Travelling through Oktyabrsky District: Part 3

By Philipp Lausberg

Early in the morning, the group took off from Khanti-Mansysk to visit an abandoned village, called Lorba. After about 3 hours drive along smaller roads through the endless Taiga, we met up with a sturdy, middle aged women called Natalia, who was to lead the group through the next couple of days with her irresistible Soviet era charm. She told us the story of Lorba where she herself was posted as a Komsomol supervisor and communist idealist in the 1980s. The remotely located village was built up in the late 1940s and early 1950s exclusively by deportees of about 30 different nationalities who were dropped there by the NKVD. They were mainly employed in cutting wood and fishing in the nearby Ob river and adjacent creeks and lakes. Another woman who joined us, and who was presented as the last surviving original inhabitant of the place, said that in the early years, Lorba was overseen by a cruel NKVD officer who ran the place like a Tsar, using excessive violence and killing people in the woods. In face of such harsh conditions, the different nationalities helped each other, and celebrated their religious holidays together. The women, whose parents were deported for being Kulaks, still fondly remembers the Christmas celebrations of the Germans. After passing by numerous half collapsed or rundown houses, Natalia led us to a cemetery where she wanted to show us some German graves, which we however could not find in the end. Then we were supposed to meet a current inhabitant of the village who was in such a poor state after constant drinking that Natalia advised against visiting him in his house, which, by the way, could have been a fair addition to a horror movie set. After visiting some more run down buildings, such as a Kindergarten, we boarded our bus again and headed for Nyagan, the biggest town in the region.

After some decent food at a local “Kafe” on arrival in Nyagan, we moved on to the city library, where a large group of former repressed people and their relatives were already waiting for us. Local politicians, activists, a representative of the orthodox church, as well as a camera team from a regional TV station were also there and keen on meeting us. Several repressed people of Ukrainian, German, Kalmyk or Bashkir descent told their stories, such as the Volga German Lisa Kuschner who is originally from Western Ukraine and had lived through a veritable Odyssey, having been taken to Germany by the Nazis during the war and being deported to Siberia just upon returning home in 1945. While everyone presented detailed accounts of their suffering, nobody seemed to care too much about those responsible for their plight. Later everyone engaged in discussions on the deportations but also on the recent refugee crisis in Germany. After receiving presents and praises from the local authorities we moved on to a model settlement of the local indigenous Khanti people, where we were given a tour by a specialist, always under the auspices of the camera crew. After some members of the group gave TV interviews, we moved on to a museum of Khanti culture, where we were welcomed with traditional dances. Then the group enjoyed a course in local Khanti embroidery.

The ensuing evening was spent independently, so some used the chance to discover more of Nyagan, such as the Second World War Memorial, the main mall or its most prestigious Karaoke club.

The next day we took off early again to reach a ferry, taking us along the Ob river to some remote villages built up by deported people and inhabited by them and their descendants. After enjoying the breath-taking beauty of the mighty Ob river on a 2-hour boat ride, we arrived at Oktyabrskoye, where we were led to a community centre, again followed by a local TV camera man. After a more general presentation about the deportations and their victims, an old woman of German ethnicity about 90 years old told about her experiences. She was deported from her native Volga region to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, where she had to do forced labour under very harsh conditions, later to be brought to Western Siberia. She would constantly repeat that she never did anything wrong and proudly showed her medals of the time. She also still spoke some words of German.

Next, we boarded a boat again that took about 4 hours to take us to Peregrebnoe, another village right by the Ob river, originally built up by deported people. Upon arrival, we were greeted by the mayor and brought to our hostel. The owner, who had a portrait of himself in the style of a 18th century Cossack hanging prominently in the corridor, welcomed us with some lunch and Russian disco music from the 90s. Shortly afterwards we were driven to the town hall, where we were welcomed by a delegation dressed in traditional Russian clothes presenting bread and salt to us. We were received in a small room, where the sons and daughters of those deported here told the story of their parents’ plight. As in most other places, the deportees were comprised of around 20 different nationalities, including many Germans from the Volga. Particularly touching was the story of a film star from Western Ukraine, who perished in the harsh conditions of winter and heavy physical labour. One witness of the deportations and the particularly tough early times at Peregrebnoye was also present, but struggled to cope with the sudden attention. She confided to us later that she was haunted by the terrible memories of that time until today, and that for us it would be important to always be honest, work hard and never start drinking Vodka. All this strengthened the impression that most victims do not try to condemn those responsible for their suffering or draw political conclusions of what has happened to them.

This exchange was followed by a ceremony, staged by the local authorities, in which we were given lit candles to put at the local memorial for the victims of repression, while the names of perished deportees were read out. Nobody was told the stories of those people we were honouring though, and as soon as we left the site, the candles were quickly extinguished and taken away by the organisers, which all in all made for a rather strange experience.

Later, we were shown some particularly picturesque places at the shore of the Ob and then driven to the beach, where an event called “Ob wave” was already in full swing. It is the main festival of the year organised by Gazprom for its many employees in the region. People had come from a radius of about 800 km, all over Western Siberia, and were enjoying barbecues, games and patriotic singing competitions. With temperatures in the low 20s and genuinely warm water, some of the group took the opportunity to go for a swim, while others were mingling with the locals, hearing about the life of oil and gas workers in the Siberian wilderness. Later, a big bonfire was lit, and people were dancing around it until far after midnight, while it never really got dark.

The next morning, the group took to the water again, travelling on a ferry down the Ob river. The 9 hours ride back to Khanti-Mansysk was a memorable experience, not only because of the encounter of natural beauty and the endlessness of Siberia. Some made friends with locals who would play Russian songs on the guitar and recite poetry, while our organiser Yulia would hold impromptu lectures on the role of women in Russia and various other topics. All in all, it was a great time to reflect on our experiences so far, immerse in further discussions and mentally prepare for the next section of our journey.

Our guide Natalia with an old time witness.

The mayor of Oktyabrsky

The official greeting with bread and salt.