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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A River of History

CHUSOVAYA RIVER, the Urals - Valentina Ivanova's house has become a museum. Quite how that happened is a mystery. There is certainly no sign on the door or entrance fee. But canoeists passing the village of Kyn as they paddle down the Chusovaya river have come to stop at "the babushka's", to look at her collection of relics from the days before 1917.

The house is over 100 years old. The floors slope upwards, while the ceilings careen down to meet them. The most prized possession in the house goes to a picture, a collection of portraits of the men - including Valentina Ivanova's father - who used to run the Stroganov iron-smelting works at Kyn.

She talks nostalgically about the old days before 1911 when the plant closed. At her house and all along the Chusovaya - a majestic river that crosses the Urals passing from Asia to Europe as it flows - curious Russians are rediscovering a past that was buried for 70 years by the all-encompassing propaganda of revolution.

Perhaps nowhere better than here in the Urals can one see the traces of Russia's orphaned history. Riverside caves trace the lives of the aboriginal peoples who inhabited the area until the arrival of modern Russians. Mines and factories recall the families that began Russia's industrialization - centuries before Stalin.

"I once took a collection of photographs of the town to show the head of the Kyn Soviet", she recalled. "I wanted to show him what nonsense he was talking when he kept saying how terrible conditions had been and how much they improved under Soviet power.

"In those days we had four beautiful churches, the houses were well kept and people drove carriages around the town sober, not falling around drunk like they drive their cars now", she said.

"Kyn was a real little town", said Valentina Ivanova.

The swollen river whisked our flimsy canoes quickly downstream. The huge, multi-colored rock cuttings that distinguish the Chusovaya slipped by at an unreal speed as we paddled our boats from Asia into Europe.

I had set out from Nizhny-Tagil with Yury Serekov, an archaeologist who has spent most of his life digging up the ancient and medieval history of the Ural Mountains.

Serekov's wife Lyuba had already been out for two weeks excavating in the cave at Dyovaty Rock where she had found several hundred arrowheads fired by Paleolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age man. Unable to reach the cave, which is 40 meters up a sheer cliff, people had for 10, 000 years been shooting arrows into the mouth from below, either for sport or for some other more cryptic reason which perhaps nobody will ever know.

But it is the river itself that most mystifies and entrances. For centuries, voyagers have navigated its deceptively serene waters, some never reaching the end of the journey. The Chusovaya has been a silent witness to some of the most crucial events in Russia's history.

The Cossack adventurer Yermak traveled up the river in 1581 with some 600 mercenaries, Tatars and river pirates, when he left his post defending Stroganov settlements to cross the Urals and open the route for Siberia's conquest.

The Chusovaya suited Yermak's expedition. Because of a highly unusual geological formation in the squat Ural Mountains, the river crosses almost all the way from the eastern to the western edge of the range, breaking the geographical divide between Asia and Europe.

That freak of geography also turned the Chusovaya into the lifeline of the Stroganovs and others among Russia's merchant dynasties, who sank mines into the Ural's rich mineral seams to extract the metals that would arm Russia's troops and power its industry.

From Dyovaty Rock the Chusovaya sweeps westward, bouncing back and forth between the huge rock cuttings, each of which bears a name and legend given by the bargemen who, from the early 1700s until 1916, used to negotiate the river's treacherous currents as they brought gold, iron, copper and gems to the capitals of Russia and Europe.

Every spring, when the river swelled with melting snows, making it deep enough to navigate, they would walk strings of freight-filled barges more than 200 kilometers down the Chusovaya to where it joins the Kama at Perm, eventually flowing into the Volga and on to the Baltic Sea.

The barges themselves would make the journey only once, being sold for firewood when they reached their destination - it was for that very reason that the vessels were made entirely of wood. Iron nails, a very expensive commodity, were not even used.

Serekov explained the legend attached to each rock as we passed below them in our baidarki, large canoes made of rubber stretched across an aluminum frame.

Kamen Klikunchik - Shrieker's Rock - for example, got its name because girls from the local village were supposed to have danced on its outcrop, calling out to attract the attention of the bargemen. According to legend, the distracted pilots would let their tubs float into the current and smash into Kamen Razboiniki - Thieve's Rock - just around the bend. In the summer, when the water level fell, thieves from the village would collect their loot at leisure from the riverbed.

But whatever truth there may be to the legend, the dangers of the river have been well documented. In 1877, one of the worst accidents occurred when a convoy of 23 barges came to grief on Kamen Razboiniki, killing more than 100 people.

Most of the freight carried down the river was produced by the Demidov family, an industrial dynasty so dominant in the region that they minted their own currency. Towns that they founded - including Nizhny-Tagil - are still popularly distinguished as "Demidovsky".

It is no wonder then that the museum at Nizhny-Tagil - site of the family's first iron smelting works - was completely renovated last year and is now dominated by the Demidov's elegant portraits and furniture. Also included in the museum are metal objects that the family sent to Europe, winning awards in Paris and elsewhere for the quality of their metals.

The museum's display peters out at around the time of the 1917 Revolution, awaiting further space and renovation. There could not be a more complete reversal of priorities. Commonly, it is Lenin, the Bolshevik Revolution and the Second World War that still take up the lion's share of display space in Russia's municipal museums.

Downstream from the cave at Dyovaty Rock, a stone cross on the riverbank marks the spot where Akinfa Demidov - the second generation in the dynasty - was born. An aging guidebook helpfully pointed out that someone has scrawled graffiti on the cross that reads: "Here was born an exploiter of the working people".

Some of the working people lived at Kyn and other villages along the river, virtually all of which have died, leaving nothing but empty fields and a few ghostly skeletons of wooden cottages to tell of their existence.

"That's what Soviet power gave us", said Viktor Shukin, 62, who looks after a hunting lodge further downstream.

"There were 12 healthy villages along the river, the factory at Kyn was running and the workers there had better conditions than they do at the plants today", he said, adding that his grandfather had told him that when he worked in the hot section of the factory, his day was only 4 hours and 20 minutes long.

"They say it was so terrible before the revolution, but that's not what my grandfather told me", said the huntsman.

Serekov - who is far from conservative in his views - disagreed, arguing that if everyone had been so well-treated back then, there would have been no revolution. But Shukin would not budge.

"I'll tell you what Soviet power gave us", he told the archaeologist. "First they took away the schools from the villages, then the hospitals and finally the shops so that no one could live there any more".

But, ultimately, Serekov's interest is less in the Demidovs than in the fragments of pottery and tools that were excavated at Kotyol cave, just opposite the hunting lodge. There Serekov and the seven students with him also found the well-preserved jaw of a moose, which along with the bear is the sacred animal of the Mansi people who lived here before Russian settlers drove them out.

"All along this river are caves and Neolithic settlements that I have found but have been unable to touch", said Serekov, who has been excavating sites on the Chusovaya for 20 years. "We are only three archaeologists working in this entire region, and we just have not had the resources".

As the river unwound toward to the foothills of the Urals, it revealed a huge meadow in which one could make out the ruins of barracks. Wading through head-high nettles and wild flowers to investigate I stumbled into barbed-wire fences that were still stretched between posts and abandoned wooden sentry boxes looming above the area.

This had been a prisoner-of-war camp for German officers captured during World War II. Trees and plants grew up inside the ruins of three barracks, which each measure about 70 meters by 20. Narrow towers of bunk beds were still in place in one of the buildings. It seemed as though very little had been touched since the camp closed more than 40 years ago.

It was a quiet 15 kilometers further to the end of our trip. Turning the last bend you could see the crisp blue air turn abruptly into smog produced by the dayglow-orange factory emissions of the Soviet-era metals plant at the town of Chusovoy.

Abruptly we had returned to reality, to the dying, underemployed and desperately polluting factories of the Urals. The river had brought us back to the present.