The northern delivery

Text: Dasha Kochetova
Photo: Anton Klimov

Irkutsk is the center of a large region. Every day the town, like an artificial backwater, is filled by people from distant towns and villages who find it pretty strange not to know by face all the passengers on a bus going from the left side of the river Angara to the right side. One such town is Bodaibo.

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Research question

How do different generations of migrants from the Northern areas of the region adapt to Irkutsk?

After my first year of college I started to work in a beer bar in the city center to spite my parents and myself. In summer the guests usually sat on a summer terrace but on one of the rainy evenings everyone gathered in the warm hall. My colleague and I were at the bar. Two men were sitting right across the bar in front of us (they were the second generation of Bodaibo’s dwellers as we figured out from the conversation). My colleague was bored to death so he decided to chat with the guests. He opened his mouth… and gave away the show: “Our Daria here is from Bodaibo too!” The whole evening I had to listen stoically to how my grandad was respected by all who knew him or didn’t even know him personally.

But it was not the end of the story: the talk was overheard by the restaurant singer, Nikolai. After another cigarette he took the microphone and announced: Today is the birthday of our dear Daria (it was mid-July, and I was born in December), her friend Anatolii would like to wish her for her birthday, so we will perform the song “Bodaibinka” (a girl from Bodaibo) for our esteemed audience. The next moment the song was caught up after Nikolai not only by the Bodaibo guys at the bar but by almost the whole crowd.

Every day you ride a bus and sit in a queue at polyclinic with people from Bodaibo. The parents of two of my schoolmates turned out to be from the Bodaibo region; until highschool my life partner was sent to a “summer exile” in Balakhinsky village(a gold-mine 30km from Bodaibo), and his granddad, in his Moskvich car, overtook mine who was in an elite Volga)

People from the North settle in Irkutsk and become an integral part of it. The students move in, the elderly, and entire families come. Where are they coming from? My father came to Irkutsk from Bodaibo in 1985. I am 25, I haven’t been to my family’s homeland for many years, but all my life in Irkutsk I meet people that lived or worked in the town of miners.

Bodaibo is located on the right bank of the Vitim river, 1200km away from the region’s center. Since the middle of the 19th century and till today life in those parts exists only thanks to the gold. Bodaibo is a town of newcomers. Fresh blood comes from the region’s center and towns around. That’s how the exchange and mutual replenishment (both permanent and seasonal) of two towns happen.

Miners were the first ones to come to the staging ground on the way to gold bearing mines, followed by people from all corners of our country. They were attracted by the romantic appeal of the North, by the euphoria of nationwide socialist construction, and by the workplaces of course. With the development of the industry, there grew a demand for an inflow of skilled staff. Thus the best engineers, draughtsmen, mechanics, and geologists came to Bodaibo. The majority of them were to leave after Perestroika.

In the middle of the century the town developed and grew quickly. Experienced specialists and graduates of Irkutsk universities came to Bodaibo on assignment. High school students from Bodaibo moved to Irkutsk for further study, started families, moved with them to the North or settled in the regional center. In the course of the years that passed from «the golden century» that exchange changed in essence. The major flow of the newcomers to Bodaibo still consists of miners. People come to work in big and small ventures, stay for the season, leave, and return again. And all Bodaibo people that moved to Irkutsk in the 90s and the 2000s come back just to visit relatives or to sell at a cheap rate the house in the town of their youth.
A few people that I had a chance to talk to lived or came to Bodaibo at different times. Now they live in Irkutsk. We talked about their life in the North, why and under what circumstances they moved to Irkutsk and how they live now. The characters are relatives but they belong to different generations of three families. They come from three generations of different families.

More than half the net intraregional migration into the Irkutsk cluster is formed by an influx from the largest cities in the region. The bulk of this increase is attributable to depressed towns. Push factors (unemployment, very low level and low quality of life) are combined with the attractiveness of the Irkutsk cluster offering a considerable improvement in prospects.
Konstantin Grigorichev
“Neither here nor there”: the Irkutsk suburbs as a space for development.

»If you talk to the people you know you can see almost no one lives there anymore. Everybody’s left and taken their elderly with them to Irkutsk«

Ninel, Age 76

… I was born at the Svetly gold-field in 1940, I finished school there. I wanted to apply to the law department of the university in Irkutsk, and came to Irkutsk. I lived at my sister’s during the preparatory courses. My sister’s husband was mean to her, I quarreled with him and had to go back to Bodaibo. There I took a course and got a job at a brewery. What a beer we had there! They even delivered it to Irkutsk. And then I started to work at a substation. Five kilometers through the forest, one shift was 24 hours.

… There was plenty of everything in Bodaibo and at the gold mines: groceries, goods, clothes. My parents always sent candies, sausages, duck meat to my sister in Irkutsk. The situation was such that if you sent money, it was little use as you couldn’t buy anything good with it. In the ‘90s at every mine a part of the salary was given in dollars. And there were imported clothes there that we could buy with dollars. And in Irkutsk there was nothing, we both dressed and fed our children and grandchildren.

… Our houses at the Balakhninsky mine are already dismantled and all the dwellers have been rehoused. If you talk to the people you know you can see that almost no one lives there anymore. Everybody has left and have taken their elderly with them.

… My daughter Sveta was born at home in Balakhninsky. I didn’t go to the town so as not to be put in hospital, so I could complete the prescribed work time, I hid from the doctors. Whenever my son Sergei saw an ambulance on the street he’d call: Mom, hide! And even when I started to have labour pains and the doctors came he wanted to rescue me. He almost succeeded in that: they didn’t make it in time to get me to the hospital, so my daughter was born at home.

… Once in three or four years we went on vacation. Once we were waiting for our flight in Irkutsk’s airport. My son was roaming around the departure hall, and then he came back and said: “I found some Bodaibo folk”. They recognised me themselves. A married couple, with a girl of the same age as Sergei, approached. And they said: :We knew right away that your boy is from Bodaibo”. So we ask “How?” “By his T-shirt. That year they brought T-shirts with colourful sand buckets and spades to our place and everybody bought them.

…In 2007 when my husband was gone I packed five boxes of my stuff. Mainly books. And moved to my kids’ place.

»We went to Bodaibo every summer. I used to think that it was an exile then«

Veronika, Age 26

… As a child I was awfully ashamed to tell people that I was born in Bodaibo. I don’t know why. But Nikita, my elder brother, told everyone that he was from Bodaibo. Although it was the other way around: my parents went to Bodaibo with my little brother to my father’s parents, but I was born there.

… We went to Bodaibo every summer. I used to think that it was an exile then. But actually we always went to the taiga, travelled on the river Vitim by boat, and swam in mountain rivers. And I have never seen such a forest anywhere else.

… It was great there, although we were the only well-off kids on the street. The others were not so well off, many of them had parents in prison. They were allowed to eat chocolate margarine though. My grandma baked pies and bread rolls, but I craved that margarine that neighbors treated us with.

…I have dreams about Bodaibo. A couple times a week for sure.

»I have some minerals, semiprecious stones. They are all from there. But no [other] things: you cannot take the North with you. Only memories«

Valentina, Age 79

… In the past everyone from Irkutsk and from the whole Union went to Bodaibo. And now they’ve all moved back again. Just like us: we went there for three years but stayed 30. All the same, we moved to Irkutsk. My husband and I had a work assignment from Uzbekistan to Novosibirsk. To a scientific laboratory. But he was invited to Bodaibo. And so he says to me: “Lets go! It is great there, taiga, hunting, fishing and plenty of work. It is very interesting!” And so we went there.

… We lived very modestly at the mine, there was no need for stuff, later, over time, we acquired some things and a boat with two engines. There was nothing in particular at the mine itself. Not even a first-aid station. I gave birth to my elder son at home. A nurse from a day-care centre came and helped me.

… My husband was very fond of fishing and travelling. He had a friend who used to go to the taiga in September and returned only in January. He used to take a special vacation from work for it.

… Our grandchildren used to come to stay with us for the whole summer. The eldest grandson even came to study at the technical school. And in the summertime we travelled on the Vitim and went to the taiga. We picked so many berries that it was enough for the whole winter. We had a good life. I’m very glad that we lived just like that.

… I left for Irkutsk for good in 2007. The children suggested buying me a dacha but I don’t want one. I know the town (we lived here for three years after all), but my routes are all the same and friends are old ones. Most of my friends are from those parts.

… We took books with us, a few belongings. I have some minerals, semiprecious stones. They are all from there. But no [other] things: you cannot take the North with you. Only memories.

» I was looking forward to going home and it seemed to me that I would have enough time in my life to travel «

Svetlana, Age 49

… I think now why I didn’t apply to a university in Leningrad or in Riga as I dreamed of? Perhaps it is because it seemed to us that Irkutsk was the only real place we could move to.

… I went home for vacation and between vacations too. And on November 7. And I even declined the offer of internship in Riga despite the fact that I got it on a competitive basis. I was looking forward to going home and it seemed to me that I would have enough time in my life to travel. And the house on the bare mountain, mum and dad, and the pine nut season will be over one day.

…For a long time Irkutsk didn’t feel like home to me. First of all it seems to me now that we didn’t see a lot of the town during our college years, didn’t walk around it much then. We studied at the technical university, lived nearby in a dormitory and only Studgorodok (campus) was the town for us. That’s why in comparison with home where you can breathe freely, where there is a river and forest close by, Irkutsk seemed gray and sad.

… I look at you now and see that you are always wandering around, looking at the buildings and streets, going to the cinema. But we almost didn’t walk anywhere. And I can simply walk for many kilometers without getting tired. While in Irkutsk it was something that I missed all the time. First we studied, then started to work, then the cars appeared and that’s it.

»Before, just like in the North, people formed close relations here, were friends with neighbors, paid visits to each other. Now all this is in the past«

Andrei Sizikh, Age 49

… In 1985 I left home and was accepted into the teaching college. I was 17, my mum came with me, but after the entry exams she flew home. I got an excellent mark for my first exam and took 10 rubles from my mum as a reward for the success. We chipped in with the guys for drinks and got drunk good and proper. It was the only time my mum saw me drunk, and she cried a lot.

… I had plans to return home but life turned out differently. I applied to the teaching college intentionally. History had been my passion since my school days. I thought I would come back and become the principal at our school. I frequently ask myself why I didn’t go to study in Moscow. Neither I nor my parents had such ambitions. And it was time of really equal opportunities, but Irkutsk was quite enough for us. At that time it seemed a real big city.

… My father was the head of the town executive committee from 1973 till 1988. Then the old Unions broke down and new ones appeared. He was elected Head of the Administration. And he continued to be re-elected till 1998. Afterwards, when my father was sick already we took him and my mum to Irkutsk. Perhaps that is when the connection with the town almost ended.

Irkutsk quickly became home to me, here I felt for the first time what it meant to be an adult and I fell in love with the town. But by the middle of the 90ies it became obvious that the way of life had changed not only in small Bodaibo, where property redistribution had started, criminals appeared, and new ways got established. Irkutsk changed too. Before, just like in the North, people formed close relations here, were friends with neighbours, paid visits to each other. Now all this is in the past. Something always finishes and changes: in people, in the economy, in cities. The connection with the North used to be very direct: people came flying, brought packages of meat, berries, and mushrooms. Money had less value, relationships were more important.

Conversations with Bodaibo dwellers, who might already call fried meat pies “byelashi” (the Irkutsk way), but more likely “okaziki” (as my granny did), who always have “kvass” made from the crusts of black bread in the fridge, and cowberry pie at weekends, helped me to better understand the process of backward migration from Bodaibo region to Irkutsk. This began in the 1990s.

One way or another, three generations were involved in this process. The first generation includes people who were either born in Bodaibo or lived there most of their active life, or who moved there when they were very young, began work and started a family and had children already in Bodaibo.

The second generation is people that grew up in Bodaibo and Bodaibo district. They connect their youth with these places. Representatives of the third generation were either born in Bodaibo, or they lived there only in their infancy. Their connection with the North is intermittent: summer and New Year school breaks, rare visits to relatives, snippety memories: distant cousins, parcels with sweets, bare mountains covered with fragrant cowberry, and gigantic flying longhorn beetles that you never see in Irkutsk.

The relationship of all three generations with Irkutsk, where they eventually found themselves, developed quite differently. Representatives of the older generation left Bodaibo in their very late years as they followed their children. They seldom make new contacts, preferring to keep their “Northern” connections. The town becomes their home only in part: mainly the shopping centres, roads and social institutions.

The driver of the migration was the active, middle generation. People of this generation did not get used to Irkutsk straight away, but by the middle of the 2000s, they had proved ultimately their status as being citizens of Irkutsk, had acquired property and the chance to bring their older family members out of Bodaibo, had made their own social connections and actively used the city’s informational space.However, only representatives of the third generation identify themselves with Irkutsk, think of themselves as people of Irkutsk and use the space of the town to the full extent. And they actually do not only use it, they change it consciously.

The history of bilateral exchange between Irkutsk and Bodaibo now remains in the past. But two-way migration continues to connect the regional centre with other settlements including outlying ‘company towns’. This happens because Irkutsk is not an abstract “centre of the Earth”, but the centre of an enormous region scattered over thousands of kilometers. It is renewed; it changes and lives not only thanks to its own resources, but in many ways because of a constant stream from the towns and districts of the region. The city will live so long as people leave for Irkutsk.