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Letter from Siberia: portrait of a city

Illustration by Jennifer Kearney
By Matt Stone
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Monday, October 24, 2005
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Irkutsk, Russia

Envisage a reality, far different from our own, fill it with clichés, fill it with passionless Soviet flats, fill it with nameless people; call it Russia.

To be true to form, let's blot out the sun with dreary, winter-soaked clouds and traipse down muddy Siberian streets. Let's eat at posh sushi bars with Mongolian hostesses (and waitresses named Olga), rub shoulders with burly Mafioso-types, and sit under a statue of Lenin orating to the masses - masses that have been conspicuously absent for some time now.

It's important that we evoke worn-out European architecture with an indifferent façade of neon and strobe lights, worn-out much like the clichés that eat up the landscape. There's Ashlee Simpson set to gaudy electronic beats on the public bus - "you make me want to la la in the kitchen on the floor" - and how. There are cigarettes with breakfast, 3-inch heels in snow and tawdry Russian techno in otherwise respectable coffee shops.

There should be an exile or two (or those who claim to be), a displaced Norwegian lost somewhere between Beijing and Baku, irritable babushkas hiding behind the columns of an Orthodox cathedral, and a few Adidas-sporting youths itching to throw a punch for another beer - or another volume of Pushkin.

Of course, they all smoke, except for the babushkas. They don't need the addiction: Their husbands died years ago.

Matt Stone

Let's envisage anger and romance - emotion in abundant supply. Bruised pride, guarded pessimism and flaccid idealism - these are the orders of the day. The old will idolize Stalin; the middle-aged will idolize the Tsars; the young will simply study English and hope for an escape.

Because escape is the concept that overwhelms and empowers. It is the animus of the young, who can afford to remain optimistic about their life, if not their country.

Indeed, there can be nothing quite settled about this place. It creaks and groans under the weight of an unnatural cold; it buzzes with a disconcerting anxiety; it retains fears of the Chinese immigrants who sell their wares in the central market. The men are unnaturally violent.

But when the snow falls, imagine a silence unlike anything heard before. Imagine those elusive flakes floating seductively in your vision and then passing into a dull background. Imagine a reverence from the people who have lived through scores of Siberian winters, as they know what the lingering snow implies. Imagine this unsettled city - positioned so tenuously between steppe and snow - promptly find its way inside, away from the cold, away from its concerns and agitations.

A cup of tea, a bowl of borsht, wait.

Beyond the city, after a $2 hitchhiking jaunt, we realize wide swathes of steppe never touched by human "progress," but certainly chronicled by writer after crestfallen writer: Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn. We realize a vast lake, Baikal, with one-fifth of all the world's freshwater, perched delicately between snow-capped peaks and little-known glacial valleys - two rivers in, one river out, a place of spiritual fulfillment for the Mongols then, and still so for the Buryats today.

Imagine the elderly sweeping away leaves with makeshift brooms, impromptu wooden houses built overnight, a stunning cathedral torn down and a tasteless, concrete Soviet headquarters built in its stead. Imagine bullet holes in stairwell windows, ice cream stands open even when the air temperature is colder than the ice cream itself and Alla Pugacheva in concert long past her prime.

Of course, potatoes, cabbage and mayonnaise are somehow combined in mysterious ways to form dozens of unique meals. Boiled hot dogs are a delicacy, cabbage-stuffed pastries a snack (yes, more cabbage); bloody fish make a decent dinner. But the Mercedes-wielding "new Russians" have their tastes too: Pricey and exclusive Uzbek restaurants can be found in dark alleys, between HIV clinics and shoe repair shops. Typically, a $75 bottle of Azeri wine will sneak itself onto the table.

It contradicts, it defies, it surprises and confounds, angers and enlivens, seduces and slaps.

Imagine the charm - a charm that defies even sensory experience, a charm that somehow supercedes the bleak environment, and a charm that reconfirms a city filled with contradictions.

When you conceive of this place - fill it with a fatigued and forgotten history - call it Irkutsk.

Matt Stone is a junior majoring in international studies and economics. He is studying this semester in Irkutsk, Russia in Central Siberia. He can be reached at

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