A Small Siberian Town Celebrates in a Big Way5 min read
Yeniseysk is one of the most desolate but lovely places in Siberia. You can’t find it on most maps but the town’s lone bakery pumps out gourmet sheets of ten-tiered honey cakes and cabbage-stuffed piroshki. Cows and goats are masters of the streets but for 200 meters in the center, you are fooled into thinking you are on a butter-cream-colored street in St. Petersburg. And somehow this Siberian village, deep in the Taiga, got its hands on an ungodly amount of cash to throw a giant party for a single weekend.
That is why I am here. Yeniseysk turned 400 years old this August, and the small town has decided to celebrate its birthday in a big way. Using approximately ten million dollars from the federal government, the organizers are flying out virtuoso pianists from Moscow, opera singers from St Petersburg Conservatory, and Oleg Gazmanov – a 1980s rock star – to perform for the village locals.
The local government even built a massive stage for the artists on the banks of the Yenisei River, fitting for a Kanye West performance. There are rumors that Medvedev is coming. Maybe Putin, but the people were realistic, and would settle for Medvedev.
My guide for the weekend is Rita. She has lived in Yeniseysk for 65 years, has a tendency to drive her Toyota blindingly fast and shoot rifles. As we walk the crowded street, often in circles, she points to the town’s rather trite landmarks: a small Lenin Statue, a refurbished church, the crumbling administration building. Around town are shiny, maroon plaques that read obscure things like, “Stalin may have passed through here in exile” and “Author A. Fonvizin, stayed here one month.”
But that’s why I love Yeniseysk. It celebrates the ordinary, the small, and the heroic capacity of the mundane.
Our tour is interrupted almost every minute as Rita can’t take five steps without saying hello to someone. Like most in Yeniseysk, she knows everyone in the village and everything about them. “This is my cousin’s best friend’s little daughter,” she tells me after introducing me to a couple. In one instance, Rita points to a man and leans in, dropping her voice, as if telling me she just shoplifted a chocolate bar. “That is Vlad. Only 47, but on his fifth wife.”
Yeniseysk is a connected but complicated place.
I lose Rita in the crowd. But that’s okay, I am with Sasha— Rita’s husband— and we are drinking samogon (moonshine) on the bank of the river. We trade the bottle back and forth and watch the sun dip in the shallow grey swells of the Yenisei. Initially, the samogon slides down my gullet without protest but the aftertaste leaves me gasping and coughing as I lean against a railing.
Sasha tells me about his life right when the samogon hits. “I have been on the same street for 60 years,” he says while staring stoically into the horizon. “Was born on it. Raised my family on it. Worked at a factory for 40 years on it. Built a new house on it.”
“Damn,” I say, not sure how to respond. Really, I am amazed by Sasha’s attachment to this place. I compare this with my own wandering (and somewhat vagrant) graduate student existence, which has led to Siberia’s borderlands for the sake of “research” and a vague pursuit of adventure. Sasha however has been in one place his whole life, and he seems perfectly at peace.
It gets dark. I go with Sasha to watch the weekend’s main headliners on the shore, Yahan. I have never heard of the band, but Sasha tells me they are the “Siberian Beatles”. They specialize in rock interpretations of traditional Russian folk songs.
The sound of the band quickly overruns the tiny town. Speakers, ten meters tall, boom guitar riffs and drum beat blast across the tame river. Lemon-colored strobe lights cover the crowd. Behind the band on stage, a massive screen shows a Russian Orthodox priest, riding a tractor through an empty field.
For a moment no one moves. No one dances. No one sings along. Everyone is skeptical. Or better yet, everyone is in a remarkable state of disbelief. We are all mesmerized, thinking the same thing: Is this real? Is this happening? A rock concert like this? In Yeniseysk?
Behind me, it starts. A scrawny man, smoking under a baseball cap, bobs along. He sways from side to side. Others see this, his confidence, and grant themselves permission to move. Now everyone is stirring. Someone jumps and screams. A teenage girl is hoisted onto a tall set of lanky shoulders. Outstretched arms extend hands in the air and the crowd unapologetically jams to an electric balalaika solo.
Everything blurs together. Maybe it’s the samogon. I can no longer tell the difference between the music, the piroshki with cabbage, the cows on the street, the flashing aurora lights, or the sherry-colored plaques. Everything is there, vibrating, moving together, all one with the crowd, and the only thing I can do is dance along to the music, the music of a once-in-a-lifetime event here deep in Siberia’s taiga.
I realize I am happy for Yeniseysk. Happy for this small, hardly visible town, and for its people, who were given a chance to show their colors and celebrate their home in a big way.