My Visit to Khanti-Mansiisk, Part II
How is the Siberian town of Khanti-Mansiisk the embodiment of Gorbachev’s dreams for Russia?
- The Governor talked and talked. Unlike in pre-Gorbachev Soviet times, neither my Western nor my Russian colleagues had to be afraid of him any more.
- This was the dream of the Soviet reformers under Gorbachev — a Russia whose immense natural resources would be spent for the benefit of the Russian people.
- The Governor of Khanti-Mansiisk is a very Siberian-looking figure, a former oilman with a craggy face and an air of natural authority.
The museum of the Khanti and Mansii tradition is intelligently and attractively designed, with vaguely New-Ageish references to Khanti and Mansii religion, but also genuinely interesting and informative about their beliefs.
Among these, following the Russian conquest of the 17th century, was a conflation of Jesus Christ with their traditional principal object of worship, the bear.
For anyone with a sense of Russian history, Khanti-Mansiisk has a certain heartbreaking quality. This was the dream of the Soviet reformers under Gorbachev — a Russia whose immense natural resources — freed from the crushing burden of bloated military spending, insane ideological constraints and geopolitical megalomania — would be spent for the benefit of the Russian people.
And not just for their material benefit, or even on public services, but also by improving them through exposure to a mixture of moral exhortation and Russian and Western classical culture. This aspect of the Soviet tradition had its authoritarian and absurd side, but also a rather touching one. After all, there are worse things than being forced to read Tolstoy and respect the ballet, albeit possibly from a respectful distance.
The Governor of Khanti-Mansiisk reminded me of Gorbachev in a couple of ways. He is a very Siberian-looking figure, a former oilman with a craggy face and an air of natural authority, though in a considerably better suit than he would have worn in Soviet days.
The first recollection of Gorbachev was in his genuinely good intentions for his people, demonstrated by what we had seen in his region.
The second Soviet leadership feature began as we started on our official banquet — and what a banquet it was!
This one didn’t just resemble one of those feasts of local notables from Gogol — it was the very thing itself: white sturgeon, smoked sturgeon, salmon, black caviar, red caviar, head-cheese, stewed veal, stewed mushrooms with sour cream, tongue, smoked pork, ham salad, potato salad, beetroot salad, fish soup, beetroot soup, fish pie, mushroom-pie, beef-pie, cheese pie, onion pie, ordinary pancakes and potato pancakes. And that was just the appetizers.
This being Siberia, there was also a local delicacy in the form of a kind of fish sorbet, a dish that I very much doubt ever spreads far beyond its native land, even on a sea of vodka.
Where was I though? Ah yes, time to introduce the governor’s other Gorbachevian, or rather Gorbacho-Brezhnevo-Khrushchevesque, feature.
Well, he began his speech to us about the Basic Indicators of the Social and Economic Development of the Khanti-Mansiisk Autonomous Okrug-Yugra with the frozen fish. And he talked steadily through the rest of the appetizers.
He came to an apparent end with the mushroom julienne, and we all applauded. But then he began again with the soup. He talked through the reindeer, and the beef stroganov, and the whole sturgeon, which was facing me.
Sturgeon, you know, often have melancholic expressions. That is not surprising given the circumstances in which one usually meets them, but this one’s face seemed to me to grow sadder and sadder as the speech went on and the bottles went away empty.
Where was I again? Well, the Governor talked and talked and talked and talked. What made it even worse was that, unlike in pre-Gorbachev Soviet times, neither my Western nor my Russian colleagues had to be afraid of him any more. So they all started talking and laughing loudly as well, and he droned on and on like a kind of bagpipe accompaniment in the background.
Those of us at my end of our table — being closest to him and therefore compelled to some kind of decent manners — silently drank more and more to numb the increasingly agonizing embarrassment of the whole affair. That was a pity, given his administration’s achievements and that he had given us a feast for the gods — but then, imagine having to live on Olympus and listen to Zeus every night.
Editor’s Note: You can read part I here.