Friday, October 20, 2006


Kyusur is on the right bank of the Lena, a day's boat journey beyond Zhigansk - further north than all of mainland Europe. The shore is a scree slope with nothing to anchor your triple-decked cruise ship except huge pieces of driftwood, and from the bank above you can look both ways down the river, across to beautiful red cliffs and think 'bite me, Finland'.
The few hundred wooden cottages that make up the village itself are raised on stilts on land normally frozen, and when not frozen, swampy. If I was a real estate agent I think I would call Kyusur land 'moisturised'. Wooden boardwalks have been laid from house to house, although most are now rotting or loose (real estate agent: 'traditional'). There's a strange Land of the Giants effect, which I realised after a while had to do with the forest growing up to the back steps of the last houses in the village. This far north so much of the land is frozen year-round that the forest is dwarf taiga, stunted pines and firs of 1.5 to 2m, which is no taller than, say, Condoleezza Rice. Near the path above the river bank someone had put up a teepee.
When the Svetlov laid anchor some fishermen drove down the pebble slope in a ute. This was the only proper vehicle we saw in Kyusur, except for a sort of bulldozer/tractor hybrid that I didn't understand but badly wanted to drive. The roads into the taiga don't lead far and the nearest village of any size up or down river is Tiksi, 500km away. The only other form of motorised transport in the village were heavy black motorbikes with sidecars. I kept wishing Steve McQueen would ride up and tell me which way to run from the Jerries. The ute was loaded with half a dozen canvas sacks. Inside each sack, as it turned out when the ship's chef went to investigate, there were three or four river fish, each the size of a thin, flippered child. Money changed hands, and bags of flour, then, as a latecomer fisherman bolted down the river bank with a mounted set of reindeer antlers, Galina threw from the deck six litre-bottles of vodka. Most people in Kyusur are Evenki, but that doesn't stop them wearing as much army camouflage as the Russians or, evidently, drinking like them. My favourite was a man who had opted for a thin handlebar moustache with crew cut and Fidel Castro military cap, and looked like a Bond villain in waders.
Keeping as much of the village as possible between us and Captain Candiru ("What is this place? Why are we here? Where's a man supposed to get coffee?") we came across a strange memorial, spray painted gaudy silver and showing three poles, one of them bent and broken. Later I learned what had happened, and it doesn't make a pleasant story.
When Hitler turned on the USSR during WWII the Soviet leader, Stalin, became convinced that various non-Russian populations were certain to defect to the Germans. He decided the easiest solution would be to ship these people en masse to Siberia. Ordinary folk mainly from the Baltics were put onto trains, then in Siberia forced onto iron barges and sent off down the Yenisey or the Lena. One group arrived in Zhigansk, another in Tiksi, and in 1941 a group of 2000 was sent to Kyusur. The journey was bad enough. The barges were open, with little in the way of food, shelter or medicine. People became sick and dozens died of illness or exposure. It was already autumn when the survivors reached Kyusur. Nothing had been nothing prepared for them. The village was even smaller than it is today - a few dozen wooden cottages hugging the riverbank. There was no shelter, no food stores and the locals had no way to clothe more than a handful of extra people for the northern winter. Most of the exiles arrived with only the clothes on their backs - thin jackets and caps for the east European autumn. The locals, reportedly, did what they could, hunting, fishing, making tents and digging shelters in the earth. But it wasn't enough. By the war's end all but a handful of the exiles had died. Most didn't even survive the first winter.


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