A sign of intelligence is the ability to make the most of the situation in which you find yourself.
This old piece of advice came to mind as I followed none other than Joseph Stalin to his second Siberian exile. In 1913 he was arrested by the Okhrana and sent for some years to the northern Siberian territory of Turukhansk – a vast area of taiga, winters of nine months, and minimum temperatures of -60 degrees. Initially, he stayed near the capital, Monastyrskoe, on the Yenisei River, which flows northward into the Kara Sea. The consummate escape artist was well-known to the Okhrana, and they were tipped off regarding yet another planned attempt.
Joseph was promptly sent 180 versts (almost 200 km) further north, to the hamlet of Kureika on the Arctic Circle. Here 67 residents, made up of three inter-related families, lived in eight communal huts. Joseph – Osip to the locals – was allocated a corner in one of them. Existence was a struggle, to say the least. When Joseph had to visit the outhouse during one of the long nights, he made sure to take his rifle with him. A shot or two was needed to keep the wolves at bay. The inhabitants looked longingly southward, down the Yenisei River, for this was the only means of getting out the village. In winter, one would use a sleigh pulled by reindeer dogs (and surrounding by the howling of wolves), while in the brief summer, river boats were hauled along by dog teams. In between, the ‘bad roads season’ meant no-one could move.
But others made this part of the world their real home: the Evenki (Tungus) and Ostyak peoples. Semi-nomadic fishers and herders of reindeer, they had creatively combined some elements of Russian Orthodoxy with their shamanistic practices – ‘shaman’ is itself an Evenki word. As one who had studied theology for many years, Joseph was intrigued by the way they held to beliefs in the spirits that inhabited the vast regions of Siberia. He would visit them, staying all night at their parties, and they would do the same to him. At other times, the company tended to be peaceful. When they visited, they would sit down for an hour or more in complete silence and then say, ‘Goodbye, we’ve got to go’. Joseph took to them.
With a compliant companion-guard – Merzliakov – in the later years Joseph was able to roam freely with the Evenki and Ostyak. Initially, they brought him fish and reindeer meet, but soon they taught him to catch his own. A close companion, Martin Peterin, showed him how to make a fishing-line and cut a hole in the ice of the Yenisei River. Soon he had learnt the skills of hauling in sturgeon and sea-salmon. His skills became such that even the locals were impressed. ‘Thou ist possessed by the Word’, they said.
Yet the fishing was not simply a matter of sitting quietly by the ice-hole on a sunny day. The Arctic is an unforgiving world. On one occasion, he was returning with a group of Ostyak comrades from a successful fishing trip. A blizzard blew up suddenly and separated him from the others. What to do? Abandon the heavy load of fish and speed up to catch his friends, or hang onto the fish and trudge on? There was little choice, for the fish would provide weeks of food. He stumped on, until figures loomed up in the snow. He yelled to get their attention, but they scooted away. Finally, a hut appeared with a light shining. He crashed in and his comrades said, ‘Is that you Osip?’
‘Of course it’s me. Why didn’t you wait when I called?’ He said
‘We thought you were a demon spirit’, one of them said. ‘You were covered in ice and snow’.
‘As you can see’, said Stalin. ‘I’m not a wood spirit’. He slept for eighteen hours after the ordeal.
On this occasion, Joseph was lucky. Losing a man on a fishing trip was not uncommon. On another such expedition, thirty men had gone out but only twenty-nine returned in the evening. When Joseph asked where the missing man was, they said, ‘Oh, he remained out there’.
‘What do you mean “out there”?’ Joseph asked.
‘He’s drowned’, said one of them.
‘Drowned?’ Said Joseph.
‘Why should we have pity for men’, said the other. ‘We can always make more of them, but a horse, try to make a horse!’
Many years later, Stalin would still eat fish the way he had learnt in Siberia. With little salt and with temperatures well below zero, they would pile the fish in the outhouse, stacking them up like wood. When hungry, they broke off flakes and let them melt their mouths.
But the hunting he loved most, especially its solitude. Dressed from head to foot in reindeer skins and fur, he would head out on a sled hauled by reindeer. Of course, reindeer meat was one of the staples, but arctic hare, partridge and ducks also added to the stock. In summer, he took to a boat, hauled by dogs upstream and rowed downstream. Indeed, in the last summer of his exile (1916), he disappeared for some months. The fact that his young girlfriend, Lidia, was pregnant was perhaps an added incentive. Yet the main reason was common to all the Evenki and Ostyak: a long winter in crowded and reeking accommodation would lead to an almost insatiable desire to be out in the wide world of Siberia. Joseph was off too.
No-one quite knew where he had gone, although his amiable guard had an idea: ‘It’s an empty (uninhabited) place, this Polovinka. Just sand. Where was he fishing? There was nobody else there’.
He was indeed on Polovinka, a remote island downstream on the Yenisei. He built a small hut with birch bark. The only others on the island were the few members of the Dubikova family, who had their own birch shelter. Occasionally he visited, and shared a meal of grilled sterlet. Otherwise, he was on his own. He fished for himself, tended his hut, went on long hikes around the island. Above all, he learnt to be comfortable and content with his own company – an invaluable skill.
As Molotov put it much later, ‘A little bit of Siberia remained lodged in Stalin for the rest of his life’.