'The Spirit- Wrestlers' by Philip Marsden
I picked up this book through Bookcrossing in Derby as I was attracted by the title thinking it might be about Navaho or other Native American Indians but having read the blurb on the back I discovered it was about a religious group in Russia. As my son's partner is of Russian descent, now living in Canada, I thought I would give it a try.
I'll be honest and admit I know next to nothing about Russia and its history apart from reading Tolstoy many years ago and also the story of Tsar Nicholas and his family being killed, Rasputin and of course seeing and falling in love with 'Dr Zivargo'. So as you can see I have much to learn.
This book is a travelogue, a journey across the lesser known parts of Russia, the Adygei Republic, Karachai, Cherkessia, North and South Ossetia Georgia and he also crosses bacl and forth into Amenia. His journey is sparked by talking to a man in Moscow who points out on a map where he comes from 'The edge of the world' in the Caucasus and he claims he is a 'Doukhobor' or 'spirit-wrester'. Marsden then goes from place to place asking for different people he has been told about and discovering more and more strange beliefs and traditions.
It isn't the easiest and lightest of reads and a book that will be enjoyed by those either interested in spiritual beliefs or Russian history and traditions as well as geography. I have to9 admit5 I struggled to maintain my interest at some points in the book which were pretty dry but as I was lying on a beach in Laos at the time I should have chosen a lighter read I suppose. I stuck with it to the end and feel I know a bit more about certain aspects of Russian history and the people and there were times where I was truly fascinated.
I learned that the Russians love of Vodka began when in 1386 a Genoese legation brought some flasks of 'aqua vitae; to Moscow. The state discovered that taxing alcohol brought in valuable revenue. At times in Russian history alcohol has been banned, Nicholas II tried in 1914, the Bolsheviks continued the ban until around 1926 but then Gorbachev reintroduced prohibition in 1985 when vineyards were destroyed. The Russians have the highest per capita alcohol consumption and according to the author a bottle of Vodka is consumed every two days per man in the population. I am not sure if that means man as in male or meaning person, or whether the women don't drink to that extent.
Apparently during this prohibition the Russians devised various strange alternatives from varnish, glue, window cleaner, brake fluid and even toothpaste in sufficient quantity was found to produce an effect not unlike Vodka. I think desperation had obviously taken over as I really can't see me going to those lengths. Apparently 'eau de cologne', the drink of the intellectual' was limited to two bottles per person and could only be bought after 2 pm. It gets worse as one particular man, Venedict Erofeev wrote a book on cocktails such as 'Lenin's Lady' concocted with' methylated spirits, Velvet beer and furniture polish' or 'Bitches brew' which combined the delights of 'Zhiguli beer, Sadko shmpoo, dandruff treatment, athlete's foot remedy and small bug killer'.
As if these were not bad enough others suggested ;
"Put black shoe polish on a slice of bread. Leave overnight. In the morning, remove excess polish and it's ready to eat.' I bet their teeth were a sight to see after that one. An alternative to this was to soak white bread in eau de cologne which might be better for the teeth colour but I am sure tasted equally revolting. According to Marsden eleven thousand Soviets died experimenting with similar concoctions during one year of Gorbachev's ban which he says is a figure comparable to the death toll of the entire Afghan War.
Marsden describes the terror of entire villages being taken and the inhabitants deported during Stalin's time. Over two million people were removed and sent out into Siberia where few survived to tell the tale. While the author was in one such village, Hasaut in the Caucasus which was famous for its horses he was shown a photograph of what the village had once been. When he looked on the back of the photograph he discovered it had been printed in London an been taken by Negley Farson on his journey through the Caucasus in 1928/29 and was given to the lady who had the photograph by his son Nigel Farson who had retraced his father's journey. Negley Farson wrote a book about his journey which wasn't published until 1951 called 'Caucasian Journey'.
Another part I found especially fascinating was when he was writing about a people or sect known as the 'Alans' which apparently featured in the Battle of Hastings. They were the section which pretended to flee from the English who then gave chase, once in full chase the Norman cavalry chased the English and the Aland turned to face then meaning that the broken ranks of the English were easy pickings. This was something the Alans were famous for but the English were unaware at the time.
The Alans spread across Europe and all the people with the surname Allen or Alan or Allain are descendants of this sect of Steppe warriors. Many towns are based on the name such as Alagna and Allegno in northern Italy, Alancon, Alaincort, Courtallain in France. Even in England these Alans left their mark as the Alan word for water is 'don' and so we get Croydon which means 'mill on the water' and London which is Alan for 'dirty water'.
Moving onto another topic which grabbed my attention and that is the longevity of some of the Russian people especially around Ossetia. Many have been known to live well into their second century and even though records are a bit hazy, ethnographers have authenticated long livers by interviewing them about events n their lives and what they remember. These tales were fitted into known events and chronicled so that a more accurate estimate of ages was ascertained. No one is sure what thier secret to long life is, some suggest that it is expectation. If you expect to live for longer you don't 'decide' you are old at age seventy/eighty or whatever and you continue to live and do what you did at fifty or younger. Others have said that is a life without worry or stress unlike modern life but it certainly cannot be the wonderful climate as two feet of snow was the norm in winter.
The author visited one family and was taken to the family graveyard. On the gravestones their ages were 165 years, and one of 173 years old. According to the 'guide' the author was with who was a doctor he met the dates were accurate. When asked why people don't live to these ages now he answered that it was because we now eat yeast! Personally I feel that it may be more to do with inaccurate records but long life seems to have been something that happened more in days gone by . According to history books Thomas Parr in 1635 was presented to Charles I of England at the age of 154 and he had fathered a child at 120 and this child also lived to be 123!! A woman in Moscow in the 1950s remembered meeting Pushkin ad Nekrasov and she was 154. Finally a veteran of the Colombian War of Independence died in Bogotá aged 169 which is staggering.
The author continues with other statistics showing that the area around Karabakh certainly has the best statistics for a long life as sixty nine out of every one hundred thousand live to over one hundred years while in the entire Soviet union the figure drops to eight per one hundred thousand. According to a book written by a Professor Manuel Aliyevich Ibrahimov ,'May you Live to be 200' in which he interviews many long-livers and tries to discover the secret.
He concludes that a combination of a diet limited to 2500-3000 calories per day, limited alcohol, lots of tea and no coffee. Plenty of pomegranates, not much bread, lots of dairy produce, boiled lean meat, lots of walnuts and maintain your weight as you are at thirty ( presumably you are not over weight at thirty).
Work and a regular routine is important and walk at least five kilometres a day and keep working all through your life. Well that counts me out having stopped work at fifty five and I certainly don't walk five Km a day never mind the food regime!
You should also avoid negative thoughts or excessive emotions. Sex is important and should continue regularly and the centenarian men who fathered children put down their potency to a combination of honey and walnuts so there you go men off to the health food shop and eat lots of baklava!!
There is so much more to the book and Marsden meets Cossacks and manages to sneak across borders in a way that most people would avoid in questionable political areas. He travel totally alone and just moves from place to place as he is told of another person he should meet and talk to. He stays with people he bumps in to casually and shares lots of vodka and food with casual acquaintances. His story is an adventure in the true sense of the word as he just moves as the mood takes him, he has no sponsors or TV crew to support him and he relies upon his wits and his obvious ability to communicate in the Russian language.
WHAT THE CRITICS HAVE SAID:
"A fascinating, horrifying and inspiring journey- praise seems scant reward for his efforts. The man deserves a medal." Harry Ritchie in 'The Mail on Sunday'
" So other world, so strange and so fabulous are the charcaters who people 'The Spirit -Wrestlers' that the reader might be forgiven for imagining he had dipped by mistake into some ancient book of fairy tales." Teresa Waugh in 'The Literary Review'
"A mesmerising account" 'the Observer'
" A fine piece of writing and his descriptions are as beautifully spare as ever.... Best of all, he lets the true voices of the people sound through." Edward Marriott from 'The Times'
"Beautifully evoked scenes and overheard exchanges.... there are many characters in this book whom I left with reluctance." Anatol Lieven in 'Times Literary Supplement.
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