January 01, 2019

The Visitation

The Visitation
View of the stars through the trees. Vitaly Berkov

In 1947, on the 17th day of February, the newspaper Evening Moscow (Vechernaya Moskva) printed the following news item:

On February 12, residents of the taiga’s Krasnoarmeysky Raion witnessed an extremely rare incident. At 10 in the morning a gigantic, flaming meteorite streaked across the sky, heading at terrific speed toward the foothills of the Sikhote-Alin Mountain Range. The meteorite’s impact was accompanied by a thunderous sound, which caused a quaking of the air that shattered windows in many buildings and burst pipes, while the winds swayed trees like in a strong storm. In several places huge oaks and cedars were torn up by their roots. As the meteorite descended, a thick, reddish-brown tail of smoke trailed behind it and remained in the sky for a long time. Explosions were heard. So far the location of the meteorite’s impact has not been found. Brigades of Nanai and Udegey hunters have set out in search of it. And a brigade of scientific workers from the Far East Base of the USSR Academy of Sciences and from the Primorye Affiliate of the USSR Geographic Society has set off from Vladivostok.

As it was later explained, one of the largest meteorites ever to impact Earth (and what would be the largest in the twentieth century) had struck Primorye. It was given the name the Sikhote-Alin Meteorite.

Seventy years later, Roman Ivanishchev and I organized an expedition to the site of the Sikhote-Alin meteorite’s point of impact in order to gather information for a personal exhibition called MANNA. The idea was to recount a little-known event that had global significance and then recreate the atmosphere of the place in the exhibition halls of the Moscow Museum of Contemporary Art.

Vitaly Berkov – an award-winning landscape photographer and lover of extreme solo travel – came along to photograph the expedition, which was timed to coincide with the peak of the Geminid meteor showers in December, during which one can typically see up to 75 meteors per hour burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere. One of Vitaly’s tasks was to capture this “annual starfall.”

Meteoritny Village

Meteoritny Village

The path to the crater field lay through the village of Meteoritny, which is just seven kilometers from where the Sikhote-Alin meteorite impacted (and about 400 km from Vladivostok). Having enlisted the support of Vladimir Korolyov, a local guide, Roman and Vitaly set off into the snowy Ussuri taiga, where they set up camp right at the edge of a meteor crater, in order to photograph and observe the night sky. The rest of the group spent the night in the village, planning to connect up with them in the morning.

“It was a very distinct sensation, a departure from all that is human, and a step beyond the brink,” said Roman of their night spent on the taiga. “It was as if you had left a room full of people and were standing alone, completely alone. Even inside you felt as if there was nobody else... not nearby, not in the distance. It was the exact same weather as at the time of the [Sikhote-Alin] fall. Imagine: complete silence, 10 in the morning, and suddenly... something comes thundering, flashing, burning – invading this glittering whiteness and silence – and crashing into the Earth. Explosions, sprawling trees, fragments of meteorite rain topple trees or pass through them. The Apocalypse has come to this absolute silence, destroying the silence and everything that surrounds it.”

Vitaly’s impressions were rather different. “It’s quite a normal thing for me to spend a very cold night in a forest,” he said, “so it really wasn’t hard for me, and my equipment worked just fine at –30. My goal was to capture the Geminid meteor shower while standing inside the crater made by the Sikhote-Alin meteorite 70 years ago and create some kind of time-tunnel between past and present... But even I was moved by this silence, by the utter quiet while standing in the middle of the crater. I was completely enchanted as I watched the snow falling from the treetops with each gust of wind, as meteors swept across the sky. My head was filled with countless thoughts about space, nature, and how past events affect the fates of people in the present.”

DURING THEIR TIME in the village of Meteoritny, the artists got to know a local woman, Vera Korolyova, who, after years of being in direct contact with the territory where the meteorite struck, had discovered within herself the ability to see and illustrate a side of the taiga that is hidden from others. She began to share her sense of a nonhuman, otherworldly presence through her drawings. These works contributed a sort of augmented reality to the Moscow exhibit. Korolyova’s vision of the world of the Ussuri taiga helped convey an image of the place’s multi-layered reality.

Meteor art
Samples of Vera Korlyova’s art, through which she illustrates a side of the taiga that is hidden from others.

“As in most half-forgotten inhabited locales, with the decline of the economy, the residents of Meteoritny live off hunting and gathering,” Korolyova explained. “Before, there was a major forestry enterprise here, but now the national economy has left such places. And to some extent the villages have returned to a primitive way of life. Their grueling search for meteorites in the Ussuri taiga offers them the hope and opportunity to get rich and change their lives for the better. The search for meteorites, gathering wild plants, and hunting in the taiga – these all support what’s left of the population and gives them a sense that they are making use of the land. And yet there is a particularly riveting dissonance in the fact that this cosmic object has taken on a utilitarian aspect for residents in this local economy, taking its place within our traditional mode of production.”

As Roman added, “In essence, for locals there is no difference between gathering medicinal plants and searching for meteorite fragments. They require basically the same effort, have similar dangers, and can both be sold profitably. Everything that we saw in the village was like something straight from the Strugatskys’ novel, Roadside Picnic. The poetry of the cosmos has become transformed into the experience of the marketplace. The meteorite has become an object for production and the stuff of trade.”

Meteorites from Meteoritny

Meteorites from Meteoritny

SINCE THE METEORITE'S fall 71 years ago, the crater field has witnessed up to three dozen scientific expeditions and a large number of meteorite hunters. They have found fragments of the cosmic body and taken them out of the Ussuri taiga – scientists for research purposes, “stalkers” to earn money. Thus, the Sikhote-Alin meteorite is now spread across the entire planet, yet it is really only known among small circles of collectors and scientists.

Interestingly, in the twentieth century, Primorye was the site of two out of ten of the world’s largest recorded iron-nickel meteorite impacts. And the massive landmass of Russia as a whole has had its fair share of meteor events as well.

To date, the largest Sikhote-Alin fragment located weighs 1,745 kg (it is housed in the Fersman Mineralogical Museum in Moscow). One piece of the extraterrestrial object was some 30 meters in diameter and 10 meters thick. Over 70 meteorite craters have been found.



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