At the Edge of the World in Siberia

by Paul Shields

A young man travels to a small outpost in Siberia to seek wisdom from a Russian Orthodox priest living as a hermit.

It’s 10 a.m., and Yeniseysk Airport airport is possibly the most desolate place in Siberia. The only buildings here are a set of sinking wood huts, which probably housed Russian exiles 100 years ago, though among the patchy grass are crusted mounds of cigarette butts from the helicopter pilots who spend their days tipsy before they fly.

A set of rotor blades gains momentum, and I haul a backpack on my shoulder, climbing a ladder into a Soviet-era helicopter, which for $50 will take me 100 miles north to a small outpost in the Siberian backwoods called Makovsk.

My goal is both simple as it is strange: I am off to see a batushka, a Russian Orthodox priest, named Father Sebastian.

A fellow traveler in Russia tipped me off that this 94-year-old religious hermit is especially wise and even has special powers. As the legend goes, after surviving the Nazi invasion into Russia, Sebastian developed an ability to achieve the supernatural through prayer. His spiritual petitions have cured late-stage cancer and turned village grannies into fairy-like blondes. Locals avow that Sebastian drew divinely inspired plans for a solar-powered engine and gave them to the Kremlin. In short, there is nothing the man can’t do. I imagine him as a wayward cross between Mother Theresa and Elon Musk.

It’s the traveler’s precondition to exaggerate, but when I heard these rumors, I became determined to meet Father Sebastian. Though my primary motivations are neither to heal an illness nor to gather blueprints to hatch a lucrative startup. Rather, I want to bring some peace to the deep angst I have about life. I can’t describe this sentiment clearly, though I can say it’s located somewhere in my chest, and as the years pass, it has started to get worse.

Soon, we soar thousands of feet in the air, and my thoughts drift. I gaze upon an expanse of lime-colored woods nested under a vast blue sky. Even after a year of living in Siberia, the place’s size never fails to astonish me. It composes almost 12% of the world’s landmass and can fit the entire continent of Europe inside it plus an extra million square miles. And here it is, spanning green and infinite in the summer sun.

I lose track of time until my foray into the sublime is cut short and our helicopter descends. I grip the straps of my bag and ready to exit, but something dawns on me, something I already knew long ago.

This journey is doomed.

There is a rickety ambulance waiting for me as we touch down in a field of long yellow grass on the edge of a birch forest. I transfer to the van while the helicopter leaves us, its rhythmic propellers thumping our ears. With no immediate sign of people, our vehicle jounces along a lone dirt track, whipping up flecks of rocks and dust in our wake.

In the van, I sit across from a lonely 55-year-old woman named Olga, who is also taking the trip to see the batushka. She is over six feet tall and has thunderous forearms. Her face resembles Putin but with a blonde wig. So frankly, she scares me. Olga regularly visits Father Sebastian and thus takes this time to prepare me for our meeting. “If they offer you food, politely eat. But not too much.”

Curious, I ask why I should restrain eating, as it’s not my forte.

“Last time I came here,” Olga warns, “I got extreme diarrhea.” She coldly repeats the two key words.

Our van slowly approaches a lone home on the edge of the woods, and I consider the questions I will ask. Maybe something about the meaning of life? How can we live with dignity in our fallen world? Or what on earth should I do with my life? I wonder, too, what Olga is looking for at the edge of the world.

What transpires as we meet the batushka in his kitchen is so sudden it’s difficult to recall.

Olga drops to her knees on the floor, generating an alarming crack in the wood below. She chants her sins out loud. “I stole…lied…I did not love my neighbor…” She clenches her fists as she rocks back and forth, eyes shut. It’s when she asks for forgiveness that her petitions become a series of honks, like someone playing an organ.

Father Sebastian stands hunched, crossing her with one hand and using the other to hold up an iron cross the size of a dinosaur bone. Through an ash-colored beard, he whispers prayers, offering a sense of peace to dear, troubled Olga, who is now clinging to the edges of the priest’s robe, soaking it with tears.

I was hopeful for a more upbeat and thoughtful conversation, like a university seminar where a professor blows your presumptions about the world to bits. But I am at a loss for words watching Olga writhe on the floor and eventually find myself inching towards the corner of the room till my back hits the wall of the home. How the hell did I end up here?

We sit in the kitchen and talk about the weather as Sebastian’s helper – a kiwi-shaped nun named Mihayla – prepares a feast. Every inch of our table is covered; we have homemade Sea buckthorn berry jam, kielbasa, pickled cherry tomatoes, mahogany honey, summer cucumber salad, preserved chanterelle mushrooms, pelmeni dumplings, and boiled young potatoes topped with freshly chopped parsley. It feels medieval, the table now bending under the weight of the food and the cats at our feet, waiting for droppings.

The bounty is almost overwhelming, and I begin to understand Olga’s warning in the car.

Mihayala notices my hesitation. “Why aren’t you eating?” she asks somewhat fervently.

I fork a lone cherry tomato in my mouth, fearing that I could soon rival the Bellagio Fountain.

Mihayla is having none of this. “And the dumplings?” She reaches over the table and drops a construction-sized bucket in front of me, causing the table to nearly collapse. I peer into the vast cauldron and see a collection of meat swimming in grayish broth. Mihayla snatches a jar of sour cream and turns it upside down, releasing a deluge into the soup, which somehow disappears in the mixture.

Even Olga is unnerved, likely having flashbacks to her former bout with intestinal alchemy. “Looks amazing,” she breathes in horror after getting her own pail of stew. There seems to be no escape.

Dumplings tremble on the end of our spoons. Olga and I look at each other, lock our pinkies under the table, and take a bit.

In the silence that follows, Olga calls, “Batushka…” She looks forlornly at the table, biting her lip. “Batushka…may I ask?” It seems what has been bothering her, her question, the eternal question that brought her so far, is ready to come out.

Yes. I thought. Yes. Come on Olga. This is why we came.

“Batushka…” Olga looked up from her hands. “Can I date a Muslim man?”

Sebastian offers a blank stare. I feel for Olga, who reveals a forbidden love. A love trapped, surely, by a clash of cultures. But I also have to hold back a shriek.

The priest is understandably more composed and clears his throat. “If it bothers you, you can either convert to Islam, or he can become Russian Orthodox. It’s your choice.”

Both the priest and Mihayla then look at me, suggesting it is my time to ask a question. I feel that if I don’t do it now, there will never be a time. “Father Sebastian,” I say. “Why…”

I never finish because our driver bursts through the entrance of the hut, nearly tearing the wood door off its hinges. Mihayla scrambles, setting the new guest up with his own generous helpings. For the sake of camaraderie and a strange sense of desperation, I ferociously eat the food, letting myself sink further into incoherent oblivion, feeling both saved and ashamed that I don’t ask anything.

We hear the helicopter blades pass overhead, signaling that once and for all, we should leave.

As I ready to depart, trying to hurry Olga along, Sebastian stops me. He reaches out his hands and holds mine like a clam. Strangely, his hands are not wrinkled with age, but soft and shining like a lemon. For a while he does not speak, and this makes me nervous and sharply aware of how ridiculous I am for coming here.

 “I am taken by your presence,” he blinks.

“Thank you.”

“You are America,” he says finally. “You are America.”

I am not sure what to do with this information, so I thank him again.

Olga and I climb back into the helicopter, where she settles by the window, resting her chin on her forearms so she can look out at Siberia’s boundlessness, contemplating her troubled love.

While we wheel over Russia’s endless Taiga, I can’t help but think that something has gone terribly wrong. How did I end up here? Why did a millennial American go to the edge of the world – Siberia – and yearn for wisdom from a hermit? And why didn’t I say anything when I had the chance?

I don’t know. My spirit felt scattered like little fish. And I sensed this must have come from the endless religious alternatives we encounter in our world today: infinite churches, synagogues, temples, and for the really desperate, CrossFit. The cacophony of modern life doesn’t render life meaningless per say. It rather makes us drown in the possibility, this hapless journey to the end of the world surely underlining my point.

But maybe I didn’t ask Father Sebastian anything because I don’t want to find an answer? Maybe I already knew what he was going to say? Maybe it’s better to be lost, rather than found, where one can ride the rush of the road on the dark side of the moon?

I ponder my questions. I have so many. So many it actually leaves me with none at all.

Cover photo credit

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