Christmas last year, I received a phone call from a stranger, Philip
Birzulis, an Australian-Latvian visiting from Riga. He asked me if I
knew I had an aunt living in Siberia.
I was aware my
father Vilis' only sibling, Marija, had been sent there from Latvia
during the waves of deportation that followed the Second World War.
I knew little else. I had only a sketchy impression of her story.
The phone call was to change that.
Since my father's
death in 1980, I had attempted to contact Marija and her offspring;
my letters were translated by Latvian acquaintances, and posted
using near to illegible addresses transcribed from the back of old
envelopes. I received no replies. But they were desultory efforts.
Melbourne is a long way from Latvia and my ancestry there seemed to
have no direct relevance to my life here. I have always kept an eye
on the tiny nation's affairs and I wear the Namejs' ring my father
gave me. But that was the extent of the relationship.
My father was a
conscript in the Latvian Legion of the SS that retreated along the
eastern front before the Red Army. He spent the years directly after
the war in a displaced persons camp, emigrating to Australia in
He died before I
developed an interest in the stories of his past, but I know he was
a recidivist deserter and spent a lot of time digging trenches. He
permanently damaged his kidneys lying in the snow feigning death
while Russian troops passed nearby. In the aftermath of the war, on
the black market, he had his papers altered to read Wehrmacht rather
than SS, and had a tell-tale tattoo removed. Though his was strictly
a fighting unit, the SS designation would still have been enough to
complicate his emigration plans.
After years working
in a timber camp in New South Wales as part of his resettlement
contract, and after a lengthy stay in a tuberculosis sanatorium, he
settled in Melbourne, marrying and raising a family. Latvia was lost
to him, consumed by the Soviet Union. That it might one day be
liberated was a pipe dream.
When freedom did
come in 1991, 11 years after his death, I could only regret he was
not alive to see it. With my father in mind, I watched the unfolding
of the Singing Revolution: the linking of hands across the Baltic
territories, the collapse of the Moscow putsch, the declaration of
an independent republic.
Since then, from
time to time, I considered visiting Latvia, but it was never more
than a vague intention. That is, until the call from Philip Birzulis.
Birzulis was working as a journalist in Riga when he befriended
Ingvars Leitis, an eccentric Latvian nationalist who had travelled
across Siberia in Soviet times with only a backpack and a bicycle.
While in the district of Khakassia - a region that includes the city
of Abakan and is bounded on the south by the beautiful Sayan
mountains - Leitis heard of a community of ethnic Latvians
inhabiting the isolated village of Lejas Bulana.
What Leitis found
was a remarkable time capsule of Latvian culture. Bulana is the
oldest of several Latvian villages dotted throughout the vastness
east of the Urals. It was founded in 1857 by Latvians deported by
the Tsar and there had been little contact with the homeland since.
The residents spoke a 19th-century version of the language and held
to antique traditions: there were funerary customs, folksongs,
techniques of farming and weaving, all of which were long abandoned
back home in Latvia.
By the time of the
revolution, free settlers from Latvia, lured by a fertile
microclimate and the promise of gold in the Sayans, had pushed the
population to nearly 2000, but by the time of Leitis' arrival, it
had shrunk to little more than 200.
Lejas Bulana had
suffered under Stalinism. In 1937, 65 men, accused as kulaks (rich
farmers), were shot by the NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB). During
the mass collectivisation of agriculture there were periods of
starvation. Religion was suppressed; the old women of the village
took the part of priests, presiding at funerals and baptisms,
preserving a stock of illegal Bibles.
Inspired by Leitis,
Birzulis decided to write an article and travelled to the village.
He formed a relationship with Vera Gutmans, headmistress of the
school. When he visited his parents in Australia late last year, she
Bulana, she had been approached by her aunt, Marija Gutmans, who
explained that Vilis, her brother, a war refugee, may have a son
still living in Melbourne. She asked if they might look up the name
Sejavka in the phone book.
I met Philip and
Vera a few days after the phone call. Vera produced photographs of a
desolate, almost mediaeval-looking village and a smiling old
babushka standing in the snow wearing a big woollen coat with the
buttons done up wrong. I was amazed, fascinated. When Philip
suggested I go with him when he returned to the village in mid-2001,
My first thought
was of my own safety. The word Siberia has a particular ring to it,
conjuring images of weather extremes, desolate expanses and post-Soviet
lawlessness. But it was a rare opportunity. I wrote to my aunt and
she replied, describing my visit as tantamount to a miracle. Why do
you have no children? she asked. Do you drink? Do you go to church?
If not, why not?
In late June, after
spending a month in Latvia, I left for Russia with Philip and Ieva,
another Latvian journalist. There was a train to Moscow, then a
nervous flight to Abakan on Air Vladivostok. From there it was a
200-kilometre drive south to Bulana. Though I had seen photos of the
village and had it described to me in fair detail, I still had
little notion of what to expect. Spawned by middle-class Australia,
the way of life there would certainly be out of my ken and, at the
time, I was wondering what my aunt and I would have in common.
consisted of four unmade streets lined with ageing cottages, some
abandoned and left prey to the elements. There were a few people
about, boys roaring past on dusty motorcycles, a dour old man urging
along a horse and cart loaded with blackened churns, but more in
evidence were the beasts: cows, goats, pigs and horses, perhaps 30
of them, some crudely hobbled, travelling en masse with clear
The village retains
some functioning infrastructure: the tiny library operates and the
school has won commendations from the regional education department.
But the town hall is boarded up, the church was demolished in
communist times, and films, extolling the virtue of labour and the
struggle of the proletariat, have not been shown at the tiny cinema
since the demise of the Soviet system.
In the past, there
were more streets, more houses and people, but Lejas Bulana is dying.
There are fewer children every year and almost all move to larger
towns when they are old enough. Alcoholism is a problem. Once 70 men
worked on the village collective, now there are 12; their wages are
in arrears and there are murmurs of corruption. Generally, people
subsist on what they grow in their gardens.
Marija's house was
a decayed structure partly shaded by a sprawling ieva tree and
defended by a red-eyed dog. From behind a rough picket gate appeared
a tiny figure with head scarf and walking stick, clomping forward in
traditional Siberian gumboots, clutching flowers in her bony brown
hands and weeping.
The woman was a
stranger, but she was my closest living relative. Our paths had
converged after the vagaries of fate, war and Stalinism had worked
to put as much of the world as possible between us. Marija was so
excited, she said later, she couldn't remember how to walk.
She clutched me
around the chest with all her strength. I think, in her mind, I had
become her brother, lost these 60 years past - and indeed for some
days after she addressed me as bralitis (little brother).
The rest of that
day was spent sitting in Marija's yard with Ieva and Philip, talking,
eating, consuming the vodka I had brought from Riga. Marija sat
beside me, holding my arm, dabbing tears from her eyes as she spoke
and occasionally touching my face. As the night wore on, she
punctuated her conversation with verses from an apparently limitless
repertoire of folk songs.
I lived in Marija's
cottage for two weeks, sleeping on a camp bed in the single room
that had been freshly whitewashed in preparation for my arrival.
Among the photos of her children and grandchildren taped to the wall,
I found an image of my father. He was standing cheerfully in front
of the Freedom Monument in Riga on a cloudless day, sometime during
the German occupation, with a new suit and haircut, looking to his
future. Upon receiving my gift of an Australian wildflowers teatowel,
Marija added it to this gallery.
There was a
language barrier, of course, but in Philip and Ieva I had sensitive
translators who shared our company most evenings. At other times we
made do with sign language, the odd word of German, and the mishmash
of Latvian and Russian I had picked up along the way. Besides, life
in Bulana involves few concepts requiring elaborate language - words
such as sleep, eat, drink, pig, good, dog, bad, seem to cover most
Marija is an alert
82, tanned, but with smooth skin for her age. She is an upbeat,
charming woman with a certain canniness derived from having survived
some of the most adverse circumstances on Earth. She is stooped,
mutters under her breath from pain, and often uses two walking
sticks, selecting from a collection of broom handles and fence
palings placed randomly about the yard. Though blind in one eye, she
still reads before sleep and is an energetic letter writer.
Her work ethic is
intimidating. She was rarely inactive in daylight hours: weeding,
cooking, pumping water, or strenuously milking Dumala, an obstinate
beast with a large udder, who would habitually camp herself in
awkward positions around the property. More than once I witnessed
tiny Marija panting and cursing as she abseiled down the side of the
cow on her way to the kitchen. She vows to rid herself of Dumala,
indeed she vows to close up shop altogether and accept the
invitation to live with her daughter Elvira in nearby Yermakovsk,
but I doubt if it will happen soon.
accounted for a surfeit of dairy products in the house. Upon opening
the fridge, I would be presented with an object lesson in what it is
possible to do with milk - every possible gradation between fresh
milk and cheese was represented. In this village, I soon learnt,
there is nothing you can eat that is not improved by sour cream or
yoghurt. I drew the line, however, when I was urged to spread butter
constantly cooking something in the wood-fired stove in her tiny
kitchen. Piragi, a kind of bun filled with jam or pounded meat was a
specialty, also tapioca with blackberry jam, pancakes, and fresh
pike caught from the river and fried in a pan. For me, it was a time
of forced feeding. I was considered deathly thin and no matter where
or when I sat down, a plate of something was placed in front of me.
It was difficult to politely refuse. By far my most useful Latvian
phrase was esmu paedis (I am full).
Since her husband's
death, the forces of entropy have had their way with the property.
Weeds fill the unused spaces: rue, thistle, caraway and the
ubiquitous nettles. Outbuildings teeter on the point of collapse,
propped up with sticks and rusted sections of farm implements. All
manner of objects hang from nails: scissors, coathangers, hatchets
and unidentifiable metal doodads. Disintegrating gumboots are
upturned over fenceposts among trails of impromptu electrical wiring.
Dominating the yard
is Marija's prodigious collection of battered pails and churns -
much used receptacles for either milk or the murky brown water from
her well. Tilting over the animal yard is a wooden box atop a long
pole, where a certain black bird is encouraged to roost in the
spring and help reduce the insect population.
In its own way the
place still functions. There is a tomato patch, a pig pen and an old
crate housing a mother hen and her chicks. Several tonnes of
firewood are stacked in preparation for winter. Behind the house is
about half a hectare of tilled land planted with potatoes.
But keeping things
going is more than Marija can handle by herself; it was difficult
enough for me to complete some of the chores I was allotted. But,
there is help from an odd source. The village has a good percentage
of alcoholics, mostly Russian, who willingly work in exchange for
Among these workers
is Marija's next-door neighbour, an inveterate drunk, whom I came to
know as Other Marija. Though younger than my aunt, she looks older,
with an unpleasant black coagulation oozing from each nostril, a
thick growth of beard trimmed to about a centimetre and a
willingness to harvest nettles with her bare hands. Other Marija
survives on spirits and little else. She sees through the winter by
burning sections of her property. There are tales of her working the
fields with a bottle of vodka in each pocket - to be found sprawled
comatose on a haystack at the end of the day. When her husband was
dying, Other Marija squandered the money he had saved for his
funeral feast - for which she ultimately provided only a single
stale pig's head.
But there is
something caring in the relationship between these two Marijas.
Though Other Marija is a thief and her proximity demands a constant
eye on valuables, Marija often speaks of her with kindness. She has
no guilt setting her to work and paying her in alcohol - that, after
all, is a matter of survival - but I think that without Marija close
by Other Marija would barely make it from day to day.
Bulana is no
paradise for animals. They exist on sufferance and usually for a
specific purpose. Marija's dog Shariks is permanently tied to a
stake by the front gate. It receives no affection, is regularly
beaten and poorly fed. As a result, its nerves are bad, it drools
and its eyes are baleful - the perfect deterrent to roaming drunks.
Marija has no name for her cat, which is imprisoned in a dark
storage room as a defence against mice, and cries pathetically
between efforts to gnaw its way out. Many of the village pets have
lost their ears to frostbite. Some walk with an arthritic gait that
may attest to past freezings. A good example of Siberian expediency
was provided by the case of a neighbouring dog, a tiny grey-haired
thing that had been shorn to provide materials for a pair of socks.
When I showed
Marija a photo of my house in Melbourne, she pointed to each of the
trees in turn and asked what it produced. I was embarrassed to say
nothing. Things are very different in Bulana. Everything pivots on
Most evenings were
spent outdoors at a flimsy wooden table covered with a plastic sheet,
defending against mosquitoes, the jailed cat mewling neurotically
and Other Marija grumbling over the fence in her man's voice. Some
nights, Marija would allow herself some vodka from her store.
For her, as for
most people there, Australia might have been another planet. From
time to time, she would frown and ask me questions: Is there
underground water where I live? Do you have carrots there? Potatoes?
Rivers? She was particularly surprised by the fact that Australia
was an island.
I trawled for her
memories of my father, but over the expanse of 60 years they were
vague and fragmented. Holding her broken glasses to her face, she
pored over a picture of Vilis and announced he was wearing the same
clothes as when she saw him last, suitcase in hand, a city boy on
his way back to Riga to fight for the Germans and to disappear
without a word.
Marija's memories of exile. She was arrested in August 1946, at 25
years of age, allegedly for feeding the Forest Brothers, Latvian
partisans who fought the Red Army in the years following the war.
Separated from her three children, she spent a year in Daugavpils
prison, praying each day from morning to night, before her
deportation to Siberia.
travelling north on the River Yenisei, terrified. Her upbringing had
prepared her in no way for this and the language of the women
prisoners scared her as much as anything. And she was surprised at
the women wearing pants, as this was never done in Latvia. Within a
month she had acquired a pair of her own as a barrier against some
of the worst biting insects on Earth.
She spent two years
in a strict-regime gulag near Kansk, incarcerated with criminals,
sawing cedar logs. In 1949, a new law for political exiles came into
force extending the period of her sentence. Not long after, she
received word that she would never be allowed to return to Latvia.
descriptions were short on detail, and there were certain things of
which she would not speak. But, along the way, perhaps in a transit
camp, she met Martins Gutmans, another Latvian. There was no romance
as such, just an agreement that life would be easier if they
functioned as a team. Released from prison, they were required to
join a farming collective in the village of Verhne-Imbadsk in the
far North. While Martins hunted, Marija hand-milked cows from dusk
Though a Latvian
speaker, Martins had never been to Latvia. His birthplace was Lejas
Bulana and, when the political climate eased, he asked Marija to
return there with him. Having abandoned hope of ever reuniting with
her husband and children, she agreed. It was not Latvia, but there
were Latvians there and she could start again.
She did not bother
getting a divorce (such details were not relevant in the Siberia of
the time) and they married, arriving in the village in 1962. Marija
has lived there ever since, cementing her place in the little
community where she is known as Marijas Tante (Aunt Maria). She
raised two more children - Elvira and Vilis, who has disappeared
among the oil fields of Yakutia. Martins died 10 years ago.
Lejas Bulana left
an indelible impression on me. The cracking of distant lightning in
vast purple skies. The sudden storm that broke up a fine day and the
plague of tiny frogs that followed.
The line between
heaven and hell is blurred there; in my photographs of lush forests
and wildflower fields you don't see the hosts of vicious insects. I
remember Marija polishing a red apple we gave her as if it were a
precious oversized jewel. I remember searching for a place to empty
an ashtray and Marija warning me never to throw anything away after
The extremes of the
environment are mirrored in the human heart; there is cruelty and
caring in equal measure. It was hard for me to really grasp the
horror of what Marija must have been through. That she remains
good-humoured and kind is a testament to human nature.
She asked if I
would ever return to Bulana and I was uncertain how to answer. If
you do, she said, be sure to visit my grave. I doubted she was being
morbid, just Siberian. I recalled the overgrown cemetery with its
rusted crosses and plastic flowers, the stands of birch trees, the
river and the hills, and told her I would try.