A journey through Putin’s Russia part 4

We arrived in Tyumen early morning after another overnight train ride and were greeted by our next guide, a BP interpreter who on first impressions appears to be a bit of a snob, but we warmed to her slowly, first impressions after a rather sleepless journey can mess with your judgement skills.

After checking into the city’s main business hotel of the same name, a soulless but efficient Sheraton clone, we explore the town, famed for it’s Oil wealth. It’s the most modern looking city we’ve come across so far on our journey, but it feels somewhat empty, perhaps because of the blisteringly cold weather and appears to have about the same charisma as Calgary, another town that has rapidly expanded due to oil.

There are brand spanking new shopping malls and boutiques selling designer kitsch that only new money could possibly find tasteful, and several sushi bars that surround an empty main square where music is piped through loudspeakers to almost no-one at all.
Tuymen-ites appear incredibly proud of their wealth and show it off an attitude very reminiscent of Maggie Thatcher’s London in the eighties. In one of the Sushi bars we met a Yulia , a charming woman in her who happily boasted about how she flies abroad on shopping trips spending her husbands money and how they own 4 properties, one of which we later visited.

We also popped by a private English school that had just started it’s first term , for the children of resident foreign businessmen, which was temporarily in borrowed space from a local state high school. They only had 7 pupils when we visited, as the other families were keeping their children in Moscow , waiting for the new premises to be finished .
That night Adrian and I scoured around in the snow around the empty city for an Irish bar that took us forty minutes due to wrong directions from the hotel.

The only thing Irish about it appeared to be the awful U2 background music, and alas with no expats and a closed kitchen so we made our way back to the hotel, which this time only took two minutes and instead resorted to dining in the Hotel restaurant ,where naturally we were their only customers.
After another night train, I was getting tired of them by now, we were greeted by two eccentric play-writes in Omsk, our mission here was to find surrounding villages that were now near deserted as disenchanted agricultural workers moved to the cities, Tayana and Oleg did their utmost for the next two days to obstruct us in our quest in the nicest way possible.

With no malice on their part at all, it became obvious that they were in fact devout Russian Orthodox Christians who were under the spell Varvara, an 80 yr old Holy Woman who lived outside town in a monastery she’d had built independently from the church.
So our first day was spent at Chez Varvara’s, a collection of Log buildings, Churches and Chapels in a silver birch forest clearing about 70 km’s from town.
Varvara appeared after sometime waiting at the gates, dressed in a black habit headscarf and overcoat with the obligatory crucifix around her neck, which Tatyana immediately rushed over to kiss and then gently pressed to her forehead. We of course were also expected to pay homage, so I ventured forth kissed the cross and then bumped it with my forehead with a resounding clang , that probably startled the crows into flying out of the surrounding trees.

After this we were led on a tour of all the chapels and the main church and were expected to cross ourselves in front every religious icon we came across. I of course always got myself mixed up with the whole crossing thing, I’d in fact been thrown out of my local cub scouts as a child when my feigned Catholicism was finally rumbled by my failure to cross myself properly.
We then had a lunch of frozen raw berries, cream, bread, gherkins and chai , whilst Adrian made his interview. Our departure was further delayed by a few words of wisdom from the old lady for each of us and a hard smack on the forehead each as a blessing.

The following day went no better, and this time instead of an empty village we were taken to yet another monastery, until we finally managed to bully Oleg into knocking on a few doors whilst we were there. At one of these doors we met Lyuba a widow pensioner in her seventies who like so many others of her age saw her savings lose all their value in the economic meltdown of the nineties and looked back to the old days of Brezhvnev with rose tinted glasses.

That evening we dined at Tatyana’s, who lived in a Krushchovka apartment block in the centre of Omsk. Her apartment was chintzy in décor and adorned with photograph’s of herself dressed in theatrical Victoriana at a more youthful time of her life and others of her late husband who was tragically a victim of the mafia killings of the nineties. Adrian was immediately trapped by her best friend who bored him with more strange talks of mysticism and pretended to take notes whilst I did the other polite thing which was to eat the meal lovingly prepared for us, which consisted of a salad made of a raw frozen white fish, salami, potato and aubergine.

Afterwards we were treated with a VHS cassette documentary of a mass winter baptism in a nearby frozen lake. It was a bizarre evening but one I wouldn’t have missed for the world, and although the trip didn’t go according to plan we learnt a lot about the importance of faith to many people in Russia today.
At the train station it was an emotional send off on their part, after the hugs and blessings were over we left them standing on the platform at -10 degrees as we once again drifted off into the night this time bound for Novosibirsk.
a few pictures can be seen at the Daily Telegraph.

By Heathcliff O'Malley

Heathcliff O'Malley reports on a journey through Vladimir Putin's Russia.Heathcliff works as a photographer for The Daily Telegraph. You can see some of his work here.

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