During the first part of our voyage in horse-driven sleighs I looked back in dismay at every halt and saw the distance separating us from the railway line getting greater all the time. Obdorsk was not going to be the final destination for any of us, and certainly not for me. The thought of escape never left us for an instant. I had a passport and money for the return voyage skillfully hidden in the sole of my boot. But the large size of the escort and the close watch kept on us made an escape en route extremely difficult. I should say, however, that the possibility of escape existed: not for us all, but for an individual. Several by no means impractical plans were made, but we were put off by the thought of the consequences of an escape on those left behind. The soldiers of the escort, and more particularly the sergeant, were responsible for delivering us safely to our place of exile. In the previous year a sergeant from Tobolsk had been put in a punishment battalion for letting a student prisoner escape. After this the Tobolsk troops were on their guard and their treatment of exiles en route had become much less friendly. It was as though a tacit agreement had been reached between them and the prisoners: there would be no escapes en route. None of us considered this agreement to be absolutely binding. Yet it paralyzed our resolve, and one halt after another went by without anything happening. Towards the end, when we had already traveled several hundred versts, a certain inertia set in and I no longer looked back but forwards; I was impatient to “get there,” worried about receiving books and newspapers. In short I was ready for a long stay. In Berezov this mood was immediately dispelled.
“Any chance of getting out of here?”
“In spring it’s easy.”
“What about now?”
“Not so easy, but it should be possible. Mind you, no one’s tried it yet.”
Everyone, absolutely everyone told us that to escape in the spring was simple and easy because it was physically impossible for a small number of police to control a very large number of exiles. However, controlling fifteen exiles settled in one place and enjoying special attention would not prove impossible. I would do much better to escape at once.
The first condition was to stay behind in Berezov. To continue to Obdorsk meant adding another 480 versts to the return voyage. I announced that I was tired and ill and would resist any attempt to force me to continue the journey at once. The police chief consulted the local doctor and decided to let me stay on in Berezov for a few days. I was put in the hospital. At this time I had no definite plans.
In the hospital I enjoyed relative freedom. The doctor advised me to walk as much as possible and I took advantage of this to size up the situation.
On the face of it the simplest way was to return by the road on which we had come, that is, the “big Tobolsk highway.” But this, I decided, was too unsafe. True, along the road there were many reliable peasants who would convey me secretly from village to village. But still, the chance of unlucky encounters was too great. The entire administration either lived or traveled along the highway. Within two days, or even sooner, someone could get from Berezov to the nearest telegraph office and warn the police posts all the way to Tobolsk. I decided to reject this solution.
Another way was to travel by reindeer across the Urals and then to reach Archangel via Izhma, wait for the opening of navigation in the spring and then embark on a ship going abroad. The road to Archangel was safe, passing only through remote localities. But how safe would it be to stay in Archangel? I knew nothing of conditions there and had no way of obtaining information.
The third plan seemed to be the most attractive. This consisted of traveling by reindeer to the Ural ore mines, taking the narrow gauge railway at Bogoslovsk mine and there changing to the Perm line. Then on to Perm, Vyatka, Vologda, Petersburg, Helsingfors. It is possible to travel by reindeer to the mines straight from Berezov, along the Sosva or Vogtilka rivers. Directly beyond Berezov the country is completely wild. No police for a thousand versts, not a single Russian village, only scattered Ostyak yurts here and there, naturally no question of any telegraph, not a horse anywhere the road was suitable only for reindeer. All I needed was to gain a little headway, and the Berezov police would never catch me even supposing they set out in the right direction.
I was warned that the journey would be full of hardships and physical danger. In some places there was no human habitation for a hundred versts. The Ostyaks, sole inhabitants of the region, suffered from severe endemic diseases; syphilis was rife, typhus a common occurrence. I could expect no help from anyone. A young merchant from Berezov by name of Dobrovolsky had died that winter after two weeks of violent fever in the Ourvi yurts, which lay along the Sosva River. And what if a reindeer died and could not be replaced? What if there was a snowstorm? A storm may last for several days, and anyone caught en route is doomed. And February is the month of snowstorms. Furthermore, was the road actually open at present? Few people took it, and if no one traveled along it for a few days the snow piled up and it was easy to miss one’s way. Such were the warnings I received.
The danger could not be denied. Of course the Tobolsk highway offered great advantages from the point of view of physical safety and “comfort.” But that was precisely why it was infinitely less safe from the point of view of getting caught. I decided to travel along the Sosva river; and I have no reason to regret my choice.
It remained to find someone who would agree to drive me to the Ural mines and that was the riskiest part of the undertaking. 
“Wait a bit, I think I can help you,” a young “liberal” merchant called Nikita Serapionych, with whom I was discussing my problem, told me after long reflection. “There’s a Zyryan fellow living about forty verrsts from here, name of Nikifor he’s a real old fox, he is ... he’s got two heads instead of one, he can do it if anyone can.”
“He doesn’t drink, does he?” I asked prudently.
“What do you mean, doesn’t drink? Of course he drinks, who doesn’t, around here? Drink’s been his undoing, too; he’s a good hunter, used to kill a lot of sables, earn a lot of money. But never mind. If he agrees to do it, maybe he’ll keep off the stuff. Let me go and see him for you. He’s a real old fox, that one ... if he can’t do it, no one else can.”
Nikita Serapionych and I worked out the details of the contract I should offer to Nikifor. I would pay for three reindeer, the best ones available, to be chosen by him. The sleigh would also be mine. If Nikifor delivered me safely to my destination, the reindeer and sleigh would become his property; and, in addition, I would pay him fifty roubles in cash.
That evening I already had the answer. Nikifor accepted the offer. He had already set out for a native tent village, about fifty versts from his house, and would return at noon on the following day with three first class reindeer. We should be able to leave the following night. By that time I would have to be equipped with good reindeer kisy and chizhi , a malitsa or a gus  and with provisions for ten days or so. Nikita Scrapionych offered to attend to all that.
“I’m telling you,” he kept assuring me, “Nikifor will get you there for sure. He can do it if anyone can.”
“Yes, unless he starts drinking,” I added doubtfully.
“Never worry, God grant he won’t. The only thing is, he’s afraid that if you take the mountain road he might miss it, it’s eight years since he’s been that way. You’ll have to follow the river as far as Shominsk Yurts, and that’s a longer way by far.”
Two roads lead from Berezov to the Shominsk Yurts. The first, the “mountain road,” is direct, crossing the Vogulka River in several places and passing the Vyzhnepurtym Yurts. The second road follows the Sosva River and takes you through Shaytansk and Maleyevsk Yurts and other villages. The mountain road is half the distance, but it is infrequently traveled and is liable to get completely snowed up.
Alas, we were unable to leave the following night; Nikifor had failed to turn up with the reindeer, and no one knew where he was. Nikita Serapionych was very crestfallen.
“You didn’t give him any money to buy the reindeer, by chance?” I asked.
“What do you take me for, a child? All I gave him was five roubles, and I made sure his wife saw me do it. Wait, I’ll go and see him again today.”
My departure was postponed by twenty-four hours at least. The police chief might insist any day on sending me to Obdorsk. A bad start!
I left on the third day, February 18.
That morning Nikita Serapionych caine to see me in the hospital and, after waiting for a convenient moment when there was no one else in the room, announced resolutely:
“Tonight at 11:00 p.m. you must slip out unnoticed and come to my place. You’re leaving at midnight. All my family are going to the show tonight, I’ll be alone at home. You’ll change and eat at my house, then I’ll drive you into the forest where Nikifor will be waiting. He’s decided to take the mountain road after all; he’s heard that two Ostyak sleighs passed that way yesterday.
“Is this final?” I asked doubtfully.
“Yes, final and definitive.”
Until evening I tramped up and down restlessly in my room. At 8:00 I went to the army barracks where the “show” was being given; I thought that this would be the best way. The assembly hall of the barracks was chockfull of people. Three large lamps hung from the ceiling, candles fixed to bayonets were lit along the walls. Three musicians were seated below the front of the stage. The front row was occupied by the administration, behind them sat the merchants and the “politicals,” and simpler folk crowded the back rows shop assistants, small tradesmen, and young people. Soldiers stood along the walls. A performance of Chekhov’s The Bear was already in progress. The doctor’s assistant, Anton Ivanovich, a tall, fat, good natured man, played the “bear.” The doctor’s wife was the attractive neighbor. The doctor himself was the prompter and hissed like a goose from his little box in the center of the stage. Then the fancifully painted curtain fell and everyone clapped.
During the interval the politicals gathered into a group and exchanged the latest news. “They say the police chief is very sorry that the two families weren’t allowed to stay in Berezov.” “By the way, the police chief has said that no one can escape from here.” “Well, he can’t be completely right,” someone objected, “if people arrive, that means that people can leave, too.”
The three musicians fell silent and the curtain rose. The next play was The Tragedian Despite Himself, a drama about a husband on holiday. The hospital inspector, a former army doctor’s assistant, played the part of the husband dressed in a tussoresilk jacket and a straw hat in February by the Arctic circle! When the curtain fell once more, I complained of neuralgic pains and left.
Nikita Serapionych was waiting.
“You’ve just got time to have supper and change. I’ve told Nikifor to set out for the rendezvous when the town clock strikes midnight.”
Just before midnight we went outside. After the brightly lit room the darkness seemed impenetrable, but soon I was able to make out the outlines of a sleigh with a single horse harnessed to it. I lay down on the floor of the sleigh, spreading my gus hastily beneath me. Nikita Serapionych covered me with a large bundle of straw and tied the whole packet with rope, as though we were carting goods for delivery. The straw was frozen and mixed with snow. My breath luckily melted the snow and wet flakes soon covered my face. My hands, too, were ice cold inside the straw; I had forgotten to pull on my gauntlet gloves, and now found it difficult to move. The town clock struck twelve. The sleigh started, we passed through the gate of the merchant’s house, and the horse trotted swiftly along the street.
“At last!” I thought. “We’re off!” Even my cold hands and face gave me pleasure because they confirmed the reality of the event. We traveled at a trot for twenty minutes or so and then stopped. I heard a loud whistle, Nikita’s signal. Another whistle came at once from a little distance off, followed by the sound of low voices. “Who’s that talking?” I wondered in alarm. Nikita evidently shared my anxiety because he did not untie me but only muttered something under his breath.
“Who’s that?” I asked quietly through the straw.
“The devil knows whom he’s picked up there,” Nikita replied.
“Is he drunk?”
“Well, he isn’t sober.”
Meanwhile a sleigh with several men in it appeared in the road.
“Never mind, don’t worry, Nikita Serapionych, and tell the character not to worry either,” I heard someone say. “This here is a friend of mine ... and this here’s my old dad ... they’ll never let on ...”
Nikita, grumbling, untied me. Before me stood a tall muzhik wearing a malitsa, but hatless. He had bright red hair and a drunken but nevertheless cunning face, and looked very much like a Ukrainian. A young fellow stood silently a few yards away, and an old man teetered on his feet holding on to the sleigh, obviously very much the worse for drink.
“Never mind, sir, never mind,” the redhaired fellow, whom I guessed to be Nikifor, was saying, “these are my men, I’ll answer for them. Nikifor drinks, but he’s got his wits about him ... Don’t you worry. Look at these bulls here (he pointed at the reindeer), why, I could take you anywhere with these ... My uncle, Mikhail Yegorych, he says to me: go ahead and take the mountain road ... two OstYak sleighs passed that way only yesterday. I’d rather go by the mountain road ... everybody knows me along the river ... So I invited Mikhail Yegorych to have some pelmeni with me he’s a good muzhik, he is ... “
“Hold on a bit, Nikifor Ivanovich, pack the luggage, won’t you?” Nikita Serapionych raised his voice.
Nikifor went to work, and five minutes later the new sleigh was packed and I was sitting in it.
“It’s too bad, Nikifor Ivanovich,” Nikita said reproachfully, “You should never have brought these other men along, didn’t I tell you? Listen here,” he addressed the two, “not a word out of you, eh?”
“Not a word,” the young muzhik said.
The old man twirled a finger vaguely in the air. I bade a warm farewell to Nikita Serapionych.
“On your way!”
Nikifor called smartly to the reindeer and we were off.
The reindeer ran well, their tongues hanging Out from the side of their mouths and their breath coming rapidly, chuchuchuchu. The road was narrow, the beasts huddled together and I was amazed how they managed to run so fast without getting in each other’s way.
“I’m telling you straight,” Nikifor addressed me, “you won’t find better reindeer than these. These are choice bulls, they are; seven hundred in a herd, and these are the best. That old man, Alikhey [?], he said at first: I’ll never let you have those bulls, not on your life. Afterwards, when we’d cracked a bottle between us, he said, all right, take them. And when I was taking them he burst out crying. See here, he said, this leader (Nikifor pointed at the front reindeer) is priceless; if ever you get back safely, I’ll buy him back for the same price. That’s the sort of bulls they are! I paid good money for them, mind, but they’re worth it, and that’s the truth. That leader alone is worth twenty five roubles. Only thing is, my uncle, Mikhail Osipovich, would have lent them to us for nothing at all. He told me straight, he did: you’re a fool, Nikifor. That’s what he said. Nikifor, he said, you’re a fool, why didn’t you tell me you were taking this character, eh?”
“What character?” I interrupted his chatter.
“Why, let’s say yourself.”
Later on I had many occasions to notice that the word character was a favorite one in my driver’s vocabulary.
We had scarcely covered ten versts when Nikifor suddenly brought the reindeer to a halt.
“We’ve got to turn off here, five versts or so ... There’s a tent village where they’re keeping a gus for me. How can I travel in just a malitsa? I’d freeze to death for sure. I’ve got a note from Nikita Serapionych about the gus.“
I was dumbfounded at the ridiculous idea of going out of our way to visit a tent village ten versts from Berezov. From Nikifor’s evasive answers I understood that he should have gone to fetch the gus on the previous day, but had done nothing but drink for the past forty-eight hours.
“You can do what you like,” I said, “but I’m not going with you to fetch any gus. You should have thought of it sooner. If you feel cold, you can put my topcoat on over your malitsa I’m only using it to lie on. And when we get to where we’re going, I’ll make you a present of the sheepskin I’m wearing, it’s better than any gus.
“That’s fine then,” Nikifor agreed readily, “What do we want a gus for? We aren’t going to freeze to death, no sir. Ho ho!” he yelled at the reindeer. “These bulls here don’t need prodding, they’re that good. Ho ho!”
But Nikifor’s high spirits did not last long. The effects of liquor completely overcame him. He became limp, couldn’t sit up straight and fell more and more deeply asleep. I woke him up several times; he shook himself, prodded the reindeer with a long pole and mumbled: “Never worry, these bulls here are firstclass ...,” then fell asleep again. The reindeer had slowed down almost to a walk and only my occasional shouts made them speed up momentarily. A couple of hours passed in this way. Then I, too, dozed off and woke up a few minutes later, realizing that the reindeer had stopped. At first it seemed to me that all was lost ... “Nikifor!” I shouted frantically, pulling him by the shoulder. In reply he only mumbled disconnected words: “What d’you want me to do? I can’t do anything ... I want to sleep, I do.”
This was indeed a sorry state of affairs. We were not more than thirty or forty versts from Berezov, and a halt here certainly did not form part of my plans. I saw that it was no joking matter, and decided to “take measures.#8221;
“Nikifor,” I screamed, pulling the hood off his drunken head and laying it bare to the frosty air, “if you don’t immediately sit up straight and start driving these reindeer, I’ll push you off the sleigh and go on by myself.”
Nikifor woke up a little, whether because of the frost or of my words I don’t know. While sleeping, he had dropped the pole he used for prodding the reindeer; now, staggering and scratching himself, he found an ax in the bottom of the sleigh, cut down a young pine tree at the side of the road and lopped off the branches. The pole was ready, and we set off once more.
I decided that Nikifor needed firm handling.
“You realize what you’re doing, don’t you?” I asked him as severely as I could. “Do you think this is a joke? If they catch us, you’ll have nothing to laugh about.”
“I understand, sir, don’t think I don’t,” replied Nikifor, sobering up more and more. “You can be sure of that. The only trouble is, that third bull isn’t up to much. The first bull’s fine, the second one’s fine, only the third one ... to tell the truth, he’s no damn use at all.”
It was getting on for morning, and the temperature was falling noticeably. I put my gus on top of my sheepskin and felt perfectly comfortable. But poor Nikifor’s state was becoming sorrier all the time. The heat from the alcohol was gone, the frost had crept under his malitsa, and the poor fellow was shivering all over.
“Why don’t you put my fur coat on,” I suggested.
“No, it’s too late for that; I must warm myself and warm the coat first.”
An hour later we saw some yurts three or four wretched log huts by the side of the road.
“I’ll go inside for five minutes, ask about the road and warm myself a little.”
Five minutes passed, then ten, fifteen, twenty. A shape wrapped in fur came near, stood awhile beside my sleigh and went away again. The moon began to rise and the forest together with those wretched huts seemed to me to take on a sinister glow.
“How will it all end?” I asked myself. “How far can I get with this drunk? At this rate they’ll have no difficulty in catching us. In his drunken state, Nikifor is capable of giving everything away to the first person we meet on the road; they’ll inform Berezov, and that’ll be the end of me. Even if they don’t catch us there and then, they’ll telegraph every station along the narrow-gauge railway. Is it worth going on?” I wondered.
About half an hour had gone by. Nikifor did not appear. It was essential to find him, yet I had not even noticed which of the huts he had entered. I went up to the first hut and looked in through the window. The hearth in the corner was full of flames. On the floor stood a steaming saucepan. A group of men, with Nikifor in the center, sat on the raised plank bed; Nikifor was holding a bottle. I started drumming on the window and the adjoining wall. Nikifor appeared a minute later. He was wearing my fur coat, which emerged by two inches from underneath his malitsa.
“Get on that sleigh!” I shouted as fiercely as I could.
“Right away, right away,” he replied very meekly. “Don’t worry, I just had a little warm, now we’ll be getting on. By nighttime we’ll have gone so far, the devil himself couldn’t catch us. The only trouble is, that third bull’s useless, might as well not have him at all.”
We drove off.
It was about 5:00 a.m. The moon had risen long ago and was shining brightly, the frost had hardened, there was a smell of morning in the air. I was wearing my reindeer fur coat on top of my sheepskin and felt warm and comfortable; Nikifor in the driver’s seat seemed confident and wide awake; the reindeer ran at a spanking pace, and I dozed quietly. From time to time I woke up and saw the same unchanging picture. The area we were traversing was almost treeless marshland; a few undersized, stunted pines and birch trees punctuated the snow, the road was a narrow, almost invisible winding strip. The reindeer ran with the indefatigability and regularity of automatic machines, and their loud breathing was like the noise of a small engine. Nikifor had flung back his white hood and sat with his head bare. Tufts of white reindeer fur from the hood had stuck to his head and it looked as though it were covered with frost. “We’re on our way,” I thought, a wave of joy rising within me, “it may be a whole day, or even two days, before they miss me ... we’re on our way ...” And I dozed off again.
At about 9:00 Nikifor stopped the reindeer. A choum, or nomad’s tent, shaped like a truncated cone, made of reindeer skins, stood almost directly by the road. An Ostyak sleigh with reindeer already harnessed stood outside the tent; there was a pile of chopped logs, fresh reindeer skins hung drying on a line, a skinned reindeer head with huge antlers lay on the snow, two children wearing malitsas and kisas played with some dogs.
“What’s this tent doing here?” Nikifor wondered aloud. “I didn’t think we’d see any till the Vyzhnepurtym Yurts.” He enquired, and was told that these were Ostyaks from Kharumpatovsk, 200 versts away, hunting squirrel in these parts. I gathered up our cooking utensils and provisions; we climbed into the choum through a small opening covered with a skin flap, and made ready to have breakfast.
“Paisi,” Nikifor greeted our hosts.
“Paisi, paisi, paisi!” came the answer from all sides.
Piles of fur lay all over the floor, and human figures stirred upon them. They had been drinking here the previous night, and everyone was feeling the aftereffects. A bonfire burned in the center of the tent and the smoke escaped freely through a large hole left at the top. We hung our kettle over the fire and added some logs. Nikifor was conversing freely in the Ostyak language. A woman with a baby whom she had just been nursing rose to her feet and, without concealing her bare breast, moved up to the fire. She was ugly as death. I gave her a sweet. Two other figures rose at once and moved towards us. ’They want some vodka,” Nikifor translated. I gave them some spirit, hellish spirit at 95 degrees. They drank, wrinkling their faces and spitting on the floor. The woman with the bare breasts also drank her share. “The old man would like some more,” Nikifor explained, offering a second glass to a bald, elderly Ostyak with greasy red cheeks. Later he added: “I’ve hired this old man for four roubles to come with us as far as the Shominsk Yurts. He’ll drive his troika ahead of us and open up the road, our reindeer will run more briskly behind his.”
We drank our tea and ate our food. I gave our hosts some cigarettes as a farewell gift. Then we piled all our things into the old man’s sleigh, got into ours and drove off. The sun shone high in the sky, the road now led through forest, the air was bright and cheerful. The old man drove his three white vazhenki (does), all of which were in calf, ahead of us. He carried a pole of immense length with a small horn knob at one end and a sharp metal point at the other; Nikifor too had taken a new pole. The vazhenki pulled the old man’s light sleigh at great speed and our bulls kept up with them smartly.
“Why doesn’t the old man cover his head?” I asked Nikifor, surprised to see the Ostyak’s bald head exposed to the frosty air.
“That’s the quickest way to get rid of the liquor fumes,” Nikifor explained.
Half an hour later the old man stopped his vazhenki and came asking for more spirit.
“We’d better give him some,” Nikifor decided, taking a nip himself at the same time. “His vazhenki were already harnessed, didn’t you see?”
“Well, and so what?”
“He was just going to Berezov for more liquor. What if he didn’t keep his mouth shut? So I hired him. We’ll be safer that way. He won’t get to town for at least a couple of days now. I’m not afraid for myself, you understand. Why should I be? All right, so they ask me: did you drive this character? Well, how am I to know whom I’m driving? They’re policemen, I’m a driver. They get their wages, I get mine. Their job is watching people, mine’s driving. Am I right or not?”
Today is February 19. Tomorrow is the opening of the State Duma. Amnesty! “Amnesty will be the first duty of the State Duma.” Maybe ... but it is better to wait for amnesty a few dozen degrees further west. We’ll be safer that way, as Nikifor says.
After passing the Vyzhnepurtym Yurts we came across a sack full of bread lying in the road. It weighed over a poud. Despite my protests, Nikifor insisted on putting it in our sleigh. I took advantage of his falling once more into a drunken sleep and quietly threw the sack out again; the weight could only slow down our reindeer.
On waking, Nikifor found neither the sack of bread nor the pole he had taken from the old mans tent.
These reindeer are extraordinary creatures. They seem never to get hungry or tired. They had had no food for twenty four hours before we set out, and it will soon be another twenty four hours that we have been traveling. Nikifor says they’re “only just getting going.” They run at a steady, tireless pace of about eight or ten versts an hour. After every ten or fifteen versts we stop for two or three minutes while they make water, then we drive on. This is known as a “reindeer run,” and since no one has ever counted the versts in this part of the world, distances are measured in terms of “runs.” Five runs correspond to about sixty or seventy versts.
When we get to Shominsk Yurts, where we are to leave the old man and his vazhenki, we shall have done at least ten runs. That’s not a bad distance.
At about 9:00 p.m., as night was falling, we had our first encounter with a few sleighs coming in the opposite direction. Nikifor tried to pass them without stopping, but failed; the road is so narrow that the reindeer sink up to their bellies into the snow if you drive even slightly off it. The sleighs stopped. One of the drivers came up to us, took a close look at Nikifor and addressed him by name. “Whom are you driving? Are you going far?”
“No, not far,” Nikifor replied, “He’s a merchant from Obdorsk.”
The meeting made him quite agitated.
“That was the devil’s doing, that was. I hadn’t seen that fellow for a full five years, and still he recognized me, God damn him. They’re Zyryans from Lipinsk, a hundred versts from here, going to Berezov for goods and vodka. They’ll get there by tomorrow night.”
“I don’t care,” I said. “They can’t catch us now. I only hope you won’t have any trouble when you get back there.”
“What trouble should there be? I’ll tell them: I’m a driver, driving’s my business, knowing people’s names is yours. How am I to know whether a character’s a merchant or a political? It isn’t written on his forehead. You’re a policeman, I’m a driver. Is that right?”
Night fell, dark and deep. The moon rises only towards morning. The reindeer, despite the darkness, kept well on the road. We met no one more. At 1:00 we suddenly drove into a circle of bright light and stopped. A bonfire was burning brightly by the side of the road; two figures, one large, the other small, were seated beside it. Water was boiling in a pot, and an Ostyak boy was slicing chips of tea from a teabrick and throwing them into the boiling water.
We walked into the circle of light and our sleigh was immediately lost in the surrounding darkness. I could not understand a word of the language spoken. Nikifor took a cup from the boy, put a handful of snow into it and lowered it for a moment into the boiling water; then put in another handful and lowered the cup into the water once more. It was as though he were preparing a mysterious potion at this fire lost in the depths of this dark northern wasteland. Then he drank greedily and long.
Our reindeer seem to be getting tired. Every time we stop they lie down beside one another and eat snow.
At about 2:00 a.m. we reached the Shominsk Yurts. Here we decided to rest and feed our reindeer. Yurts here are not nomad dwellings but permanent log huts. But there is an immense difference between them and those in which we stopped along the Tobolsk highway. Those yurts were, in essence, peasant izbas, with two rooms, a Russian-type brick stove, a samovar, chairs just a little dirtier and less prosperous than the house of any ordinary Siberian muzhik. Here there is only one “room” with a primitive hearth instead of a stove, without any furniture, a low entrance door and a slab of ice instead of a window pane. Nevertheless I felt marvelous once I had taken off my gus, sheepskin, and kisy, which an old Ostyak woman immediately hung by the hearth to dry. I had eaten nothing for almost twenty-four hours.
It was a delightful feeling to sit on the raised plank bed covered with reindeer skins, eat Nikita’s cold roast veal, and wait for my tea. I drank a glass of brandy, my head reeled a little and I felt as though our voyage were already at an end. A young Ostyak with long pigtails plaited with red cloth ribbons got off the bed and went out to feed our reindeer.
“What will he give them?”
“Moss. He’ll turn them loose at a place where there’s moss growing, and they’ll get at it under the snow, never worry. They’ll dig a hole, lie down in it and eat their fill. A reindeer doesn’t want much.”
“Won’t they eat bread?”
“They eat nothing but moss unless you get them used to baked bread when they’re young, but that doesn’t often happen.”
The old woman added more logs to the fire and then woke a young Ostyak woman who, covering her face with a kerchief so that I shouldn’t see her, went out to help her husband, a young fellow whom Nikifor hired for two roubles to accompany us to Ourvi. Ostyaks are a terribly lazy lot, and all their work is done by women. This is not only true of household work; many Ostyak women carry rifles and go out hunting squirrel and sable. A forestry official in Tobolsk once told me extraordinary stories about the Ostyaks’ idleness and their attitude toward their wives. He had to travel around the remotest parts of Tobolsk district, the so-called “tumaizy.” As guides he used to hire young Ostyaks at 3 roubles a day. And each of these young Ostyaks used to be accompanied into the “tumany” by his wife, or, if he was single, by his mother or sister. The woman would carry all the baggage an ax, cooking pot, a bag with provisions. The man only carried his knife stuck into his belt. When they stopped to rest, the woman would clear a space, take the husband’s belt to ease him, light a fire, and prepare tea. The man did nothing but smoke his pipe and wait.
The tea was ready, and I raised the cup greedily to my lips. But the water stank unbearably of fish. I put two spoonfuls of cranberry essence into the cup and only then was able to drink.
“Don’t you mind it?” I asked Nikifor.
“No, we don’t mind fish, we eat it raw, straight out of the net, while it’s jumping in your hand. There’s nothing tastier.”
The young Ostyak woman reentered the room, still half-covering her face, and, standing by the hearth, adjusted her clothing with divine unselfconsciousness. Then her husband came in and, through Nikifor, offered to sell me fifty squirrel furs.
“I told him you were a merchant from Obdorsk, so he wants you to buy,” explained Nikifor.
“Tell him I’ll drop in on my way back, no point in buying now.”
We drank our tea and smoked. Nikifor lay down on the raised bed to have a sleep while the reindeer were feeding. I too longed to lie down and sleep, but was afraid of sleeping through till morning; instead, I took out my exercise-book and pencil and settled by the hearth to jot down my impressions of the first twenty-four hours of the journey. How simply, how well everything was going! Too well, perhaps ... At 4:00 a.m. I woke up the two drivers and we left.
“I see the Ostyak men as well as their women wear pigtails with ribbons and rings; I daresay they don’t plait them more than once a year?”
“Their pigtails?” Nikifor replied. “Oh no, they plait them often. When they’re drunk, they always get at each other’s pigtails. They’ll drink and drink, then suddenly, hop! they’ve grabbed someone by the pigtail. The one that’s weaker says, ’Let me go.’ The other’ll let him go. Then they’ll drink together once more. They’re never angry with one another, they haven’t the heart for it.”
After Shominsk Yurts we joined the Sosva River. The road sometimes follows the river, sometimes goes through a forest. A sharp, penetrating wind is blowing, and I am having difficulty in jotting down these notes. We are driving through open country, between a birch grove and the riverbed. The road is murderous. If I look back I can see how the wind immediately covers over with snow the tracks left by our sleigh. The third reindeer keeps stumbling off the road, sinking to its belly in the deep snow, getting back on the track by a series of desperate jumps, jostling the middle reindeer and pushing the front one off the road. When we are driving on the river ice or over frozen marshland, we have to proceed at walking pace. Worst of all, our “leader” that selfsame bull that had no equal anywhere has gone lame. Dragging his left hind leg, he continues staunchly to run along this dreadful road, and only his lowered head and extended tongue with which he tries to lick up a little snow as he runs show what a hard time he’s having.
Suddenly the road dropped down and we found ourselves between two snow walls about an arshin and a half in height. The reindeer huddled together and it looked as if the two outside ones were carrying the middle one on their flanks. I noticed that the leader’s front leg was bloody.
“I’m something of a vet, you know,” explained Nikifor. “I thought he could do with a bit of bloodletting while you were asleep.”
He stopped the reindeer, took a large claspknife out of his belt, gripped it between his teeth and started feeling the reindeer’s bad leg. “Can’t make it out, can’t make it out at all,” he muttered, and began digging with the knife a little above the hoof. The beast lay with its legs pulled up, making not a sound while the operation proceeded. When it was over it sadly licked up the blood on the hurt leg. Patches of blood, sharply outlined against the snow, marked our stopping place. I insisted that the Ostyak’s reindeer be harnessed to our sleigh while our beasts pulled his light one. The poor lame leader was tied on behind.
We have been traveling for five hours or so after leaving the Shominsk Yurts, and it is another five hours to Ourvi; only there will we be able to change our reindeer at the house of a rich reindeer breeder called Semyon Pantiuy. But will he agree to hire his beasts out for such a long journey? I discuss the matter with Nikifor. Perhaps we shall be obliged to buy two teams of three reindeer from Semyon? ’Well, what of it?” says Nikifor defiantly, “so we’ll buy them!” My method of traveling seems to impress him in the same way as the voyages of Phineas Fogg once impressed me. If you remember, Phineas Fogg bought elephants and steamships and, when fuel was in short supply, threw all the wooden parts of his railway train into the engine furnace. At the thought of new difficulties and expenses, Nikifor, when he is under the influence of drink, that is, nearly all the time, becomes uncontrollable. He identifies himself completely with me, winks slyly at me and says: “Yes, it’s going to cost us a pretty penny ... but we don’t give a damn, we don’t. Money’s no object to us. Bulls? Let’em die, we’ll buy new ones. Why should I care about losing a bull? I never . . . let him run while he can, I say. Ho ho! All we care about is getting there. Am I right?”
“If Nikifor doesn’t get you there, no one will. My uncle Mikhail Osipovich (he’s a good muzhik, that one), he says to me: ’Nikifor, you going to drive this character? Go ahead, drive him. Take six bulls from my herd if you like. Free of charge.’ And Suslikov, he’s a corporal in the army, he says: ’Driving him, are you? Here’s five roubles for you then,’ he says.”
“Why did he give you five roubles?”
“For taking you away.”
“Are you sure it was for that? Why should he care?”
“I swear it was for that. He loves the brothers, does Suslikov, he’ll do anything for them. For, let’s face it, whose side are you on? The community, the poor people, that’s who you’re for. ’Here are five roubles,’ says he, ’drive him away, I give you my blessing. I’ll stake my head on it,’ he says.”
The road enters the forest and improves immediately; the trees protect it from drifting snow. The sun is high in the sky, the forest is still, and I am so warm that I take off my gus and remain in just the sheepskin. The Ostyak from Shominsk keeps falling behind and we have to wait for him. Pine trees surround us on all sides. Enormously tall trunks without branches till the very top, bright yellow and straight like candles. You have the impression of driving through an old, handsome park. The stillness is total; only very rarely a pair of white willow-ptarmigan start up, indistinguishable from the snow, and fly off deeper into the forest. Then the pine forest stops abruptly, the road dips down steeply towards the river, we keel over, right ourselves, cross the Sosva and continue over open ground. A few tinder-sized birches protrude from the snow. We must be driving across marshland.
“How many versts have we done?” I ask Nikifor.
“About 300, I daresay. Only who’s to know? Whoever measured the versts, hereabout? The Archangel Michael, and no one else ... They say ’an old woman started measuring with her crutch, but she soon gave tip.’ Never mind, sir, another three days or so and we’ll get to the ore mines, just so long as the weather holds. Sometimes it’s very bad around here. Once I got into a snowstorm near Lyapin, did no more than three versts in three days, God protect us.”
Here we are in Malye Ourvi. Three or four wretched yurts, only one of them inhabited. Twenty years ago they were probably all full of people. The Ostyaks are dying out at a terrifying rate ... Another ten versts or so, and we’ll arrive at Bolshie Ourvi. Will Semyon Pantiuy be there? Will he give us a change of reindeer? Ours have become completely useless.
We’re in trouble! No muzhiks are to be found at Ourvi, they are all away in tents, two reindeer runs away; we must drive back a few versts and then turn off the road. If we had stopped at Malye Ourvi and inquired there, we should have saved ourselves several hours of travel. In a mood bordering on despair I waited while some women tried to find us a reindeer to replace our lame leader. As everywhere and always, the Ourvi women were recovering from a drinking bout, and when I began unwrapping our provisions they asked for vodka. I converse with them through Nikifor, who is equally fluent in Russian, Zyryan, and two Ostyak dialects, “upper” and “lower,” which are almost totally different from one another. The local Ostyaks do not know a word of Russian; however, Russian swearwords have become part and parcel of the Ostyak language, and, together with state monopoly vodka, are the most obvious gift of Russian culture to the natives. In the midst of incomprehensible sounds, in a country where no one can even say “hello” in Russian, a familiar obscenity suddenly flashes like a meteor, pronounced perfectly clearly and without the slightest accent.
From time to time I offer my cigarettes to the Ostyaks and their women. They smoke them with respectful contempt. Their palates, annealed by the fire of almost pure spirits, are quite insensitive to my poor offerings. Even Nikifor, who has a high opinion of all the products of civilization, has confessed that he thinks my cigarettes unworthy of attention. “This horse needs stronger oats,” he said in explanation of his verdict.
We are driving towards the tents. How wild this country is! Our reindeer wander among snowdrifts, stumble amid the trees of this primeval forest, and I am at a loss to guess how my driver can tell the way. He has a special sense for it, like the reindeer themselves as they negotiate their huge antlers in the most astonishing way through the thicket of pine and fir branches. The new leader they gave us at Ourvi has enormous antlers, at least five or six hand-spans long. The road, such as it is, is barred by branches at every other step and one feels sure that the antlers will get caught in them. But at the last moment the bull performs a barely noticeable movement with his head and manages to miss the branches so that not a single pine needle is disturbed. I have watched these maneuvers for a long time and they seem to me infinitely mysterious, as do all manifestations of pure instinct to our ratiocinatiiig minds.
More trouble! The old man has gone with one of his laborers to a summer camping ground where he had left some of his reindeer. He is expected back at any moment, but no one knows when exactly he will turn up. His son, a young fellow with his upper lip split in half, daren’t negotiate with us in his absence. We are obliged to wait. Nikifor has put our reindeer out to graze, or rather to eat moss, and has carved his initials in the fur of their backs with his knife to make sure they don’t get mixed up with the local herd. Then he mended our sleigh, which had been badly shaken up by the long drive. With a despairing heart I walked around the clearing, then entered the tent. A completely naked small boy of three or four was sitting on a young Ostyak woman’s lap; his mother was dressing him. What is it like, living with children in these huts at forty or fifty degrees below zero? “At night it’s not too bad,” explains Niki for, “they dig themselves into a pile of furs and go to sleep. I’ve wintered many a time in tents, you know. An Ostyak will strip for the night, then he’ll climb in between the furs. Sleeping’s all right, getting up’s worse. Your breath makes your clothes stiff enough to cut with an ax ... Getting up’s bad.” The young woman wrapped the little boy in the skirt of her malitsa and put him to the breast. Here they breastfeed children until the age of five or six.
I boiled some water on the hearth. Before I could say anything, Nikifor had poured some tea leaves from my box on the palm of his hand (dear God, what a palm it is!) and threw them into the kettle. I didn’t like to protest, and now I must drink tea that has been in contact with a hand that has seen many things, but hasn’t seen any soap for a long time.
The Ostyak woman finished feeding her boy, washed him, dried him with fine wood shavings, dressed him and let him out of the tent. I was struck by the tenderness with which she handled the child. Now she is at work sewing a malitsa out of reindeer skins, using reindeer veins for thread. The work is not only solid but also, unquestionably, elegant. The edges of the coat are decorated all over with ornamental patterns made of pieces of white and dark reindeer fur. A strip of red cloth is woven into every seam. Every member of the family wears pimy, malitsy, gusi made by the women of the house. What an appalling amount of labor goes into all this!
The eldest son has been lying sick in the corner of the tent for over two years. He gets medicines where he can, takes them in vast quantities and spends the winters here, in the tent with its pierced roof. The sick man has an unusually intelligent face; disease has carved lines into it which resemble traces of thought. I recall that it was here, among the Ourvi Ostyaks, that Dobrovolsky, the young merchant from Berezov who had come to buy furs, died a month ago. Before he died he tossed in fever, without any help, for many days
Old Pantiuy for whom we are waiting owns about 500 reindeer. He is known throughout the countryside for his wealth. A reindeer here is everything food, clothing, transport. A few years ago the price of a reindeer was six to eight roubles, now it is ten to fifteen. Nikifor explains this by the incessant epidemics which kill off hundreds of beasts.
The light is going fast. It is obvious to me that no one is going to catch any reindeer for us before nightfall, but I am reluctant to abandon the last hope and I wait for the old man more impatiently, perhaps, than anyone has ever waited for him in his long life. It was already quite dark when he arrived at last with his hired men. He entered the tent unhurriedly, greeted us, and sat down by the hearth. His face, intelligent and commanding, struck me greatly. Obviously the five hundred reindeer he owns make him feel a king from head to foot.
“Talk to him, won’t you?” I nudged Nikifor. “What’s the use of wasting time!”
“It’s too soon, they’ve got to have supper first.”
The laborer, a tall, wide-shouldered muzhik, came in, greeted us in a nasal voice, changed his wet foot-cloths in a corner and moved up to the fire. What a dreadful face! The nose has completely vanished, the upper lip is raised high, the mouth is always half-open, baring a set of white, powerful teeth. I turned away, terrified, from this unfortunate.
“Perhaps the time has come to offer them some spirits?” I asked Nikifor, whose authority in these matters I have come to respect.
“Couldn’t be a better time for it,” he agreed.
I took out the bottle. The daughter-in-law, who had begun covering her face since the old man’s return, lit a piece of tree bark at the fire and, using it as a torch, found a metal drinking bowl in a trunk. Nikifor wiped the drinking bowl with the hem of his shirt and filled it to the brim. The first portion was offered to the old man. Nikifor explained to him that this was 95 degree spirit; the old man nodded gravely and emptied the large bowl in one gulp; not a muscle quivered in his face. Then the younger son, the one with the split lip, had a bowlful; he forced himself to drink, wrinkled his poor face, and then took a long time spitting into the fire. Then the laborer drank, and his head began rocking uncontrollably from side to side. Then the bowl was offered to the sick man; he failed to drain it and returned the bowl. Nikifor threw the remainder into the fire to show the quality of the product: the alcohol burned with a bright flame.
“Taak ,” the old man said calmly.
“Taak,” confirmed his son, expelling a long jet of spittle from his mouth.
“Saka taak ,” added the laborer.
Then Nikifor had a drink and also found that it was too strong. The spirit was diluted with tea. Nikifor stuck his finger in the neck of the bottle and shook it. Everyone had another drink. Then they diluted it once more and had one more drink. At last Nikifor began to explain our business.
“Saka khosa," said the old man.
“Khosa, saka khosa," the others chimed in. “What are they saying?” I asked impatiently.
“They say it’s very far ... He wants thirty roubles to the ore mines.
“How much does he want to go as far as Nyaksimvol?”
Nikifor muttered something, obviously displeased (I was not to know the reason until later), but translated my question to the old man and replied: “Thirteen roubles to Nyaksimvol, thirty to the ore mines.
“Well, when will he round up the reindeer for us?”
“As soon as it’s dawn.”
“Why not now?”
Nikifor, with an ironical look, translated my question. Everyone laughed and shook their heads negatively. I understood that a night halt could not be avoided and went out into the fresh air. It was still and warm. I walked in the clearing for half an hour and then lay down to sleep in our sleigh.
Wearing my sheepskin and gus I lay as if in an animal’s lair made of fur. A circular segment of sky above the tent was lit up with the light of the dying fire.
Total stillness everywhere. The stars hung high and clear in the sky. The trees stood motionless. The smell of reindeer furs moistened by my breath was a little suffocating, but the warmth was pleasant, the stillness of the night had a hypnotizing effect and I fell asleep with the firm resolve to arouse the muzhiks at the crack of dawn and to leave as soon as possible. So much time lost! A disaster!
I woke up with a start several times, but it was still dark. Soon after 4:00, when the sky was just beginning to brighten, I went inside the tent, groped my way through to Nikifor and shook him awake. He aroused all the others. It is evident that forest life during the icy winters has left its mark on these people: after waking they coughed, hacked, and spat on the floor for so long that I was unable to go on watching the scene and got out into the fresh air. At the entrance to the tent a boy of about ten was pouring water from his mouth onto his dirty hands and then spreading it over his dirty face; having completed this operation, he dried himself meticulously with a handful of wood shavings.
Soon thereafter the laborer without a nose and the son with a split lip went off on skis, accompanied by dogs, to round up the reindeer. A good half hour passed before the first group of animals approached the tent.
“That’s all right then,” said Nikifor, “the whole herd’ll be here in a moment.”
But this was not the case. Two hours went by before a sufficient number of reindeer had collected in the clearing. They walked quietly around the outside of the tent, dug the snow with their muzzles, gathered into groups, and lay down. The sun had already risen above the forest and shone over the snow-covered clearing. The silhouettes of the reindeer, large and small, dark and white, with antlers and without, stood out sharply against the snow a fantastic sight that seemed unreal and that I will never forget. The reindeer are controlled by dogs. These small, shaggy creatures hurl themselves at groups of fifty reindeer or more as soon as they wander away from the tent and the huge beasts, panic-stricken, return at once.
But even this could not drive away thoughts of the time lost. This day, the opening day of the State Duma, was proving an unlucky day for me. I waited with feverish impatience for the roundup to be completed. It was already past 9:00, but the herd was not yet all there. We had lost twenty-four hours; obviously we could not leave before 11:00 or midday, and then there was the return journey to Ourvi, twenty to thirty versts on an almost nonexistent road. If things went badly, they might catch up with me before night. If the police had missed me the day after I had left and had got one of Nikifor’s innumerable drinking companions to disclose what route we had taken, a search party might have set out on the night of the nineteenth. We had traveled no more than 300 versts. This distance could be covered in twenty-four to thirty-six hours. In other words, we had just given the enemy sufficient time to catch us. The present delay might prove fatal.
I began nagging Nikifor. Hadn’t I told him the night before that we should go out and look for the old man instead of waiting for him? We should have paid out a few more roubles rather than waste all night. If only I could speak Ostyak myself, I’d have fixed it all ... but that was what Nikifor was supposed to do, that was his job ... etc., etc.
Nikifor looked past me with a sulky face.
“What’s one to do with them when they don’t want to start before morning? And their reindeer, too, are spoiled and overfed, no hope of rounding them up in the middle of the night. But never fear,” he added suddenly, turning his gaze upon me, “w’e’ll get there!”
“Are you sure?”
“We’ll get there!”
I too became suddenly convinced that all would be well, that we would get there. The more so as the whole clearing was now filled with reindeer and the two Ostyaks on skis appeared between the trees.
“Watch, they’re going to pull in the reindeer now,” said Nikifor.
I saw each of the Ostyaks take up a lasso. The old man slowly arranged the loop over his left arm. Then all three of them talked together in loud voices, apparently working out a plan and choosing the first victim. Nikifor, too, was let into the plot. His job was to set a particular group of reindeer galloping down the wide space between the old man and his son. The laborer stood a little further along. The frightened beasts rushed in a solid mass, a stream of heads and antlers. The men seemed to be watching out for a pinpoint in the stream. Now! The old man threw his lasso and shook his head in disappointment. Now! The young Ostyak missed too. I felt the noseless man, standing on open ground in the midst of the stream of reindeer, looked so confident, so elementally powerful, that, as I watched the movements of his hand, I felt sure he would succeed. The reindeer all shied back from the rope, but a large, white bull, after making two or three leaps, stopped and began to twist and turn on the spot: the loop had caught him around the neck and antlers.
Nikifor explained to me that the animal which had been caught was the most cunning of the reindeer, who caused constant trouble by leading the whole herd away when it was most wanted. Now the white rebel would be tied up and things would go more smoothly. The Ostyaks picked up their lassos again, looping them around the left arm, and exchanged loud remarks, working out a new plan of action. I, too, was seized by the disinterested passion of the hunt. Nikifor told me that they were now going to catch that big vazhenka over there, with the short horns, and I joined the military operations. We began driving a group of reindeer in the direction where the three men stood waiting with their lassos. But the vazhenka seemed to know what was awaiting her. She darted off to one side and would have disappeared in the forest if the dogs had not taken up the pursuit. An encircling movement had to be executed. This time the noseless man was again the one who succeeded in choosing the right moment and throwing the loop over the vazhenka’s neck.
“This one’s barren, she’s never had a calf,” explained Nikifor; “that’s why she’s specially good for work.”
The hunt was exciting, although long drawn-out. After the vazhenka a huge reindeer with the look of a real bull was caught by two lassos at once. Then there was a lull because the group of reindeer that was wanted escaped into the forest. The laborer and the younger son went off once more on their skis, and we had to wait for half an hour or so. Towards the end things went better, and, with concerted effort, we managed to catch thirteen reindeer seven for Nikifor and me, six for our hosts. At last, at about 11:00, in four sleighs drawn by three reindeer each, we set off in the direction of Ourvi. The Ostyak laborer will accompany us as far as the ore mines. A seventh, spare reindeer is tied on behind his sleigh.
The lame bull, left behind at Ourvi while we went to the tent village, never recovered. He lay limply on the snow and let himself be caught without a lasso. Nikifor let his blood once more, but to no better purpose than before. The Ostyaks said he must have dislocated a leg. Nikifor stood over him for a while, not knowing what to do, and then sold him for eight roubles to one of the locals for meat. The man dragged the poor brute away on a rope. Such was the melancholy end of the bull “which had no equal anywhere in the world.” Curiously, Nikifor sold the animal without asking my consent; yet our agreement had been that the reindeer would become his property only after he had safely delivered me to my destination. I was very reluctant to let the knacker take away an animal that had served me so well, but I hadn’t the courage to protest. Having completed his business transaction, Nikifor turned to me, put the money in his purse, and said: “That’s twelve roubles’ pure loss.” What a funny fellow he is! He has forgotten that it was I who paid for the reindeer, and that he had assured me that they would transport us the whole way. Yet here am I, obliged to hire new ones after only 300 versts.
Today the weather is so warm that a slight thaw has set in. The snow has softened, and the reindeer’s hooves set wet lumps of it flying in all directions. This makes it harder for the deer to run. Our “leader” is a bull with only one horn and of rather mediocre appearance. The barren vazhenka, working hard, is on the right. Between them is a fat, not very large young bull who has never been in harness before. Escorted on right and left, he is performing his duties conscientiously. The Ostyak is in front, driving a sleigh loaded with my luggage. On top of his malitsa he is wearing a bright red smock, which makes an absurd, and yet central, patch of color against the background of white snow, gray forest, gray reindeer, and gray sky.
The road is so difficult that the traces on the front sleigh have already broken twice: the skids freeze to the road at every halt and it is difficult to set the sleighs in motion. After only two “runs” the reindeer are already noticeably tired.
“Shall we be stopping at Nildinsk Yurts for a drink of tea?” Nikifor asked. “The next yurts are a long way off.”
I could see that both drivers wanted tea, but I was anxious to lose no more time after the twenty-four hours lost at Ourvi, I said we would not stop.
“You’re the boss,” said Nikifor, and gave an angry prod to the barren vazhenka.
We traveled in silence for another forty versts or so. When Nikifor is sober, he is surly and taciturn. The weather turned colder, the road froze and hardened. At Sangiturpaul we decided to stop. The yurt here is marvelous, with benches and a table covered with American cloth. At supper Nikifor translated for me part of the noseless man’s conversation with the women who served us, and I learned a number of interesting things. About three months ago this Ostyak’s wife had hanged herself. And what had she used? A bit of frayed old hempen rope, which she had tied to the end of a branch. The man had been away in the forest hunting for squirrel together with the other Ostyaks. The rural policeman, another Ostyak, had come to find him saying his wife was very sick (the thought flashed through my mind: so they, too, don’t tell you straight away). The Ostyak had said: “What’s her mother there for? Let her make a fire in the hearth, that’s why we keep her with us.” But the policeman had insisted that he should come. The husband had arrived at the tent, but the wife was already “a goner.” “That’s the second wife he’s lost,” Nikifor concluded.
“Don’t tell me the other one killed herself too!”
“No, that one died a natural death, from a sickness.”
It transpired that the two pretty children whom, to my great horror, our Ostyak had kissed goodbye on the mouth when leaving Ourvi, were his children by his first wife. He had lived with the second one for about two years.
“Maybe they forced her to marry him? You only have to look at him,” I said.
Nikifor made inquiries.
“No, he says she came to him of her own free will. Later he paid her old folk thirty roubles and then they all lived together. No one knows why she hanged herself.”
“I don’t suppose it often happens that way, does it?”
“You mean, Ostyaks not dying a natural death? Why, they’re always doing it. Last summer, near my home, an Ostyak shot himself with a rifle.”
“No, by accident. And another time, a police clerk in our district town shot himself. You’ll never guess where – on top of the police tower! Climbed up to the very top and said, take that, you sons of bitches and then he shot himself.”
“An Ostyak, was he?”
“No, a Russian character, Nikita Mitrofanovich Molodtsovatoy.”
When we left the Sangiturpaul night had already fallen. It had stopped thawing long before, but the weather continued very warm. The road was excellent, soft yet dry – a good working road, Nikifor said. The reindeer trod the ground noiselessly and seemed to be pulling without any effort. In the end the third one had to be unharnessed and tied on behind; when reindeer haven’t enough work to do, they tend to swerve from side to side and may end by smashing up a sleigh. The sleigh skidded along smoothly and noiselessly, like a boat on the glassy surface of a pond. In the gathering darkness the forest looked even more gigantic than before. I could not see the road and hardly felt the motion of my sleigh. It was as though the trees were under a spell and came running towards us, bushes slipped away, old tree stumps covered with snow flew past everything seemed filled with mystery. The only sound was the fast, regular chuchuchuchu of the reindeers’ breathing. Thousands of long-forgotten sounds filled my head in the midst of the silence. Suddenly I heard a sharp whistle in the depth of the dark forest. It seemed mysterious and infinitely remote. Yet it was only our Ostyak signaling to his reindeer. Then silence once more, more whistling far away, more trees rushing noiselessly out of darkness into darkness.
In my somnolent state an anxious thought occurs to me. The Ostyaks must figure that I am a rich merchant. We are in the depths of the forest, the night is dark, not a man nor a dog anywhere for fifty versts round. What is to stop them ...
Luckily I have a revolver. But it is locked in my suitcase, which in turn is roped to the Ostyak’s sleigh – the same noseless Ostyak who, at this particular moment, seems to me strangely suspicious. I decide that at the next halt I must take out the revolver and keep it next to myself.
This driver of ours in his red mantle is an extraordinary creature. The lack of a nose does not seem to have affected his sense of smell in the least; it is as though he could scent the road. He knows every tree, every bush, and is as much at home in the forest as he was in his master’s tent. Now he shouts something to Nikifor. It appears that there should be some moss under the snow just here; we can stop and feed our reindeer. We stop and unharness. It is 3:00 a.m.
Nikifor says that Zyryan reindeer, unlike these Ostyak ones, are cunning and he would never let them loose at a halt but would feed them tied up. Letting a reindeer loose isn’t any trouble, he says, but what if you can’t catch him again when you want him? However, the Ostyak has a different opinion and is willing to release his beasts on parole. I am impressed by his noble-mindedness, but nevertheless gaze at the animals’ muzzles with some anxiety. What if they are more attracted by the moss that grows around the Ourvi tent village? That would be regrettable indeed. However, before allowing the reindeer to depart on the basis of a gentleman’s agreement, my two drivers cut down two tall pines and cut them into seven lengths of about an arshin and a half. These logs, supposed to act as a restraining influence, are hung around the necks of each reindeer. Let us hope that they will not prove too light . . .
After releasing the reindeer Nikifor cut some firewood, trod down a circular patch of snow and dug a hollow in which he laid a fire, placing a pile of fir branches around the fire for us to sit on. Two cooking pots were hung over the fire on two green branches stuck in the snow, and we filled them with handfuls of snow. I daresay this tea drinking party around a bonfire in February would have seemed a good deal less attractive if there had been a frost of forty or fifty degrees below zero. But we were exceptionally lucky, and the weather was warm and still.
I was afraid of oversleeping and so decided not to lie down, but sat on by the fire for two hours or so, feeding it and noting down my traveling impressions in its flickering light.
At first dawn I woke the drivers. They caught the reindeer without any difficulty. While they were being harnessed it became fully light and everything around us took on a perfectly prosaic aspect. The pines became smaller, the birches stood still. The Ostyak looked sleepy and last night’s suspicions vanished like smoke. At the same time I remembered that there were only two cartridges in the ancient revolver I had acquired before leaving, and that the person who had sold it to me had urged me not to use it, saying that “there might be an accident.” So it remained inside the suitcase.
We drove on through thick forest pines, firs, birches, powerful larches, cedars and, by the river, willow. The road is good. The reindeer are running well but without friskiness. The Ostyak on the front sleigh has hung his head low and is singing a melancholy song consisting of only four notes. Perhaps he is remembering the frayed old hempen rope that his second wife used to hang herself with.
Forest, nothing but forest ... monotonously uniform over a vast area, yet infinitely diverse in its internal combinations. Here, a pine has rotted and its upper part has fallen right across the road, forming a kind of arch. It is enormous, and snow covers it like a shroud which hangs down over our heads. And here, it seems, there must have been a forest fire last autumn. Dry, straight trunks without bark or leaves stand like telegraph poles planted in the ground without rhyme or reason, or like bare ship’s masts in a frozen harbor. The area of the fire covers several versts. Then we travel through nothing but fir, branchy, dark and dense. The old giant trees jostle one another, their tops meet and stop the sunlight getting in. The branches are covered with a web of green thread, like a coarse spider’s web. Men and reindeer seem smaller amid these centenarian firs. Then, suddenly, the trees became much smaller, as though hundreds of young firs had run out on a snowy plain and formed rows at a regular distance from one another. At a turn of the road we almost collided with a small sleigh pulled by three dogs and driven by a little Ostyak girl. A boy of about five walked at the side. The children were very pretty; I have noticed that Ostyak children are often good-looking. But why, then, are the adults so repulsively ugly?
Forest, forest ... Here again there has been a forest fire, though not so recently; young shoots are growing among the burned trunks. “How do these fires start?” I ask. “By people lighting bonfires?” “Never,” says Nikifor, “in summer there’s not a soul comes here, all the traveling’s done by river. No, the fires are caused by a cloud: a cloud comes over and sets the forest alight. Or else one tree rubs against another in the wind until they strike sparks; in summer the trees are dry. Put out the fires? Who’s there to do it? The wind starts a fire, the wind puts it out. The resin and bark burn away, the needles burn away, the trunk stays up. In a couple of years’ time the roots will be dry and then the trunk will fall too.”
There are many trunks here which are ready to fall. Some are held up only by the thin branches of the adjacent tree. This one here has nearly fallen across the road but something, heaven knows what, is keeping its top up, three arshins or so above the ground; we have to duck to avoid cracking our heads. Now again, for the space of several minutes, there is a zone of mighty firs, then suddenly we are in a cutting that leads down to the river.
“Such cuttings are handy for catching duck in the springtime. In spring they fly downwards, you know. Before sunset you have to stretch a net right across the cutting, between the trees right to the very top. A large net, like a fighting net, see? Then you lie down under a tree. The duck come flying into the cutting and when it gets dark, they can’t see the net, so they get caught in it. You just pull a string, the net’ll fall down and cover them right up. You can bag fifty duck at once, that way. All you have to do is keep snapping them.”
“How, snapping them?”
“You’ve got to kill’em before they’ve a chance of flying away, haven’t you? So you get your teeth around their necks, and snap! that’s the quickest way, blood pouring down your lips and all. Of course you can smash their heads with a stick, too, but snapping’em is safer.”
At the beginning all reindeer, like all Ostyaks, seemed to me identical with one another. But I soon found out that each of our seven deer has a physiognomy of its own, and I have learned to distinguish between them. Sometimes I feel waves of tenderness for these wonderful animals which have already brought me five hundred versts nearer to the railway line.
Our alcohol supplies have given out. Nikifor is sober and glum. The Ostyak keeps singing his song about the hempen rope. There are moments when I find it unspeakably hard to realize that it is I, I, not anyone else, lost here amid this immeasurable wasteland. Two sleighs, seven reindeer and two men, all making this journey because of me. Two men, adults, fathers of families, have left their homes and are suffering all the hardships of the road because I a third person, a total stranger to them both require it.
Such relations exist everywhere, all over the world. But I doubt whether anywhere else but here, in the primeval taiga, where they are exposed in all their crassness, one’s imagination could be so vividly struck by them.
After the night bivouac we passed the Saradeisk and Menkipaul yurts, stopping only at Khanglaz, further along the road. Here the people are, if anything, still more savage than in the other places we have seen. Everything is a novelty to them. My eating utensils, my scissors, my stockings, the blanket I keep in my sleigh, all evoke admiration and astonishment. Everyone makes approving noises whenever I produce anything new. At one point I spread out a map of Tobolsk province and read out the names of all the adjacent yurts and rivers. All listened with gaping mouths and when I had finished declared in unison that everything I had said was exactly right. Having run out of small change, I gave every man and woman three cigarettes and a sweet as thanks for their hospitality. Everyone was highly satisfied. An old Ostyak woman, less repulsive looking than the rest and very lively, literally fell in love with me, or rather with my belongings. You could see from her smile that her feeling was one of purely disinterested admiration of these phenomena from another world. She helped me wrap my legs in the blanket, we shook each other affectionately by the hand and each said a few agreeable words in their own language.
We stopped in a poor Zyryan house. Our host was once a merchant’s clerk, but quarreled with his employer and is now without work. He surprised me at once by his literary, not at all peasant-like, speech. We got into conversation. He spoke with perfect understanding about the possibilities of the Duma being dissolved, the government’s chances of obtaining a new loan, etc. Among other things he asked me whether all Herzen’s works had been published yet. And yet this educated person is a complete barbarian. He wouldn’t move a finger to help his wife, who keeps the entire family. She bakes bread for the Ostyaks, two ovenfuls a day. She fetches wood and water; in addition, she takes care of the children. The night we spent in her house she never went to bed at all. A small lamp burned behind the partition, and we could hear sounds of her hard at work, kneading and shaping bread dough. In the morning she was still on her feet; she boiled the samovar, dressed the children, and handed her just awakened husband his reindeer-skin boots, which she had dried overnight.
“Why doesn’t your man help you?” I asked her when we happened to remain alone.
“There isn’t any real work for him to do, you see. There’s no fishing here, and he’s not used to hunting. The land hereabouts isn’t plowed, last year was the first time anyone tried doing it. So what’s he to do? Our men don’t work in the house, never. They’re lazy, you see, scarcely any better than the Ostyaks. That’s why Russian girls will never marry a Zyryan, what’s the point of putting your head in a noose, they say. Only we Zyryan women will do it. It’s a matter of what you’re used to.”
“And do Zyryan girls marry Russians?”
“Oh yes, lots. Russian muzhiks like marrying our girls because no one’s a better worker than a Zyryan woman. But never the other way around. I don’t think there’s ever been a case of a Russian girl marrying a Zyryan.”
“Well, is the Duma going to meet soon?” Nikifor unexpectedly asked me.
“It met the day before yesterday.”
“I wonder what it’ll do ... I hope it makes them see reason. They’ve got us down properly, they have. Take flour, it used to be a rouble fifty, now, an Ostyak tells me, it’s gone up to one eighty. How do you expect us to live at such prices? Especially we Zyryans. They’ve got it in for us. You fetch a cartload of straw and you have to pay. You put up a pile of firewood, you have to pay. The Russians and the Ostyaks both say the land is theirs, see. The Duma ought to do something about that. Our police sergeant isn’t a bad character at all, but the inspector is a different proposition altogether.”
“The Duma won’t have much to say. They’ll dissolve it, you’ll see.”
“That’s true, they’ll dissolve it,” Nikifor agreed, adding a few strong words whose energy Stolypin might have envied.
We arrived at the Nyaksimvoli yurts at night. Here it was possible to change reindeer, and I decided to do this despite Nikifor’s objections. He kept insisting that we should continue with the Ourvi reindeer, using the most absurd arguments and interfering with my negotiations. I was surprised at his behavior until I understood that he was thinking of the return journey: if we kept the Ourvi reindeer he could go back to where he had left his own beasts without incurring further expense. But I refused to give in, and we hired fresh beasts for eighteen roubles as far as Nikito-Ivdelskoye, a large gold-mining village by the Ural mountains. That is the last point on the reindeer road; beyond it we still had to travel a hundred and fifty or so versts in horse-driven sleighs till we got to the railway line. The distance from Nyaksimvoli to Ivdelskoye is about 250 versts twenty four hours of fast travel.
Here we had a repetition of the same business as at Ourvi: the reindeer could not be rounded up at night and we had to wait till morning.
“You were saying someone in this village tried plowing the land last year. What came of it?”
“It was very good, really. One man sowed a poud and a half of rye, and collected a crop of thirty pouds. Another sowed a poud and collected twenty. About forty versts from here, that was.”
Nyaksimvoli is the first place along the road where I have heard of any attempts at agriculture.
We didn’t leave until the afternoon; the new driver, like all drivers in general, promised to bring his reindeer “at the crack of dawn” but in fact did not turn up till midday. He is not traveling himself but has sent a young lad along with us.
The sunshine was dazzling; I could hardly open my eyes, and even through closed lids the snow and the sun shone like molten metal. At the same time a steady, cold wind prevented the snow from thawing. It wasn’t until we entered the forest that I could rest my eyes a little. The forest is the same as before, and there is the same large number of animal tracks, which Nikifor has taught me to distinguish. A hare’s silly loops that he weaves without any rhyme or reason. Hares are particularly plentiful because nobody hunts them. Here a whole circle of ground has been trampled by hares’ paws, with tracks radiating out in all directions. You might think the hares had held a night meeting and, surprised by a police patrol, had scattered in panic. Partridges, too, are plentiful, the tracks of their pointed feet clearly visible in the snow. A fox’s track forms a cautious, regular line, as though drawn with a ruler, thirty paces to the side of the road. The scarcely noticeable tracks of forest mice are everywhere. In many places the tracks of ermine, like tightly stretched pieces of string with knots tied at regular intervals along them. Here the road is pitted with a series of large holes, made by a heavy-footed elk.
At night we stopped once more, set loose our reindeer, made a bonfire and drank tea, and again in the morning I waited for the reindeer’s return in a feverishly impatient state. Before going for them, Nikifor warned me that the piece of wood had come untied from the neck of one of them.
“Does that mean he’s gone?”
“No, the bull’s here all night,” said Nikifor and immediately proceeded to curse the reindeer’s owner for giving us neither lassos nor lengths of ordinary rope for emergencies en route. I gathered that things were not going too well.
The first to be caught was the bull. To try and win the animal’s confidence, Nikifor simulated the rattling noise reindeer make in their throats. The reindeer came quite close, several times, but as soon as Nikifor made any movement, it darted back into the forest. This scene was repeated two or three times. Finally Nikifor tied loops into a piece of rope he had found in the bottom of the sleigh, spread it on the ground, and covered it over with snow. Then he started making rattling and bubbling noises once more to ingratiate himself with the bull. When the animal warily approached, Nikifor suddenly tugged at the rope and the piece of wood hanging from the bull’s neck got caught in one of the loops. The captured bull was pulled into the forest to act as a decoy for the other reindeer. A good hour passed after this, and the forest grew fully light. From time to time I heard human voices in the distance, then silence fell again. What would they do about the reindeer that had shaken off its piece of wood, I wondered? I had heard that it sometimes took three days to catch an escaped reindeer.
No, they were coming.
First they had caught all the reindeer except the “free” one, which roamed close by and refused to be tempted into coming nearer. Then suddenly it joined the reindeer which had already been caught, and started eating snow together with them. Nikifor crept close and grabbed the “free” animal by the leg. It pulled away, fell over and knocked Nikifor over in the process; but, in the end, the man won.
At about 10:00 a.m. we arrived at Souvada. Three yurts here were boarded up, only one was inhabited. An enormous carcass of a she-elk lay on a pile of wood, another, of a wild reindeer, lay on the ground a little further along. Lumps of blue meat were to be seen on the smoke-blackened roof, among them two dead elk calves taken from the mother elk’s belly. All the inhabitants of the yurt were drunk and asleep. No one returned our greeting. The house was quite large but incredibly dirty, without any furniture. A cracked piece of ice propped up with sticks served as a windowpane. On the walls were the Twelve Apostles, portraits of various monarchs and a colored advertisement from a rubber factory.
Nikifor made a fire in the hearth. Then an Ostyak woman, swaying and stumbling, rose to her feet. Three children, one of them a babe in arms, slept beside her. During the last few days the family had hunted with great success: besides the she-elk, they had killed seven wild reindeer; six carcasses were still in the forest.
“Why are there so many empty yurts hereabouts?” I asked Nikifor after we had set off once more.
“For many reasons. An Ostyak won’t live in a house where there’s been a death. He’ll either sell it or board it up or transfer it to another bit of ground. Same thing, if a woman that’s unclean enters a house then that’s the end of it, the house’s got to go. Their women live separately during those times, you see, in huts made of branches. Another thing, the Ostyaks are dying out pretty fast. That’s why their yurts stand empty.”
“Listen, Nikifor Ivanovich, don’t tell people any more that I’m a merchant. As soon as we reach the ore mines, say that I’m an engineer from the Góte [?] expedition. Have you heard about it, yourself?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Well, there’s a plan to build a railway from Obdorsk to the Arctic Ocean; they want to be able to export Siberian goods abroad without going through Central Russia first, you see. So remember to say that this was the business I went to Obdorsk on.”
The day was ending. It was less than fifty versts to Ivdel. We came to the Vogul settlement of Oikapaul. I asked Nikifor to go into one of the houses to reconnoiter. He returned ten minutes later. The house, he said, was full of people, all drunk. The local Vogtils had been having a party with some Ostyak carters taking goods to Nyaksimvoli. I refused to enter the house for fear that Nikifor would get drunk at this final stage of our journey. “I shan’t drink,” he assured me, “I’ll just buy a bottle for the road.”
A tall muzhik came up to our sleigh and started questioning Nikifor in Ostyak. I could not follow their conversation until both began cursing one another in the purest Russian. The man was not quite sober. Nikifor too was no longer quite himself after the few minutes he had spent indoors. I joined in the conversation. “What does he want?” I asked Nikifor, taking his interlocutor for an Ostyak. But the man replied in Russian. He had only put the usual questions to Nikifor whom was he driving and where and Nikifor had told him to go to hell, which had been the cause for the further exchange of views.
“Are you an Ostyak or a Russian, then?” I asked in my turn.
“Why, a Russian, sure enough. Shiropanov, my name is, from Nyaksimvoli. And you, you wouldn’t be from Göte’s crowd, by chance?”
I was astounded.
“Yes, I am. But how do you know about it?”
“They wrote to me from Tobolsk asking me to join; that was when they were going out to prospect for the first time. There was an Englishman with them at the time, can’t remember the name ... Charles Williamovich.”
“Putman?” I prompted at random.
“No, that’s something else, wasn’t there something about Putman’s wife? No, this one’s name was Cruse, I just remembered.”
“And now what are you doing?”
“I’m a clerk at the Shulgins’ in Nyaksimvoli; it’s their goods we’re carting. Trouble is, I haven’t been well the last three days, pains all over my body.”
I offered him some medicines, and was obliged to enter the house.
The fire in the hearth was dying; no one bothered to revive it, and the room was almost completely dark. It was full of people, sitting on the plank beds and on the floor; some were standing. As always, the women half-covered their faces with their kerchiefs on seeing a stranger. I lit a candle and gave Shiropanov some sodium salicylate, whereupon I was immediately surrounded by drunk and half-drunk Ostyaks and Voguls, all complaining of various diseases. Shiropanov acted as interpreter, and I treated everyone impartially with quinine and sodium salicylate.
“Is it true you live where the Tsar lives?” a little old desiccated Vogul asked me.
“Yes, in Petersburg,” I replied.
“I’ve been there too, at the exhibition. I’ve seen everybody, the Tsar, the Chief of Police, the Grand Duke, everybody.”
“Oh, did you go in a deputation, in Vogul national dress?”
“Yes, yes,” everybody began to nod affirmatively.
“I was younger then, and stronger. Now I’m an old man, always sick.”
I gave him some medicine, too. The Ostyaks were very pleased with me, shook my hand, invited me for the tenth time to drink some vodka and were very much upset by my refusal. Nikifor sat by the hearth downing one cup after another of tea and vodka alternately. I gave him several meaningful looks, but he kept his eyes glued to the cup and pretended not to see me.
There was nothing for it but to wait while Nikifor finished his “tea.”
“We’ve taken three days to cover the forty five versts from Ivdel, the Ostyaks have been drinking the whole time. At Ivdel we stopped at Militry Mitrich Lyalin’s, a very good man, that. He’s brought some new books back from a trip to the ore mines – the People’s Calendar, and some recent newspapers. The calendar tells you what everybody’s salary is, some get 200 thousand, you know, some 150. What do they get all that money for, I ask you? I don’t hold with any of that, I’ve never seen you before, sir, but I’m telling you straight: I don’t like any of that, I don’t care for it. They say the Duma met on the twentieth: I’ll bet this one is as bad as the last, or worse. Well, let’s see what those socialists can do. There’ll be about fifty socialists in the Duma, plus a hundred and fifty Narodniks, plus a hundred Kadets or so ... hardly any Blacks at all.”
“Would you mind if I asked what party you sympathize with?”
“Me? I’m a social democrat by conviction ... because the social-democratic party puts everything on a scientific basis.”
I felt like rubbing my eyes. The depths of the taiga, a dirty native hut, a crowd of drunken Voguls, and here was some petty merchant’s clerk telling me that he was a believer in social democracy because of its “scientific basis!” I must admit I felt a sudden upsurge of party pride.
“It’s a pity you’ve buried yourself in these dark and drunken parts,” I said to him with genuine regret.
“What is there to be done? I used to work in Barnaul, then I got sacked. I’m a family man, I hadn’t any choice but to come here. And, you know, when in Rome, do as the Romans do or, as we say more aptly, live among wolves, howl like a wolf. I turned down the offer to go north with Göt’s expedition, and now I’m sorry. If I should be needed again, drop me a line.”
I felt embarrassed, and wanted to tell him that I was no engineer and not a member of any expedition, but an escaped “socialist” ... but I thought it over and abstained.
The time had come to get back into our sleighs. The Voguls crowded around us in the courtyard, holding up the lighted candle which I had given as a parting present. The air was so still that the candle did not go out. We said goodbye over and over again; a young Ostyak even tried to kiss my hand. Shiropanov packed a wild reindeer’s skin in my sleigh as a present. He absolutely refused to accept payment, and in the end I gave him a bottle of rum I had been carrying with me “in case.” At last we set off.
Nikifor had regained his loquacity. For the hundred and first time he told me how he had been sitting at his brother’s house, how Nikita Serapionovich had come in “a sly muzhik, that one!” and how he, Nikifor, had at first refused, and Suslikov, the corporal, had given him five roubles and told him to accept, and his uncle Mikhail Yegorych “a good muzhik,” that had said, “You fool, why didn’t you say straight away that you are going to drive that character.” As soon as he had finished, Nikifor would start all over again: “Now I’ll tell you the whole story just how it was. There was I sitting at my brother Panteley Ivanovich’s house, not drunk, mind, but having had a few, certainly ... Well then, Nikita Serapionovich comes in and says to me
“Look here, now Nikifor Ivanovich, we’ll soon be getting there. I want to thank you, and tell you that I’ll never forget what you did for me. If only it were possible, I’d print it in the newspapers: ’I want to express my sincere gratitude to Nikifor Ivanovich Khrenov, without whose help my escape could not have taken place.’”
“Well, why don’t you print it?”
“What about the police?”
“That’s true, I’d forgotten them. But it would be nice, and no mistake. I was in the paper once before, you know.”
“How was that?”
“That’s how it was. There was a merchant from Obdorsk, and, well, he pinched his sister’s money, and I, to tell the truth, helped him a bit. Well, not exactly helped, but sort of backed him up. If the money’s in your hand, I said, that means God’s on your side. Is that right?”
“Well ... not quite.”
“Never mind, then. Anyway I backed him up, sort of. Nobody knew about it, just the one character, Pyotr Petrovich Vakhlakov, a really sly one. And so he goes and prints all about it in the newspaper: ’A thief, the merchant Adrianov, stole the money, and another thief, Nikifor Khrenov, helped to cover the deed up.’ All printed black on white, and every word of it the truth!”
“You ought to have sued him for slander,” I said. “There was a minister once, by the name of Gurko, can’t remember if he stole something or only helped someone else to steal something, anyway, when he was found out he sued for slander. You should have done the same.”
“I did think of it! But I couldn’t do it, because, you see, this Vakhlakov, he’s my best friend. He didn’t do it to hurt, just for a joke, see? He’s a clever muzhik, a jack-of-all-trades. Not a man but a regular pricelist.”
At about 4:00 a.m., we arrived at Ivdel and stopped at the house of Dmitry Dmitrievich Lyalin, whom Shiropanov had recommended to me as a “Narodnik.” He proved to be a most amiable and warmhearted person, and I am happy to have this opportunity of expressing my most sincere thanks to him.
“Our life here is a quiet one,” he told me over the samovar. “Even the revolution barely touched us. Of course we’re interested in the events, we read the newspapers, we sympathize with the progressive movement, our representatives to the Duma are left-wingers, but I couldn’t say the revolution has properly stirred us up here. At the ore mines, yes, there were some strikes and demonstrations, but nothing here, we lead a quiet life, we don’t even have any police, just the one officer to look after the mines. The telegraph doesn’t start till the Bogoslovsky mine, a hundred and fifty versts from here, and the railway line starts there too. Exiles? Yes, there are a few, three from Liflandia, a schoolmaster, a circus artist. All of them are working on the dredger, no one’s particularly badly off here. They lead a quiet life like the rest of us. We prospect for gold, in the evenings we drop in at each other’s houses. From here you can continue to Rudniki without any fear, no one’ll stop you: you can take the postal coach, or hire your own if you like; I’ll find you a driver.”
When I said goodbye to Nikifor he could hardly stand up.
“Take care, Nikifor Ivanovich,” I said “make sure the drink doesn’t get you into trouble on the way back.”
“Never worry ... if the belly’s safe, the backbone’s sound,” he retorted.
The “heroic” phase of my story, the journey by reindeer over seven or eight hundred versts of taiga and tundra, comes to an end here. Even at its most hazardous moments, my escape turned out to be much easier and more prosaic because of good luck than it appeared to me in the planning stage, or to other people if one may judge by certain newspaper reports. The rest of the voyage in no way resembled an escape. My traveling companion for a large part of the way to Rudniki was an excise official on a tour of government liquor shops in the area.
At Rudniki I went to see a number of people to inquire whether it was safe to take the railway. The local conspirators did their best to frighten me with tales of local spying activities and advised me, after waiting at Rudniki for a week, to travel to Solikamsk, where everything would, they assured me, be much easier. I did not follow their advice, and have no reason to regret it. On the night of February 25 I took the narrow-gauge railway from Rudniki without the least trouble and after twenty four hours’ slow travel changed, at Kushva station into a train on the Perm railway. Then I continued via Perm, Vyatka, and Vologda and arrived in Petersburg on the evening of March 2. Thus, after twelve days of travel, I was driving in a cab down Nevsky Prospect. That is not long at all; the journey to Berezov had taken a month.
While I was traveling on the narrow-gauge Ural railway, I was not yet safely out of danger; on a local branch every “foreigner” is noticed at once and, had the appropriate instructions been received by telegraph from Tobolsk, I might well have been arrested at any station. But when I had changed and was traveling in a comfortable carriage of the Perm railway I knew that I had won. The train passed the same stations at which we had been met, so recently, by so many gendarmes, police and troops. But now I was going in the opposite direction, and my feelings, too, were entirely different. At first the spacious, almost empty carriage seemed close and stuffy to me. I went and stood on the open connecting platform between two coaches; it was dark, a strong wind was blowing, and a loud cry burst spontaneously from my breast a cry of happiness and freedom!
Meanwhile the train of the Perm-Kotlass railway was carrying me forward, forward, always forward.
1. The description of the escape which follows has been considerably changed and all the names used are fictitious to ensure the safety of those who helped me.
2. Chizhi: reindeerskin stockings, with fur on the inside; kisy: reindeer skin boots with fur on the outside.
3. A malitsa is a reindeer-skin overcoat worn with the fur turned inwards; in especially cold weather, a gus (with the fur on the outside) is worn on top.
5. Very strong.
Last updated on: 27.11.2006