Trip to Yenisyesk – Few Days In A Small Siberian Town That Celebrates In A Big Way

ugolga (CC0), Pixabay

I am in love. Though the subject of my affection is not a person, but a small Siberian town called Yenisyesk. I love this place. I love that you can’t find it on most maps. I love how herds of cows and goats roam undisturbed. I love the only paved road in town that for 200 meters, fools you into thinking you are on a butter-cream colored street in St. Petersburg. I love Yenisyesk too because somehow, this Siberian village, deep in the Taiga, threw a giant party for a single weekend.

And that’s why I am here. Yenisyesk turned 400 years old this August and the small town decided to celebrate its birthday in a big way. The organizers flew out virtuoso pianists from Moscow, opera singers from St Petersburg Conservatory, and Oleg Gazmanov – a 1980s rock star – to perform for the village locals for one hour.

The local administration even built a massive stage for the artists on the banks of the Yenisyei river, fitting for a Kanye West performance. Rumors has it that Medvenev is coming. Maybe Putin – but realistically just Medvedev. My guide for the weekend is Rita. She has lived in Yenisyesk for 65 years and likes to drive her Toyota fast and shoot rifles. As we walk the single crowded street, often in circles, she points to rather trite landmarks: a small Lenin Statue, a refurbished church, the crumbling administration building. And around town are shiny, maroon plaques that read obscure things like,

“Stalin maybe passed through here in exile” and “Author A. Fonvizin, stayed here one month.”

But that’s why I love Yenisyesk. It celebrates the ordinary, the small, and the heroic capacity of the mundane.

Our tour though is interrupted every minute. This is because Rita can’t take five steps without saying hello to someone. Like most in Yenisyesk, she knows everyone in the village and everything about them. “This is my cousin’s best friend’s little daughter” she tells me after introducing me to a couple. In one instance, Rita points to a man and leans in, dropping her voice, as if telling me she just shoplifted a Snickers bar. “That is Vlad. Only 47, but on his fifth wife.”

Yenisyesk is a connected but complicated place.

I lose Rita in the crowd. But that’s okay, I am with Sasha – Rita’s husband – and we are drinking samagon from a plastic bottle on the bank of the river. We trade the bottle back and forth and watch the sun dip in the shallow grey swells of the Yenisyei. The samagon is clear and smooth with pine nut aromatics and maybe a hint of gasoline, making me think it could also be used to remove paint from a car.

Sasha tells me about his life right when the samagon hits. “I have been on the same street for 60 years” he says, while starring stoically into the horizon. “Was born on it. Raised my family on it. Worked at a factory for 40 years on it. Recently built a new house on it.”

“Damn.” I say, not sure how to respond.

He nods in agreement.

It gets dark. I go with Sasha to watch one of the weekend’s main headliners on the shore, Yahan. I have never heard of the band, but Sasha tells me they are the “Siberian Beatles”. They specialize in rock interpretations of traditional Russian folk songs.

Yahan starts playing. In the first minutes the band overruns the tiny town. Speakers, ten meters tall boom guitar riffs and drum beats blast across the tame river. Lemon colored strobe lights cover the crowd. Behind the band on stage, a massive screen shows a Russian Orthodox priest, riding a tractor through a large empty field.

For a moment no ones moves. No one dances. No one sings along. Everyone is skeptical. Or no, better yet, everyone is in remarkable state of disbelief.

Everyone is thinking: Is this real? Is this happening? A rock concert like this? In Yenisyesk?

Behind me it starts. A scrawny man, smoking under a baseball cap, bobs along to the rock and roll. He sways from side to side. Others see this, his confidence, and grant themselves permission to move too. Now everyone is stirring. Someone jumps and screams and a teenage girl is hoisted onto a tall set of shoulders. Outstretched arms extend hands in the air and the crowd starts jamming to an electric balalaika solo.

Everything blurs together. Maybe it’s the samagon. But I can no longer tell the difference between Yahan’s music, the piroshky with cabbage, the cows on the street, the flashing aurora lights, Sasha’s house, or the sherry colored plaques. Everything is there, vibrating, moving together, all one in the crowd and the only I can do is dance along to the music, the music that belongs to a once in a lifetime event here deep in Siberia’s taiga.

I realize there I am happy for Yenisyesk. Happy for this small, hardly visible town, that was given a chance to show their colors and celebrate their home in a big way.

Didn’t I say I was in love?

What do you think?

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