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Published: April 5th 2020
Icy gusts rush over the great steppe; snow laden, barren, endless. The moon having never risen gives the stars their meagre chance to light the blanched plains. A man is running seemingly from nowhere. His pace slows as he runs out of breath. Panting and now walking, eventually his energy is depleted and he collapses. Within an hour his skin is frozen solid, paused in time at his final solitary moment. Then as the long night wears on, drifts of snow build up, first against him, then over him shrouding his corpse. His footprints are filled. The final flake of snow floats gently downwards and no trace is left. The sun casts a furtive beam of light over the horizon. A technicolour display that no living creature will observe.
This is the story of many men throughout history, as they have attempted escape from the grips of Mongols, Tartars, Soviets or marauders caught on the wrong side of the snow desert.
When the temperature descends below -20 degrees Celsius, even tiny moisture droplets in the air freeze and descend, taking with it any pollutants; leaving a clear and pure atmosphere. This atmospheric lens casts the Sun’s rays into a
broad spectrum of reds and oranges at sunrise. And after the bitter cold of the night, one is engulfed in hope and awe at the majesty of the light.
The people who inhabit these plains are hardy and friendly. The wooden houses appear out of the white, painted green and blue with coloured and patterned trims, they reflect the hearts of those who live in them. The days of wood are long gone, and the charm is surrounded by the monolithic soviet bloc concrete. The quaint village of Chishmy is paired with the workers’ settlement of Chishmy-2; The name ringing out the diversity and creatively with which it was built.
The Trains still run, albeit at a fraction of their golden age of the red plenty. The black rails slicing the steppes in two. Each engine a goliath headed by snow ploughs to drive off the weather. A testament to the power and endurance of the Russian people. When one meets one, and sits for a time to speak with them. The stories of their childhood make one gulp. Vodka is shared, and toasted to the glimmers of joy and the inevitability of the end of winter.
The meshed culture from Turkic Islam and Slavic Christianity is fused together into their Russian identity. Mosques with slender minarets stand aside the Orthodox Churches with bulbous towers, all bathing in the glory of God. Their religions stand side by side together united against the prejudices of the mass media. They drink, work and live together. Many Slavic people are Muslim and many Tartar and Bashkir are Christian. I imagine if one digs, one can find the stories that oppose this view, but what I experienced was a calm, honest and God fearing community that immerses in its own diversity under the unity of Russia, of course with an air of cynicism that is typical of all Russians.
But as the breeze sweeps over the steppe and finds warmer climes, my time here is also fleeting, as I return to the wet winds Western Europe.
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