Pokrovka is a remote village in Novosibirsk, Russia. It is lost amidst the huge and mostly uninhabited territories of Siberia. I came to know of its existence many years ago because one of my friends grew up there, only to leave it forever at the age of seventeen. What she told me about the village and its inhabitants both bewildered and fascinated me. As time passed, I heard other stories about Pokrovka, and it began to stand for the thousands of small places in Russia existing in the middle of nowhere.
One day, I resolved to go to Pokrovka to meet some of the characters of my friend's stories.
It was an adventure that did not disappoint. The things I witnessed, and even some of the circumstances I found myself in, were far beyond anything I had experienced.
I remember the route to the village, which is 50 km from the nearest station, with only one small settlement along the way. Only birch trees lined the awful road, some lonely; others, in a circle, as if gathered for a dance. It was the beginning of April, but snow was still everywhere and nights were insufferably cold. I asked myself – how is it that someone would choose to live here?
I saw men and women drinking every day, starting in the morning, and then going to work at the local farm. And then, for want of anything else to do, they would drink again. I saw men staying whole afternoons and evenings at the farm after their shift was over instead of going home to their wives, children, and grandchildren. I saw 12 year-old Anna locking her mother up in the toilet to keep her from once again disappearing from the house on a drinking binge. If she went on such a binge, Anya would be left at home for several days to fend both for herself and for her 4-year-old sister, Polina. She would have to milk the cow every day.
One time, I rode in a cart pulled by a horse, and filled with drunken men. Along the way, the horse driver fell out. The horse sped away. I tried to stop it and had to jump out of the cart before it rushed into the void and down into the river...
Wintertime in Pokrovka can bring temperatures as cold as minus 30 degrees below zero for three months in a row, but the villagers are used to it. When I naively asked one day why they drank so much, they said, staring: "It's not possible not to drink. Otherwise we can't go on".