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 The old man and the river: Old Believer Fedya, aged 58, has killed seven bears in his time as a hunter

"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. 

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Vanderleun
February 26th, 2014
2:02 AM
An astonishing bit of writing. Very, very evocative. A tour-de-force.

Assia
January 22nd, 2014
5:01 PM
There are so many subjective opinions, no research behind, if there was then it was very basic. I am very disappointed to read only onesies story. No history of Tuva and. Tuvans who have suffered a great deal and have survived all these Chinese and Russian empires to still come out with their language and culture. This is just a shallow non objective description. A waste of time.

Alena
January 21st, 2014
11:01 PM
I am Russian. It is completely outrageous to read things like this: "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". Dear author: before writing something, it'd be good to learn a thing or two about the subject. To look at Wikipedia, for example. While Peter the Great was building St. Petersburg (1703), Patriarch Nikon was 22 years as dead. He died in 1681. Patriarch Nikon reforms were made in 1654, when Peter the Great wasn't even born yet. He was born in 1672, nominally became a Tsar in 1682, while being a 10-years boy.

Victoria Peemot
January 21st, 2014
7:01 PM
The author is a narrow-minded racist. Demonizing one ethnic group and pushing it down several times in one text. Remains Douglas Carruthers who visited Tuva 100 years ago, had Russian guides and made same conclusions.

Vladimir Ivanov
January 21st, 2014
9:01 AM
so beatiful places, I know. Last summer I and my friends have made a rafting through this river. It was fantastic. We have visited Erjei also, but only for a few hours.

William MacDougall
January 3rd, 2014
12:01 PM
Patriarch Nikon was not Peter "the Great's" Patriarch; he pre-dated Peter's rule, and Peter abolished the Patriarchate..

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