Sergei: A Lost Spirit
Over the years, many stories have been told of the struggles faced by the Vietnam War veterans when they returned to their homes. Tales of mental anguish and hardship as they failed to return to normal lives. However, little has been relayed about the veterans of Russia’s Vietnam. During the 1980s the Soviet Union fought a losing battle in Afghanistan. There were many deaths, but there were also many thousands of returned soldiers, haunted by memories of their fallen colleagues and the austerity they faced during those difficult years.
I met one such veteran, Sergei, while traveling through the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan. His story is not unusual, in fact during my three years living in Central Asia I have met many old soldiers, but few who have managed to lead such a unique way of life.
Sergei loves to talk, about almost anything other than the War, and the passion with which he lives his life is clear for all to see. We met at Song Kul, a Jailoo high in the mountains of Central Kyrgyzstan. Jailoos are the summer pasture grounds for the Kyrgyz nomads and as the harsh winters subside, they move their families and herds of horses, sheep and occasionally yak, up to these northern pastures where they stay till autumn. Song Kul is a beautiful, if occasionally harsh environment, at the heart of which is a placid lake absolutely teeming with fish. Most of the Russian population of Kyrgyzstan has since moved back to their homeland since perestroika and those who remain live mainly in the bustling capital of Bishkek, or the northern bank of Lake Issik Kul, a popular tourist resort.
Sergei is certainly then a dying breed, a Russian surviving amongst nomadic peoples, yet he fits in and is as much part of this temporary community as any man. Like many war veterans he has found it hard to adjust to conventional life again, and is more comfortable surrounded by nature than by tall buildings. Now a fisherman by trade, he spends his summers at Song Kul with his Kyrgyz colleague, Arman, carving out a life. During the evenings, they both make the rounds of their neighbouring yurta’s, bringing fish and vodka as their contribution to the evening meal.
Sergei is now 46 years old, but his strong wiry frame has lost none of its energy since the days he was driving a tank through the Afghan deserts. A sole reminder of those days is the padded tank cap he still wears to keep the cold winds at bay, which flow across the Song Kul plateau. He is excited as he not only has his Kyrgyz hosts to entertain tonight, but three traveling Brits who have camped down in a neighbouring yurta with their host family, Chika, his wife Malaka and their three children. To complete the picture, our yurta is also home for three newly born lambs and a calf, which Chika believes would not survive the harsh winds, which still prevail despite it now being June.
The main dish tonight is boiled mutton. Virtually all of the sheep is used, as waste cannot be afforded. This includes the intestines, which are lovingly considered “the best part”, and as we sit on colourful mats surrounding a traditional short-legged table we accompany our meal with tales and toasts of vodka and kumys, fermented mare’s milk.
The evening draws on, but neither the stories, anecdotes nor indeed vodka seem to run out. Sergei is now in his element and neither his lack of English nor my poor Russian seems to deter him. Every sentence he starts with the words, “Tim, translate!!” and then regales us with a new story of an old adventure. He shows us his knife with pride, and then cuts some meat off the bone of a sheep’s rib. I joke with him that I thought only Chechens carried knives. He laughs loudly, then asks me to translate an anecdote he knows about Chechens.
Still the vodka and kumys flow, and I ask him about this traditional nomadic drink with a sour taste. He grins and says, ” A day without kumys is a day without life!” His words are simple, but strikes a chord with our host, Chika. Chika is a simple man, who never touches vodka, but lives for kumys. All through the meal he shakes a plastic cola bottle filled with the milk to aid its fermentation. A nomad’s life revolves around his horses. They give his family drink and occasionally meat, which enables them to survive through the harsh climate. Their cheeks are robust, a result of the strong winds which age them quickly. Yet, they are honest, hard working, hospitable people who would share their last meal with a stranger. Each day provides a new trial, yet they are well equipped to deal with it.
The entertainment is not yet over and Chika decides that it is time for song. His voice is clear and passionate as he sings a Kyrgyz love song. His wife, Malaka, shyly looks to the floor, occasionally giving a furtive glance to her husband. Not to be outdone, Sergei sings a mixed, yet equally passionate rendition, which leaps between “Cartoosha” and “Moscow Nights”. Dutifully, we hum the background music. Then it is our turn. “Sing a traditional British song,” we are asked. This immediately causes some confusion, as the British contingent is made up of an Englishman, Scotsman and a Welshman who cannot agree on a suitable melody. Eventually, we decide upon “Summertime”, which isn’t exactly British, but is the only song all three of us know all the way through. David, the Welshman leads the way, on the basis that the Welsh are a musical nation, and that he plays the harmonica and was once turned down to play with the ‘Moody Blues’. Even after vodka the result is pretty disastrous as all three of us think we know the words, but the words are different. However, the response is one of enthusiasm and applause from our audience, and relief from us.
As the evening draws to a close, I comment that the Swiss have given a lot of money to the Kyrgyz people, because they believe there are many similarities between the two countries geology and environment. Indeed, I continue, they refer to Kyrgyzstan as “Little Switzerland”. Again Sergei smiles wickedly, “Ah yes, but we refer to Switzerland as Little Kyrgyzstan!”
As the tables are cleared and Malaka sweeps the floor so we can all sleep, I step outside with Sergei. He places his tank cap on my head, and says that it is a gift as he embraces me. “You are a good interpreter!” he lies. “And you are a good Chechen!” I reply. Afterwards I looked at the clear night sky and the stars. I wondered how long it would be until there were no more Sergei’s in this world. Until the politicians of the region again turned their backs on those who had once answered their call. For Sergei the answer wouldn’t have mattered. As long as he had fish to catch and people to tell his stories to, he would always be happy!