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Navigating Siberia

A 2,300-mile boat trip down the Lena River, one of the last great unspoiled waterways, is a journey into Russia's dark past—and perhaps its future as well

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We shoved off under the weeping sky of a late June dawn, the frost-scarred concrete tenements of Ust-Kut looming, unlikely spectators for the start of an expedition down Russia’s most pristine major river. Here, at least, the LenaRiver, which flows northward into Siberia, resembled less a primordial waterway than the aqueous graveyard of Russian civilization. It is both, of course. Russia’s expansion beyond the Ural Mountains, a move crucial to its rise as a global power, depended on the Lena to annex a wilderness so inhospitable that few at first would move there readily, or even voluntarily.

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In czarist and Soviet Russia, the Lena served as a watery highway into an icebound hell of forced labor and exile, shackles and grief. Vladimir Lenin (né Ulyanov) may have confected his nom de guerre from the river’s name, in honor of revolutionaries like Trotsky who did hard time along its remote shores. Yet the Bolshevik coup that Lenin led in 1917 ushered in the river’s most tragic era, when Joseph Stalin dispatched millions to hard labor and death in Siberia. Countless barges carried inmates from Ust-Kut—once the Soviet Union’s busiest inland port—to prison settlements on the river’s banks.

A trip down the Lena would be a very rare adventure as well as a novel approach to Russia’s ties to its gulag past. Since coming to power in 2000, and especially following his reelection last year, President Vladimir Putin has reinforced executive authority, reasserted Kremlin control over recalcitrant regions, strangled the press and selectively persecuted oligarchs. To this day, Russians are a predominantly rural, small-town people, and to understand how Putin has managed to reverse a democratic momentum dating from Gorbachev’s perestroika of the 1980s, it’s revealing to look not to Moscow and St. Petersburg, where a Western-oriented elite has pushed for liberal reform, but to the hinterland, where Putin enjoys his strongest support.

From the Baikal Mountains more than 2,600 miles east of Moscow, the Lena flows through the taiga (mostly coniferous forest) of the Siberian Plateau into the boggy lowlands and tundra of the Sakha Republic to empty, 2,700 miles later, into the stormy Laptev Sea, within the Arctic Circle. A few hundred miles from the river’s mouth lies one of the world’s coldest inhabited places—Verkhoyansk, where temperatures have plunged to minus 96 degrees Fahrenheit. The tenth-longest river in the world, the Lena is the only major Russian waterway flowing unimpeded by dams or hydroelectric stations. Its waters are clean enough to drink untreated. Along its shores dwell brown bear and wolves, moose and caribou. It is Russia’s river wild, and I had long wanted to sail it.

To travel from Ust-Kut, where my 2,300-mile journey began, is no simple thing. Moscow and the government of the SakhaRepublic (in Russian, Yakutia), a semiautonomous region within greater Siberia, have reimposed restrictions on foreigners’ access to much of the area. I sought help from the polar adventurer Dmitry Shparo, who wrestled permits for my journey from the Sakha authorities, the Federal Security Service (the successor to the KGB), the Border Guards, and the Foreign Ministry. Dmitry also found me a guide, a 37-year-old Muscovite named Vadim Alekseyev. Beefy, with a pig-iron grip and a piercing gaze, Vadim spends six months a year adventuring in the Russian far North, enduring of his own volition the foul meteorological stew of blizzard, ice, rain and wind that Stalin’s victims suffered as punishment.

We would travel in a 17- by 5-foot inflatable raft built to Vadim’s specifications. Half of our 1,430-pound load would consist of fuel for its four-horsepower motor. Vadim carried a double-barreled shotgun, kept loaded. “You never know who or what might step out of the taiga uninvited,” he said.

On the late June day we set out, the weather was balmy, in the low 70s. Cutting a V through panes of liquid pewter speckled with raindrops, we moved with the Lena into fogshrouded woods and hills. Soon we were gliding atop burbling currents dappled with the turquoise of the sky, the green of firs, and the rippling zebra serrations of birches. That evening, as I set up my tent on the riverbank, Vadim lit a fire and cooked a dinner of oats and canned meat, preceded by a clove of garlic as a prophylactic. I was spellbound by the beauty of the taiga—the largest contiguous forest on earth, a primeval preserve here dominated by Siberian fir and Erman’s birch and several species of spruce. Vadim wasn’t moved. “This isn’t the North yet,” he said dismissively.

In the 1550s, Czar Ivan the Terrible of Muscovy crushed Muslim Tatars west of the Urals, spurring Russian expansion into Asia. The Cossack leader Yermak Timofeevich defeated the ruler of Sibir (Siberia) in 1581, whereafter the Russians began to absorb lands farther east. Lured by rumors of forests abounding in priceless furs (mostly sable and ermine) along a great river, a Cossack named Panteley Pyanda first reached the Lena in the 1620s. The Cossacks, from the steppes south of Russia, raised revenues for the sovereign in the form of a levy in furs, which they imposed on the sparse indigenous peoples, the semi-nomadic Evenks and Yakuts.

Opening up Siberia, the Cossacks hastened Russia’s transformation from a middle-sized European country into a Eurasian superpower covering one-sixth of the earth’s land surface. Siberia was eventually to yield resources far more precious than furs, including gold, diamonds, uranium and, most important nowadays, natural gas and oil. In Siberia lie the bulk of Russia’s 72 billion barrels of proven petroleum reserve (the seventh-largest on earth) and 27 percent of the world’s natural gas. Oil alone accounts for 45 percent of Russia’s export revenues, and finances 20 percent of its economy. Only Saudi Arabia pumps more crude.

It was in 1683 that Cossacks founded Kirensk, about 180 miles downstream from Ust-Kut, as an ostrog, or stockaded town. When we arrived, five days out, the morning sun was showering glare over the town’s shacklike shops and low wooden houses, mostly green or blue hovels sinking crookedly into the earth. Vadim deposited me on an antique dock. White poplar seed puffs drifted through the hot air, adding a dreamy languor to the scene disturbed only by groupings of groggy beggars in the doorways, their faces swollen pink from alcohol.

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