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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As we journeyed into the heat of Sakha’s larch-and-alder lowlands, the fish grew more plentiful—and so did horseflies almost an inch long, with bulbous eyes and a quarter-inchlong proboscis. From our departure around ten in the morning till we pitched camp at eight in the evening, flies circled us relentlessly. Their stab was painful. Worse still were the midges—clouds of tiny gnats. Slapping at them left our arms and faces streaked with blood. These biting insects have played their role in Siberia’s history, deterring escapees from the gulags. “In Old Russia,” Vadim said, “people were put to death by being tied to a tree, naked. The bugs would suck all the blood out of them.”

Sakha’s 700,000 rivers and streams and 708,000 lakes ensure no scarcity of breeding grounds for the pests. We chose our campsites carefully. The rare spot of grassy shore meant mosquitoes (of which I counted three varieties); the commoner pebbly banks, midges. Larch and birch forests sheltered an abundance of man-eaters, whereas pine groves, scented with tangy sap, seemed anathema to all manner of insects. I found the only sure way to escape bites was to stand in the acrid plume of campfire smoke, red-eyed and coughing; Vadim didn’t shave or bathe. “The Yakuts of the taiga don’t bathe,” he said. “Traditional peoples know that skin with clogged pores doesn’t attract bugs.”

Some 700 miles and three weeks out of Ust-Kut, with temperatures falling, we pulled up to Nyuya, a tidy village on a sandy bank. The villagers’ square jaws and long faces suggest something other than Slavic or aboriginal origins. Nyuya’s houses, when built in Siberian style (squat and of dark larch), sported windows of polished glass hung with bright yellow-and-green curtains. No trash littered the dirt lanes. In fact, Germans built most of Nyuya after the Stalin regime exiled them in 1941 from their homeland along the Volga, the GermanAutonomousRepublic, an ethnic entity established during the early Soviet years.

I sipped tea in the kitchen of Sophia and Jakob Deisling, who were in their mid-70s. Their cheerful daughter Anna served tomatoes and cucumbers from their garden. Sophia recalled how, in 1941, Soviet troops loaded her and everyone else in her village in the Volga aboard cattle trains. Thus began a yearlong odyssey that took them through Kazakhstan to Ust-Kut and, by barge, up the Lena. The authorities conscripted her father and all the other young and middle-aged men into the Labor Army. Her mother fell ill, a brother died en route and a sister died of malnutrition. In September 1942, the barge deposited the survivors at Nyuya; they were given axes and ordered to cut the forest. “We were little girls and children and old people,” Sophia said. “How could we saw down trees! But they told us to meet the timber quota or they’d take away our rations—just 400 grams of bread a day!”

Exiled Finns and Lithuanians soon joined them. They might all have perished had not a new director, named Kul, been assigned to oversee their labor; he had the men do the heaviest labor to ease the exiles’ plight, Sophia says. She expressed gratitude for Kul and the Sakha government, which compensates Stalin’s victims with free electricity, firewood and a pension. “May God grant peace to those who called us fascists!” she said, magnanimously, of her torturers.

The GermanAutonomousRepublic was not restored after World War II, and the exiles had to put heated sand in their boots or lose their feet to frostbite, Jakob told me. Still, he seemed to hold no grudges. “Who could we attack?” he said. “The bosses here were just following orders. We all worked together to fulfill the plan!” He paused. “I have preserved my Catholic faith. I pray that God forgive Lenin and Stalin. I know this: I can’t enter heaven with enmity in my heart. We must forgive those who harm us.” As the Russian national anthem came on the radio, his eyes filled with tears.

To part with all notions of freedom, hope, control over one’s destiny—that is nullifying. After returning from such encounters, I tried to share my incredulity with Vadim. He answered with venom. Russians were a “herd” that could “only be ruled by force,” he would say, and Stalin had largely got it right. “I’m more worried about how we’re killing off our wildlife than about how people suffer,” he told me. “As long as the government doesn’t bother me, I really don’t care.”

Once we passed Olekminsk and were nearing our trip’s halfway point, the Lena changed from a swift stream 400 or 500 yards wide into an island-studded watercourse five or six miles across, littered with shoals on which we ran aground. Rainstorms arose suddenly. For five long days I bailed as Vadim, wrapped grimly in his poncho, swung us left and right between angry foaming swells.

The taiga shrank from majestic and dense to sparse and runty, prefiguring the desolating spread of tundra. Yard-high sand dunes appeared on the shore, lending parts of the riverscape a bizarre Saharan aspect. The soothing, bi-tonal ha-hoo! of the cuckoo bird all but vanished; the Siberian chipmunks dwindled in number, and so did the hawks that hunted them. If once a brown bear had come grunting to our camp at dawn to tear up an anthill, and a golden-furred Arctic fox, ears perked, had watched us pack our boat, now our only regular companions were the lonely Sabine gull or croaking raven or cheeping sandpiper. The constant light, at two in the morning as bright as an overcast winter noon, hindered sleep. Yet Vadim and I welcomed the changes. The sun no longer burned, and frequent cold snaps put the mosquitoes out of commission for hours at a stretch. We were sailing through Vadim’s North, and I found it mournfully enchanting.

Almost a month after leaving Ust-Kut, and some 300 miles from the Arctic Circle, we spotted dock cranes, ninestory apartment buildings, ancient log cabins sinking into the permafrost—this was Yakutsk, capital of Sakha, home to 200,000 people. The Turkic Yakuts, who migrated to Sakha from Central Asia in the 12th century, number only about 320,000—tiny numbers indeed, given the area’s vastness, but Russia has always suffered from underpopulation.


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