The Last of the Vepsians

The Last of the Vepsians

The Last of the Vepsians: A Supposedly Nonexistent People in Leningrad Region
Elena Mikhina and Yulia Paskevich
7×7
November 26, 2020

The Vepsian region begins just five hours by car from Petersburg. The Veps (alternately, Vepsians) are a minority ethnic group who seem to have miraculously survived near the metropolis, despite wars, revolutions, and centuries of assimilation. Petersburg journalists Elena Mikhina and Yulia Paskevich went in search of “the last of the Vepsians” to hear their still living language and meet their sorcerers—the noids.

Where Did the Chud Go?
Who are the Veps? We are not talking, of course, about the Yakut shaman who set out to save Moscow from Putin, but the story of the Veps is also well known. They are mentioned in school textbooks on the ancient history of Russia: “The neighbors of the Eastern Slavs were the tribes of the Chud [Veps], the Vod, and the Izhora.”

In the summer of 2019, the Russian president read out an “unusual question” during a live TV call-in show: “Where have the Chud people gone?” He answered, “They have been assimilated. But I’m sure they haven’t completely disappeared yet.”

A Bad Joke
In the regions where the Veps live, a bad joke appeared soon after Putin’s televised comment about “assimilation.” When it is told, the tellers change the name of the regional governor in question:

Putin telephones [Leningrad Region Governor] Drozdenko and asks, “Do you have Veps?
“I do,” Drozdenko replies.
“Send me a couple for a fur collar,” Putin says.

Since the ninth century, the Veps have lived in the region between Lake Ladoga and Lake Onega, in the present-day Republic of Karelia, Vologda Region, and Leningrad Region. According to the 2010 census, almost six thousand people identified themselves as Veps, which is not such a tiny number in comparison with the Kereks, of whom there were only four ten years ago. There were many more Veps in the late nineteenth century—25,000 in Petersburg Province alone. Now there are 1,380 of them left in Leningrad Region.

The area settled by the Veps. Courtesy of knk.karelia.ru

The Russian Center of the Vepsian World
Nowadays, the village of Vinnitsy is considered the center of Vepsian culture in the region. The irony is that the village was never Vepsian. On the contrary, it was considered Russian. Local people remember an old saying: “if you go to Vinnitsy, forget the Vepsian language.”

“Vinnitsy was mentioned in the chronicles a whole ten years before Moscow was,” local resident Vera Lodygina says with a hint of pride. She made a unique discovery in the 1980s, when she worked in the local trade union committee and bought up everything she found on the history of Podporozhye on each trip around the district. In one of the pamphlets, she read that the first written mention of Vinnitsy is found in the Charter of Prince Sviatoslav Olgovich in 1137.

Women at the Vepsian festival in Vinnitsy

“I told my party secretary, who reported it to the city committee, then to the regional committee. And since 1987—the 850th birthday of Vinnitsy—we have held the Vepsian Tree of Live celebration in the village,” says Lodygina.

Every year, Veps from all over Leningrad Region, Karelia, and Vologda Region come to the festival. They sing songs in their native language, cook traditional food, and hold a crafts fair.

It is a big event by local standards. The current governor of the Leningrad Region, Alexander Drozdenko, comes regularly. He buys wool socks for his daughter and teas.

Traditional Vepsian embroidery. The piece on the right is inscribed with the phrase “tree of life” in Vepsian and Russian

In 2015, the villagers took advantage of the governor’s goodwill and asked him to build a Veps folklore center for them. The money was found, and the building was built. From a distance it looks old, but in fact it is made from concrete and has an elevator and double-glazed windows. Everything that had accumulated over the previous fifty years in the museums of the local school and cultural center was moved to this “hut.”

One of the first collectors of antiquities was the former school director Viktor Yershov. When he would drag home “all sorts of stuff” from the villages (e.g., spinning wheels, bast shoes, and cast-iron pots), the teacher’s family thought he was crazy.

Vera Lodygina has long been retired, but continues to study Vepsian culture.

“Schoolchildren helped create the museum,” says Lodygina, who joined the antiquities preservation movement even before perestroika. “We would get up at four in the morning, get on the bus at five, travel to the villages, and collect exhibits. Sometimes people would retrieve caftans, dishes, and tools from their attics. I remember this one old woman running after us holding her boots: ‘Here,’ she said, ‘the grandchildren threw them in the trash (the boots were like new). They were cleaning the attic and threw them out. Take them to the museum.’ At home, we washed, boiled, and cleaned all these items. My mother used to say, ‘When are you going to get this dirt out of the house?'”

Although Lodygina is retired and no longer works in the museums, she has set up a home office chockablock with books and brochures. She is especially proud of an album with photos of national dishes prepared by herself, and a plump guest book, in which she collects feedback from all the tourists who come to her house.

People in Vinnitsy are generally happy to comply when asked to talk about the Veps. We had not been standing outside the churches in the town for five minutes when we were nabbed by another local historian, Mikhail Kurilov. First, he took us to a nearly moribund church, which had served as a waste paper warehouse under the Soviet regime, then dragged us to his home to drink tea. Over tea, he regretted that his wife had not backed “wickets”: they are the main local treat, and Kurilov’s wife is the winner of a Vepsian bakers competition. He spoke at length and in detail about the history of the region and the language.

“When the Novgorodians came to the lands where the Veps settled, they set up their own churchyards. It was also a means of propagating their faith, and a place for collecting taxes,” explained Kurilov.

Generally, however, the Veps experienced what everyone else did: villages ruled by landlords, followed by revolution, the Stalinist crackdowns, dekulakization, and an ethnicity forgotten for several decades. From the late 1930s, Veps were identified as ethnic Russians in their internal passports. The Chud turned into ordinary Soviet people. It was only at the end of the twentieth century that they remembered their roots again. Today it is even fashionable to be a rare Veps.

240 Years Old
The pagan Veps converted to Russian Orthodoxy in the tenth century. They converted without conflict, without resistance. Alexander Svirsky, one of the most revered saints in Russia, was a Veps, for example. He was born in a village on the Oyat in 1448 and was named Amos before he took monastic vows.

Although they converted, the Veps did not forget their pagan gods and their spirits—hobgoblins, mermaids, and dryads. They still pray to the lord of the forest, Izhan, when they go mushroom picking.

Noids, Vepsian sorcerers, still live in the villages. Traditionally, noids were men, but many did not return from the Second World War, so women took over the practice of witchcraft.

Veps do not tell strangers about noids nowadays. No matter how hard we searched for a noid, they had all “petered out” in a surprising way a couple of years, months, or even days before we arrived: they had all died, left town, got sick, or got old.

“The ones who could heal used to be here. But now there are no such people, and we take pills when we’re ill. It’s easier and faster,” Klavdiya Yeremeyevna from the Vepsian village of Nemzha assured us. Her friend told us a terrible story from the old days, how a witch had made sure that her father did not return from the war. No one in the village doubted that it was the noid’s fault.

Nemzha is only ten kilometers from Vinnitsy. Previously, more than 300 people lived here, but now people in the village appear in public on schedule: postal delivery and a traveling grocery truck operate three times a week for the thirty remaining residents.

Veps Lyudmila Mikhailovna, Klavdia Yeremeyevna, and Tamara Grigoryevna are some of the last residents of the village. They have known each other almost all their lives. They even calculate their age as a trio: they recently turned 240 years old.

“The old people are dying. There is no work. How can the young people avoid leaving if there are no jobs? The timber plant has closed. The the tree farm has closed. The collective farm has closed. The post office has closed. The shop has closed. The clinic has closed,” they said.

The Nemzha Homemakers: Tamara Yevseyeva, Lyudmila Popova, and Klavdia Nikonova sing the song “Under the Window the Cherry Tree Sways” translated into Vepsian. (In the original Russian, the song is called “A Maiden’s Heart,” and is based on a poem by Boris Timofeev.)

In retirement, three friends—a former librarian, the director of the village cultural center, and a mail carrier—decided to get creative. Their group is called the Nemzha Homemakers. The old women perform Vepsian songs and ditties. They have to borrow their costumes from the Veps Center, however: all their own treasures were donated to the museum long ago.

Unexpected Guests
The road along the northern Bank of the Oyat River—from Alyokhovshchina to Vinnitys—is unofficially called the most beautiful in Leningrad Region. But no one is a hurry to promote tourism here: there are no hotels or camp sites in the area. So if you don’t want to spend the night in the woods, you’ll have to do some fancy footwork. In Yaroslavichi—one of the largest Vepsian villages—we first went to the village store, where the clerks quickly arranged for us to spend the night at Aunt Galya’s house. It didn’t matter that we were nobody to them: they could not leave two young women on the road at night, nor was any question of paying for lodging.

The story of our hostess differed little from those that we had heard in the afternoon: she was born in a neighboring village, married, and worked on a collective farm, and her children have long lived in the city.

In the morning, we wake up to the sound of conversation in the kitchen: pure Vepsian is being spoken. A neighbor lady has come to see Aunt Galya, followed by two thirtysomething twin brothers who make a living by working as day laborers in the village. As soon as we poke our noses out from the curtain, everyone instantly switches to Russian.

In the morning, Aunt Galya feeds us breakfast (pasta with chicken) and tries to explain that there is nothing special there to justify traveling around for a few days. She looks at us as if we are touched in the head. She advises us to travel up the nearest hill, where other people like us (Petersburgers) live in the village of Lashkovo.

An Environmental Life Hack from Old Vepsian Women

Aunt Raya (left) and Aunt Galya live in the same house, each in her own half. Their children have moved away and now they spend most of their free time together.

This mat made from plastic bags can serves its purpose for decades.

In any local history museum they will tell you that homespun rugs are a unique symbol of folk life. Today’s old Vepsian women have gone further, producing something that should be in a museum. They knit mats from plastic bags: a real example of recycling plastic, and the dream of environmental activists.

Not Accepted by His Own Kind
Lashkovo is fifteen minutes away by car. The village is located on the top of a high hill that offers one of the best views in Leningrad Region—it looks almost like the Alps from bottom. In the second house from the road lives Sergei, a legendary character in these parts. We were told about him in almost every conversation, so it was impossible not to stop by his place. The folklore center is proud of him: “We also have young men in our community.” The old ladies tenderly say of him, “Seryozhenka is a good man, but strange.” They are worried that he has separated from his wife. They say that she could not stand the village life: one winter she asked to go to the city and did not return.

Sergei Krylov next to his house in the village of Laskhovo

Sergei Krylov was born and lived all his adult years in Petersburg. A political scientist by education and a graduate of the philosophy faculty at St. Petersburg State University, he never worked a day in his chosen profession.

“In Russia, the people who work as political scientists don’t have the necessary education, and people like me, on the contrary, do not find jobs,” says Krylov.

Consequently, he tried his hand at everything from selling plastic windows and modular partitions to working as a security guard. And at the age of thirty-four, he realized that he was a Veps.

“There is an expression: if you scratch a Russian, you might find a Tatar. Isn’t that how it goes in the original? I scratched myself and found a Veps. I was obsessed with learning the language, and starting a household and a family,” says Sergei.

He is now in his early forties, although he doesn’t look a day over twenty-five. He moved to the village of Lashkovo in 2013. He even remembers the exact date: April 16.

“And on May 1, I had already had a goat, twelve chickens, a rooster, two cats and a dog,” he says.

Sergei found Vepsians under a Russian “shell” on both sides of his family. His grandmother and great-grandmother were from the area. But their villages, and even more so the houses where they lived, are long gone, so Sergei searched for a house via the internet and found one for the price of a heavily used car. He studied farming on YouTube.

“Of course, I was wearing rose-colored glasses: I didn’t have an entirely realistic conception of what I was capable of. That is, if you have never lifted anything heavier than a ballpoint pen in your life, surviving in the village, of course, is not an easy challenge for you. There are exceptions, but I am not one of them,” he says.


The village of Lashkovo, where Sergei Krylov settled

The first challenge was the house. According to the documents, it had been standing for almost a century, but by the time Sergei arrived, it was in decline, rotting and sinking into the ground.

“I thought I could fix the house myself. Or that if I couldn’t do it myself, I could hire people to do it,” Krylov says. “But I never did find any people to do the work. I call that business Vepsian style. You tell people that you have the money and will help them with the job, and everyone tells you that they’re old or their back hurts or make other excuses. I consider myself a Veps, albeit many times removed, and I have great respect for the Veps people, but Veps do not know how to do business. It’s true.”

The second challenge was the household. Sergei kept goats, sheep, a pig, chickens, and bees. He mastered the old-fashioned Russian oven, which he saw for the first time in his life: he threw everything he found into a cast-iron pot and left it to cook, almost like in a slow cooker.

The hardest part was butchering animals.

“The first two times I asked local people to do it, but then I felt ashamed asking them over to slaughter my animals. It is very unpleasant. It’s hard when you raise them yourselves. At such moments, you first pump yourself up emotionally. (Not with alcohol, which I don’t care for.) You have to remember how this kid goat [you’re slaughtering] got loose in the garden, making a mess and gnawing your apple trees. So you psyche yourself up, then quickly go out and do it, and that’s it. I can’t say that it has gone perfectly. But I was managing to do it pretty fast lately,” says Sergei.

While Sergei  managed to get a grip on daily chores, but he has not been able to go native. He started learning his “native” language in Petersburg, but the language that is taught in the city and the one spoken by real Veps are different. The political scientist understands, according to his own estimates, sixty-five percent of what the old ladies in the villages say to him. But he is unable to reply.

During the first few years, he enjoyed getting to know the locals, visiting neighboring villages, and going to tea parties at the folklore center, and the old ladies regarded him with curiosity. It was harder to find male friends.

“They either drink or having nothing to do with [the Vepsian culture revival]. They can speak Vepsian perfectly, but they are bashful about their origins. Unfortunately, the Soviet government broke the back of the Vepsian people. In our conversations, I would ask them about the census, about whether they identified themselves as Veps. No, they would tell census takers that they were Russians. But you’re Veps! I would say to them. Yes, they were Veps, they would say, but they had no idea why they identified themselves as Russians,” Sergei recounts.

Sergei would have identified himself as a Veps. And he would have kept studying the language and helped revive the culture. But the true Veps have refused to adopt this odd guy from Petersburg as one of their own.

“If you were born here, if your history and pedigree are known, then you are a Veps, and they will treat you like a Veps. But if you come from somewhere else, then no matter what you say about your roots, you are Russian. That is, you could say that I am a stranger among my own kind and an insider among strangers. Veps support their own people. A Veps won’t rat on another Veps, but they’ll turn in a Russian at the drop of a hat. For example, in the first or second year of my life in the village, a store in neighboring Yaroslavichi was burglarized. The criminologist was sent to me first. He came, copied down my passport data, and asked leading questions. It was assumed that I had robbed the store. Who else could have done it? Everyone else is a local,” recalls Sergei.

A year ago, Sergei gave up and went to spend the winter closer to the city. Of his entire farm, he left only the bees: they were especially dear to him.

A Literary Newspeak
Veps have no special distinguishing features. If they had any, they left them behind in the ninth century. You cannot tell a Veps from a Russian, Ukrainian, or maybe Izhorian from the neighboring districts of Leningrad Region by looking at their faces. The Veps have also long adopted average Russian names and surnames. Local historians, of course, can talk for a long time about their unique patterns—the “very special” curls and squares with which the Veps decorated clothes and towels. But all this is a matter of the distant past, too, and now everyone shops for clothing in the same stores.

The language is the only thing that has miraculously survived, distinguishing the Veps from everyone else. Vepsian belongs to the Balto-Finnic group, and is closely related to Karelian and Estonian. It is not far from Finnish, so during the Second World War, Veps were employed as translators from Estonian and Finnish to Russian.

For almost a millennium, the Veps lived happily without a written language. The new Soviet government decided to endow them with an alphabet. In 1931, scholars in Leningrad devised a Veps alphabet based on the Latin alphabet and recorded all known words in the language. Textbooks in Vepsian were published, and teachers were trained.

It all came to a grinding halt in 1937. The handful of Vepsian intellectuals were arrested and punished. The Vepsian language was banned in schools. Vepsian textbooks were confiscated.

A Vepsian primer from 1936. Photo: Finno-Ugric Libraries of Russia

Vepsian again became an exclusively oral language. It was spoken at home. Once Veps stepped out of their homes, all conversation was in Russian. Therefore, children had to learn the Russian language specially for school. However, some people were forced to do this before they went to school.

“When the need comes, you learn without noticing it,” says Alevtina Shustrygina, a resident of Vinnitsy. At the age of five, she injured her eye. The case was complicated, so the child was sent to Leningrad on a crop duster. Her parents stayed at home.

Alevtina Shustrygina on the porch of her home

“I didn’t know a single Russian word,” Alevtina recalls. “How did the doctors communicate with me? There I lay for a month, and my entire childish mind was focused on learning the language: there were other children, everyone was talking, and what could I do? When my dad came to pick me up, I had already learned the language. The children in the village were all happy to see me, but I didn’t know Vepsian. I had forgotten it! I probably didn’t speak Vepsian or Russian for a day or two. Then I started speaking Vepsian again and forgot Russian. I had to learn it again in school two years later, but it was easier there.”

The creation of the written Vepsian language began anew in the late 1980s. Now its development and promotion is headquartered in the Karelian capital of Petrozavodsk, where the first Vepsian Culture Society was founded. Books appeared again, and there was even a newspaper in Vepsian. In 1991, textbooks for the first grade were published in Karelia. And while everyone is used to seeing a watermelon (arbuz) on the first page of Russian primers, the Veps primer begins with the word ahven (perch).

But there is a problem. The new language was created artificially. Originally, the northern, central and southern Veps spoken different versions of Vepsian. Moreover, each village could have its own dialect. And native speakers still speak the way they learned in their village. In these circumstances, the literary newspeak is like another dialect: the letters are the seemingly the same, but they’re incomprehensible.

“The northern dialect is almost completely extinct in Leningrad Region. The western vernaculars of the central dialect are still extant. It is spoken in Yaroslavichi, Kurba, Ozera, and Nemzha,” says Igor Brodsky, an associate professor of philology at the Herzen State Pedagogical University. “The southern dialect is extant in the Lodeynoye Pole district, but it is very different from the central one. And the literary language that was invented in Petrozavodsk is based on the eastern dialects of central Veps, which at one time were simply the best-studied in Vologda Region. But this is not the language that is still spoken in Leningrad Region. People in Ozera don’t understand it.”

Brodsky argues that the triumphant propagation of the new Vepsian language is a mistake. While it is happily being taught to beginners, and its advocates report on their successes and show off little books, published in neo-Vepsian, the old dialects are dying off.

Brodsky is outraged.

“What kind of cultural revival can we talk about if we are asked to revive the culture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a patriarchal community that has long sunk into oblivion? This culture does not exist and will not exist again. And at the same time, there are no attempts to do a futuristic interpretation of Vepsian culture,” he says.

A Good Evening

“Yesterday” by the Beatles, sung in Vepsian

The Vepsian language, as native speakers explain, was a household language in the twentieth century. During the Soviet years, many songs, tales, and ditties were forgotten. Now Veps are making up for this by, among other things, translating Russian folklore into Vepsian. An old woman sings something in an incomprehensible language, and you recognize “Ryabinushka” or a song from the repertoire of Nadezhda Kadysheva. It has got to the point that “Yesterday” by the Beatles has been recorded in Vepsian, but with new lyrics about “a good evening.”

The Stuff of Legends
“And ‘The Wind Blew from the Sea’ in Vepsian? How do you like that?”

Vyacheslav Vasiliev does not hide his indignation. While playing the accordion, he sings a Vepsian song about fishing, or about an aged beaver that has been bitten on the nose by a carp. As in the north of the Veps region, where everyone is sent to make the acquaintance of Sergei, so in the south everyone has to meet Vyacheslav.

Vyacheslav Vasiliev, leader of the Veps folk group Varasta, sings a Veps song about an old beaver.

The “Vepsian south” consists of villages in the Tikhvin and Boksitogorsk districts, a remote hinterland compared to Vinnitsy. There is no folksy sheen out in these parts, and Veps are often called (somewhat contemptuously) chukars. In the villages, there are also stories of how they conjured up damage and diseases, and destroyed families. Explanations of why they did it, however, have not been preserved in the popular memory

“We were completely forgotten,” says Vasiliev, who is a native Veps. “In our region, say the word ‘Veps’ and people will reply that they live in Vinnitsy. I remember the taunts at school. We were forbidden to speak Vepsian even during recess. Although before that I had heard some words in Russian only when my parents had visitors, distant relatives from the city. And I found it amusing when they spoke Russian.”

After school, his parents sent Vasiliev to study in the city, where he became a successful lawyer. He lived in Leningrad-Petersburg for thirty years, until he was drawn back to the village. He returned and renovated his parents’ house. He recently acquired a horse that he will raise to plow fields and gardens. For the time being, he mows his hay with a scythe. His young wife Anna, also a Veps, keeps busy with the housework.

Vasiliev is not yet ready to move to the village once and for all: there are still things to do in the city. Friends often come from the city to visit him. They say that the lawyer’s house is cozy and pleasant, like grandmother’s house in childhood.

The chapel in Bobrozero is now one of the main attractions.

There is a wide range of opinions about the origins of this stone.

In addition to agriculture, the lawyer is passionate about two things: his folk music group Varasta (he considers it the most proper of such groups, since they stick to the Vepsian repertoire and do everything according to the canons) and the construction of churches. One of them stands in the center of Bobrozero. The door is always open. Inside there are a few icons, brochures, candles—all on trust. A flat gray stone protrudes from the wooden floor in front of the altar.

“I remember there was an old chapel here, then a store was built in its place, but this stone was always there, they didn’t throw it away,” says an old woman we meet in the village.

“What does she remember? The rock? Since childhood? Indeed,” says Vyacheslav sarcastically. “I brought this stone from my grandmother’s house in 1997.”

In neighboring Radogoshchi, the legends are even more interesting. There Vyacheslav built a “chapel” over a spring. True, the “spring” is a water distribution column, where water is supplied by a pump, but those are pesky details.

“The local residents complained that in winter it was difficult to get water from the column because it would be covered in ice. First I built a box over it so that snowdrifts wouldn’t form there. And then a woman said that there was a chapel in Bobrozero, but nothing in Radogoshchi. So then I built a dome with a cross and put it over the column,” explains Vyacheslav.

Like everyone else, Vyacheslav told us about noids who disappeared at the most inopportune times. In one of the neighboring villages, shortly before our arrival, an elderly man had disappeared: he went into the forest down a path and did not return. Rescuers, police, and volunteers went out to search for the missing man, but they did not find him.

“I remember that it happened before: people would get lost in the woods. And each time the locals went looking for them without any appeals to the public, and the noids would stand and say their prayers, and the person would come back. Relatives always went to my grandmother, who knew the incantations. But this time no one thought of such a thing,” Vyacheslav says sadly.

“An Honest-to-Goodness Chukhar”
We had been looking for Veps for five days now. The noids had escaped us in the most magical way: those who “remembered and knew” had traipsed off into the other world. On Friday, we were standing in Bobrozero and looking at the chapel built by the Petersburg lawyer Vyacheslav, when Vitya emerged from a thicket of fireweed, singing a Vysotsky song and carrying a square wicker basket for picking berries.

“Who are you guys looking for?” he asked.

“Veps.”

“You have found what you were looking for. I am a Veps, the last of the Vepsians,  an honest-to-goodness chukhar. I’m going to show you something that will blow your minds.”

We didn’t find a noid, but Vitya offered to tell our fortunes. He didn’t promise anything good.

Vitya is forty-seven years old. He has just returned from picking berries in the woods, and he has big plans for the rest of the day. He trades the berries for money, which in twenty minutes he trades for “the goods” in a neighboring village. A farmer’s wife sells “the goods”: in the evening, milk; in the afternoon, vodka. Vitya is not interested in milk. He calculates as follow: one bottle of vodka per man, one bottle to give away (he had “borrowed” one earlier), half a bottle for us (we are young women, and we do not drink much, but we must be entertained), and two cans of stewed meat for a snack.

“We chukhars are a forest people,” says Vitya, offering a free signature tour of the local swamps and his native haunts.

He desperately wants to show us the real wilderness and laments that we can’t stay for a couple of days.

We follow the Veps to the sound of the bottles clinking in his backpack. It gives Vita strength. “The last of the Vepsians” eagerly tells us about his life. His mother was from a dekulakized family. His father was a troublemaker who roamed with his family from village to village. His brother died sixty days ago. There was also his wife, Tanya, who died in 2014.

“Just as the sun shines and suddenly goes out, so everything became superfluous in an instant when she was gone. I just live and wait for the moment when I will meet her again. I loved her so much,” the honest-to-goodness chukhar says, almost crying.

However, he is still fairly young and quite willing to look for a girlfriend with whom to spend the rest of his life. So he soon goes into “light flirting” mode with one of us.

“What kind of decoration is that on your teeth?” Vitya asks. He has never seen braces.

Vitya casually passes by a dugout boat.

“Tolka sails in that boat,” he says.

“We’ll get to the Island soon. Back in the day, the village was surrounded by water on all sides. Then the water receded, and the Island remained,” Vitya says, continuing the tour. “There used to be lots of houses here. Here is where Grandma Masha lived. Sometimes, when I was coming from the store, she would come out on the porch and tell me to come in. I would tell her I had to go to the village, but she would tell me to come in. She lived alone and wanted to talk. We would have tea and talk.”

The extinct villages are overgrown with grass up to the chest and look like islands in the wild fields.

To the right of Grandma Masha’s house is Grandma Nyura’s hut. There is the same decay and hopelessness: photos scattered on the floor showing what things were like when the village was still thriving; frames without icons (they were removed either by relatives or illegal collectors); a stove that takes up half of the hut.

“And here, if you are believers, we shall stop and pray,” suggests Vitya. “This chapel was built for a reason. Under it there is a stone on which the footprints of Jesus Christ are imprinted: He left them after the resurrection. I’ve seen them myself. But the chapel is locked. It’s old, built in seventeen hundred something, and the boys have made a new roof for it.”

Next to the chapel, Vitya takes out a bottle: “Oh, the vodka is fogging up. Forgive me, Mother of God.” Vitya crosses himself, then takes a sip straight from the bottle. He does not wince. He does not have a bite to eat with his shot. He once again apologizes to everyone.

Vitya has been drinking for several days, and one sip is enough to send him reeling. Suddenly, he switches to politics, saying that he doesn’t need anything from Putin, and just as suddenly he recalls Politkovskaya: “Did they kill her?” The topic of the Veps is exhausted, and we make a difficult decision to part company. Vitya goes into a thicket to collect cloudberries. There has been a good crop of berries this year, and the chukhar knows where to look for them. “The last of the Vepsians” disappears into thicket. The forest welcomes him. It doesn’t welcome us.

We stomped dejectedly home through the forest, past the swamp, through the dead villages, and past another swamp, pouring the water out of our boots for the third time.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos are by the authors. Photos courtesy of 7×7. Translated by the Russian Reader

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47news
November 23, 2015

Arseny, a third-grader from the Podporozhye District, crosses a river in a boat on his way to school. On the weekends, he serves as an altar boy at a church. His father abandoned Arseny and his mother, a real estate agent conned them, but the authorities know the score. At school, he got two zeroes for conduct when he had no pencils or shoes on September 1, the first day of school. 47news journeyed to the backwoods of the Leningrad Region and spent a day with Arseny’s family.

Every weekday at 7:40 a.m., 9-year-old Arseny Prokhorov and his mom Irina Prokhorova ford the Oyat River in a rubber boat. They are hurrying to school.

The Oyat River, which has its source in the Vologda Region, is 266 kilometers long and flows into the Svir River. It has a strong current and contains rapids. Its course has not changed for at least a thousand years.

“It is especially frightening in the mid season, when the ice sets and the current pulls along whole sheets of it. We make a point of carrying the boat higher upstream. And in the spring, the current carries the slush produced by the ice, and the water rises a lot,” Irina Prokhorova told me.

Last spring, she was crossing the river alone when the boat capsized and she fell into the water. But she swam ashore pulling the boat out with her. Arseny stood on his side of the river and cried.

Believe me, he is quite grown up. Incidentally, the only two zero marks for conduct he has had this year were on September 1 and September 2. He had no notebooks, pencils or shoes. Children’s protective services came after that and inspected the house, but nothing has been heard on this shore from social services since then.

The boy and his mother have lived in the village of Gribanovskaya in the Vinnitsy Rural Settlement of Podporozhye District for four years. The village is situated on the right bank, but seven houses have stood on the left bank for a long time. No one lives in six of them during the winter: they belong to summertime cottagers.

The school bus picks Arseny up at 7:50 a.m. The school itself is four kilometers away, in the village of Vinnitsy. On the weekends, the only way to get there from Gribanovskaya is on foot. Irina uses an old bike to get there or she and Arseny walk there together. The commuter bus runs three times a week: Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

The village of Gribanovskaya is 350 kilometers from Petersburg and 76 kilometers from the district center, the town of Podporozhye. The village contains around ten households and three dozen inhabitants. The first census of Gribanovskaya was taken in 1873.

That House There

After our phone call, the mistress dashes out of the house, climbs down a steep bluff, unties the boat, and drags it to the water. Plying the oars in a masculine fashion, she sails towards us.

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A petite woman jumps nimbly from the craft. She is dressed neatly, but is nervous. We clamber aboard the boat. The first to go aboard is Father Vladimir, rector of the local church. He helps the family any way he can. I, the correspondent from afar, get on the boat second. We have to step from the sloping ice into the boat’s soft bottom. The black water, the tiny oars, and the air temperature do not inspire me with optimism. I begin to doubt whether the boat will bear our weight. The priest is not having such a smooth time of it on the oars. We begin to drift.

The backyard is depressing. Irina gets right down to business. They will soon run out of firewood. Father Vladimir frowns.

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I am given a brief, simple tour of the local way of life. Irina and Arseny once had rabbits and a couple of pigs. They slaughtered them out of necessity. The garden and the potatoes they grow there are their salvation.

Arseny’s diet is as basic as that of a postwar child: oatmeal in the morning, soup for lunch, and buckwheat kasha or macaroni for supper. The family lives on 2,500 rubles a month [approx. 35 euros], which Arseny’s grandmother sends them. Irina’s oldest daughter from her first marriage helps them out by sending produce.

“Once every two weeks we sail to the mobile shop,” says Irina.

She would be glad to work, but jobs are nowhere to be found, neither in Vinnitsy nor, especially, in Gribanovskaya.

Irina is from Petersburg. She has two daughters from her first marriage, aged 17 and 27. She and her new husband moved to Vinnitsy. They had decided to get away from the noise of the city. Arseny was born there. In 2012, their house burned down. Since Irina was officially registered as a resident of Petersburg, she was refused assistance by the local authorities. With this incident in the back of her mind, she does not ask the authorities for anything nowadays. She had to sell her share in an apartment in Petersburg and buy the house in Gribanovskaya. Moreover, the real estate agent, who showed them the house in winter, did not mention there was no bridge or ferry. Nor did Irina ask. Then her husband hit the bottle and left the family. In parting, he gave Arseny a lifejacket.

We go into the house. Only of one of the three floors is inhabited. It contains a kitchen with a brick oven and a double room. It is warm and cozy inside, not at all like it is outside. Arseny comes out. He shows us his desk, books, and drawings. He gets Bs and As at school, although he recently got a D in shop. He did not bring glue and cardboard to class. His mother did not have the money to buy them. On the other hand, he is a champion at reading contests.

Arseny takes weekly lessons with a painting teacher in Vinnitsy. Once again, Father Vladimir has helped him out with this. Arseny says his dream is to be an artist and see the Coliseum and the Louvre one day.

Arseny Prokhorov
Arseny Prokhorov

The family has a plan to this end: to finish the first four grades and enroll in the Russian Academy of Art’s Ioganson State Academic Art Lyceum in Saint Petersburg.

Arseny’s hobbies included books and chess, which he has played since the age of six. He also likes the SpongeBob SquarePants cartoons.

When asked whether he knows who Bobby Fischer was, he confidently replies, “I saw a book about him, but I haven’t read it yet.”

Right at this moment, a film about the life of the brilliant American chess player is showing in Petersburg theaters. I doubt that most young people would have responded to my question as Arseny has.

There is a computer in the house with Internet access. Although his mom does not encourage it, Arseny has his own page on the VKontakte social network and is interested in the news. Among the latest news, he remembers the crash of the Malaysian Boeing the most. Arseny has the sense the world is ruled by God, and that Vladimir Putin reigns on earth. True, at first the lad misspoke himself, calling the president “Alexander.” He also knows about important people “somewhere out there.” But the ticks and vipers in the backyard are more real to him. He makes no bones about the fact he is afraid of them.

A tick bit him this past spring. It turned out to be carrying encephalitis. The doctors kept Arseny in hospital five days and then sent him back home with his mother. Since then, Arseny has periodically had a temperature.

This is bad, because earlier the boy had suffered from barely noticeable disabilities that had almost disappeared through the efforts of his mom. The boy has been exempted from attending physical education classes. Which is just as well, since every day he does chores at home like an athlete. Now Irina worries whether the encephalitis will affect his nervous system.

“The school requires a written waiver exempting Arseny from transfer to boarding school. But how can I give him up?” wonders Irina.

Father Vladimir supports her. He booms that it would be wrong to send the boy from his child’s bed, with his mom nearby, to a state-sponsored cot.

And There is a Church Nearby

We get ready to go to the local church. Arseny serves there as an altar boy, helping with the mass. As we get ready to go, it transpires that the most burning question will soon be the question of winter boots. Arseny simply does not have any. The boots donated to him two years ago have fallen apart. Despite their problems, mother and son look neat and self-possessed. We have to cross the river again.

We take Father Vladimir’s Zhiguli to Our Lady of Smolensk Church in Vinnitsy. We go into the church, which smells of oven, wood, and incense. There is a stand-up piano in the corner. After the icy snow, drizzle, and darkness, I immediately feel sleepy. Arseny assists the priest for two hours.

It is getting on towards nine in the evening. There is neither a single soul nor a single car on the streets of Vinnitsy and, especially, Gribanovskaya. We have returned to the ford. The road was utterly muddy, and snow mixed with rain is coming down. In the darkness, descending the steep bank to the boat is completely unpleasant. We bid farewell to the squeaking oars. We cannot see the boat all. Just in case, we say goodbye again. We hear a reply. It is like a film about the war, as if they are going off on a recon mission.

I finished my work in Gribanovskaya around nine in the evening. Father Vladimir gave me a lift to Vinnitsy and set off to administer extreme unction to a local woman. In her youth she is said to have practiced witchcraft.

There was no sign of cars on the street, so my logistics hit a dead end. The local police saved the day. A call to Podporozhye District Deputy Police Chief Dmitry Vladimirov asking to facilitate my not kicking the bucket was understood loud and clear. His guys saved the day. Police officer Andrei (who, incidentally, was supposed to be finishing his shift) drove me 75 kilometers through a blizzard and over potholes to Podporozhye. Along the way, his wife called, worried.

Suddenly, in a place where the thicket had almost overgrown the road, a healthy white wolf with gray markings crossed the road in front of us. The beast stopped, flashed its eyes, and vanished. Perhaps it was surprised to see people at such a time in such a place.

P.S.  Of course we talked with Arseny and his mother. You can soon read about Arseny’s dream on 47news. In the meantime, think about this article.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Videos and photos courtesy of 47news