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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Ivan Pokhabov, a pallid, 27-year-old manager in a cash-register repair firm, and his technician, 22-year-old Pavel Ostrovsky, showed me the town (pop. 15,700). Our first stop was a site that made Kirensk briefly infamous in the last days of Soviet rule: the ruins of a two-story brick building. We entered and climbed carefully down a derelict staircase, into a basement strewn with spent beer and vodka bottles. The building had once been the Kirensk headquarters of the Stalin era’s secret police, predecessor of the KGB. In 1991, the corpses of more than 80 people were uncovered in the basement. They’d been executed around 1938 for alleged “counterrevolutionary” activity—a common accusation in the Terror. “I watched them bring the corpses out of the basement,” Ostrovsky said.

Olga Kuleshova, director of the KirenskRegionalMuseum, said one of her uncles, the head of a local collective farm who was denounced in an anonymous letter to the secret police, numbered among the exhumed. “The executed were our best minds, the light of our nation, the cultured people among us,” Kuleshova said. “There were rumors that others, who were never found, were put on barges and drowned.”

I had heard many such stories during 11 years in Russia, but I was becoming alarmed by the indifference that many displayed toward atrocities in Stalin’s day. To me, the befouled basement execution site showed what little importance people attached to the state-sponsored murders. Could anything like Soviet-era purges repeat themselves now? “Oh, all that could never happen again,” Ivan said. “We have our freedoms now. Everything is permitted.”

A few days later, downriver in the village of Petropavlovsk, Leonid Kholin, a bespectacled collector of historical artifacts for local museums, expressed a different view. “Look, like everyone else, I cried in 1953 when Stalin died. Those who remember Stalin remember the order, the discipline. We hoped Putin might establish the same. But no. As things stand, we have no government, no real courts, nothing. We call our government for help and get no answer.” What about the bloody crimes dominating Stalin’s rule? “It’s better to serve in a battalion with discipline, right?” he said. “Look, we’re half-Asiatic, half-European. We need to maintain our traditions, and for that we need a strong leader. We need discipline.” From Kirensk to the Arctic I would hear Putin faulted, if at all, for not dealing harshly enough with his unruly populace.

In a clearing on a spruce-covered mountainside, Vadim and I spotted a guard tower with a Soviet flag flying above it. Nearby, a 30-foot-high portrait of Lenin—painted in red and white in the stark style of socialist realism—glowered down at us from a two-story concrete barracks. Ayoung man with a shaved head, wearing a blue prison uniform, came running down the bank toward us, waving. He shook our hands and welcomed us to Zolotoy, a correctional labor settlement. Out from the barracks marched a line of ten inmates, tanned and healthy-looking. “Oh, roll call!” he exclaimed, and trotted off to join them.

An officer in khaki emerged from a cabin, peered at us through binoculars and motioned to us to approach. He ran the camp, he said, and the inmates served their sentences logging in the forests. “They don’t look very dangerous,” I said. “Are they petty criminals?”

“Oh, they all robbed someone or beat up people,” he said. “They’re here for a good reason.”

Zolotoy, he said, had once been a logging settlement, but the saw mill had died with perestroika, and the remaining villagers, now mostly pensioners, lived in the derelict huts up on the bank. The inmates helped the villagers with chores. What about the Soviet flag? I asked. “Excuse me, but what’s wrong with the Soviet flag?” the officer said. “It’s always pleasant to see it. It reminds of how things were before all that crap with perestroika began and killed this village.” As we walked back to the boat, he talked disdainfully about political reforms, yet spoke of the beauty of being posted out in these wilds. He shook our hands and saw us off.

The Sakha republic covers 1.86 million square miles—a harsh territory roughly equivalent in size to Western Europe—and accounts for a sixth of Russia’s landmass. Barely a million people live there. Forty percent of it lies within the Arctic Circle, and permafrost hinders agriculture and construction. Summers are brief but surprisingly hot: it can reach 105 degrees. Nowhere on earth do temperatures throughout the year vary so widely: almost 200 degrees.

In the Lena’s delta alone live 36 species of fish, many of them Salmonidae, including the giant and elusive taimen, trout that reach six feet in length and can weigh more than 150 pounds. Vadim would catch, most of all, okun, lenok and succulent nelma, frying what we could eat the first day and smoking the rest in a blackened tin box he brought for that purpose.


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