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Matagory

Sixty miles South of the Northern Russian city Archangel, sits the small village of Matagory on a hill overlooking the Kholmogory plain. About fifty homes ring the bottom of the hill which provides rare relief to the flatness of the Russian landscape. Fields of the collective farm lead up to the Church of the Resurrection on the top of the bluff. Matagory is a balm to the foreign soul, harried by the frenzied chaos of contemporary urban Russia. I returned there this May to spend the weekend with my friend Anastasia, the manager of the Archangel Intourist office, and her family.

Aunty Katya is the ninety four year old matriarch of the family, and the second oldest person in the region, so they say. Quite senile, she repeatedly recounts the history of her life. In her kerchief with one hand holding the other over her waist and knees slightly bent in the classic babushka stance, Aunty Katya tells about the two arrests of her father in pre-revolution lexicon. The first time, Tsarist gendarmes surrounded the house, and arrested him for letting a suspected revolutionary stay the night. The second time the Bolsheviki took her father away for owning a small textile shop, never to be seen of or heard from again.

Down below on the plain about a mile away stands the ruins of a monastery, which Peter The Great visited in the 17th century. In the 1920's the Bolsheviki turned it into a concentration camp for political prisoners from Archangel, incarcerating there some of the mutineers from the Kronstadt rebellion {a watershed in Soviet History }. A few locals say shots and screams kept them up at night during the time. On a visit last summer, we found the top half of a human skull, ignored by other passersby, lying in the courtyard. In the 50's Khruschev ordered the monastery razed. A local politician halted the demolition after the three onion domes had been decapitated, and tuned the remains into a warehouse. Typical of churches in Russia during the Soviet period, there are plans today to renovate the monastery, but where the money will come from no one can say.

Not to be found on many maps, Matagory is the Russian outback proper. Country women, roosters and a tabby cat quietly congregate on a porch. In the yard a babushka scolds a piglet for treading in her vegetable garden. Every available inch of private land is tilled to produce food to combat the new enemy: hyper inflation. The fields of the collective farm lay fallow. Locals driving army jeeps, or BMW motorcycles with sidecars "presented" to the Soviet people as war reparations after World War II speed down dusty roads. Neighbors visit one another on horseback. There's no one between the ages of thirteen and fifty.

When it's time for tea at Aunty Katya's, and it's always tea time in Russia, they pull out an old brass samovar and drop lit kindling down the funnel. A small chimney connects the top of the samovar to the giant brick oven, measuring seven cubic feet at the center of the house. When the samovar rattles and quakes, you know you're ready to make tea.

Yelena Nikolaevna, one of the neighbors, brought by a pail of milk squeezed fresh from the cow; the best drink I've ever tasted. She taught French in Leningrad years ago, and later moved to Matagory to get away from it all.

We ate most meals at the kitchen table set up in the front yard. Unfortunately someone brought along a tape deck, and a seemingly limitless collection of old Soviet crooners, performing a repertoire of character building muzak. Fortunately this genre is all but forgotten down in the big cities.

On Sunday morning we walked up to the Church of the Resurrection for the baptismal service. A thick fog covered Matagory. The church protruded from the mist, catching the morning rays like some Russian Orthodox Valhalla. Sheep, children and a St. Bernard milled about outside. In a side alcove of the church, a small group of people, mostly children and country women with a uniform, yet distinct body odor congregated from the surrounding area. Icons from the 18th and 19th century covered the walls. A large icon of Christ sat on a window sill in a wooden case behind warbly glass.

Father Alexander, a thin young man with a sparse mustache and unkempt, brillo pad hair in threadbare robes conducted the service. Russian Orthodox services have the reputation for being long on ritual and religious jargon that no one understands. A friend once explained, "It's not important that no one understands what's going on. Showing up is all that counts." Father Alexander must have skipped that seminary lecture, because he preferred to take time out during the service to explain to the congregation the meaning of each phase of the service. At one point the priest took a woman's hand and patiently showed her how to cross herself.

A young novice in robes stood at one window, reading from the Bible and chanting with the priest. Yelena Nikolaevna, the church elder, assisted the priest in a skirt, bulky felt boots, and wool cap. She gave instructions, tidied up candles, and handed out small, aluminum crosses.

It seems each temple the world over has its howling infant, and this church was no exception. A proud father held the baby, trying to distract his son with a candle. The child grabbed the candle away, first waving it in his father's face, then dangerously near his own. The entire congregation seemed to gasp and stand on tiptoes in unison, leaning toward the child to snatch the candle from his hand and avert disaster.

Maintaining control of the situation, Father Alexander gathered the participants, hand in hand, and walked them around the chamber in a psalm. Yelena Nikolaevna brought up the rear, carrying the infant in her arms. When the baby began to wail again, she broke ranks and went into a little babushka dance. Another babushka nudged me and cooed about the cuteness of the baby. Glancing up at me, she abruptly turned her attention to the procession with a changed look on her face. At the end of the service Father Alexander smiled and told the congregation, "It's easy to do the right thing in the House of The Lord. Go out now into the world and keep up the good work."

 

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