oil companies and the government, and to support opposition to numerous new projects.

There are not many other ways to keep the oil industry accountable for pollution on Komi lands. Komi people do not have their land rights recognised by the central government as their total population exceeds 50,000: too many to be considered an ‘ethnic minority’ entitled to these special rights, too few to resist by numbers alone.

Devoting my PhD to this problem was worth a few years of my life, including the endless nights of reading and writing. And doing it from ‘down under’ had given me the opportunity to draw parallels between the resources under the ground of Komi land with other parts of the world. Ultimately, Australia is just another land where cultures are exploited for the extraction of resources. In both places, extractive projects are detached from the indigenous lives of local inhabitants, which are based on harmony with nature and care for it. In remote regions, the environmental impact of these operations remains invisible to the eyes of the public and the government, and local indigenous populations are often voiceless in the fate of their lands in the companies’ hands.

I’ll miss those infamous Melbourne skinny lattes, I thought to myself. But as I was falling asleep, I could already taste the succulence of reindeer meat and the sweetness of the cloudberry I so dearly missed. I will be home soon.

Once I had closed my eyes, a carriage attendant made an announcement advising passengers to keep their compartment doors locked overnight, as there were drunk men wandering around.

Vakhtoviki from the oil fields,’ she shrugged when she passed our compartment.

Vakhtoviki. The word repeated in my head. Vakhtoviki. A memory flashed.

It was four years ago. I was lying on the upper bunk in the 3rd class carriage of the Vorkuta–Moscow train, struggling to concentrate on my book, hungry and thirsty seven hours into the 30-hour journey. The stuffy carriage was infused with the smells of whisky, vodka, smoked fish, socks and instant noodles.

More than 40 men were in that carriage with me, and all the bunks except mine were occupied by vakhtoviki: the ‘train-in-train-out’ seasonal workers who travel from all over Russia to the oil and gas fields in the north.

Five men sitting on the lower bunk were already paralytic when I had boarded the train. They continued filling their glasses. For seven hours I had listened to their philosophical toasts: ‘For the north! For the severe north! It keeps us fed! It makes us drunk!’

‘Come down, beautiful girl! Why are you stuck upstairs, so quiet?’

I had anticipated attention from the lower bunk. I said nothing. Suddenly, I felt someone touching my leg. I wanted to leave this bunk, to leave this train, to leave this country.

I did not jump off the train. I curled up against the wall under the white sheet provided for passengers. Still hungry and bothered by the voices and movement from the lower bunk, I tried to fall asleep.

I needed that sleep. I had to spend the following day in Moscow taking care of my visa interview and medical tests before taking a flight to Australia. I was going to Melbourne to start my PhD. To distract myself from vakhtoviki, I started thinking of what summer clothes I could buy. Google told me it was +40°C down under. The train’s thermometer showed it was -40°C outside. Lulled by the sound of the rolling wheels, I fell asleep.

I was woken by a scream. No-one was moving. It was quiet; only the wheels continued making their rhythmic sound. I thought I was dreaming and put my head back on the pillow. Then another scream. A thin, blood-curdling man’s voice was coming from under my bunk.

‘Sleep, Alesha. Everything is OK!’ murmured the man sleeping on the opposite bunk. Then there was silence again.

The next time I opened my eyes following the announcement of a stop, I was relieved to find my compartment mates asleep. I needed a refreshing walk to bring me back to reality. The carriage attendant let passengers off the train as the stop was 20 minutes long.

The sun had not yet risen, but the night was almost over. I sat on a frozen bench on the platform and watched a few fellow travellers wandering around, enjoying the silence of the night.

One man walked up and sat close to me.

‘Were you scared yesterday?’ he asked me.

I recognised his voice: the man from the opposite bunk. I was about to get up, to avoid this unpleasant contact, expecting an apology for yesterday’s party.

‘Alesha has a distress after army, he went to Chechnya, then Dagestan, and just returned from Ukraine. People say he killed some of his family members, and now he makes living by drilling the Arctic oil. You forgive him, please. He does not scream often, he is very quiet.’

The man continued telling me something else about his life, about his family who he left on the shores of the Black Sea, and how he enjoyed eating reindeer meat and watching the Northern Lights. But the shivers on my skin muted his murmuring.

Alesha… such a nice name, I thought. Perhaps last night was not so frightening after all.

Sitting on the bench in the dawn, we remained silent until the signal of the train’s departure interrupted our inner dialogues.

‘They must be very strong working in the north; drinking so much,’ said my compartment companion, locking the doors and interrupting my memories. She offered me some tea.

I had paid twice the price that time, for a 2nd class carriage with doors. Maybe in the next carriage there were vakhtoviki making toasts for the severe north once again. Maybe Alesha was there again.

I could tell by the smell of the gases from the oil refineries that we were arriving in the town of Usinsk. It is the centre of the oil industry in the Republic of Komi, hosting the oil companies’ regional offices, geologists and workers, mainly from other regions of Russia and Central Asian countries. It is surrounded by the major oil fields, where the pollution occurs.

In a few Komi villages in the area, many favour well-paid industry jobs over reindeer herding and cattle breeding. Others choose to move to the regional capital Syktyvkar and beyond, as my family did. Few opt to resist the irresponsible development on traditional lands.

The deafening silence

‘How quiet it is today. It is deafening,’ began the driver soon after I jumped into one of the taxis at Usinsk train station.

It emerged that Karim had left his home in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, and moved to the Republic of Komi. He joined some of his family members who have been living here for a few years already. This remote land of northern ancient mountains and virgin forests appealed to him as a place that can offer peace: Mercator’s Hyperborea, the Vikings’ Bjarmaland, Komi’s Parma. But when he arrived in this land of the boreal forest, Karim could only find a job in the oil fields. In the summers, he cleaned the land of spilt oil. In the winters, he did all sorts of jobs.

‘There is nothing here. Everything that is happening, happens in your head. It is like a jail, but you feel free.’

‘But I like it here,’ Karim continued. ‘There is nothing here. Everything that is happening, happens in your head. It is like a jail, but you feel free.’ His reference to jail made me think of the numerous Gulags – the forced labour camps of Stalin’s regime for political prisoners and criminals – established throughout northern Komi. Did those prisoners also find the northern jails liberating, with their distance from central power? We were entering Ust’-Usa, a Komi village on the right bank of the Pechora River with a population of just over 1,000 living in wooden houses, all with banyas. Here, reminders exist, in the landscape and in the community, of the events of 1942 – the first significant uprising of political prisoners among the Gulags of the Soviet Union. Close to the village, there is an unkempt cemetery of insurgent prisoners – a few wooden crosses protruding from the ground. In the village, in the absence of an official museum, an archive of soldiers’ and prisoners’ belongings, documents and parts of buildings has been collected by enthusiastic teachers and housed in the school library.

In Ust’-Usa I was united with old and new friends: some familiar, and some not. Faces from school joining as volunteers, from local NGOs and newspapers, from Moscow and abroad. The group had a mission to inspect the environmental condition of the Komi land. Parma is the Komi word for our forest with its plants, mushrooms and animals. Komi’s forest is the largest remaining virgin boreal forest that Europe breathes. North of Ust’-Usa, trees become smaller and thinner, and the landscape eventually changes to tundra – the treeless frozen land well-suited to herding reindeers.

The expedition leader, a Komi man living in Moscow, pulled out a map of oil wells and pipelines in the Pechora River valley. Ultimately, the ancient maps of Bjarmaland and Hyberborea – the ‘empty’ land of reindeer herders, fishermen and hunters – have nothing to do with the contemporary map of the Republic of Komi, the Republic of Oil. The circulatory system of pipelines constantly pumps the subterranean black blood to faraway people.

As a group, we wanted to visit the well sites and check the condition of the pipelines. Though many of us were knowledgeable about the local environment, we needed someone familiar with access routes to the sites.

‘I do not know where he is,’ said the old woman who hosted us. ‘You never know when Nikolay will be back, but we must wait. He knows where to go.’

We waited patiently for Nikolay for a few days. The spring air was fresh, and the first grasses and flowers appeared in patches opened from the snow. But the village was empty, and very quiet.

Nikolay finally turned up. From the smell of his clothes I could tell he worked with reindeer. That was why the village was empty: everyone was there, on the pastures.

He announced that we would start the expedition the following day and he knew exactly where to go. He placed a mushroom on the table – a porcini. It was soaked in black oil and smelt of petrol. An experienced herder born of several generations of herders, he was the trusted one. Embodied in his presence was so much assurance and endurance. We could not have had a better guide.

Early in the morning we had some ukola, a sun-dried fish, and kvas, a rye bread drink, to charge us for the work ahead. Over the following days we drove and walked dozens of kilometres. There were more pipelines than roads. And more oil spills than swamps. Some stretched over hundreds of metres along creeks. Others formed puddles of different sizes.

There were more pipelines than roads. And more oil spills than swamps. Some stretched over hundreds of metres along creeks.

Oil and its smell penetrated deep into our clothes, hair, skin, and our hearts. Some of us felt dizzy on the fields and for a few days after the trip. Oil cannot be cleaned from shoes and clothes, but we can replace them. But there is no way to replace the lands and rivers that provide livelihoods to Komi people. Some of us can find an escape in bigger cities. But where to find a refuge for our hearts, culture and language? As a group we created another map: a map of environmental degradation. Some called it the Map of Pain. Others named it the Map of Shame. After returning from the expedition, we went into the banya to steam off the smell of oil and scrub it from our hands and our hearts. Showers would not help.

Over the next week, we processed the GPS coordinates and photos of the oil spills and made estimations of environmental damage. We sent the findings to the government and the oil companies asking for urgent action, but it was silence that we received as a reply. It is, indeed, deafening.

‘Posidim na dorozhku?’ This time I was talking to my mother, suggesting we take a moment to sit quietly before I made my way south again. After spending weeks in the oil fields, I was craving a few more silent moments to be with my north, before hearing someone else’s silence during another train journey.

What is the north silent about?

How many silences does the north hold? Do these many silences mean we disconnect further from each other and from the place? Or does the deep listening which the silence allows unite us to take care of each other and the place? Can we reconcile all the silences? Or, in the thralls of reality and its urgent but uninviting responsibility for the future of our Komi people, and the planet, perhaps the best we can do is to become a little more noisy. The solemnity of silence is becoming too loud.

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 14 (PDF)

The Autumn 2018 issue is a collection of essays, fiction, poetry and artwork charting a world in radical shift.
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Comments
  1. Penetrating and beautiful, capturing both the beauty of natural silence and the horror of human silence in the midst of such destruction. Thank you!

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