Adamant "Minister" or the Case of Lost Republic
How Kenozero aspired to become a new state

The winter of that post-war year was one of Ural's coldest memories. Vasily Nikiforov, a young forest engineer, is on his way from the railway station to the barrack he was going to be accommodated in. He steps off the old truck and is given his key. He is welcome in his new home; from now on, he's on his own. The stove is cold and there are cracks in all the corners. He is going to spend the daytime in the office and evenings in this barrack, freezing over endless cups of tea.

There are tough times ahead for Nikiforov, an urban dweller. He should get used to everything. He goes to meet the local people in the village and starts to adapt himself to his new life. It seems he has met everybody – saleswoman Claudia, the office clerks, the teacher, the paramedic, and all the village men. The only one he hasn't is his neighbor in the barrack. He hasn't talked to him yet. His neighbor is a sullen old man. Nikiforov could hear him slam the door every morning, his felt boots shuffling as he walked. He would scold his dog, a big shaggy mongrel, and get down to work. Nikiforov could hear the clinking sound of his tools. His neighbor is a carpenter and often asked by local women to fix their dishware.

His name is Alexander Grigoryevich, but the locals have nicknamed him Minister. Once Nikiforov dropped in at the store to get some sugar. The men standing at the door, smoking, said to him amicably:

"Hey there, Vasily. Does not the Minister lend you sugar? He's wound way too tight for that, your neighbor."

Vasily wondered why they called him Minister, but he felt a bit too shy to ask. Thick pride, he thought to himself.

Weeks passed and nothing happened, until one snowy day Nikiforov woke up after a night blizzard and decided, for some reason, he should clear the snow off his neighbor's doorway and the yard. Something snapped inside him, he felt like helping the man, out of kindness.

Later in the evening, Nikiforov heard a knock on his door. Standing there was the Minister. "Care to get a good scrub after a long working day? The bath house is just ready. I never see you go to the bath house. I guess you just don't know how to get it hot."

Embarrassed by the man's remark – true, he didn't, he used the public bath house near his office to wash himself, much to his embarrassment – Nikiforov accepts the invitation without further ado. There is something nice about his neighbor's dialect. He speaks in a sing-song fashion, and there are words Nikiforov can't understand.

It is hot in the bath house, the steam's so thick it's hard to see through it. Nikiforov watches his neighbor shuffling around to get them besoms. He thinks he sees the man smile at him, much to his relief. They sit on the upper bench, and Nikiforov dares to take a closer look at the man. Holy Mother! The man's got scars and marks all over his back that look like bullet hits. Three toes on one foot and two on the other. He couldn't have been to the war. He's too old.

Next day after work, Nikiforov goes to the store.

"Klavdia Ivanovna, Alexey Fomich, can I talk to you for a minute?" he drags the saleswoman and the storekeeper into a corner. "Why is my neighbor nicknamed Minister?"

Alexey Fomich sits down and lights a cigarette:

"I don't think you'll like the story, Vasily. Your neighbor is not from here. He comes from Kenozero. He's a native of Vershinino, Kargopol District. The people there were known to be hard workers. A prosperous and freedom loving community they were. The area of Kenozero has never known serfdom. When Soviets took over, it took the Kenozero men some time to realize what they were up to. Kombeds – the Committees of Poor Peasants – were set up to dispossess the richer villagers. Who would have liked a thing like that? Kenozero people disobeyed. The Kombeds had no right to be abusive, but they were. And those of their members who were sent to Kenozero and Vershinino were the most ruthless. The local clerk, Timoshka, encouraged the community to revolt. What they plannedwas nothing short of separating from the Soviet power and establishing their own republic. You know, I mean, the plan I totally expected, but, come on, they announced it to Kombeds. Said there were 5,000 and were their own masters.

Nikiforov keeps silent. He is shocked. At last he asks quietly: "What happened next?"

"You bet! Kenozerers are men of their word. They elected Timoshka the clerk their president and gave him the government, supported by the ministers elected from among those of them who were former officers of the czar's forces. Short-lived was their republic. A punitive squad arrived from Pudozh. Timoshka fled, his ministers were arrested and the Kombeds restored. The revolting rebels were to be taught a good lesson. And, yes, they really did a number of them."

"What did they do to Alexander Grigoryevich?"

"He was one of the rebels. Not a frontline one, though. But, when dispossession started, they accused him of having been Timoshka's minister. He and his family kicked from one place to another in the '30s. Ended up in an internment camp. And then they put him to a special camp. His wife died and son went missing. He lives here alone. Don't judge him, he's a good man. He just needs to be approached in just the right way."

Nikifirov spent that day thinking about what he heard. He was sure the story was never covered in any of the history textbooks. Nor did he hear anyone ever mention it. He wondered if his neighbor would tell him more if he asked but he decided it wasn't a good idea.

Next morning, Nikifirov woke up at the crack of dawn and knocked on the neighbor's door:

"Alexander Grigoryevich, do you want me to clear the snow for you?"

"No, man," grumbled Minister. "I'll do it."

"Fine," Nikifirov said to himself angrily. "You know better, you adamant northerner."

He cleared some snow off his path and looked around, smiling at the sight of the smoke coming out of the bathhouse chimney. Bad-tempered as the old man was, he took care of their next wash. And, probably, the besoms, too…