We only just managed to squeeze onto the bus that would take us from the plane to the terminus. We had the feeling that it left a few passengers on the runway.
The bus disgorged us all onto a frozen white and desolate space littered with a few low slung airport buildings which seemed to be closed. It was nine in the evening.
A few yards along was a wooden hut with fading and flaking paint and a few ancient ads for Coke and 7up - hints of more hopeful times.
A bus arrived quickly though - it was a vintage model,only about 15 feet long, but as warm as a russian banya. It’s gears crashed and its engine once powered a tank at the battle of Kursk.It was also the personal fiefdom of the driver and his conductor. Purple haze curtains were strung across some of the windows to provide a parlour atmosphere - it was reminiscent of Greece, and I looked around to see if there were any chickens and goats among the passengers.
The conductress had no visible symbols of authority to collect our fares, but this bus was not much bigger than a taxi and the fare was nugatory.
Lenin and Stalin still have a few fans up here - Koba was scrawled in black magic marker on the back of the seat in front of us, and in the town itself the statue of V.I. Lenin still towers over a large civic square, raging impotently at the new economic policy all around him - or maybe wondering if his own version didn’t go far enough?
It was dark, and the bus raced along the icy streets which were like huge corridors created by the endless blocks of almost identical flats that line every avenue and street.
Yet there was a vast spaciousness to everything, and the occasional gap in the corridor walls in which sat a proud classical civic design,a theatre or a gigantic town hall.
Our journey that evening ended with a walk through a forest of blocks of identical flats to the home of a kind friend who would be our host for our two day visit.
It was a hearthy, warm and generous welcome we recieved - brandy was opened, food was served and we drank and laughed until late.
I had the feeling that I was on a frontier of some sort, not just a physical frontier, a spiritual or at least attitudinal one. It could almost have been Canada, but Canada is bland because prosperity has internationalised it and its people have had everything they need for half a century without a struggle.The frontier there was conquered a long time ago. Perhaps this feeling I had for the spititual frontier of Archhangel came from the knowledge that this region has always been one of independent and rugged individualists.Serfdom did not reach up here. There was no Tarter conquest and its Tsarist successors were too soft to take on a people that were tough and resourceful enough to live entirely off of a frozen snow covered land. If you don’t need other people to help you make a living it tends to make you hard to push around.
Of course, Stalin decided to try and achieve what the Tarters and The Tsars’ failed to do and crush this independent spirit by opening the first of the GULAG camps in this region.
The presence of internment camps all around was surely likely to break the spirit of a people for whom the words of Rule Brittania were equally applicable - Britons never never shall be slaves!’
Would our next two days show any signs of the state of the spirit in Archangel?
The wearing of a uniform is the first sign of submission to higher authority, as is the sticking to a speed limit. On this score, the buses of Archangel showed promising signs - the rebellious spirit of a London bus driver reveals itself by the chewing of gum and the wearing of the uniform as scruffily as possible. These Archangel guys speed around the streets in formula one style, screeching reluctantly to a halt at stops and harrying the passengers off so that they can rejoin the race. Their conductors are a sartorial law unto themselves, intimidating passengers for the fare. Here is the first sign that Stalin failed!
Our first task on our first day was to collect Elena’s pension certificate from the local Department of Pensions. We slipped and slood along the treacherously icy and slushy pavements to the unassuming office block that housed the Department.
Elena encountered polite and efficient young people whose manners were natural and helpful - maybe Perstroika and good parenting, as we say in the West, but a hopeful sign that it’s possible to find a half-way house between people trained and programmed within an inch of their humanity and a chaotic or surly indifference to customer service.
Next though, a visit to a restaurant - not so much independence of spirit as a complete lack of awareness of how it might feel to be a customer in a restaurant. The staff are friendly spirited indeed, young but convinced that there job is just to bring the food. The notion of a broader responsibility to create a pleasant experience for the diner is unknown. Admittedly, in the UK or USA this can be taken too far with waiters intruding irritatingly into your evening wearing plastic smiles,but this other extreme is insufferable.
We seat ourselves.
The waitress has to be found and brought to our table by Elena.
We are asked for our food order and if we would like tea or coffee, and she rushed away before anything stronger could be requested.
We waited an age.
The ice cream arrived and was put down - our deserts, in other words, had been brought before our main courses.
We had to find the waitress again, because she had fled after this delivery.
We waited another age and the children were older by the time their main course arrived - the 14 year old boy now needed a shave.
We were never offered a drink throughout the meal, which whilst acceptable, was salty.
By now you understand that here is a business opportunity, as we say in the West : customer service increases turnover and profits, and done with sensitivity, makes the work more enjoyable.
Will the Archangelisk spirit of independence rise up and manifest itself as the right kind of free enterprise? The kind based on individualism and responsibility, good manners and helpfulness, rather than corporate programming and the de-souling of the workforce? which is what we are doing back in the UK and the USA.
The nest day we are taken by car to the museum of wooden architecture 30 kilometers from Archangel near small village called Malye Korely. It was a fairy tale drive along a snow dusted road. To our right was the great semi-frozen river Severnaya Dvina (Northen Dvina) which lay still as a great resting beast,its pulse lifting and shifting the ice floes which lay like parasites on its back.
The museum was created to preserve the heritage of the beautiful wooden architecture of this region : churches, houses, barns, banyas and farms. In Disney style, but without the shmaltz, elderly women in traditional costume sang to us traditional folk songs and we danced in the snow to the steps they taught us - utterly entrancing!
Rounding a bend on the track, the view ahead hidden by Pines, we are transfixed by the sight of a masterpiece - an early 17th century church.
Constructed entirely of wood, without a single nail, it’s spire is perfectly proporioned as it holds aloft the Orthodox Cross. Set against its background of snow, sky and pine forest, it calls forth the two great maxims of all morality :
Do unto others as ye would have them do unto ye
Love the Lord thy God with all they heart.
And you feel that these are called forth from God himself through the medium of this magnificent edifice. This is what churches are for - they are the fibre - optic highway to heaven, and what better material than wood to carry this news.
Our atheism momentarily shaken, we walked on to encounter the wooden homes that allowed the sturdy pioneers of ancient Archangel to live entirely indoors in their frozen winters, their harvests and livestock indoors with them, their faith in their own resilience and resourcefulness and their pre-green ecological knowledge keeping up their spirits throughout the long lonely winter months.
These sights and feelings are unique to this region - there is nothing comparable at home or anywhere that I know of and it is deeply moving.
But next, a moment of light relief : a tall post stands before us which carrries four canvas loops which hang from its top. It is a kind of maypole swing. We each get in our noose and laugh our heads off as we swing dangerously in out and arrowly avoiding concussion on the post itself.
Then Elena spots a warning sign on the post. A list of don’ts began with Don’t eat food and drink whilst swinging, don’t throw away anything whilst swinging, don’t carry large sharp objects, don’t bring any animals or hand luggage with you, don’t use whilst under the influence of drink or drugs, or during wind speeds in excess of ten metres per second - finally, an injunction to ‘ use common sense at all times and a reminder that the museum cannot be held responsible for any accidents if any of these rules are broken.
We read these after we had broken nearly all of them and yet survived!
Back to Archangel to rest and prepare for our train journey, 3rd class, back to Moscow.
Can I answer any of the questions I raised?
Of course not, there are only ever signs and these can mislead, but the train should help us get to know a few members of the broad masses, today’s proletariat.
(the photographs were taken by Elena Bruce and Natalia Fridental)