"The work, like any process, was infinite. It was conducted before the advent of mankind and will be after."
Book 2, “The industry”
Lessasserma Pokhunakhis (5 September 1926 Thessaloniki – 25 December 1991 Yerbogachen) was a Soviet maverick writer and painter of Greek origins. All of Pokhunakhis’ literary works in several genres of prose and poetry compose a single gargantuan book The Brown Soil, no parts of which were published in her lifetime. After the discovery of the writer’s archives by the Irkutsk scholars led by E. Kamyshev in 2003, several fragments appeared in academic and literary journals, sparking a public interest in Pokhunakhis’ work. In 2005, work began on cataloguing the writer’s archives and preparing a critical edition of The Brown Soil. As of 2016, it has not been completed yet.
Early life in Greece
Lessasserma Pokhunakhis was born on September 5, 1926 in Thesalloniki. Her mother Adresteia was a painter, her father Theophilos, a linguistic professor, recently appointed to the newly established Aristotle University. An active member of the Communist Party of Greece and a sympathizer of the Soviet Union, Pokhunakhis’ father taught her Russian so that she could read Lenin’s works in original language. She was extensively homeschooled in both arts and sciences and prepared to enter the Artistotle University. However, in 1941 the Italian bombardments forced the family to leave Thessaloniki and move to Corfu. In 1943 Lessasserma Pokhunakhis joined Greek People’s Liberation Army and became part of the armed resistance against Nazi, and later pro-monarchy British forces. Kamyshev speculates that she might have met the famous composer Iannis Xenakis, as some passages from The Brown Soil mention a «one-eyed architect».
Imprisonment in USSR
In 1947, the new Greek authorities began persecuting left-wing former resistance members. In fear of being arrested, Pokhunakhis crossed the border to Bulgaria on foot. From there she travelled to Odessa as a stowaway on a cargo ship. After an exhausting interrogation, which lasted several days, Pokhunakhis was granted an asylum. She got a job at the local bakery plant and a bed in a barrack. Raised as a free spirit, Pokhunakhis was appalled by the Soviet living condition and the totalitarian state, of which she wrote to her father. Little did she know that as a foreign national she was subject to correspondence review. Shortly after sending out the letter, Pokhunakhis was arrested and charged with counter-revolutionary activities under the infamous Chapter 58 of the Penal Code. On November 23, 1948, she was sentenced to 10 years of prison.
Thus began Pokhunakhis’ prison Odyssey. She served a short stint in the Vladimir Central prison, where she supposedly met the Russian poet-mystic Daniil Andreyev. Literary scholar and Andreyev specialist L. Doronkina argue that it was this acquaintance that inspired Pokhunakhis to start writing and influenced her mythopoeic leanings. Later, the court lengthened Pokhunakhis’ sentence to 15 years and changed it from prison to labor camp. In autumn 1949, she was moved to the Chukotstroy camp in Egvekinot, Chukotka. There Pokhunakhis, amongst thousands of prisoners, was forced to work on the building of the local seaport and later airport.
Because of Pokhunakhis’ frequent clashes with camp administration, she spent a lot of time in solitary confinement in the camp’s unofficial (and technically illegal) prison. It was there that she started her life’s work, The Brown Soil. The short stories written in Egvenikot express a conflicted worldview: they describe the misery of the writer’s prison experiences, while celebrating the technological wonders of the coming era. They composed the first volume of The Brown Soil, Industrialization as the First Step.
However, all of Pokhunakhis’ prison writings were confiscated and destroyed by the camp authorities. In later years of her imprisonment, she was even denied writing paper. Determined to continue her work, Pokhunakhis used bed sheets instead. An expedition to the abandoned campsite in 2005 uncovered a sheet in the prison cell covered in largely illegible handwriting. Archaeologists at the time did not find this discovery significant; however, Kamyshev argues that this was the original manuscript of an unknown Industrialization chapter. Only after settling in Yerbogachen did Pokhunakhis get the opportunity to write her prison stories down. It is impossible to tell how faithful the Yerbogachen texts are to their Egvenikot originals, since the latter have been lost. Some scholars argue that the stories’ fantastic details, characteristic of Pokhunakhis’ later writings, show that she has significantly reworked Industrialization. Because of that, the question of whether it should be considered the first volume of The Brown Soil or the second one remains open.
In 1952, Pokhnakhis’ rebellious behavior earned her a transfer to the infamous Chaunlag camp, where prisoners mined uranium in an open pit. Mysteriously, the whole convoy got lost in the woods. The circumstances of its demise remain unknown, as Pokhunakhis was the only survivor, and she does not mention the event anywhere in her writings.
What can be learned from The Brown Soil is that, apparently, she spent the next two years traversing Siberia on foot, until she emerged in Yerbogachen in late 1954. The book’s second volume, On Earth and in the Sky, is a detailed poetic travelogue of Pokhunakhis’ journey through the endless tundra. During her wanders, she recorded the poems on tree bark using crude self-made tools. When she later wrote the poems down, she gave them titles that indicate the locations of the trees that hold the original recordings, e.g. The Third Birch to the West of the Heart-Shaped Stone in the Thick Forrest Surrounded by the Stream that Flows from the Tall Eastern Mountain. Attempts to locate them using the instructions provided in the titles have proven mostly fruitless; only one tree was found to this day. As Kamyshev notes, many of them may have been destroyed in forest fires or lumbering operations.
In Yerbogachen Pokhunakhis met a young postwoman Antonina Ouvachan, who took her in. Despite vastly different backgrounds (Antonina only finished elementary school), the two women became close friends. The exact nature of their relationships remains unknown. While there is no direct evidence in support of that theory, it is speculated that they may have been romantically involved, as they continued living together up until Lessasserma’s death in 1991.
With help from Ouvachan’s family Pokhunakhis got a job at the regional forestry. The calm solitary nature of the job suited her perfectly, since it gave her time to commit to her literary wok. The bulk of the texts that make up The Brown Soil were written in her small forester’s hut on the edge of Yerbogachen. There she also discovered a passion for painting. The trauma of Pokhunakhis’ years-long journey through Siberia left her with a compulsive fascination with earth and all things earthy. She started making bizarre looking paintings-assemblages using different kinds of soil and other unconventional materials. Art historian A. Kurganov characterized Pokhunakhis’ style as «Siberian Arte Povera», although dating to mid-1950s her earliest woks precede Arte Povera by almost a decade.
In 1957, through her work at the forestry Pokhunakhis made acquaintance with Natalia Oyogir, a practicing shaman. Spiritual traditions of Siberia’s indigenous peoples had long caught Pokhunakhis’s interest and for a couple of years she became Oyogir’s apprentice, learning Evenki myths and rites. However, her teacher’s deeply traditionalist patriarchal worldview clashed with Pokhunakhis’ progressive beliefs, which led to their breakup. Pokhunakhis later developed her own unique brand of shamanism, one looking to the future, not the past. She recorded her doctrine as the third volume of The Brown Soil, Likbez – Science for the Masses. There she proclaims the machines «man-made future gods born of Earth’s bones». She created a whole set of intricate techno-shamanistic rituals that were to «expedite the coming of the prosperous Era of the Machine that will feed the hungry and comfort the miserable, the bright technological future when no one will be forced to work».
In 1967 folklorist expedition from the Moscow State University arrived in Yerbogachen to record the Evenki oral literature. Locals introduced the researchers to Pokhunakhis, who by that time had herself become a mythical figure for the town’s inhabitants. The folklorists made detailed descriptions of Pokhunakhis’ rituals and produced some photographs, but the publication of their findings fell victim to censorship. The expedition’s documents were buried in the deepest corner of the University archive’s restricted-access collection. They were uncovered in the early 1990s by the postmodernist artist B. Valetov, who was a doctoral student at the time. He incorporated some of Pokhunakhis’ photographs into his installation Rabid Grannies (a pun on Russian slang expression for «big buck»), which brought her modest renown in the contemporary art circles. Judging by the similarities between Pokhunakhis’ rituals and parts of Marina Abramovic’s Balcan Erotic Epic, Kurganov argues that the Serbian artist might have seen some of the archival photographs at the time of work’s creation.
Pokhunakhis’ shamanic activities came to an abrupt end in 1971 when the great forest fire nearly destroyed the town. Caught in the fire in her forester hut she received severe burns and went almost completely blind. For the next twenty years she remained housebound, cared for by Antonina Ouvachan. Despite her predicament, Pokhunakhis continued to write and paint. She started using even more unconventional materials, including various foods, in her art, relying on tactile and olfactory sensations, as well as help from Antonina.
Ouvachan also served as Pokhunakhis’ literary secretary compiling her sayings and aphorisms into the fourth volume of The Brown Soil, titled simply The Truth. Pokhunakhis’ style changes drastically in these short texts. Mythopoeic intricacies give way to folk wisdoms and even superstitions, although fascination with earth and visions of technological future remain a running motive. Kamyshev suggests that this reflects Pokhunakhis’ state of mind after the fire, which became the last straw in the long line of traumatic experiences she suffered in her lifetime. Others argue, however, that the changes were in fact introduced by Ouvachan, either on purpose or because her limited education rendered her unable to comprehend her partner’s complex intellectual constructs. Doronkina even goes as far as to claim that parts of The Truth were written by Ouvachan in their entirety, probably already after Pokhunakhis’ death.
Death and legacy
Lessasserma Pokhunakhis died of a heart attack on December 28, 1991, three days after USSR was dismantled. Antonina Ouvachan maintained her partner’s archive of manuscripts and paintings; however, she did not make it available to the public. Moreover, lacking necessary skills and knowledge she could not prevent the deterioration of Pokhunakhis’ artworks made of unconventional materials.
Pokhunakhis’ legacy suffered even more after Ouvachan’s death in 2003. Her heirs, distant relatives from Nepa village, did not know who Pokhunakhis was, nor did they care for her highly experimental art and writings. The whole archive ended up thrown on the nearest scrapyard. In a fortunate turn of events, it was found by the V. Shishkov Local History Museum employee T. Inkina, who contacted the Irkutsk University professor E. Kamyshev. Realizing the significance of this discovery, Kamyshev formed a research group for cataloguing and studying the legacy of Lessasserma Pokhunakhis. At the same time, Inkina started collecting objects from Pokhunakhis’ life in hopes of establishing a memorial museum of this incredible writer and artist. As of 2016, both projects are yet to be completed.
This website is developed by:
Veneamin Blinov, Gennadiy Odintsov
design: Artur Volkov
text by: Vadim Keylin