by Ava Klinger
I boarded a train in Saint Petersburg headed to Kizema, Russia with very little information about the event I was traveling to. All I knew was that it was located in a very remote village in the Arkhangelsk Oblast region of Russia and would be an ecological and educational immersion experience.
The cabin I shared with two middle-aged Russian men was clean and comfortable. Immediately upon sitting down with them, one offered me a shot of vodka, which I politely declined. He then shrugged and gulped it down. During the 20-hour plus ride into the heart of the country, I watched the landscape sweep past me. With snow piled as high as my waist, you would never know this was one of the very last days of winter; the spring equinox was just around the corner. I closed my eyes and pictured what my hometown (Boulder, CO) looked liked at that moment – a radiant sun, the Flatirons standing strong and majestic against the bright blue sky, crocuses and daffodils just popping up out of the earth. I opened them again to see a thicket of birch forest rooted in a blanket of white snow.
That night I slept peacefully, rocked to sleep by the steady movement of the train, knowing that when I woke up, I would be very close to my destination.
The petite train conductor nudged me awake and whispered something I didn’t understand. I nodded a gesture of gratitude and bundled myself up. When I stepped off the train in Kizema, I nearly sank to my knees in a pile of snow next to the track then clumsily stumbled toward the small station. The temperature was not that different from Saint Petersburg a few weeks ago, and I could see that the months of piled up snow was starting to melt. It took me some time to figure out where I was supposed to meet my ride, but finally, I spotted the old Soviet Russian van bouncing along the half ice, half slush road.
My driver, Iosif, smiled and waved at me and instantly I knew I was in the right place. Like every Russian man I have met in the eight months I have spent in Russia, he assisted me with my bag and offered his arm to help me navigate my way into the vehicle. I was pleased to hear that he also lives in Saint Petersburg. We spent some time getting to know each other as we waited for the travelers coming from the Moscow train. Once we picked up the other guests, two women, one with two little boys, we started our journey to the mysterious destination. I quickly noticed that we had not spotted a single car passing us, but there was a man walking along the rural road with his hat and a lunch bag. We picked him up and dropped him off at a small factory a bit farther down. The road was so soggy with puddles of melting snow and thick mud that I was astonished we managed to plow through, but less than an hour after leaving the station, we pulled into a tiny village with about two dozen wooden structures and stopped in front of one of them. Not a soul was visible.
Iosif jumped out of the van, and I followed, gazing around trying to grasp my bearings. This place must have looked nearly identical a hundred years ago when the revolution in Saint Petersburg had begun to pick up momentum. It felt like a place trapped in a memory. One of the houses close by had broken windows and probably hadn’t been occupied for decades. I wondered what had happened there; what were the stories of the people, some of them possibly serfs under Imperialist times?
Then we stepped into the entry room of the small home. There was chatter coming from behind the door to the main part of the house. We removed our muddy boots and hunched down to fit through the low beamed door. Dozens of people grouped around three long tables, chatting and eating porridge for breakfast. I instantly recognized one who had stayed with me a few days before. They had all been there for a day already, so I was a newcomer to the group. I heard Russian, English, Finnish, Norwegian, and what I later would learn was Hungarian being spoken about the room. My chest swelled up with disbelief and joy that seventy plus people from ten countries around the world had all found themselves in this old remote Russian village. I knew it had not been easy to travel there for many of them.
Alisa, one of the organizers, greeted me instantly with a huge smile. Her bright blue eyes and curly blonde hair matched the warmth and positive energy she exuded. I was encouraged to eat and make myself at home. That first day went by quickly. After breakfast, we all headed to the town hall and had a morning circle to go over the schedule. Then we each had an opportunity to give a short presentation about the projects we are involved in (translations were provided between English and Russian). I was shocked to hear about all of the efforts that were going on so close to me in Russia, many of them with similar visions to Gaia University.
After a delicious lunch (one of many I would have during my three days there), we began a visioning exercise which would become an important part of the event. Focusing on the future, we offered ideas of what the world might look like in 5, 10, 20, 30, 40 and 50 years from now. The participation was enthusiastic. “The new dark ages”, “aliens invade”, “mosaic world”, “techno-Gaia”, “holistic earth”, and “Wall-E” scenarios were presented along with dozens more. We worked in smaller groups and discussed what triggers might lead us into each scenario and what positive and negative reactions humans might have to those triggers. I connected with several new people at dinner and afterwards was completely exhausted, yet inspired. Before bed, we sat with our smaller groups and took some time to reflect upon the day. I was so grateful to have an opportunity to reflect and process everything that happened.
That night I slept well and woke up feeling rejuvenated. At breakfast, we were told that there would be a couple of special ceremonies that day in celebration of the Spring Equinox. We headed to a hill next to the main house and gathered around a fire in the center of the space. Tonya, the woman who owned the property, her husband, Ivan and daughter, Sasha, all led us in an old Russian traditional ritual. It started with a song to help the fire burn. More songs followed until the fire grew strong. At that moment we took a pause. Tonya presented a large doughnut-shaped loaf of bread, which each of us took turns to hold, looking through to where the sun was hiding behind the clouds – envisioning the future we want to create. When it was my turn, I focused on an image of what our group must look like from space, then multiplied over the globe. I imagined small groups of people gathering everywhere, working together with love, cooperation, and mutual respect. I released a deep breath holding that picture in my heart and passed the loaf on to my new friend, Vlad.
For the next part of the celebration, we were all given little, baked cookies in the shape of a lark. “The spring comes on the wings of the lark,” is the translation of the old Russian proverb. We held the cookies in our hands and sang, jumping slightly to mimic flight. After this, we were told we could either throw the cookie into the fire, eat it, bury it in our garden, place it in a tree for the birds, or bite off the head, throw it to the earth and eat the rest. I kept mine and will plant it in the ground next to my apartment in Saint Petersburg. Many others chose to throw the head to the earth, and heads flew.
When the pile of wood from the fire fell to the ground, the festivities became more exciting. Sasha, who was wearing a long dress ran toward the fire and jumped over it. For a moment I was worried she might catch fire, then everyone started racing toward it, leaping over – some of the men even somersaulting over it. A new friend, Henri, from Finland, offered me his arm and we jumped over the flames together. After the fire had died, the celebration was over. We headed to the meeting space and started the program for the day with a new spring in our step.
The entire afternoon we were given a game to work on which had to do with the scenarios for the future we had created the day before. I joined a group that set out to solve a unique problem. Ours was that so many travelers visit a country and only ever see the large cities, which are becoming less and less authentic with American corporations taking over, and never get to taste the flavor of real life in that country. Our solution was to utilize the technology we have at our disposal to create a platform where communities and villages all over the world can host travelers who want an authentic experience. We worked with other groups and through a lengthy process to refine our ideas and then reflected upon the exercise.
That night there was another party in the largest gathering space with dancing and games in celebration of a young woman named Polina’s birthday. I skipped out on most of it, in favor of some much needed down-time and sleep.
I woke up on my final day at the immersion excited to see what would happen next. Everything up to that point had been entirely unexpected. As it would turn out, this was my favorite and the most crucial of the three days. At breakfast, I learned that one of the cats I noticed the day before was pregnant and had given birth that night – on the first day of Spring. She and her litter of three kittens curled up in a box next to the dining area and were showered with the affection of onlookers all morning.
After breakfast, we were presented with a task – to use the tools from the game we played the day before to create a representation of the project we are each involved in, detailing our goals, needs, problems, offerings, etc. I set up shop for Gaia University and found many other people resonating with what we are doing. We had many interesting discussions and drew up next steps with hopes for future collaborations. Don’t be surprised if you see our programs being offered in Russia sometime in the future!
Finishing up the day, I packed my bags and said my goodbyes, knowing that many of the connections I made would not end there.
Just before walking out the door, I was pulled back into the living space and told to sit down. I had heard of this ritual before but had never done it. In Russia, it is tradition to sit for some moments before going on a journey, just to be sure you aren’t too rushed and forget something. It was a peaceful moment that allowed me to take a deep breath and ground myself one last time before leaving this very special place.
As I sit here on the long train ride back to Saint Petersburg reflecting upon the last few days, I realize that it was not only the people I met and the connections I made during my journey but the energy and history of the place we gathered that cultivated so much potential. In this tiny remote Russian village, with only seventy people from around the world, we set a vision for the future– a vision that we hope to share through each of our individual and collective efforts. I know that Gaia University has and will continue to nurture others with that same vision and I am eager to see how it will all unfold.