Marilia, 35, is sitting on the porch of a village house and eating Udege fish dumplings. Her sons are sharing a butter and jam sandwich, shouting in a mix of Russian and French. We have met in Krasny Yar, a village in Primorye Territory, where Marilias husband Kostya was stabbed to death by his drinking companions. Marilia comes here every year. Soon she will get in a boat and take the two-day journey up the river to reach the house in the taiga where she and her husband had planned to live together.
Marilia was born in the Breton commune of Trémargat in the west of France to a family of farmers. The commune had a population of about 200, most of whom were farmers as well.
Like many smaller communities, the Bretons a Celtic ethnic group suffered under colonization. The French forced them to convert to Catholicism at a time when their main belief was in the power of the druids. Marilias grandmother was afraid to teach her children their native language, and her mother belonged to a generation of Bretons who were ashamed of their culture.
Later, the situation changed. Breton started to be taught at schools, and the locals began to assert their identity more confidently, not only in their day-to-day lives, but on an official level too. As far back as the 1960s, the Bretons started river conservation movements and organized pickets against industrialists. During the presidential election in 2012, Trémargat was the only constituency where the Green Party candidate (Eva Joly) won a majority of the vote. The commune is developing now thanks to its environmental activism: local farmers receive government support, and a local organic produce shop is very popular with customers. In 2012, Trémargat became Frances first municipality with a 100% renewable electricity supply.
Since childhood, Marilia dreamt of living off grid. She studied ecology and biology at the University of Rennes. After graduating from university, she returned to Trémargat and built a Mongolian yurt in the forest, where she lived on her own for a year. It was during this time that she met a forester named Christophe. His dream was travel to the far untouched corners of the globe. The two set up the non-profit organization Kernunos, which they named after a Celtic god of nature. They then set off on a bicycle trip around the world in order to make a film about the worlds last primeval forests. They did not have any money, so Christophe sold his house and his car, and Marilia had to sell her yurt.
Together, they went to Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan. In the 18 months it took them to cross Russia from west to east, Marilia learnt Russian. In 2010, Christophe and Marilia arrived at the village of Krasny Yar.
This village, surrounded by taiga, is home to about 600 people, most of whom are Udege. The men are hunters and fishers. Every year, they sail down the Bikin River in their long dugout boats in order to go into the forest, where they stay for several months at a time. The river is the only transport artery that connects the village and their hunting grounds.
It was here that the French explorers parted ways.
Christophe went to Canada, while Marilia decided to stay in the village. She wanted to better understand the way of life of the indigenous people there. She moved in with the Kolenchuga family,and helped round the house to pay for lodging. Together with the other women she embroidered, made leather clothes, gathered ferns and prepared traditional dishes. «I stayed in Krasny Yar because I was impressed by the river and the people who live in the forest,» Marilia explains. «I was accepted as one of their own. I felt at home. I realized that here was an opportunity to live in close connection with nature, and that an experience such as this could not be had anywhere else.»
One day, Kostya visited the house where Marilia lived. He was bringing meat from a hunt to his relatives. Marilia remembers being struck by the Udeges deep voice and independent mind. When winter came, the two went into the forest together.
Kostya taught her to track wild animals. Being tall, Marilia moved too loudly, and she failed to learn the nuances of hunting. However, she did learn the taiga code the rules for coexisting with wild animals. One of the main rules states that it is prohibited to kill tigers.
One time, a tiger approached Marilia and Kostyas house. The dog started barking, and the man went out onto the porch to negotiate with the predator, just like Dersu Uzala, the famous guide of explorer Vladimir Arseniev. He shouted, «You are an unwanted guest here, go away!» As Marilia explains, the Udege man respected the animal, and considered it an equal it was a hunter just like himself. And the tiger went away.
Marilia remembers her first hunting trip best of all. She was cold and returned home, while Kostya stayed and killed two roe deer. He left the dead animals in the forest in order to return there later with her. «We walked for a long time. It was twilight, frosty, the forest turned violet in the sunset,» Marilia remembers. «I saw the red blood, still warm on the white snow. At that moment, I felt gratitude gratitude towards the animals, and towards the man who had been carrying his kill on his shoulders in order to feed his family. The experience gave me a deep understanding of the cycle of life and death. It is not easy to kill an animal, but it is necessary in order to survive in the taiga in winter. Hunting has its own meaning and power. People in cities buy meat in supermarkets and do not understand where it comes from. They do not experience that feeling of death.»
The locals in Krasny Yar like to tell the story of how Marilia once chased a red deer through the forest, caught up with it, and killed it with a knife. In reality, a dog had attacked the animal and it was slowly dying of its wounds. Marilia did not have a knife with her, so she strangled the animal with her hands to relieve it of its suffering.
The couple spent most of their first year together at a hunting lodge, only going to the village to get food. Marilia became pregnant during their time in the taiga. In 2011, their first son, Savely, was born. Two and a half years later, they had another son, Milan. Marilia and Kostya dreamt of moving their forest home to Ulunga, a village some 200 kilometres from Krasny Yar. There were several families with children there, and Marilia wanted Savely and Milan to socialize with their peers. Ulunga did not have a school, but she was prepared to home-school the boys.
From time to time the family would stay with Kostyas relatives in Krasny Yar. In 2015, while Marilia was in Vladivostok to collect some documents, Kostya was stabbed to death by his aunts husband while drinking together. Marilia does not know what the row was about. The locals, however, are sure that the men quarrelled over living arrangements.
«We shared a rotten house with the aunt and her husband, who had been to prison before. They drank a lot. I think the man was jealous of Kostya and had wanted to kill him long before. In general though, I dont think it particularly matters why it happened. My husband drank a lot too. He was not able to change his ways. We all carry deep wounds of some kind or another. He failed to see his sufferings and failed to accept them. He should have said to himself, Yes, my adoptive father abandoned me; yes, I had to look after my brothers in the 90s when I wanted to have fun; yes, I was abandoned time and again. It was hard for him to bear all that pain. I wanted to help and I loved him. But he did not hear me. Kostya was a complicated man, but very independent. He was his own bicycle.»
A year after Kostyas death, Marilia left Krasny Yar in an attempt to recover from her loss. With her friends help, she dismantled the forest house and transferred it to Ulunga where she and her husband had planned to live. A year later, however, she realized that she would not survive in the taiga alone with her children.
Marilia returned to France, but not before obtaining Russian citizenship. Over the last few years, she has travelled to Ulunga every summer or autumn for a couple of months, so that Milan and Savely would not forget their Udege heritage. «I want to give them a choice. If they become hunters, I will accept it. If not, I will accept that too,» Marilia says.
Marilia calls Ulunga home. She says that this is the place where she felt happy. Marilia likens her life to a salmon swimming against the current to return to whence it came. In her case, the current is globalization, and its homogenizing effect on cultures. Marilia does not believe that the Udege people are particularly susceptible to it, however. They have retained their culture, because they have not lost their ties to the forest.
«I am not sad when I come to Ulunga,» Marilia says. «When Im in the boat, I feel as though Kostya is there guiding me. I feel as though the surrounding landscape is glowing, because after death, his soul has transferred itself to the river, the forest, the hills. Kostya is still with us in this world which we shared together. He was a man of the taiga, and has now returned to it. I do not feel any sense of emptiness here.»