Friday, 13 July 2012

X Lake Baikal: Plumbing New Depths

   The train from Petropavlovsk made its way across the Russian border “without adventures” (as they say in Russia), and continued to the big city of Omsk, where it joined the Trans-Siberian Railway, one of mankind’s most revered feats of engineering. A Protestant (Russian) lady and her husband sat opposite, with whom the pilgrimage inevitably came up in conversation. In return for a tasty pirozhok (a sort of miniature pasty with onions), i gave them a photo of the cathedral in the Kremlin in Astrakhan, atop which a golden cross glints in the sun. Krasnoyarsk, where they left the train, is linked in many people’s minds with the gulag system of soviet Russia, but it is also the birthplace of the artist Vasily Ivanovich Surikov (1848-1916). Moscow’s Tretyakov gallery houses one of his most important works, Boyarynya Morozova, depicting a scene from the religious turmoil of 17th century Russia, when ‘Old Believers’ repudiated the reforms of Patriarch Nikon. In the background, an Icon of the Theotokos looks on as the black-clad noblewoman Feodosia Morozova is carted away through a peculiarly animated crowd, holding two fingers aloft, an expression of her defiance over a change to the way people made the sign of the cross. From my window the Siberian landscape was seen to be green, hilly and frequently forested, in which the occasional village usually had houses – or rather dachas – made only of wood. A little Russian language booklet about St Therese of Lisieux, from the cathedral in Astana, kept me company. Then in the evening i chatted over a beer with a couple of friendly students about various things, including the shaky condition of relations between Britain and Russia, made worse by our lamentable tendency to side with Russia’s adversaries; Chechen separatists, Kosovo Albanians, Georgians and, though here the question is more complex, Poles. Britain’s adoption of an aggressively secular outlook is certainly a factor in this, since it precludes the idea that one religious cause ever merits to be upheld over another – so the propaganda of both sides is given equal weight. And meanwhile the perceived abuse by western powers of their mandate to protect civilians in Libya was yet another notch in the west’s ‘offensive’ column as far as Russia was concerned.
Boyarynya Morozova, Vasily Surikov
   On the morning of Tuesday 28th June, feast of St Irenaeus, in grey but dry weather the train pulled into Irkutsk; 4200 kilometres and 5 time zones east of Moscow. I visited a church dedicated to St Nicholas the Wonderworker, and the Post Office to buy some stamps. Calling in to an internet place at the station, i posted an entry about Ozjornoje to the blog, then walked across a bridge spanning the Angara river. I’d been led to think of Irkutsk as a byword for brutalist soviet architecture, but this isn’t accurate at all – some of the major thoroughfares in the centre in fact are lined with charming wooden houses, though many could do with, at the very least, a lick of paint. Arriving at the coach station, i visited a chemist to stock up on insect repellent, then took the first available minibus to the resort town of Listvyanka, about an hour’s drive away, on the shore of Lake Baikal.

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