Chapter 3 - Destination Oymyakon.
The sky turned dark after our departure. The weather was even colder and foggy when we descended into Bratsk. Bratsk is a typical Siberian city. Its backbone is the country itself. It is also the site of Russia's second largest hydroelectric station. From Bratsk onward, Rostislav would be our official guide, one of Koldunov's men. He met us as we arrived, even though we arrived late at night. He was a man bound to protocol. Also, Rostislav was the strictest soul on social conduct, as strict as the land was cold.
Bratsk was his city. He was proud of it. He told us, that as a boy, he had worked on the construction of the great dam that feeds the generating plants. However, there was no time for him to give us a tour. As far as he was concerned, we were on a mission, a piece of inventory of the Russian State to be used as needed and precisely in the prescribed manner. No deviation was allowed. This attitude was left over from a time, which he called the golden days.
By noon the next day we flew further north in a twin engine Antonov-24 turbo-prop that had seen better days. Beneath us, the rolling hills, covered with forests, occasionally gave way to the open taiga. The flight that we were on was the milk run, the only air service that extended civilization into the great northern wasteland that had once been under intense development. Pioneering had been the watchword.
The airports along the way consisted mostly of snow covered fields and primitive wooden buildings covered with plump pillows of snow four feet thick. At most of the airports bush planes were standing by, mounted on skis, parked near the 'terminal.'
Occasionally one could see a river from the air, stone frozen, brilliantly white, with boats pulled out unto the banks until spring. But mostly there was nothing to see except the endless horizon of a white landscape that blended into the sky in the far distance. Vast spaces rolled by beneath us without the slightest sign of habitation. Nicolai's description of the Nutcracker Suite came to mind as a perfect description of what we saw.
We were on the "Northern Service," as they called this flight. The aircraft was an old twin engine tin goose that vibrated and rattled as loudly as she was cold inside. We were told before boarding that one of the heating systems for the cabin was defective, and that it would be repaired later, along the way. For the meantime, they had handed each passenger a gigantic fur-lined coat in which Anton almost disappeared.
Beneath us, soon, lay nothing but snow, snow that blinded the eye, that reflected the sunlight that had come through the clouds again. In the sunlight the landscape became painted in deep patterns of blue whenever shadows where created by the low sun that barely stood above the horizon.
Rostislav had been a high-ranking officer in the Communist Party in earlier days. He was polite, but devoid of personal feelings. The personal life in Russia had been suppressed. It had ended with the revolution. The state had defined the people's feelings according to the needs of the state. The state was God, the party the mediator, the people mere followers; a perfect order for a population with a peasant mentality. He allowed no cuddling, not even when we were bundled up in our heavy fur coats crossing the icy plateau of northern Siberia, shivering in an inadequately heated plane. However, he wasn't sharp enough to catch our looks. Maybe looks hadn't been covered in the rulebook. In all other matters, however, he was forceful and precise.
No doubt he was proud of his position of authority, and a status which didn't really exist anymore, but was respected anyway. His spotless uniform was obviously a part of the brainwashing package that told him that he was a superior human being. The aristocrats had used this trick, bestowing on themselves fancy titles and fancy clothing, and the doctors and generals had played a similar game later on. He was still called Comrade General, while the decorations he carried on his uniform zeroed in on that old myth of a superior being that set him apart from the masses that called him Comrade. The old Byzantine convention could not be so easily shed, so it seemed. Adding Comrade to his official title hadn't changed anything. The myth of the superior human being was in control of his heart. It had been in control of him throughout the Soviet era and had simply remained so.
His uniform was so highly important to him that he denied himself the comfort of wearing the warm parka that everyone else wore. Judging by his decorations, he had worked his way up through the ranks. This success, evidently supported the myth.
"Have you ever noticed how arrogant an accomplished idealist can be?" I whispered to Anton when Rostislav strutted through the icy cold to the terminal building on one of the stops, in nothing but his uniform. He was a model 'prisoner' of the bureaucracy state; a perfect puppet. He always used the royal 'we' when he should have referred to himself and his own personal feelings. Still, he helped us whenever help was needed. The very fact that he was with us, spoke of his love for his country. He just hadn't learned to extend this love also to the people that were the very essence of his country.
Fortunately for us all, he was mostly quiet. Whenever he did speak, I always got uncomfortable as though I was being addressed by a royal potentate in whose sight I was nothing. He was speaking from a great distance, not man to man. I tried to change that. I asked about his family, and about the impact of his job on his family. Still, the ice could not be thawed. Every aspect of our conversation was translated by him into the cold language of state relationships, ism to ism. He was like a machine, rather than a man. That's what scared me about him, I realized there were probably others like him in command centers of nuclear missile bases. He was a model servant bound to an ideal with blind loyalty. I also felt a great pity towards him.
When I had dared to ask about his private life, whether he was married and how many children he had, he replied that in the communist society these things had not been significant, nor were they now. He said that the Russian society is quite unlike the American society, where controlling people has become a national obsession, which he said was reflected in America's determination to control the whole world.
I couldn't believe my ears when I heard this answer. Still, to some degree he was right. Of course he couldn't see perfidious Albion standing behind him with the baton of a conductor, determining his every response, just as America responded to the same baton of the same conductor. I couldn't blame him for not realizing that.
I was going to say something to him in rebuttal, pointing to earlier genocide by his beloved Soviet Union that no longer existed, but this would have been rude.
Since it was obvious what kind of game Rostislav was playing, it was no task to actually please him. Still, playing such games didn't produce a very satisfying association. It would have been easier to have a satisfying association with a lifeless machine.
"Maybe I am overstating the case," I said to Anton when I spoke to her about him when he was not on the plane, at one of the many stops.
"I don't think so," was her reply. She was fully aware of his strange character. "People were once selected for this very characteristic," she said.
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