My Father’s Siberian Blog

This blog is dedicated to my Father Vitaly Andreevich Salnikov (1933-2018)

My father was born in a remote Siberian village of Verhne-usinskoe Yarmakovkoe district of Krasnoyarsk region, Siberia on 28 Oct of 1933. He grew up in the 1930s  in the region where the nature of the land and its harsh climate shaped his character, personality, knowledge and his perspective on life in a very unique way.  From the early age his excursions into the Siberian taiga forest, and his trips in the Sayan Mountains, as a part of a geological survey group taught him many lessons of bushcraft and survival.   He lived through the era of Stalinism, he survived the events of WWII as a little boy, served in the Russian Navy in his adult years, before finally immigrating to Canada in the early 90s. From the deserts of the middle east to the boreal forests of North America, wherever his life took him, he carried the love for outdoors, nature and the unconditional love for humankind.  Before my father passed in August of 2018, he completed his memoirs, the entire story of his life. I dedicate this blog to his memory. I decided to translate selected chapters from his hand-written account and post them here. I am hoping that his taiga forest survival experiences, and his knowledge of the traditional ways of life could be of interest to history enthusiasts, survivalists, culturologists, bushcrafters and woodsman.


1.  Introduction

The oldest known to me relatives are my grandparents. I remember very little about their lives, and because of that, I would like to capture those few childhood  memories in writing. I was the last child in the Salnikov’s family, and it was only from their accounts I could have known about how my family, and our relatives lived before me.   In this memoir, I will mention many events, but I would like to focus on those that I was a part of, things  I saw, heard, and experienced personally, without a third party information or tale that could be inaccurate or distorted. Therefore, my account of my grandparents will be short.

My relatives often blame me for not recording my memories earlier in life, while they were fresh in my mind. However, the modern day person has no idea about the life and the conditions of life in those days before computers and modern technology.  In those days when there was only one telephone in the entire village, at times I had limited access to paper not to mention a type writer.   The only sources of information were the radio, which was broadcasting every day from 5am to midnight, and several newspapers; local ” Red Plower” (Krasny Pahar’) or national “Bolshevik” and “Pravda” which were very rare.

Later on in life, I suppose I could have utilized the official records from the local and regional archives, to make my accounts more accurate, but it is unlikely that any pertaining information could be found about my relatives. Former Usinsk region and present Yarmakovsky district of  Krasnoyarsk region were amalgamated at some point, and many documents were lost and mixed up in the process. I am convinced I could not find anything about my family in those institutions.

Furthermore, my relatives were not dukes or nobility of any kind, that I know for a fact. They did not make themselves famous in any socially-meaningful event, and did not commit any extraordinary heroic acts to be recorded in the official archives. While my grandfather spend all his life fighting for “Faith , Tzar and the Country” he did not receive much recognition for this besides a cross of St George.

They lived a hard life along side the rest of the Russian people in Siberia. The major events of my family’s and in my grand-paren’t’s lives included multiple Sino-Russian conflicts, including the KVZHD conflict of 1900, in which my grand-father took an active part. The events of Russo-Japanies war of 1905, the first Russian Revolution of 1905, The WWI, the October 1917 Bolshevik revolution, and the civil war of 1917-1922, Stalin’s Collectivization, and repressions against the “Kulaks”, and certainly the WWII where all those events that shaped my Siberian family’s heritage.

2. My Grandfather

Mikhail Milchakov (Михаил Мильчаков 1867-1942) Grandfather on my mother side.

My grand-father on my mother’s side Michail Milchakov was born in Siberia in former Minusinsk region in a farmer’s family. I can only roughly estimate the date of his birth to be 1866-1867.  True Siberian born and raised, in 1888 was drafted into military service. He served in Siberian Rifles Corps (Корпус Сибирских Стрелков) for 25 years and retired in the rank of  Warrant Officer.  My grand-father took part in the Sino-Russian border conflict in 1900, served and fought in the Russia-Japanese war of 1905.

Right before the beginning of WWI, in 1913 he was released from the military service. He returned to his home village of Grigorievka to find his farm in a very poor shape, as his wife and the young kids were not able to look after it properly. The eldest daughter Arina and later Pelageya as well, were working on a wealthy neighbouring farm. Natalia and Nikolay were helping their mother at the family farm. The farm was not enough to support the family, a horse a couple of cows, a few geese and chickens all that was left. After twenty-five years of service Mikhail did not want to start farming from scratch, he decided to support his retirement by hunting and trapping in the taiga. In the summer he helped at the farm and in the winter he would live in the taiga on a “Zaimka” (squatter’s land) and hunted and trapped for Siberian sable, squirrel and other fur animals.

Grand-father harvested sable and squirrels by a precise shot in the eye. His marksmanship skills developed early in life, and honed during his military service, came handy.  This precision was required in order not to ruin the pelt with multiple holes.

In the taiga my grand-father built many small log cabins where he stayed as he traveled for days checking his trap lines. He would stay in the taiga all winter with his Siberian Laika Husky named “Kukla” (doll in Russian), returning to the village to sell the fur and to replenish his provision and ammunition.   His Laika was his partner and trusty companion that saved his lives on numerous occasions.  One winter,  an encounter with a roaming brown bear almost cost him his life, if it was not for brave Kukla. I remember all the details of this episode as it was relaid to me by my grandmother as my grandfather never told me much about himself, and generally was very quite man.  I will describe this encounter in greater details later.

I remember seeing his picture on the wall in my grandmother’s house. On this picture he is depicted with his fellow serviceman, (a friend from the same village). He is dressed in his parade Warrant Officer uniform with his chest full of medals. Young, strong, handsome Siberian man, with wind-up waxed, spiky moustache.    In 1892 while on leave in his native village he got married. Most likely this was an arrange marriage as his parents found a suitable bride from another farming family. The bride most likely was not from a very rich household as the arranged marriage was means of improving someone’s financial status.  To clarify, what was “not-rich” in Siberia was considered very wealthy in the central Russia. Usually, in Siberia the farmers lived quite wealthy in comparison to their Central-Russian counterparts who very rarely owned the land they farmed. Siberia did not have that widespread poverty present in the other parts of the empire.

Resourceful, hardworking people, faming the land they were given to own by the Stalipin’s land reforms  did quite well for themselves.  The majority of the Siberian peasants did not join the Bolsheviks following the 1917 Communist revolution. If some of them took part in the Civil War on the side of the Soviets, it is not because of the appeal of the Communist ideas, but because of the brutality of the Admiral Kolchak’s White Army  and the Interventionists.  Independent, proud, self-reliant, never knowing the oppression of the landlords, not used to bowing to anyone a Siberian farmer could not forgive the Whites for those repressive measures they unwisely introduced and the atrocities they committed in the occupied Siberian villages.  Skillful woodsmen,  hunters and survivalists many Siberians picked up arms and took off for the taiga. These “partisan” militias played the decisive  role in Kolchak’s White Army defeat  and forcing out the Expeditionary forces of the Interventionists.

In the summer of 1919, while collecting  provisions and supplies for the ill-supplied Red militia units, the supply scouts knew that fur hunters have stashes of food, grain and ammunition.  Amongst others, they visited the Grigorievka village where Michail Milchakov lived with his family.  I don’t know if my grandfather voluntarily gave up his ammo, or the militia scouts simply searched and took what they found. Likewise,  I don’t know if he volunteered to take the supplies on his horse or he was forced to join the supply convoy.  My grand-mother was convinced he did it voluntarily, and I tend to believe her as the Siberian farmers did not yet experience all the “joys” of the Communist rule, but the stories of  the bloody reprimands and the atrocities committed by the Kolchak Forces and the White Cossacks were resonating across the Siberian villages. When Grand-father came back from the supply convoy, shortly after the village was taken over by the White Cossacks of Esaul Bologov. Someone in the village informed the Cossacks that old man Milchakov took the bags of supplies on his horse to the militia.  The investigation and the court proceedings were rather short. The reprimand was severe. Several villagers, likely eager supporters of the Reds were hung, some were executed by the firing squad, many residents were lashed.

From my grandmothers words, while going through their house the Cossacks saw the picture of my grand-father on the wall with all his military decorations. Amongst those was the order of St George, one of the highest military honers in the Imperial Army.  According to my grand-mother, his decorations and 25 years of service to “Faith , Tsar and the Country”  saved him from hanging.  Instead, he was lashed. My grandmother dragged his unconscious body across the entire village.  He was not a small man and it took her a significant effort. No one helped as the residence were afraid of reprimands.  Fifty lashes left life-long scars on the back of this seasoned warrior. Now, the scars he received in the taiga after a near life-ending encounter with a brown bear, were multiplied by the scars left by the Cossacks’ lashes.

After that incident in the summer of 1919, the only things that kept him from joining the partisan militias was his age, and the fact that the Shitinkin’s militia units left the area and were moving south along the Usinsky Trakt road.    The times were terrible and the family had too look after their four children, three girls of age and the youngest son.

3. My Grandmother Praskovia  Milchakova

Praskovia was a very hardworking and very attractive I would even say beautiful woman. My grandfather’s short leave from his military service did not allow a lot of time for romance, hence their dating period was very short. The parents talked it over and the wedding was quick to follow. Shortly after the wedding Mikhail departed to join his unit and Praskovia stayed back to take care of the farm. Despite the fact that the farm was not big, it was impossible for a young woman  to manage it alone. The relatives helped her knowing that she is left behind caring a baby. In 1883 she gave birth to their eldest daughter Arina (my mother). This became their routine for nearly 25 years. Young brave rifleman would come home for a short visit during the holidays and leaving his wife  behind pregnant would shortly return to his unit.   Second daughter Natalia was born in 1897. The third, Pelageya was born in 1901. In 1906 their son Nikolay was born. These are four surviving children of the couple, how many children where born and did not survive to see their first birthday only the good Lord knows. From what I recall from my grand-mother’s words she gave birth to twelve children all together.

3. My mother Arina Mihailovna Milchakova

The events of WWI wiped out a large portion of the male population and the three girls had hard time finding themselves husbands. The veterans returning from the front of WWI brought back their physical and mental wounds.   In those days marriage for many was a way to improve their financial standing and my grand parents decided to marry off their eldest daughter Arina (my mother) as soon as she turned 16 years old.

For the lack of a better husband, she was arranged to marry a deaf shoemaker from the neighbouring village. The other two sisters were still awaiting their turn. The wedding for Arina was celebrated in 1915.  The stubborn daughter did not want to marry a person she did not have romantic feelings for, but the parents insisted. Arina recalled many years later that her newlywed husband was a “good chap overall”, but was deaf and never spoke a word. He never laid a hand on her, or abuse her in any way, but the young girl had no romantic feelings for the man much older than her, and could not handle the idea of spending the rest of her life with someone who never speaks to her.   The following year she left him, and came back to her parents with a newly born baby.

My grand-father was furious.  This situation did not improve his financial situation and on the contrary made it worst, as now they had to provide for an additional child.  Secondly, the pressure of the social norms of what was acceptable in their very conservative Orthodox Christian community made things worse, as the family was running a risk of becoming a social outcast.  The parents and the community put a lot of pressure on Arina to return to her husband. At some point she was literally left on the street with no place to go with a small child in her arms. The social norms dictated that the wife could not leave her husband no matter what.  But shortly thereafter their entire world collapsed, taking all the social norms down the drain with it, in the aftermath of the Communist Revolution of 1917, and the Civil war that followed.

As the Tzar of Russia abdicated and the provisional government in St Petersburg collapsed, the newly formed Soviet Government declared the amnesty for all political and minor criminal convictions, releasing hundreds of thousands of prisoners from the Siberian jails. One of these former prisoners, convicted of mutiny and desertion from the Austro-Hungarian front, was Andrey Sergeevich Salnikov (my father). After his release from the correctional institution, a coal mine near by, he ended up visiting the nearest government office for the purpose of receiving some form of identification.

As he walked in to the government office, he discovered a young girl, in tears,  with a baby boy on her lap.  The young girl came to the office for the same reason, as she did not know what to do with her newly discovered freedoms, had no place to go, had no ID or any means of supporting herself. While she understood that the new government decreed that all constitutional rights are now extended to women as well, that she could vote, divorce or marry anyone she likes, she had no clue of what to do next.

Andrey in his term, left for the front in 1914 and then, spend two years in the coal mine serving his sentence, before he was finally released. One can only imagine his excitement when he saw a young beautiful girl in that office. I don’t know if that encounter was love from the first sight or simply a situation where two desperate people found one another, in any case, that day was life-changing for both of them as they met each other and the rest, as they say, was history.

While hoping to force their stubborn daughter to return to her husband my grand parents left my mother on the street without any means of supporting herself, and she found a way to solve the problem in the way they did not expect. She filed for divorce and shortly married the former prisoner Andrey Salnikov.  My grand-parents never forgave my mother for this bold move. Although with years they accepted this fact, my grand-parents never favoured the Salnikov side of the family, and did not treat their grandchildren “from the convict” with much love or affection.  It is not hard to imagine why my grand-father, a seasoned Warrant Officer and a highly decorated veteran did not show much affection for my father, who in his eyes was a no good mutineer and a convict, who married his daughter against his will.

My grand-parents were still concerned with finding a good husband for their other daughters, Natalia and Pelageya. Meanwhile the fire of the civil war was blazing across Siberia and many seasoned veterans, instead of working the land and looking after their families, again had to pick up arms and join the fight, some on the side of the Whites, while many others on the side of the Reds, leaving the village brides await their return. Many would never come back leaving widows and children without the means of sustaining themselves.

After the end of the civil war in 1922,  Natalia and Pelageya were finally married off. The middle of the three sisters and the daughter my grand-father favoured the most, Natalia married a carpenter, Shikalov Ivan (Шикалов Иван)  The youngest was married off the same way as Arina, without her consent to a scrawny chap Shehovcev Peter (Шеховцев Петр). But, after some time, the same way as Arina, Pelageya left her husband and married the village blacksmith, and the most handsome guy in the village Peter Monahov. As the old  regime crumbled, so did the patriarchal traditions of the families of the remote Siberian village.  All attempts of my gran-father to control his daughter’s personal lives failed, as they now could count on support of the new social order. Their first marriages were Church registered and in the new social construct were not recognized as legally-binding.  Unlike the Orthodox Christian Church, the new government processed any divorce application, and second marriages were recognized as legal.

4. Moving to the Taiga

In the aftermath of the civil war, the times were taught in Gregorievka village. The fertile lands were scarce, and the trap lines were getting depleted. The gangs of released prisoners, and  defeated White Army deserters and stragglers continued to roam the region, attempting to escape across the border to Mongolia.  My grandfather got his clan together, and on the family  meeting it was decided to relocate to the village of Usinskoe.  This village was a remote “bear den” in the taiga, protected by the Sayan mountains from all sides. The rumour had it the old believers resided there and the fertile lands were in abundance, plenty of wild game and fur animals, and the life was free and independent. In 1925, the entire clan packed up and moved across the mountains in search of a better life. With wagons and back-loaded horses settlers moved their simple possessions.

The caravan was moving across the uninhabited forests full of game, crossing the Sayan Mountains, and the fast mountain rivers full of valuable fish.  Looking at all this natural wealth the settlers were hoping to find their fortune. This hope was given them strength and motivating to continue with their uneasy journey. The voyage was tough for both horses and people. Many miles of mountain roads were tracked by foot, as the exhausted horses carried their belongings across the mountain passes.

Up until the Idjim Station (Станция Иджим) the caravan moved along the unfinished Usinsky track. After this the caravan had to turn east and cross track 20 km of wilderness with no road.  The clan successfully completed the move, and settled in the village of Usinskoe (Усинское). already inhabited by the old-believers who settled here about a hundred years before.

The location where the village stretched along the river Uss (Ус) was truly unique. The Usinskoe ravine resembled a big bowl protected by the Sayan Mountains from every direction.  The mountains were covered by the virgin untraveled taiga full of game and fur animals. The river Us and the joining rivers Buiba, (Буйба) Aradan (Арадан) , Idjim (Иджим), Izup (Изюп) , and Omil (Омил),  were full of different kinds of fish including Taimen, Thymallus, Arctic grayling, Lenok, Barbot, etc.  The fish, salted, smoked, baked and fried was a big part of the clan’s diet, while the fish pie was a must dish for every holiday.

To start with, the newcomers build temporary shelters, and soon began to build their log homes. The first house erected was my grandfathers home in which he moved in with my grandmother and their youngest son Nikolay. After this the homes were build for the daughters in the order of their age.  Soon, the  Salnikovs, Shikalovs, Manakhovs all had their log homes build for them.  The entire clan all together participated in building each home with their own hands. Luckily, the clan had some good tradesmen. Uncle Ivan Shikalov – carpenter and wood craftsman, Uncle Peter Monakhov – blacksmith,  and my father a brick mason.   Beside each house several Banya (steam house) were erected.  My grandfather once again started to hunt and trap for fur during the winters, and fished and gardened in the summer.  This was the place where ten years after, I came to this world.

5. Siberian hunter’s life.

One summer, I recall coming for visit to my grandmother’s house with some task from my mother. My grandfather was out, and grandmother worked in her garden. I recall how she stood up strait, gazed down the village street covering her eyes from the bright sun and announced: “Look  Vit’ka” your grandfather is caring something”. I ran out on the street and took off down the dusty road towards my grandfather.  He was walking down the street slightly crouching under the weight of something he was caring on his shoulder.  When I approached him I saw a massive head of a Taimen fish that was resting on his shoulder while the tail was still dragging behind him in the dust.  Several bush branches were penetrating the wander fish from gills to its mouth, and grandpa carried the fish holding the branches.

– “How in the worl did you manage to carry it all the way home?” asked grandma when we entered the yard.

– “Thanks to Ivan Kozulin who gave me a lift in his track all the way to the village” -grandpa replied.

– “Otherwise , I don’t know…”

He did not say much else, but as is, it was obvious that from the Zaboka which was about five km from the village he would have never made it with this monster on his shoulders.

In the early 30s the gradual expansion of the new Soviet Government’s control finally reached the remote Usinskoe village.  A village “Soviet” or council office was opened and a Co-op fur trade post “Sibpushnina” (Siberian Fur) was established where the trappers and hunters could sell their pelts.  Pelts could be traded for ammo, food, clothes.  The trade post did not accept fish, hence the villagers only fished for themselves. Grandpa fished only in the summer. He fished with “peremet” and “morda“. “Peremet” was a long rope with multiple hooks hung on it, while “morda” was a waved long basket which was placed on the bottom of a stream to trap large fish. Grandpa also loved fly-fishing and was making his own flies from painted chicken feathers.

In grandpa’s house there were always a large barrel full of salted fish and bundles of dry salted, and smoked fish prepared for the winter.  Fresh fish was consumed in the summer. According to grandma he would catch different kinds of fish at her request. He new the times and locations where one could catch certain types of fish and was well known in the village as the most experienced trapper, hunter and a fisherman. Local hunters often sought his advice and asked to be his partner. Mikhail would advise but never partnered with anyone preferring to hunt alone.

The life started to improve. The youngest son Nikolay grew up and started to help his father with taiga business. When time came for him to find a wife, his parents found a girl from an orphanage. Tiny looking skinny girl had no parents and no dowry. The marriage for the girl proved to be unhappy. Her mother-in-law my grandmother was a very authoritative and grumpy woman. Her husband most likely did not love her and married her to please his parents. From what I remember Nikolay  scoffed,  bullied, and often beat his wife. She gave birth to thee children, two girls and a boy several years apart and  shortly after the last birth she passed away.

Meanwhile, Stalin’s collectivization attempts  have finally reached their remote conner of the taiga and a commune was established in their village. The residents initially were strongly encouraged to join the commune and contribute their “means of production” for the “greater collective good”, meaning give up their few possessions to be used in collective farming and fur harvesting. My grandfather was not a fan of the collectivization, and as the pressure to join the commune mounted, also encouraged by his son, he sold everything they owned and left the village.

In the early 30s, both my grand-parent, their son and his three children after selling everything they owned once again moved in search of a better life. Nickolay was doing odd jobs in Abakan and Krasnoyars while my grandparents lived first in Son, (Сон) then moved to Uzhur, (Ужур)  then to Shura (Шура) and then somewhere else…  Uncle Nickolay kept moving them in search of better employment.

Soon he got married again to a woman with two kids and they shortly had another child together. Now their family had six children and two elderly folks to look after. In those days it was very hard to provide for such s large family and my grandfather decided to return to Usinsk. The strained relations with the new daughter-in-law who was a lot more assertive than the quite Katia, also contributed to that decision. After consulting with their son, my grandparents and the youngest grandchild Nina, in 1939 came back to our village.

This time they had no means or strength to undertake the construction of a new house.  Initially they stayed at Natalia’s house (the middle daughter) and in the summer the clan build them a small cabin right on the bank of the river Uss. (Усс) My grandfather once again attempted to earn living by hunting and fishing, but his age started to catch up with him. His excursions into the taiga became rear and  his eye sight started to fail the old hunter.  My grandmother started to help him to fish and would not let him go to the river by himself. Grandpa started to get sick. In the winter of 1941-42 he fell ill and passed away in the spring.  At the time of his death he was 75. What was the cause of his death I don’t know. From what I recall, he never attempted to see any doctors help. My grandmother blamed his military service for all his health issues. His pain and suffering she attributed to the “Army Shitastics”- from combining to words “Shit” and “Gymnastics”.














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