Eva Collins : Photographs and Writing



Eva Collins

At the age of 66 I decide to go to Siberia – icy, windswept, isolated, the place where millions were sent and millions perished, some merely on suspicion of criticising the Tsar, others, later, for criticising the Soviet leaders. My great-grandfather was exiled there for secretly teaching Polish children their history while the Tsar was trying to russify Poland.

"Dress warmly," friends advise. "Remember, prisoners froze to death there." What they don't realise is that in July, the temperature hovers around 28 degrees – scarves and jumpers are not needed.

What is life like for people there and how has it changed since the fall of Communism? What's more, how do they feel about the many gulags, or labour camps, set up in Siberia as a means of extreme punishment?

Irkutsk, the capital of east Siberia can be reached by taking the Russian Trans-Siberian train north from a number of places. My friend and I boarded it in Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia. The original line, begun in 1891 and finished in 1916, is the third-longest single continuous railroad in the world, linking Europe (Moscow) to Asia (Vladivostok). At nearly 9300km, it spans seven time zones and takes a little more than six days to complete.

The regular, second-class (kupe) cabins have narrow bench beds, pillows filled with sand and prison-grey blankets. The air-conditioning doesn't work, the window won't open, there is no shower and the stainless-steel toilet seat wobbles so much that it takes some guesswork to predict when it will line up with the bowl.

At first there is no dining car attached to the train so we have no food. Fortunately, our Russian fellow passengers are seasoned travellers and offer sausage, pickled cucumbers and multiple shots of vodka. Farther along in the journey, a dining car is attached and we indulge on chicken consommé and fine crepes dusted with sugar and cinnamon.

My travelling companion takes a double dose of sleeping pills to "shorten the trip by half" and is soon unconscious. When the border guards come through the train with their sniffer dogs and ask if we have any drugs, it feels odd to look surprised and say we don't when no amount of shaking and screaming will wake her up.

Finally, after 26 hours of endless forests of firs, larch, spruce and silver birch, the train arrives in Irkutsk. The sheer sensation of squeezing my tongue against my teeth to hiss out the last three consonants is pleasure enough to know that we've arrived somewhere very unusual.
The palatial station building seems to be the pride of the town, but immediately beyond it the scenery changes. Roads are pot-holed, the buildings dilapidated and the paper-thin tin trams look like huge toys except their occupants are not smiling.

"We are the richest region in Russia," announces a tourist official. "We have gold, diamonds, nickel, oil and gas, but all the money goes to Moscow, from where it gets apportioned and we end up with peanuts."

But there is no need for apology. Yes, a large part of Irkutsk is grubby, but farther afield there are beautiful 18th century churches, handsome merchant houses, intricately carved windows on log cabins and wide, grassy parks with fountains and flower beds.

Founded 350 years ago, Irkutsk prospered as a gold rush town and as the junction in the 'Tea Road' between China and Europe. It stands on the banks of the wide Angara River along which it is customary for newly-weds to clamp padlocks on the riverside railings.

Several fashionable streets are lined with shops, from chain-store brands (Mango, Adidas) to high-end (Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Max Mara). Ironically, the latter label, one of Italy's more expensive fashion brands, is situated on Karl Marx Street. (Bring your own small version of the Cyrillic alphabet as it's rare to see any signs written in the Latin alphabet.)

A local restaurant serves borscht, pickled cabbage, pelmeni (meat dumplings) and kvas (a fermented rye bread drink). The waitress is a student and speaks reasonable English. She is beautiful, with piercing eyes that seem to swallow whoever looks into them. Russian girls are fashion-conscious and it's always a treat to see what they wear on their feet. There seem to be more shoe shops here than anywhere else in the world.

Asked if she knows about the infamous gulags that were located nearby, the waitress nods and says her grandfather was imprisoned there, but that was long ago. What counts now is having a job to pay the bills and afford all the wonderful things that are now available.

Would she move to a bigger city, like Moscow? "No way," she says, and the restaurant's other patrons agree with her. "Moscow is dangerous, Irkutsk is safe. Everything you'd want is here."

Others say their ancestors moved to Siberia to escape poverty elsewhere in Russia. They were given land holdings and other concessions in exchange for working in this harsh frontier land. And as for the gulags, they have been dismantled and thinking about them won't help anyone anyway.

It seems that Siberians have filed away the repressions and injustices of Communism. And yet, speaking with people who live in former Soviet bloc countries such as Poland, Ukraine or Latvia, their resentment is still high.

For vacations, locals head to Listvyanka or other nearby villages along the shores of the world's largest and oldest fresh water lake, Lake Baikal. Here, the waters are so clear it's possible to see 40m below the surface. In winter the ice is one metre thick, making it the world's biggest skating rink.

Even though summer temperatures are high, swimming in the pristine waters is impossible – it remains freezing cold and, short of running in and out immediately, no one is seen splashing about.

But there are plenty of sunbathers who spread their food and drink on the pebbly beach just below the main street footpath. The young girls are bronzed, slim and stunning in their scant bikinis. Their mothers and aunts are also there, also in bikinis, but fill them out differently.

The lake, with its unique flora and fauna, is an ideal place for nature lovers. There is a story of a curious fish, the Golomyanka which is translucent and supposedly melts in the sunshine because of its high fat content, leaving behind an oily stain and porous bones.

Though still a village of timber cottages with carved painted windows, Listvyanka is in the process of becoming a resort town. The few bars and restaurants are well attended by locals and tourists.

It's time to head west, across the vast expanse of taiga, or coniferous forest, to Ekaterinburg, 50 hours and nearly 3000km from Irkutsk.

Scammers thrive at the railway station. An amiable porter offers his services, which we accept in exchange for a few roubles. Suddenly, five porters spring from nowhere to demand a sum equivalent to $40 because we have not one but two big bags. They produce a concealed 'price list' and insist on payment. Dumbfounded by the extortion, we threaten to go to the Tourist Police. The scammers back off.

Ekaterinburg has the feel of a big city with its wide streets, up-market stores (including the usual preponderance of shoe shops), stately buildings, galleries, theatres and an elegant, riverside esplanade.

In the middle of its main thoroughfare, Lenin Prospekt, stands a tall statue of Lenin with one raised arm, supposedly commanding people to follow his anti-capitalist path. Right behind him is an Armani boutique.

It was in Ekaterinburg in 1918 that the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II and his family were assassinated by the Bolsheviks. The murder took place in a house on whose grounds now stands the golden-domed Church on Blood in Honour of All Saints Resplendant, commemorating the tragic event.

After the murder, the executors threw the bodies into a deep pit, the Ganina Yama, which in 1981 was declared holy ground to honour the royal family' s suffering. Now it's a place of pilgrimage, featuring a monastery and seven chapels, one for each member of the family. Eventually, the Tsar's remains were discovered, exhumed and given a state funeral in July 1998.

Ekaterinburg has an unusual location, lying on the Europe-Asia border which stretches along the Ural Mountains. It's amusing to move back and forth from Europe to Asia or stand literally with one foot in each continent – a stone plaque marks the border.

From here the train leaves Siberia and enters European Russia, heading for Moscow some 26 hours away.

It has been fascinating to experience this part of the world, for so many decades locked away behind the Iron Curtain. It's a place of extreme beauty with a history of savage violence – a place from which my great-grandfather never returned.

His son, my grandfather, studied law and later worked as a solicitor in Poland. My parents left Poland with me and my brother in 1958. We came to Australia because my father wanted to be as far away from the USSR as possible.

Our parents left their homeland
because of the bad, despite the good.

We go back to search for
the good, despite the bad.