“Look. Here it is. We killed it for you”. Fedya holds up the lynx skin, which can fetch up to £300 on the Chinese market
Once the jeep had crashed I calmed down. It was a Soviet jeep, a UAZ, and it was now lodged between a birch tree and a ditch. I lifted my head. Nothing was hurt. The mountain road had been frightening. The motor had screeched and heaved over frozen bogs. The snow was thick and fresh. The only marks were animal tracks. We thought we saw a wolf.
The UAZ was stuck. The men were now out of the car and shouting at each other. It was only then that I realised how serious the situation was. We were in Tuva, the remotest of Russia’s ethnic republics, near the Mongolian border, trying to get to its most distant enclave — where, almost a day from the nearest paved road, lies the valley of the Old Believers.
It looked as if we might never make it. They pulled me out of the car and told me to push. The men had chopped down birch trees and were shoving the trunks into the rounds of the wheel to lift the UAZ from the ditch. They swore and ripped up birch trees to fill up the watery mud underneath.
This was Siberia. It was approaching minus 20 degrees Celsius and not saving the jeep was a life-threatening situation. We had about 50km to go and would have to carry our supplies — huge sacks of sugar and flour — through the night and the snow. The wolf was close. The men pointed at fresh tracks.
We were shivering and praying for the battery not to give in when the UAZ finally broke free of the mud with roars and splatters. The release was euphoric. The petrol fumes inside smelt like safety. We drove on. And the men started to tell me a little about their ancestors.
They were Old Believers. Their fore-fathers had first come to Tuva in search of Belovode. This was the first Russian utopia: a mythical land the peasants believed existed out in Siberia down the rivers in the farthest east; a magical kingdom of plenty where the white Tsar ruled with true justice. Whole migrations went in search of it in the 1840s. Peasants believed Tolstoy had been there. It was as late as 1898 that the last Cossack expedition set out to find it.
The Old Believers are the remains of Russia’s great schism. While Peter the Great was building St Petersburg, his Patriarch Nikon set out to reform the Russian Orthodox Church, to purge it of paganism and inconsistency with Greek Orthodoxy. Rituals and the spelling of Christ were modified. The way men crossed themselves was changed.
Schismatics revolted. They said that religious rituals held holiness within them. Modifying them was the equivalent of turning a poem into prose. The meaning may still be there but the poem essentially no longer exists.
Calling themselves the Old Believers in the true faith, they refused Peter’s reforms. The Russian state persecuted them ruthlessly. Thousands torched themselves in their wooden churches rather than convert. They splintered into dozens of rival clergies and the most radical — the priestless — made do without one altogether.
On the eve of the revolution the Old Believers made up maybe 20 per cent of Russia’s population. It was said that if the anathemas on them were ever lifted, half the peasantry would convert to this anarchic, priestless village faith which ruled itself through meeting halls. Today there are only about two million — mostly in exile. And of the priestless a few tens of thousands live out in the most remote forests of Siberia.
Places like Tuva. This country is like a cowboy movie where the white man has lost. This was once the most remote state in the world — annexed by the Soviet Union in 1944 and forgotten by everyone. The natives are Asians, closely tied to neighbouring Mongolia but speaking a Turkic language.
There were great red plans to modernise Tuva. But today there is neither a railway nor a flight to Moscow. On the road south you pass burnt-out teepees and drunk Tuvan horsemen accosting passing cars. The one city, Kyzyl, is mostly wooden shacks and teems with witchdoctors and shamans. Slavs number less than 20 per cent of the population, and are shrinking fast.
Out in the wildest areas live the Russians — a thousand or so of the priestless Old Believers. There is no road to these hamlets. You drive south for five hours. Then down a mountain track. To get farther you have to cross the winding River Yenesei twice. The Old Believers like it this way. They control the barge and it keeps the Tuvans out.
That night we crossed the Yenesei on a small raft through rough winds. I woke up in a time capsule. The village of Erjei. It is one of the four Old Believer villages in the curling valley of the lower Yenesei. There are no roads linking them, only the water, and the farther up river you go the more fundamentalist they become until you reach the scattered homesteads that refuse to touch many aspects of the modern world. Erjei has no television, no internet, no postal service, no sewerage and no newspapers. It had come to terms with a few technologies — mobile phones, tough old Soviet jeeps and electric lights. But the villagers had not meaningfully changed their lives.
That morning I met Ekaterina, a pretty old woman in a green headscarf. She talked about Peter the Great as the Old Believers have for centuries — as the Devil. “He brought tobacco and potatoes and heresy to Russia.” He was the biblical snake. Everything that had gone wrong in Russia they traced back to him. Dangerous technologies and Western ideas, they were all his fault. “Peter cursed Russia.”
Every home is wooden and every family has fierce hunting dogs and a cow. They treasure metalworked icons of the Virgin handed down over hundreds of years. These sit on little makeshift shelves watching over cramped bedrooms. They had come to Tuva with the Old Believers from the Urals and inner Siberia — or as they said, “from Russia”.
I ate at simple tables and talked through the afternoon. They asked about me. “Tell me…in London do the women also pick the berries?” I asked about them. The women all wore headscarves. The men all grew their beards long. They eat only from their own cutlery. Their children still walk three kilometres to school across the river. The road winds through the forest and they sometimes see bears there. The week I was there a wolf had been spotted. The mothers were worried.
There are no jobs in the valley. There is no economy. But everybody is busy. The women are home keepers but they also milk the cows. Their husbands hunt. Every winter they go into the forests for three months to hunt squirrels, sables, bears and lynx. These furs they sell to the Russian and Chinese merchants who come to the village knocking on their doors.
This is how Russian villages always used to be. But the valley of the Old Believers is no longer normal. Russia’s countryside is no longer dying. It is already dead. Cottages with smashed windows half-sunk into the mud, abandoned but for the pensioners and the alcoholics. Drunks stammer on street corners. Needles and wild dogs lie everywhere. These are places where the forest animals are losing their fear of humans.
In the valley of the Old Believers are the last living Russian villages. Never had I seen so many Russian children. Or new wooden cottages. Not once in the two weeks I spent in Erjei did I see a drunk. These are villages little touched by Russia’s plagues of addiction. There were drinkers, of course. I smelt their breath. I met men with gnarled red noses and heard about a sick couple that lived by the Yenesei and spent all their money on beer. But alcohol was not a plague.
The priestless once had strong prohibitions on all forms of vodka. These have since lapsed. Instead, they rigorously observe months of dry fasts throughout the year. Nor do the men drink seriously when hunting. They are more or less dry for three months of the year.
Nobody knows exactly why Russia has such epidemic alcoholism. The writer Oliver Bullough believes the answer has to do with trust. Stalin’s campaign to force the peasants into collective farms and break from the Orthodox Church cut Russians off from their land and their identity; the camps and the political police from each other. The USSR destroyed the village units of Russian society long before it destroyed itself. Cheap vodka filled the void.
This is what the Old Believers had run away from. The first wave from the Urals in the 1920s joined the searchers for Belovode in independent Tuva. A second wave followed from inner Siberia in the 1960s, when Nikita Khrushchev renewed the war on God.
The valley of the Old Believers was left untouched. They were never collectivised and only loosely controlled. They were decreed state hunters, which meant in practice the men were given a salary, free guns and bullets, in exchange for their pelts. They were told they were filling urgent orders for fur in England and left to their own devices in the Taiga-Russian for jungle-thick Siberian forests.
Village life was ignored. This meant the Old Believers were never cut off from their way of life. It is unclear why the valley was spared — perhaps because the Soviet state had grown cynical and imperial by the 1950s. In annexed Tuva it suited them to have white people living along an impossibly remote but strategic valley leading to Mongolia.
Most probably it is because the Old Believers’ villages were priestless. There was nobody to arrest. Centuries of home worship was a way of praying uniquely well suited to evading the KGB. More importantly, the villages and the homesteads up the Yenesei were so inaccessible that they were impossible to control without mass deportations.
The Party could never quite locate the Old Believer monasteries and the hermits out in the Taiga whom the villagers would turn to. Families, even whole villages, of Old Believers that had been out of contact with other Russians since the revolution, were frequently found by Soviet geologists across Siberia until the 1980s, when such expeditions stopped.
I felt trust and pride in Erjei. I spent long afternoons eating pancakes and drinking forest tea with the old women. The elders of the village still refused to use any technology at all — motors, lighting, mobiles — nothing. Their homes were decorated with plastic wall hangings of forests and framed knick-knack artwork of bright woodlands. They smiled: “We know where the Taiga families are. Those that have been hiding for a hundred years. But we won’t tell you.”
That day the men were preparing to depart for the Taiga. I prepared to leave with long-bearded Fedya. They called him the old man. He was 58. His two brushes with the state had left him horrified about anything outside the valley. The first was when he was conscripted in 1973 and sent to Kamchatka. “Prison camps…even the bears were in prison camps.”
His second was in 2007. Pulling his jeep round a mountain bend he found himself arrested for “terrorism”. Traffic policemen flung open his boot to uncover an arsenal of unlicensed shotguns. They locked him in a cell for several weeks with six alcoholics he did not get along with.
I was not the first stranger to go hunting with the Old Believers. Three years ago a Belgian with a shiny wristwatch had turned up with a pretty wife and his translator. He wanted to kill a bear. The Old Believers were nervous. The bears were sleeping. To get to the nearest cave would require a week’s tracking at least, with four hunters and three sleighs. Not to mention the dogs. The Belgian grinned: “Fine. I’ll pay.”
It was a small cave. The hunters fired warning shots and sent the dogs inside. They tried to pull back the Belgian’s wife, who was wearing sunglasses. “My wife is not afraid,” he barked. She took photos of him as he fired four times into the horrified bear. That night in the village they frolicked and drank a bottle of champagne. The Belgians did not offer the Old Believers any. But the villagers kept the bottle, as a candlestick.
Fedya had taken a foreigner into the Taiga the previous year and had mixed feelings about that experience. The man in question was a professional Finnish gold prospector from some multinational mining enterprise. But once they reached the Taiga he suffered several weeklong bouts of paralytic depression. He refused to talk and eventually even to eat.
Fedya was thrown into a panic that the Finn might die before he ordered an about-turn to Erjei. To apologise, he gave the old man a copy of the company’s confidential gold prospects map. But it was in Finnish. Not for want of trying, Fedya had not found a single person in Tuva who spoke Finnish.
Our UAZ was filled for the hunt. We threw in rifles, shotguns, bullets, traps and a sack of dried old bread crusts, not to mention two dogs and the old man’s grandson. We drove along the Yenesei. Every turn was a swerve and every bump was a jolt. These were tracks they dug for themselves.
Old man and boy talked about bears. The 15-year-old had seen one on the way to school. Fedya had killed seven in his time and reminisced. His grandson listened carefully. Like every boy I met in Erjei he wanted to be a hunter. His future lay in the Taiga and not in the classroom. But we were not hunting bears this time. We wanted a lynx. We dreamed of that golden fur. We wanted to catch the most cunning animal in the forest.
The hunters call those three months in the Taiga “the season”. Their catch varies but is usually about three lynx, 40 sables and 300 squirrels. If they are lucky these furs fetch up to £10,000. They give £5,000 to their wives for the home. The rest is spent stocking up on rifles and cartridges for the next season. This is why they wanted lynx — there are Chinese who will pay up to £300 a pelt.
Twenty kilometres on and the track stopped. We travelled the next 20 kilometres by boat. The rivers are the motorways of Siberia. In the winter hunters’ jeeps belt up and down them. But the water had not yet frozen. Icebergs floated past us as the old man kicked the engine of his wooden dinghy into action.
There it is — the Taiga. But you feel you have seen this landscape a million times before. In a sense you have — from American action movies, Windows screensavers and advertisements to visit Canada. The mountains looked like giant white rocks covered in a grey lichen. Monotonous white skeletal trees shone with feeble sun along the Yenesei.
The Taiga looks like a land before time. But not to the Old Believers. Fedya explained that every family from the four villages has its own allotment. Each plot is roughly 25 sq km. This is what a hunter prowls all winter.
The Taiga nearest to the villages was thinning out, which is why the hunters now travel further and further down the Yenesei. They have parcelled up the Taiga all the way to the Mongolian border 200 km away. Younger men now leave the valley altogether. They risk the Tuvan forests.
Listening to Fedya explain this process of fur-driven expansion was like listening to the 17th century. This is how the Russian empire was built. Cossacks hunting sable raced ever farther east to the Pacific. Only then did the Tsar lay claim to it.
The hunter’s cabin was on the water’s edge. Roman was there with his sons skinning four squirrels. All he old man’s family used the cabin and Roman was his nephew, a fierce red-bearded man with three little children and a sick baby. He shook my hand. There was dark blood under broken fingernails.
Roman was one of those unlucky boys in what Russians call the “wild Nineties”. Those were the years when they cut almost all public services to the valley and cancelled state support for hunting. The Old Believers were on their own again. Schooling broke down: Tuvan horsemen fired warning shots and Roman dropped out of school. He was about 12 and needed at home.
We broke bread in the cabin. This was made of logs reinforced by bark. The roof had half caved in. We slept on bench planks softened by sheepskins. There was only an oil lamp and a wood stove. These would go out after four hours, so we would take turns to chop firewood. I never managed to.
Roman had been hunting the lynx for three weeks. He paced around outside the cabin muttering about the animal, chewing twigs. He had gone as far as the Mongol hieroglyphs on the far mountain snowline but found nothing except confusing circular paw prints.
The oil lamp outlined Fedya’s face as he poured the thin gruel boiled on the wood stove. The children had etched a monster’s face on to its bent side. Hunters eat what they catch in the forest. But today we had caught nothing. The spoons clanked in the old tin bowls.
That night the old man told me about his grandparents’ time. The news of war reached the valley of the Old Believers late, several weeks after the German invasion in 1941. They thought it was the work of the Antichrist. The war of Gog and Magog. The End.
There was panic. Then the burnings started. Mothers tied up and gagged their children before setting fire to their homesteads reciting the benedictions. Fathers doused themselves in petrol before lighting themselves in ecstatic prayer.
Two years later the Red Army entered the valley. The remaining men were rounded up, loaded onto trucks and taken to the front. Most came back. But Tuva was annexed and the valley put under Soviet control.
These were the last self-immolations of the Old Believers. It had happened many times before. In the 17th century almost 10,000 torched themselves in their wooden churches. These were the souls said to live ruled by the white Tsar beyond in Belovode.
They handed me my gun at dawn. Roman and his sons went along the banks of the Yenesei. We chose to go deeper. The Taiga is a million optical illusions. When you look straight into the distance the countless trees merge until they form one grey sheet, ringing you. You shudder at tree stumps shaped like men. You turn around and it’s exactly as it was in front — snow, thickets, birch, fir, pine. A copy-paste landscape of clones.
You can only follow the hunters’ trail through frozen swamps, under bent birches and over upturned fir trees. You lose their tracks. Branches slice at your face. Exhausted, you stop. Thirsty, you eat the snow. But the hunters are not worried. You too leave tracks. And you continue, much, much more slowly. For hours the hunters are gone. Then suddenly they are there again, looking at you.
The paw prints lead over the ridge. Then nowhere. The old man stopped to smoke. I stared out over unending trees. The longer we spent in the Taiga together the more he asked about England. Fedya was particularly amazed by the concept of gyms. He asked to be explained this again and again. Thinking about an exercise bike sent him into absolute hysterics. But mostly we talked about the lynx.
Two sisters lived farther out in the Taiga, maybe 70 km from the last homestead. They were said to recite whole scriptures from memory and to have healed sick babies when only little girls. They had taken a vow of silence and now lived in the monastery. The desperate made their way there, to toll their bell over emptiness. But the hunters would not take me.
I fell behind again. The Taiga at sunset is the most colourful place in the world. In the space of a few hours the snow goes from a brilliant white to a golden yellow and mauve red. The trees change too, from grey to a deep green, to a russet red, then finally a deep blue black. The snow sparkles with light like diamonds. But I hate it all. I was exhausted, out of breath, almost lost, following the hunters’ tracks as they got closer to the lynx.
Trailing in the twilight, I was terrified. Twice I cocked my rifle when the shape of a fox appeared out of a tree. I hallucinated growls out of the trudge of my snow boots. The light vanished. My blood froze at shapes between the trees.
I repeated: “I am armed. I am armed. I can kill it.” But a scene of confusion that might only last a few seconds flashed in my head — of me unable to fire fast enough. The squeaks the rifle made on my back chilled me. The darkness was almost total. I shot wildly at a stump of wood that for a few seconds took on the shape of a wolf.
The old man had night terrors. They would begin with moans and sudden thrashes. Then shouts. “Grandpa please…” He would roll off the sleeping planks and scuffle on the floor with imaginary animals, sobbing. At times he made shooting sounds with his mouth like a little boy. “No…No…” I lay as still as possible, surrounded by guns and axes and knives, holding my breath.
That morning we found fresh tracks seven kilometres away. They snaked down a snow-clogged stream. It happens quickly when it happens. The hunter freezes, falls silent and fires. The dogs screech wildly. But the lynx has escaped into the farthest Taiga where the snow and the thickets come up to your waist. The old man swears, rips off a branch and beats the dogs for such a cowardly failure.
We followed the lynx into a shaman’s grove. The hunters dipped their guns. Tied to the birches were rags in blue, yellow, white, red and green. Offerings to the spirits of the place. We did not go through. Farther along, we stopped for the dogs to regain the scent. The old man told me there had been a shaman there for many years. But he had died in February. “There is a hermit . . . One of ours . . . 40 kilometres away. He eats raw fish and glides away like a deer when hunters get too close.”
The farther from the valley we trudged the closer we came to Tuvan hunters. They did things differently. They rode on stags and chased animals with six, seven, dogs each. They hunted for days at a time and slept mounted. There were once reindeer herders near the valley. “But the boys are going to the city. There are only a few who still do it now, living out with the deer.” The hunters had tussled with the herders in the past. They were happy the latter were thinning out. More Taiga was now theirs.
We trudged on. Maybe 15 km each day. Only for four or five minutes of those did I stop, breathe and see the white light flickering through the firs. The rest of the time I was looking where to put my feet, following the hunters’ tracks, snapping off branches blocking the way. Hearing again and again, “I am tired, I am thirsty, I am tired.”
When you walk alone for that long you go into a sort of trance. You hear the white noise at the back of your head. More paw prints. Then again nothing. The men were angry. Roman snarled at me. “This is your fault. You need to go . . . silently. He can hear you.”
There was a familiar sight from the highest ridge. White plane trails — dozens and dozens of them. Their noise reverberated through the Taiga like the approach to Heathrow. I found it comforting. We were 1,000 km from the nearest international airport but the valley is directly under the flight path from Beijing.
I tried to count the sounds of Boeings and Airbuses flying overhead, maybe 50, but lost count every day. The hunters stared at them too; Chinese 747s over the Russian Middle Ages. “They started in these numbers maybe 15 years ago.” The planes seemed distant, like spaceships.
It was night again. The cracks in the window let the cold into the hutch. The spit and cackle of the wood stove went on as the boys fell asleep. Now we were only men. Roman reached for an old plastic bottle, took a gulp, and passed it round. The old man sighed after his. It was samogon — moonshine vodka.
“I will kill the lynx.” Roman was looking at me but I could not make out his face. “I will kill it.” He pushed himself close to me and tugged my fleece as he muttered. “I will skin it . . .”
Roman was running out of time. Three weeks ago a Chinese peddler had come to the village. By the big cowshed he handed out boxes of Guonjing tea and promised $700 to whoever could deliver him a lynx pelt that month. “I need that money.”
Samogon does strange things to you. The old man began talking about Belovode again but Roman was not listening. “That’s in the north somewhere.” He passed him the bottle and murmured more about the lynx. How powerful, how beautiful it was.
We finished the bottle. The hunters swapped stories about the Chinese: how they grind up the teeth of lynx for tea and stick needles into their foreheads as they sip it. How they sleep clutching lynx fur cuddlies between their legs at night for fertility. How there are whole cities where people live in glass buildings and eat hamburgers three times a day.
I drank, grew flushed, and paranoid about the hunters and the guns hanging by the hutch door. I went out and looked at the stars. They were so many of them, but I could not remember what any of them were.
This time we left before dawn. But I was not there to see the beautiful animal dash through the thickets and the snow and tumble as it was hit by lead. I did not hear the dogs run after it, yelping and cawing at blood. I did not see the second bullet silence the powerful, luckless beauty.
Roman shot the lynx. That night when I returned hungry to the cabin he pulled out a black plastic satchel and poured it out. The fur slumped out onto the floor. “Look. Here it is. We killed it for you.”
The dogs were happy outside, chewing the lynx’s slender bones and tussling over its entrails and organs. It had been skinned but for the head. It had cotton stuffing for eyes. I picked it up by the neck and shook it. It was so soft. My fingers felt its bony nerves and the shake of its skull inside. I wanted to drop it. It had been alive.