Deeper Than Oil: A Fun Soviet Place

© RIA NovostiMarс Bennetts
Marс Bennetts - Sputnik International
In 1966, a Soviet-Mongolian youth friendship festival took place on the banks of Lake Manzherok in Russia’s Altai Republic. This might not seem like much to you, but for the then insular Soviet Union, it was a big thing indeed.

In 1966, a Soviet-Mongolian youth friendship festival took place on the banks of Lake Manzherok in Russia’s Altai Republic. This might not seem like much to you, but for the then insular Soviet Union, it was a big thing indeed. So big in fact that a nifty pop tune was commissioned for the occasion.

The song in question was entitled - somewhat unimaginatively – “Manzherok” and was sung by French-born Soviet star Edita Pieha. The catchy chorus went “Friendship is Manzherok, Faithfulness is Manzherok, the place we meet!”

There was even a video made to accompany the song – a kind of Soviet surf-rock thing - featuring Pieha and her band leaping around happily in a snowy forest and playing peek-a-boo behind trees. Looking at the clip today, it’s hard to reconcile it with the common image of pre-perestroika Soviet Union as a gravely serious place where discussions of Marxism and Leninism were about as exciting as it got. Why, Pieha and her backing group even seem to be enjoying themselves!

I couldn’t dig up much info on the actual festival, but I like to imagine Soviet and Mongolian youths grooving away the nights to the track on the banks of the tranquil Lake Manzherok. This may be wistful thinking on my behalf, however. As far as I can tell, the song was recorded after the festival of friendship.

Pieha, who still performs today at the age of 74, was born to Polish parents in a mining village near Paris in 1937. After her father’s death, she moved to Poland with her mother and step-father before heading to Leningrad to study in 1955. It was in the Soviet Union that she found fame.

“She was quite a looker in her day,” Sergei, a security guard at a hotel overlooking Lake Manzherok, told me when I visited the area earlier this year.

“She made our little village famous, too,” he added, breaking into a snippet of Pieha’s hit.

Famous wasn’t probably the right word – back in Moscow, no one had heard of the place, and not many people I asked were familiar with the song. Which is a pity on both counts – it’s a storming tune and Manzherok really does live up to Pieha’s words of praise.

I’d been traveling around the region for a couple of weeks by the time I got to Manzherok, and while most people had been friendly enough, the Manzherokians were by far the most affable folk I’d come across.

After Sergei had finished his rendition of Pieha’s tribute to his home village, I took the ski-lift up to the highest viewing platform on Mount Sinyukha overlooking the lake.

It was off-season, and there wasn’t really anyone about apart from ski-lift operator Oleg, who greeted me with a cheery “hello!” as I jumped off the ski-lift. I was impressed by his ability to determine the nationality of new arrivals to his domain high above the Siberian countryside.

“No, no,” he said, “that’s how I greet everyone.”

It was a pretty boring job up there in the summer. Or relaxed, depending on how you looked at it. Oleg seemed content enough with his lot though, even if he was pleased to have a visitor.

“Wanna dress up as a Mongolian warrior?” he asked me, pointing at an outfit on the floor of his cabin. “Tourists love it.”  I declined.

“We usually have an eagle up here as well,” he added. “But not today.”

Oleg, it turned out, was also a volunteer firefighter, tackling the wildfires that devastate Siberian forests with alarming frequency.

“Look over there,” he told me. “It’s only May and we’ve already seen a blaze.”

I followed Oleg’s finger and made out a black stain - the charred remains of trees - set against the lush green.  “That was just a few weeks ago,” he said. “And they’ll be more. You can bet on it.”

“There’s a team of us,” he told me. “And we try to get to the fires before they can spread too much. But it’s hard work. In the Soviet era things were better organized. Whole factories would be sent out to tackle blazes. There’s none of that of course now.”

“I just can’t stand by and see our countryside destroyed,” he added. “And if the authorities can’t sort it out…”

I said goodbye to Oleg and set off back down the mountain. When I reached the bottom it was already getting dark. I looked around for a taxi but there was no one around. I asked a local where I could find someone to drive me back to my accommodation.

“I’ll take you,” he said, smiling. “It’s no trouble.”

That kind of thing is par for course in friendly Manzherok. Visit, if you can. Say Marc sent you.

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.

Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, The Times, and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).

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