Lake Ladoga 2003. Reminiscences of a soldier and Russian off-road
For a dozen kilometers we drive an old, potholed road through the forest. After we cross a paltry bridge we are at our destination. The beach of the Lake Ladoga is in front of us. Lake – that’s an understatement … All you can see is water and beach to the horizon. We are not used to such lakes in Poland.
Looking for the best place for a camp, we drive along the shore for a while. Suddenly, at the edge of the forest, right at the water, we notice a small hut. Actually, this barrack was hurriedly built of old tin sheets and covered with God knows what. Next to it, where fish dry on strings, there is a small table and a bench made of planks. Among all of this some man bustles around. We drive slowly in the distance of several dozen meters. We greet him and he waves to us. We drive a little more and see a small but cute meadow where we decide to pitch our tents.
It takes us couple of hours to settle the camp, prepare dinner, and to clean the car after a few days trip. We sit, talk, but I feel like meeting our neighbor-fisherman. I take wit me “something” that can help in greetings and go for a social chat.
At first, I just wanted just to say hello and exchange a few courtesy words. However, what was planned as short visit turned into a long hours of fascinating conversation.
Our neighbor’s name is Sasha and – as I can presume from his story – he is about 35-40 years. He is a simple fisherman who spent the whole summer on the shores of the Ladoga catching fish that he was selling later in a nearby town. However, his life story and memories were not so simple. Here is his tale.
Sasha had been born in Republic of Karelia (a part of Russia where the Lake Ladoga lies and which borders with Finland) and in the 1970’s, like all young men, he was drafted into the Red Army. However, as I learned, the practice of military authorities was to send the inhabitants of each republic to a completely different part of the Soviet Union, so Sasha went to the garrison near Moscow. After a few weeks of the service, the entire group from the recruitment, was packed into an airplane without a word where they were going. Sasha was surprised that after they were packed on a board, all weapons were taken, including bayonets and knives. He soon learned why.
In the middle of a very long flight, when the officers were already as full as a boot, they started to shout to the “youngs” … “Well, you are already dead! We are en route to Afghanistan!” Soon it turned out that their weapons were taken away, because the commanders were afraid of mutiny aboard after hearing that.
Sasha told us: “We were all petrified, we were just very young country guys. Afghanistan was known to us only from distant stories. During the flight, we heard the roar of shots, we did not know if they were shooting at us, but the atmosphere on board was hysterical.
After landing in the middle of the night, we were piled into the trucks with screaming, pushing and running, and later dropped at the base. The next day, we were given our weapons back and I was ordered to guard the camp. I spent two days there. When I finished my shift, I was told to go to a warehouse for new magazines. I did not understand why I needed new magazines since the ones I already had were full. Just when I received new ones, I got to know why. I was standing on guard with blanks! They wanted to be sure that I won’t do anything stupid. And no one gave a damn about that in the event of an attack I would be not able to defend myself.”
Sasha also told us, how he felt when he returned home, where he lives now, how his life looked like. However, he refused to answer any question about Afghanistan. He just said a short “not allowed”.
Our conversation lasted for a couple of hours. During it, for the first time in my life I ate the simplest soup in the world – “ukha”. Water taken from a nearby lake, few peeled potatoes, fish heads, some salt. Everything cooked over a fire in one large pot. Maybe not fancy but delicious.
During the preparations for our trip to the Lake Ladoga the boys from LandLovers tols us about a Pole who was living in St. Petersburg for years. Thanks to him, we received an invitation to see an off-road rally which was being held over this lake. It was not the famous Ladoga Trophy, but even shorter local rally is quite impressive.
We were not full participants of the rally, but rather – as we can say – observers. But it did not stop us from driving on a few spare wheel and passing a few try-outs. It was a bit funny – the Polish Land Rover Discovery loaded to the roof and with two children on the broad during the Russian off-road rally. It was not so funny, when our winch died on one of the crossings. It forced us to quickly return to the base and try to revive it. Monika and the children took care of the camp and I bravely started to dismantle 50kg Husky winch from the car. Moment later mechanics from different teams participating in the rally rushed with a help. Together we took out 50kg Husky, carried it to the 3-axes Kamaz which was a support service for one of the teams and, in the next hour we brought it back to life. Why am I writing all of this? Not to brag about unscrewing several screws. I am writing it because the kindness and support our family received from our “Slavic brothers” was enormous. While the guys were fighting against iron, Mateusz and Ada played with Russian peers and Monika was spending time with other adults at the bonfire. And all this happened during one or two days spent in the base of a rally, where we were only some tourists. Let the politicians say whatever they want. In my opinion a man always gets along with a man… especially when they understand each other even if they do not speak the same language.