You Are Your Story - Kolya

 

In 1987, Loren Robb, an independent New Zealand film maker, was in the Soviet Union, traveling the entire region throughout that year, to produce a major documentary series about family life in the USSR. The last of those programs was filmed in a tiny and remote Arctic Siberian village among the native Evenki people. While he was there he drafted a feature movie story, now being developed as a unique co-production between the West and Moscow. In May this year, Loren Robb returned to the Siberian village, to research the movie script, and to meet again the local village child who had inspired it.

*****

Kolya

by

Loren Robb

 

kolyacoverIn 1987, Loren Robb, an independent New Zealand film maker, was in the Soviet Union, traveling the entire region throughout that year, to produce a major documentary series about family life in the USSR. The last of those programs was filmed in a tiny and remote Arctic Siberian village among the native Evenki people. While he was there he drafted a feature movie story, now being developed as a unique co-production between the West and Moscow. In May this year, Loren Robb returned to the Siberian village, to research the movie script, and to meet again the local village child who had inspired it.

It’s hard to get across to most people the immense size of the Soviet Union. You can talk statistics … a sixth of the planet’s land mass, eleven time zones wide. But statistics aside, it remains impossible for people who have not traveled it to really understand the scale of the place. It’s not just Russia, you know, it’s exactly what it calls itself, a union, a federation of 15 quite racially and culturally separate republics, each a massive country in itself. The USSR has a population of over 280 million, speaking more than 150 different languages.

Perhaps the most graphic example of this scale is to speak of something I have actually experienced. I got on an aircraft one night in Moscow, one of those giant jet passenger planes about the size of a Western 747, and flew non-stop through the night for eleven hours. That’s a Los Angeles-to-London duration. But in the morning when we landed we were still in the Soviet Union. That’s how big it is.

I am on another plane right now, not a large jet this time, but an almost Snoopy-like bi-plane, one old propeller, two ski foils instead of wheels, and little disc portholes studded along the sides. The seats are steel slings folded down along each side of the cabin. Behind me are heaps of freight, crates, sacks, and mailbags. Forward the door hangs open into the cockpit where the two pilots are crouched over their panels, peering through the white outside. They are dressed in canvas and leather, like flying daredevils of the forties.

But I’ve given up shouting against the noise of the engine, bad Russian through the cockpit door, and got out my pad to do this scribbling on my lap.
This old bi-plane is thudding me north into central Siberia. Through the scratches of the perspex porthole disc, all I can see below, in all directions and forever, is forest and snow, an ærial panorama of tiny leather-green trees frosted white wherever I look. A frozen white river winding through. The sky seems white as well. A misty gray view of infinity. It is endless now and it’s been endless for the last two days. We left then from the city of Irkutsk, the capital of this central Siberian province. That was in another, bigger aircraft, though still redolent of World War Two, the kind of plane I imagine Harrison Ford flying in one of those swash-buckling Stephen Spielberg movies. We flew due north from Irkutsk for five hours with the same endless unchanging view of white around us hour after hour, heading into the province’s most northerly region. It’s called Katanga, and it’s the size of California. Yet it has a population of only 8000.

I’ve been here before, of course. And I love it. I’m returning now, to a village near the Arctic Circle, a tiny frozen place where I left a part of myself.

•  •  •
Outsiders often picture Siberia as bleak and barren, a landscape of white and empty chill, flat and characterless, without grace, beauty, or colour. But in truth it is a land of exquisite beauty, gentle in the chalky tones of all the heavens’ lights, the pale gold of a distant low-slung midday sun, the pinks and violets of evening, the purple blacks of night.

In such a landscape people live, dotted in tiny and infrequent villages across the highland plateaus of the arctic north. Remote outposts of human life, these little log-cabin clusters nestle in groups among the delicate black boughs and fine tracery of birch and spruce forest, hugging the river banks with a warmth of spirit that defies the brutal chill beyond them. Their timbers glow gold against the pastels of the ice and snow. They are isolated from the world at large, and from each other, separated often by a hundred kilometres or more of the endless Siberian forest. Each is a society in itself, alone, complete.
Nakanno is such a place.

It’s an Evenki village, a home for about 200 of these indigenous Siberian people.  It sits circled by forest on a shallow cliff overlooking the wide and wandering Lower Tunguska River, one of the major waterways of central northern Siberia. It is a very pretty village of golden wood iced white with the fairytale candy of deep winter snow, its edges softened by the gentle blanket curves. It is a little south of the Arctic Circle and the tree line that marks the northern edge of the forest, beyond which nothing grows but stalks of polar grass, until further north even they cease to survive. Nakanno hovers there on the planet’s northern brink of human possibility.

It is eighteen months now since I first saw Nakanno, and that was from the air as well. I fell in love with it instantly, partly for its sheer physical beauty and its remote otherworld ambience, partly for the intense feeling I had that I was somehow coming home. As we landed there that first day I seemed to know the place, I felt that compelling and comforting sense of déja-vu.
We were welcomed there, struggling off the aircraft into the arctic chill and snow, by the village chief, Sasha, a large and strong Evenki man, always grinning, always seeming about to hug you. He told us we were the first outsiders to come to the village for 21 years. That, he remembered, had been a Swedish photographer. We were thus honoured guests. He led us to the school, explaining that the village had no guest-house, but that we were to be accommodated at the school.

Most of these villages have no school. Nakanno has.  It’s something of a local centre, a focal point for other Evenki who live hundreds of kilometres away in even smaller settlements tucked here and there through the forest. Its clutch of cabins, all heavy log outer walls round vast wood-burning stoves, is mostly small homes, but it also includes some community buildings … the school, a supply store, a clinic, a trapping store, and a little village hall which boasts two stoves for extra heat. There’s a postal office too, at the edge of the village next to the flat area that serves as the landing field for this little bi-plane. It comes regularly, to deliver supplies and to pick up the mail or anyone traveling between these tiny towns.

Nakanno seems, however, a smaller place than this, for its population is never all in the village at any time. Most of the men are trappers, spending long weeks away, gathering the pelts of arctic hare, of stoat and sable, which form the basis of the village economy. A few others tend the village’s reindeer herds, in a valley far to the north. Some hunt for elk. Usually, the only men in town are the elderly or the few who daily service the water, firewood, and other needs of the houses. Nakanno seems, therefore, a town of women and children.

There are 40 children in the village, and 15 of them are not from Nakanno but from the smaller villages elsewhere through the forest, and they’re sent here every autumn for their months of schooling. They live at the school. Now, as we followed Sasha there, crunching our way between the cabins, our alpine boots squeaking on the ice and snow, the children cavorted around us, tiny faces like Eskimo dolls peeking out from the swathes of fur. Nobody under 21 had ever seen a foreigner before. Dressed in our high-tech arctic gear, with the shiny aluminum crates of our equipment being off-loaded from plane to sleds, we must have seemed like Martians to them all.

They tumbled with us into the warmth of the school building, stomping the snow from their boots, chattering like oriental monkeys, vying with each other for the favour of helping to carry in our gear from the sleds. The school was a large building, of logs too, but rambling with rooms and wood-stoves.

The villagers had prepared beds for us in the children’s play room and lounge, and there we unpacked. The children watched us.

“Kam-pooter, kam-pooter,” they whispered as I pulled my computer out of its traveling case. “Foto-apparat,” they confirmed with each other, seeing the cameras revealed. “Vid-ee-oh, vid-ee-oh.”  To them, the room must have seemed transformed by us and our equipment, from its wooden simplicity to something resembling the flight deck of a space ship, as electronic equipment piled itself around the walls and on all the tables.

But eventually they left us alone, and we slept. We were at the end of six months’ television production in the USSR. We had filmed already the material for five hours of documentary programs, and this was the last. We had been working daily throughout the six months, moving constantly from one end of the Soviet Union to the other, all our precious time off dominated by traveling. We had three weeks left now to film the final program. But we were exhausted. Physically, of course, from the work and travel. Mentally too, from the strain of constant negotiations in ever-changing foreign tongues. And most of all, emotionally exhausted, from the cultural changes we were putting ourselves through every day, every week. Now Russia, now Georgia, now Soviet Asia. And last and most bizarre of all, Arctic Siberia.

Yet the very remoteness of the village turned out to be what we needed. Its isolation breeds humanity and hospitality. We found ourselves surrounded by goodwill and peace in a way we had not had time to achieve anywhere else.

Certainly for me, it was a place to stop and think again.

On top of the overwhelming cultural strains, the work, and the daily problems, this year of production had represented for me another emotional hurdle as well, a trauma I had not anticipated. It was the year my marriage finally collapsed. I had thought it a workable marriage, though I’d recognised the difficulties. But it had come to a head on this trip. Sally was now back in London, with someone else. Common enough, I suppose. Still, I had to come to terms with this, and with who I would now be, and with the fact that I had never achieved the family I had spent half my life yearning for.

Here, in Nakanno, I found the time to start thinking this through. And it was here too that I discovered a new rôle. If not husband, at least father.

•  •  •
Sasha the chief turned up later with a dead elk. He stood outside the school with the beast on the ground beside him.

“This is for you all while you’re here,” he said. I looked at the skinned and blood-blotched creature in the snow.

“But what can we do with it?” I said, wondering where to put this enormous and rather gruesome body of meat.

“Eat it,” he said. Then he realised what I meant. “Oh, don’t worry. It’s frozen already. Nothing will happen to it. Just cut pieces off and cook them.”
He was right, of course. We hauled it into an unheated storeroom behind the school kitchen, and there it lay for three weeks, frozen solid in the sub-zero chill of the air. The villagers who came to cook for us simply kept hacking pieces off it. We ate that elk three times a day … stewed, fried, boiled, roasted, we ate it as soup, as stew, and as simple flesh. But always the elk, morning, noon, and night. Later in our stay we were offered the treat of fresh elk liver, frozen but raw. I turned it down, squeamish about it. But it answered a question for me. The Evenki diet is so meat-oriented that I could not see how they maintained a healthy balance. There are few herbs and vegetables, and no fruit but bilberries. Instead, they remove the liver from slaughtered elk and deer. It freezes in minutes, and they slice it and eat it like blood-red popsicles. It provides the vitamins and minerals their diet otherwise lacks.

But I couldn’t bring myself to share this treat. They were not offended. Later again, they gave us the antlers from the beast we had eaten. Fourteen-point antlers that grace our sound recordist’s Auckland home to this day.

It was after our dinners each evening that we’d watch our material from the day, played back on the video recorders. We were not shooting film, but tape, and this meant each day we could immediately see what we had shot. The children quickly cottoned on to this. At dinner on only the third night we heard soft clattering outside in the corridor. A noisy mystery. When we finished eating and returned to the lounge that was our bedroom we found them, all the school boarders, sitting in rows on chairs they had brought to the room, waiting patiently, a junior audience to see our little cinema. It became their evening habit for the three weeks we were there.

They saw, of course, not just their village, but themselves. For we filmed the children often. They were the life of the village, it seemed to me, and their play was the village’s spirit. We captured it daily on tape, and it’s a major feature of the program.
But I noticed on the first night of the ‘cinema’ show that one child was missing. It was a boy I had seen that same day.
Our first day’s shooting had started with the children. We filmed them in one of their roly-poly piggy-back games outside the school. They clung around us, fascinated by our equipment, our clothes, and by what we were doing. We let them look through the viewfinders at each other, and listen on headphones to the sounds caught by our microphones. But one child hung back. I’d looked up at some moment and seen him for the first time, a dark boy in the distance, hovering away from us by the corner of the school. When I looked again he was gone.

All day I kept noticing this boy, a silhouette of fur hat and coat, dark eyes staring at me from afar. Then gone. Like a shy little sprite of the arctic woods, stalking me, he hovered each time but never approached, he was glimpsed but hardly seen.

When I didn’t spot him at the screening of our rushes that night, I wondered where and who he was.

The next day I caught him. Staring at me again from the edge of a building. This time I did not look away. I walked directly towards him, and he stood there like a nervous mirage, not magically disappearing now, but transfixed by my approach.

“Hello,” I said, in my basic Russian. “What’s your name?”

“Kolya,” he said, and then blushed. “And you’re Loren.”  I suppose he had asked the others, but at the time it seemed magic too that he already knew me.
“Do you live at the school?” I said. He nodded. “You did not come to see the video last night.”  He shrugged and blushed. “Tonight,” I told him, “you come with the others. You come too.”

That evening after dinner he was there with the other children, waiting for me to return from eating the elk. He made me sit on his chair, and he himself sat on the floor in front of me. We watched our rushes, discussing them amongst ourselves in English above the foreign whoops of merriment of the children around us as they saw their village re-created on video. I sat there, absorbing the filmed material, my mind planning what was missing, what we had, what we needed, and this boy, Kolya, leaning back against my knees. At one moment I put my hand on his shoulder with absent-minded affection, and he took it and held it there like a reassurance. It moved me.

•  •  •
We made our program. We filmed all we needed there, and we left satisfied, the series complete. But for me the three weeks in Nakanno became something else altogether. Not the end of an exhausting production. A beginning rather, of what has become a new stage of my own life. That short time in Nakanno became, for me, the discovery of Kolya.

He’s a bright boy. He showed me his school books one day and the village teacher told me he was one of the best pupils in the school. Most of the children finish school at fifteen, their eighth year of education. They stay then, as young adults, the girls to run the village, the boys to become hunters and trappers. A few leave. The brightest may continue their education. It means traveling hundreds of kilometres south to the only large town in the Katanga region, where there’s a higher school. And even fewer go on to college and university at 17, for that means a journey of thousands of kilometres, south again to the provincial capital, Irkutsk.

Kolya should aim for this, the teacher told me. But the odds were that he would not. Like most of his companions, he planned to leave school at 15 and become a hunter. It was all he could imagine doing.

Still, he was interested in other things, at least fascinated by them. He wanted to know how to operate my computer. I showed him. He mastered it in a day, drew pictures with the art program, wrote letters to me with the word processor, which can type in Russian, and played endless games. He wanted to try my stills camera. I taught him to use it. He wandered about taking photos of his friends and of me. He was fascinated by my electric torch, my watch, my calculator, and all the other tiny sophistications I had with me. I lent him these things from day to day, and he used them proudly.

“Kolya, when I get home,” I said to him one afternoon, “I’ll send you something from New Zealand. A present. Anything you like.”  I thought an open choice was a safe bet – there’d be nothing in the world that he could think of which would cost me very much. He looked at me oddly. “So tell me,” I said. “What sort of thing would you like?”

“But I don’t need anything,” he said straight away. “I already have everything I need.”  This answer, this instant response, sounds too glib, yet it’s true. From a boy who has – by the standards of my world – nothing at all. Just the clothes that he wears. Still, in all the next week he never came up with a single idea of anything he might want, and I began to perceive that to send him almost anything was potentially to destroy this purity, to seduce him into a whole milieu of materialism and desire, and all the artificially induced frustrations of my consumerist society so foreign to his own life.

I didn’t ask him again what he wanted from the West. In fact I learned in the weeks I was with him that he was right – he truly didn’t need any of it. We had arrived with so much technology it is almost frightening. Much of it is in the sledgehammer-to-crack-a-nut category, I realise now. At the silly end of the scale was my electric toothbrush. When the batteries ran down I found myself having to brush my teeth with it with manually, and used thus it became ridiculously unwieldy. Kolya roared with laughter at this, and I must confess to the stupidity of the image I have of myself doing that.

On the more serious side were the balaclavas. We all wore knitted woollen balaclavas, at least for the first couple of days. The outside temperatures were lower than 65° below zero … three times colder than a domestic freezer. It’s hard to explain that sort of temperature. It’s not so much cold as alien. Your spit freezes before it reaches the ground. Your nostrils form instant icicles inside with every breath. You exhale thick white steam which crackles in the silent air, crystalising as soon as it leaves your lips. It was Kolya, newly befriended, who told me to take off the balaclava.

It traps the moisture in your breath as you exhale, which instantly turns to crystals of ice. Within minutes the face of the balaclava is cold and hard, a mask of solid ice.

Kolya warned me that breathing the iced air through the fabric across my mouth would make me ill. With pneumonia, I later discovered. He taught me to wear nothing on my face, but to keep rubbing my skin so the blood would circulate, preventing frostbite. The Evenki habitually watch each other’s faces when they’re outside, looking for the signs of frostbite, warning each other if they forget to rub their skin.

I thanked Kolya for the little lesson. It was the first of many, in reply perhaps for what I was teaching him about computers, cameras, and life in the West.
One day I walked with our interpreter through the village, enjoying a moment of freedom from filming.

“The villagers have asked me to thank you,” Yura said. “They see your relationship with Kolya, and they’re grateful for your attentions to him.”  I was surprised, but flattered.

“It’s nothing. He’s a nice boy. I like him. I’m teaching him a lot that he’s interested in”

“Everyone sees that,” he said. “You’ve both grown very fond of each other. But it’s not what you teach him. It’s the relationship that matters. They’re pleased you don’t patronise him. You treat him well.”

“How else?”

“Well, you see, Kolya is special in the village. He’s not Evenki, you know, but Yakut. A different people. And … well … he’s not an orphan exactly, but in a way he has no family.”

“How do you mean?”

“It’s difficult,” Yura said. “His parents are not … well, there are problems at home. He doesn’t live with them. He sees them from time to time.”
People were loathe to tell me what this was about. Looking back now, I realise what it probably meant. If the parents were alcoholics they’d have had Kolya removed from their care, at least by the time he was seven and started school. Kolya, in a sense, was a dispossessed boy. For six years he had lived at this school house, six years with parents only as a remote couple whom he visited, “from time to time” as Yura had put it.

A boy of thirteen is at an awkward stage. It’s the time of passage, his transition from young child to young man, a time when he seeks support and a model. Kolya, instinctively desperate for this, despite having a village of adults to choose from, had somehow chosen me. I talked to him myself about it later.
“Kolya,” I said, holding onto his hands, “I heard today about your family.”  I stopped. Kolya sat grim and silent. Eventually I spoke again. “If you want, I can be like a father for you, but only while I’m here. Perhaps after I go we can write to each other.”

Kolya stared at me and I couldn’t interpret what was in his eyes. He has a handsome young face, skin brown as autumn, large orient eyes as black as birch-bark. But it gives away little. He stares moodily at you and you can see his mind working but you don’t know in what direction. Without warning and without a word he stood up, pulled away his hands, and walked out.

He came back late in the evening. He was very tense, nervous, upset.

“I want to talk to you,” he said, grim. I followed him outside into the chill and dark. Alone with me he stood and waved at the forest all around the village. “I’m thirteen,” he said. “I’m not a child. I go alone into the forest. It’s forbidden for children.”  I nodded. I knew this – the forest is dangerous, the domain of wolves. Satisfied I’d taken the point, he continued. “I’m brave,” he said. “I’m not a baby. I hunt and fish. I walk by myself. If an animal attacks, I kill it.”  He acted all this out in front of me, the solitary forest walk, the attack by a bear or wolf, his bravery, the kill.

“I don’t think you’re a baby,” I said. “I know you’re big now, and strong.”

“And brave,” he said. “I don’t need to have parents. OK?”

“OK,” I nodded. But he went through it all again. Three times he acted out for me this single point – that he was grown now, and full of strength and courage. I agreed all three times. He stood facing me, almost trembling with the importance of what he was telling me.

“You are my friend,” he said. His mouth started to wobble. “Not my father.”  And then he began to weep. I folded him up in my arms and he held me terribly tight, shuddering with sobs.

“Sometimes,” I said, “It’s all right to be a child. Just to be a boy once more.”We didn’t talk about this again. I never mentioned the word ‘father’ any more, and I never suggested we were anything but simple friends. Yet Kolya stood somehow closer to me than before, stood right next to me now in his young life, accepting at last perhaps the precious parenting he needed so much. I had something to accept too. A kind of responsibility I hadn’t known. He’d walked into the gap I have held all my life for a child. I’d walked into a gap in his life too. The magnetism between those two gaps, like the attractive pulse of two awesome black holes in space, could be felt, irresistible between us.

A few evenings later we filmed the boys from the school in their weekly bath session. On Wednesdays they stoke up the wood stove in their own little bath house behind the school until it’s as hot as a Scandinavian sauna. Water boils on the fire, and other barrels of water stand cold around the wooden platform that’s against one wall. The children frolic in there for an hour or more, soaping and rinsing each other until they shine. Then, hot and clean, they run naked out into the frozen night, rolling in the snow at an incredible temperature of 65° below. But apart from the sheer shock of seeing them cavorting bare in the snow, what fascinated me more was that they had washed each other. There’s a kinship between all these people which binds them like family. They walk arm in arm, they cling to each other freely, they display their friendship without embarrassment.

After the filming, Kolya, who had stage-managed the whole bath night sequence with his friends for us, asked me to stay back.

“I want to wash you,” he said, when everyone had left. And quietly, with an almost Japanese grace and care, he proceeded to do that, lathering me from head to foot, and cleaning me with gentle affection, rinsing me with water he had delicately mixed for temperature. I think for Kolya this gift was a symbol of his fellowship with me.

I tried to explain to him about my departure, about how very soon I would be going away to my own country and possibly could never come back, though I promised to write. He needed, I told him, to accept our relationship as the necessarily brief one it was, though meaningful. He shook his head.
“Now that we’ve met,” he said, “nothing can separate us. Only kilometres.”

•  •  •


There’s a deep humanity about these people that I love. It’s a brand of directness and honesty which I never knew was lacking in my own society, my own life. I’ve thought about this a great deal since I first came across it, and I cannot even imagine a word in my own language for this quality. It has so many faces.
One is a total lack of patronisation, an uncompromising respect for everyone.

I wanted to take some still pictures one morning, of the children playing outside. However, the few youngsters I saw around the school right then seemed intent on other pursuits. I went up to the woman who cooked for the kids in the schoolhouse.

“I’d like to get some shots of the children,” I said. “Shots of them playing outside. I wondered who could help organise that for me.”  She looked at me oddly. I started again. “I just need some help arranging it for a few minutes.”  I smiled. She grinned back at me, still with a slight amazement on her face.
“Ask the children,” she said. “If they want to play for you, they will.”

For a moment I flummoxed about, still mentally hunting a grown-up to help. Then I saw she was right. I have great respect for kids, but it never occurred to me to go directly to them, to seek their permission, let alone their own organising. I’m stuck in that perhaps Western attitude, the one that says kids need to be governed, presumably by adults. These youngsters were aged from six to about 12. But they’re remarkably capable of organising themselves. And here in Nakanno, remarkably respected too, with an absolute right over their own activities and time.

Another facet of this humanity, this direct honesty, as I’m calling it, is a kind of simplicity in the approach to things. An uncomplicated way of seeing the environment, or the situation in which we find ourselves.

I arrived in the village with every high-tech advantage I could gather, and this vast kit of space-age equipment included some terribly expensive Austrian snow boots, triple-layered complex things which take me ten minutes to get into, are stiff and uncomfortable, and actually cold anyway. I forgive the boots for being cold – there’s not a lot you can do about temperatures like 65° below. Half an hour out there and your toes are like popsicles whatever you wear.
But I’m impressed by the local boots. They’re soft and comfortable, don’t squeak like horse-hooves in the snow, and they must be warm, if I can go on the fact that the locals stand around outside for quite long periods. I asked Sasha one day about the boots.

“I’d like to get a pair of those,” I said. “They seem far more practical than mine.”  He laughed, and nodded.

“Yes,” he said, “but you can’t get a pair. We have to make them especially, and you’re not here for long enough.”

“What are they made from.”  I imagined various romantic possibilities, reindeer the most likely.

“Horses,” Sasha said. “The skin from the legs of the ponies.”  I looked obediently amazed. “It’s very thick skin, you know, and very hairy. And by the time they die, it’s been standing in the snow for twenty years. It works. It’s very convenient. We have plenty of horses.”  He laughed again at my astonishment. “But no dead ones right now, for you.”

I fitted this simple solution into my emerging picture of life in Nakanno, adding it to the list of low-tech approaches I was learning.

“I love the way that everything here is solved so effortlessly,” I told Sasha. “It’s wonderful, really. In my own country, we solve problems with technology, usually with highly complex answers.”

“The solution to every problem is simple,” Sasha said. “It is right there, you know, inside the problem.”  So there’s wisdom too, in this directness, this honesty that I call humanity.

One day in the last week I was talking again to Kolya. He’d asked incessant questions about Western life, or just city life, and seen many photographs. I made the comment that where I came from life was less risky than in Nakanno, less potentially threatening to survival. Kolya thought about that for a few moments. We were walking through the trees in the forest that skirts the village. I used his silence to watch the traceries of ice on the branches of all the frozen birch around us.

“Yes,” he said eventually. “I think in your place you have no dangers now, from wolves, or from cold. And we do.”  I agreed, grinning at the image. We had conquered most of that. “But I think,” he went on, rather unexpectedly, “that you have dangers from each other. And we do not.”
Now it was my turn for silence. In a growing awe at the unconscious profundity of this statement I remembered the one amazing fact that seems now most relevant of all. This boy, this incisive, perceptive boy, is just 13 years old. But his wisdom is not unique, nor learned, nor dependent on his age and experience. I think his wisdom is natural, a sense of simple truth which I am calling humanity, and I think it was born in him as it is in all his arctic people.

All the time I was in Nakanno I thought that I was teaching Kolya about my life, my skills, and the technology of my world. I was doing that, of course, and he was soaking up the lessons, hungry for information and knowledge and understanding beyond the confines of his own remote village. But I never realised until the end that he had been teaching me as well, not just the art of survival in his brutal environment, but a lesson far more important than anything I had to offer him. He had been teaching me to be a human. I saw now that I came from a society so skilled in technology that it was in constant danger of forgetting that there was anything else. We can surround ourselves with material protections against real life. We can unwittingly become what we own, what we wear, what we buy. In Kolya’s village there are no protections. Life is raw and harsh. People are what matters, and people in that village know who they are. Not what they wear, for they all wear the same clothes. Not what they achieve materially, for what they achieve is survival. Not how well they conquer nature, for they do not, rather they exist within it, in a natural harmony.

I learned from Kolya that it is not a question of my society teaching skills to his. We both have a gift for each other. I can teach Kolya about computers. He can teach me about humans. In the same way our societies can exchange the gifts of what they have to offer. It’s that exchange, that sharing, which matters. We all have much to learn.

•  •  •
Eighteen months ago I left Kolya in that village. I did not want to. And perhaps I needn’t have. Sasha sat me down one day and asked me point blank, without preamble:

“Do you want to adopt Kolya?”  It took me utterly by surprise that such a thing as this blatant offer was even possible, but in a flash I knew what my answer was, what it fully was.

“Yes, I do,” I said, ”but I don’t think it’s the right thing. I think he should grow up here, in his own culture and his own land.”

But Kolya himself made it a tough decision. Our departure day inevitably arrived. We heard the bi-plane, as you can in the still of a Siberian winter, ten minutes before it was visible. When it landed, slicing on its skis onto the soft powder snow of the airstrip, we were ready to get aboard. The gear was loaded, crate after aluminum crate, and at last everyone clambered into the hatchway on the side. I hung around beside the aircraft, hesitant about getting on board, looking down at Kolya. He’d been given the morning off school so that he could walk out with me to the airstrip. The other villagers, Sasha the chief, Katya the schoolteacher, old Tatyana, Seriozha the hunter, and many more, stood back from the bi-plane. There was a shout from inside for me to get on board. I heard the engines revving up. I pulled Kolya into me and hugged him, shutting my eyes and feeling like I was abandoning him.

“You know that I’ll write,” I said. “And send you things.”  He didn’t answer that, but drew my head down and pressed his mouth to my ear, whispering at last the special word that had hung unsaid between us.

“Just be my father,” he breathed in my ear.

When at last I released him, tore him from me, and stumbled into the cold body of the plane I was blind with tears. Sometimes I think I have cried all the way from there until now. As the plane rose above the village and forest I looked out the tiny round window at the whitescape below and saw Kolya alone, standing out on the airstrip, a tiny black figure in a field of snow. The others had all turned away and were walking back into the warmth of the village. Kolya, a single dark shape on the white, watched me climb away, and I watched him standing there in his characteristic posture, his body cocked to one side, his fur hat tipped back, until he was a dot, and then gone.

*****

 

This excerpt contains most of part one in a two part book that can be purchased here.

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