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Russia: Book Recalls A Buryat Woman's Voyage To The West

Washington, 7 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The new book "Siberian Dream" by Irina Pantayeva is a veritable nomad's progress from the shores of Lake Baikal to the fashion houses of world capitals.

As such, it provides some remarkable insights at a personal level of the struggle of two worlds, the traditional world of the Buryat Mongols of Siberia and the modern world of the West.

Pantayeva begins her book by recalling that her Buryat parents and grandparents had taught her that their ancestors had once ridden across the plains with Genghis Khan, "with the voices of the wind and the land strong in their ears."

Pantayeva's trail begins in a small two-room apartment in Ulan Ude crowded with brothers, aunts and uncles, and, occasionally, grandparents. Her father was a musician in the 200-seat Buryat Drama Theater, and her mother sewed the costumes. To little Irina, the theater was "a kingdom in the clouds," she wrote. "I failed to understand why anyone in Ulan Ude spent time anywhere else."

She adds that her childhood was an exploration of "the differences between dreams and reality" and between the worlds of the Buryat community of which Pantayeva was a part and the Russian nationality within which she lived.

Her parents were not Party members, and the family, she writes, was "united in our quest to survive the winter" and in not talking much outside the home. Soon she found that she did not fit in Soviet society where, she writes, "No one was better than anyone else."

In school she was ridiculed for her Buryat-ness and also for paltry departures from the norm such as wearing leg-warmers she had sewn herself from remnants collected by her mother. As a teenager she was threatened with expulsion from school for working as a seamstress creating clothes different from the standard style.

At age 16, Pantayeva found her way to Moscow where she designed and sewed dresses. She was discovered, first as a model and later as an actress. In a Soviet film of historical propaganda she played an Oriental princess. And she made friends among young people trying to succeed in the world of fashion and the arts.

Later, back in Buryatiya, she met with the Dalai Lama and formed what seems like a lifelong friendship with one of his monks. Without a common language and without any formal education in Buddhism, she seemed to grasp something of the spirituality of her ancestral faith.

A lucky break eventually allowed her to fly to Paris. But it took many months before she found employment as a model for Chanel. She went on traveling, first to Japan and then to New York, working for the most famous fashion houses.

Throughout, Pantayeva proved tough, resilient and sure of herself. She had her share of temptations and disappointments, both in love and in her search for her self. But she did not give up knocking on doors and trying out, always confident that her love of the make-believe worlds of modeling and films will eventually be reciprocated.

It now is. Yet she remains modest, or so her writing suggests.

"My people were nomads for millennia," she writes, "and in time, their blood compelled me across the world." After her most successful shows, she daydreams about the time when as a grandmother in Buryatiya she will tell her granddaughter about life in the West. "That will be the greatest voyage in my life," she notes.

If her dream becomes a reality, she may repeat to her children what her grandmother once said to her: "You have big eyes; you will see many things. You have long legs, and they will take you far."

Pantayeva lives in New York City and continues to work in the fashion and film industry, appearing in some prominent movies and on television. Her book is published in New York by Avon.