Clad in their sleepwear, the young people dashed headlong down a snowy slope toward a thick forest, where they stood no chance of surviving bitter temperatures of around minus 30 degrees Celsius … The deaths, which occurred 49 years ago on Saturday, remain one of the deepest mysteries in the Urals.
— Saint Petersburg Times, Feb 19, 2008
The mountain pass is marked with a simple memorial: a marble stone with our photos from the Polytechnic Annual beneath the state emblem, a setting sun and globe framed by ribbon-laced sheaves of wheat. It’s not far from where the search party found our tent, slashed open from the inside out, and our footprints, barefoot, sock-foot, one-boot-on-one-off in the snow heading toward the Loz’vy Valley. The area has been closed off for years, all documents relating to our deaths secreted in confidential archives.
There were five of us ski-hikers from the Polytechnic. We’d hiked all day, coming from the Northern Settlement toward the mountains. We pitched our tent in the whiteout, having found ourselves off course with day leaving quickly. The snow-filled sky and white horizon conspired to make the nameless crossing seem insular and smaller than it was. Alexei, our leader, said we should be consoled that we would not lose any ground, camped on the slope as we were.
Alexei had it on proud authority that his grandfather was in the Red Army and he insisted you could see him in a photo of the crowd of troops around Lenin and Trotsky in Petrograd. Of Exhortation, Organisation, and Reprisals Alexei inherited only the middle. He was the kind of man you could never picture kissing a girl or writing a song for that matter; he was someone who had shut out the subtle things of life as immaterial. This, I thought, made him a good leader, and I followed him happily.
I had studied the maps while we rested the previous night in the settlement on the Auspii River. A sheltering wood stood an hour’s hike away in the valley, but I said nothing, thinking he was right. Everyone else was jolly, working quickly despite their freezing hands. The cold makes hands stupid. It can make people stupid, too. My brother Georgy had often warned me against it — my brother who had been sent to the mining camps for the crime of crumpling a newspaper printed with the image of Stalin. My brother told me you could get so cold you felt hot and that you would take off your clothes in that state, too. No one survives this state of stupidity, he told me when I was just a girl. And then there was snow blindness to watch out for. Lots of things can happen in winter, he said.
Sobol and Milo were pitching the tent while Lumi was under the flysheet, taking some of the weight. Lumi the luminous, I called her in my head. She had shiny cheeks and yellow hair like a doll. I knew her from my history class, where she sat a row behind me. She was guarded, holding herself in such a way as to hide her womanly body. We had often taken lunch together in the spring, sitting out on the lawn of the main campus. I liked her because we could be silent together. Lumi could sing, very high, like the sound of altitude, if such a thing has a sound: cold, thin, panoramic. Once, after our daily exercises, I heard her singing in the shower: Rise our bonfires in dark-blue nights! We, pioneers, children of workers …
Milo carried her pack for her when she would tire. A white ribbon traced with gold writing threaded the shoulder strap, and during our hike that day I got close enough to read it. May his angels watch and keep you, and bear you to heaven. Prayers were a foolish extravagance that could not be justified. She never spoke of God, though the sadness in her pale blue, wide-set eyes suggested she had something enormous to hide. Originally I had guessed she hid a lover, perhaps someone much older, but in guessing I found that I could be very wrong.
Milo had heroic cheekbones and broad shoulders, the silent type. He sported a thick moustache and his appearance was exotic. While the rest of us wore our cloth parkas or fake fur, he wore a reindeer fur coat with dark ribbons over the seams and a brightly beaded fish-skin purse hung from his satchel. His tall fur boots were tied over his army-issue trousers with long, striped hide laces. It was clear, at least to me, that he was in love with Lumi. He was not a student at school but a groundsman there. He lived in a small concrete hut near the dormitories, an arrangement which gave the impression that he had existed before the Polytechnic and the place had grown up around him. He carried most of the tent on his own back without complaint. He was always quite far ahead of the rest of us, stopping periodically to wait for Lumi to catch up. I saw him once tuck a stray blonde lock of hers into her headscarf. She didn’t brush his hand away, but looked at him with melancholy affirmation.
I laid out the ground sheet while Bolsha Sobol, my childhood friend, hammered the tent pegs into the frozen ground. He was darker than dark, with wild eyebrows that met in the middle. He had been studying engineering but he lacked discipline. When I would prod him about it, he would retort, “Who am I disappointing? The Komsomol?” I wanted to say me but he would know I was lying. I didn’t care; his failure made sense to me. I didn’t think much about the future, but I imagined he’d always be there. He would call me Comrade Sveta, with a smirk that suggested we were in on the same joke, and sometimes I was afraid for him. Bolsha could also tie all kinds of knots. Though these were useful knots, he displayed the eye splice, alpine butterfly or the constrictor as if they were a magic trick for my amusement alone. Once he tied a square knot around my waist and looked at me with exaggerated meaning. My heart sank to my belly.
How does a young woman, perhaps guilty of ideological subversion, shake off the busybodies of the college, the student lackeys of the Komsomol or the Ministry of Internal Affairs? She goes to play in the snow, to feel that even for just a moment, simple technology and force of will might grant one passage anywhere. My other classmates of course considered me crazy, going places where only Mansi go, and if rumor had it, even they chose to avoid that stretch beside the Urals. The Mansi lived in the shadow of the Kholat range, which felt on this night like the invisible wall of the world. We could not see the mountains for the storm, but we knew they were there.
Bolsha built a fire using pages from my notebook as kindling. He thought this kind of thing was funny. “They were blank pages, Sveta! You are too serious. Come here and lighten yourself by the fire.” Proud caveman Bolsha held out his hands to the pit’s modest blaze. My brother liked to say that fire is a great morale booster; it allows you time to rest and cook. He taught Bolsha and I, for Sobol was an orphan of the war, living with relatives so-many-times removed. What Georgy showed to me, he showed Bolsha.