Babushka Baptists

In Siberia, Stalin survivors quench an ancient thirst


| March-April 1999



My hotel costs five dollars a night. The plaster falls in chunks from the walls of its corridors, and from the Stalinist ceiling moldings. The night is close and humid. It is over 85 degrees. I lie on the bed and watch the full moon shining through a pattern of dainty flowers in the lace curtains. I cannot sleep. The sweat leaks from my chest and forehead. And this is Siberia.

Next morning, outside the big, unlovely cathedral, which in Stalin's day was a cinema, I found a coachload of pilgrims setting off for a rural monastery. They welcomed me on board. The monastic foundations were only just being laid, they said, and they were going to attend the blessing of its waters. In 1987 an excavator at the site—near the state farm of Rechnoi—had unearthed a mass grave, and the place was revealed as a complex of labor camps, abandoned at Stalin's death. The inmates, mostly intelligentsia, had died of pneumonia and dysentery from working the fields, and their graves still scattered its earth.

As our bus bowled through ramshackle villages, the pilgrims relayed the story with murmurs of motherly pity. They were elderly women for the most part, indestructible babushkas in flower-printed dresses and canvas shoes, whose gnarled hands were closed over prayer books and bead-strings, and whose headscarves enshrined faces of genial toughness. When a fresh-faced cantor began chanting a hymn in the front of the bus, their voices rose in answer like old memories, reedy and melodious, from their heavy bodies, until the whole bus was filled with their singing.

We reached a birch grove on the Rechnoi farm. It was one of those ordinary rural spots whose particular darkness you would not guess. As the babushkas disembarked, still singing, the strains of other chanting echoed from a chapel beyond the trees. It was the first of four shrines that would one day mark the corners of an immense compound. Inside, a white-veiled choir was lilting the sad divisions of the Liturgy.

In the south transept, still meshed in scaffolding, an unfinished fresco of the Deposition from the Cross loomed above us. It was almost complete, but the flesh tints were still missing, as if the artist were afraid to touch too closely on Divinity, and pots of pigment still lined the scaffold. So only the colored garments of the disciples semaphored their grief, while their hands and features were empty silhouettes in the plaster: here a face uplifted in dismay, there a blank caress on the unpainted body of Christ, which remained a ghostly void, like something the onlookers had imagined.

Sometimes, whimsically, I felt as if this scene were echoed in the nave where I stood, where around the great silence left by God the worshippers lifted their heads and hands, crossed themselves, and wept a little.