July 14, 2017

Know Your Country!

Know Your Country!
The author touches the Volga headwaters. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

The Children of 1917 expedition is far from over, yet we have made two important discoveries: we uncovered the secret to long life, and we pinpointed the source of the Volga River.

Let’s begin with the most interesting of these: the Volga.

We said our goodbyes with our heroine in Tver oblast, Tatiana Orlova, and pointed ourselves toward our next hero’s city: Veliky Novgorod. Our GPS navigator confidently described our route north through the forest.

It is worth noting at this point that said forests were deemed impassible even by the Mongol Horde, and there has been little improvement in the local infrastructure since their day (slight exaggeration). This, after all was the realm of the famous Ivan Susanin, who, in 1613, when compelled by occupying Polish forces to lead them to the newly named tsar, Mikhail Romanov (so that they could presumably capture or kill him), instead lead the witless Poles deep into the forest, where Susanin was murdered when his deceit was discovered. (Thus, today, for Russians, the last name Susanin connotes giving bad directions.)

The impassible forests of Tver... {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

Be that as it may, we were not driving down these roads because someone told us they were passable. We were simply trusting our GPS navigator. And what could possibly go wrong? Particularly since the navigator had promised to take us to the source of the Volga River.

When we started to run low on gas, we were yet full of optimism. We estimated we had at least a few drops left in the tank, and the navigator assured us that, if we continued down this dirt road into the depths of the forest for just five more kilometers, there would be a gas station.

And I repeat: we had no reason not to trust the navigator.

When, five kilometers later, we drove into a village consisting of three homes and were being stared at by a herd of cows, we still brimmed with hope.

“What gas station?” asked a babushka leaning on her walking stick. “This is a dead end.” She waved her hand forest-ward. “The closest gas station is on the highway, in...”

We had no sense of direction at this point, so did not bother asking her to clarify or repeat herself.

Personally, I was pretty certain that the highway, along with all hints of civilization, existed in some distant, parallel universe.

It is difficult to say why at that moment we did not stop him. And by “him” I mean our producer and driver Misha. He had resolved that we had nothing to lose and turned not toward the babushka’s mythical highway, but down a sand-covered road that weaved through the dense forest, promising to take us to the source of the Volga.

Zhenya, the filmographer, and I were united in our lack of enthusiasm for this plan. And when a hare stopped before us in the middle of the so-called road and stared at our car not with fear but curiosity, it became apparent to me that we were the first humans to ever pass this way.

That was when the sky began to darken suspiciously quickly, filling with dark clouds. Mosquitoes took shelter by flying in through the side window.

Then the GPS navigator abandoned us по-английски, without even saying goodbye. We had lost our link to the satellites orbiting our globe, and I for some reason recalled that drivers, when they are lost in such a wilderness in winter, and fear freezing to death, will set their tires on fire.

And yet our micro-sized sedan kept moving forward. Apparently it was licking the last drops of gasoline from the sides of our tank.

By the time we reached the sign that read “Volga Upper Reaches” (Волговерховье), we felt that nothing could faze us. Oh, but how poorly we know our native land! For what did we see in the depths of this wilderness but two brand-new helicopter landing pads.

I had imagined that we would exit into a sunny clearing in the middle of an old-growth forest, part the thick grasses with our hands, wade up to our knees in a spring that was crisp and clear as a child’s tears, then bend over so that our lips touched the source of this great Russian river.

Getting close to the source. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

Instead, we were greeted by fresh asphalt, cement, crushed stone, construction equipment, fences, a gaudy patriotic advertisement about the Volga, and a crudely dredged river channel. Truth be told, we should note that we also saw several nice (but apparently uninhabited) old homes, a cafe (closed), a brick church under restoration, another wooden church that was a bit smaller, and a few pleasing monuments. And several buildings behind a wall: a convent.

The Volga rises from a swamp. But it is a beautiful swamp: green, surrounded by bushes and trees. From the depths of the swamp flows rust-colored, yet transparent, water that forms into a deep, round pond. From this pond there flows a little stream – the first trickle of the Volga.

Ivan Tsarevich riding the Gray Wolf (carrying Vassilisa). {Painting by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1888}

In order to approach the source of the Volga, one must descend a sloping bank, traverse a tidy little bridge, and enter a miniature chapel, which has been built on a platform that sits atop the spring. The chapel was open, and inside were fresh bouquets of snowy-white lilies and a well. On the exterior of the chapel was a plaque that clarified the situation: a few days prior, Kirill, Patriarch of All Russia, had been here to bless the Volga.

Thus the presence of the helicopter landing pads. If only they had paved the road instead, simple mortals would also be able to more easily make the pilgrimage here.

Still, the area was enchanting. One had the sense that Ivan Tsarevich astride Grey Wolf would suddenly appear in the clearing and ask us for directions. But, alas, he did not. Still, the swamp surrounding the spring was peaceful and there was no one else around, save for three workers from the East who sat lost in thought on a unfinished bridge spanning the half-meter-wide Volga.

The source of the Volga. {Photo: Mikhail Mordasov}

We headed back down a slightly better road, and even found a gas station, naively concluding that the worst part of our drive was behind us. Little did we know that almost 100 kilometers of hellish rattling and jolting awaited us, along unpaved forest roads with no sign of people, wolves, or hares.

We had previously named our GPS navigator Galya, but now we were giving serious thought to rechristening it Susanin.

As to the secret of long life, that will have to wait until another time. 

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