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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My Yakut guide, a 20-something schoolteacher named Tatiana Osipova, was light-complexioned, with narrow eyes and a languid air. She was anything but languid, however. She took me to the NationalArt Museum of the SakhaRepublic, where a Yakut painter, Timofey Stepanov, was exhibiting his work, all of it awash with canary yellows, electric blues and flaming reds. His canvases feature Yakut gods and mythical beasts, princesses and knights on stout horses—figures from the Yakuts’ shamanistic religion, Ayi. His renditions recalled illustrations for children’s books—fantastic and lurid and unbelievable. “Our scenery is so gray, but here you see how much color we have inside us,” Tatiana said.

The atheism taught in Soviet times is still more common than faith, professions of which, in my experience, usually stemmed from other convictions, like nationalism. As it did with her. “We’re one of the most educated minorities in Russia,” she went on. “We take top prizes in national scholastic competitions. Not bad for a people that until just recently lived in balagany,” or crude log dwellings.“We protest on the streets in minus 50 degree weather when Moscow tries to take away our rights. We’re not some people at the end of the earth. We’ve showed the world who we are, and we want our sovereignty. And faith in our religion, Ayi, is good. It’s the basis of our character. Our national struggle continues!” From Tatiana I heard spirited complaints about Kremlin policies for the first time on my trip. It would also be the last.

We sailed out of Yakutsk into merciless wilds. To the west spread the Central Yakutian Plain, an infinity of low, silver-green alders and sandy bog; along the eastern bank, the snow-dappled VerkhoyanskMountains reigned over scraggly taiga; above choppy waters to the north churned gunmetal clouds and whirling skeins of fog. The temperature dropped into the 30s, and a cold head wind raised the surf on a river now nine or ten miles across. Day after day, for ten hours at a stretch, we crashed through breakers that at times forced us ashore. When it seemed nothing could get worse, the clouds emptied their burdens of frigid rain.

Vadim kept his cold blue eyes locked on the horizon. Landing, we would jump out and struggle to haul the boat ashore. Vadim would grab his bottle of red-pepper-flavored vodka and shove it into my benumbed hands. “Drink a drop, quick! To warm up!” I did, and it worked. We then would set up camp. Possibly trying to console me, Vadim said that this summer was freakishly cold. We had feasted on red and black currants before Yakutsk and expected to find them here, along with mushrooms, but there were none—grave omens. “It will be a hungry year,” Vadim pronounced. “Many animals will starve. There will be a lot of shatuny,” or bears that, having failed to eat enough to hibernate, wander the winter woods, at times attacking villagers.

Only a lone soaring black-headed Brent goose or occasional raven broke our sense of solitude. It was late July, and the larch’s tufty leaves were yellowing.

On august 1, we crossed the Arctic Circle. Hours later we spotted Zhigansk—a crescent of gray, wind-battered shacks on a high curving bank. The next evening I found myself shockingly comfortable, sitting with Yuri Shamayev, the Yakut mayor of this village of 3,500 people, mostly Yakuts and Evenks. With high cheeks and intelligent eyes, Shamayev, dressed in loafers, a wool sweater and pressed chinos, looked like he might have been pledging a conservative fraternity in the United States. He lived in what from the outside looked like a condemnable concrete hovel, but inside it was warm and clean, with a refrigerator, a Japanese television and polished wood furniture. His wife made us cucumber and tomato salad seasoned with sour cream, and spread out sausage and salted fish for our delectation. We sipped beer, a luxury.

In the name of their sovereigns, armed Cossack bands had ruthlessly exploited the Sakha region, collecting the fur tax but also demanding “gifts” for themselves—as much as five times the number of furs the state required—or taking women hostage if their men couldn’t or wouldn’t pay. Russian merchants scoured the land for mammoth tusks; in 1821 alone, one merchant exported 20,000 tons. The Soviets forced the semi-nomadic peoples into settlements, which accustomed them to village life and undermined their survival skills. “Our mentality is Soviet,” Shamayev says. “Since we live in extreme conditions—just look at the black rings under people’s eyes here, which are scars from frostbite—we expect the state to help us and give us privileges. But there are too many incentives”—educational institutes, high technology, and the like, available through Moscow, for the SakhaRepublic to want out of Russia. “Our patriotism is left over from Soviet days, and keeps us together.”

I told him I had heard otherwise on previous trips to Sakha. “OK, ten years ago we wanted to separate, but not now. We’re a strategically vital region of Russia. We have too many diamonds, too much timber, coal, and even oil, for them to let us go.” He went on. “Even though we’re descended from Genghis Khan, we’re not a hotblooded mountain people like the Chechens, who love war. Besides, we’re too few to fight like the Chechens.”

In our last three weeks on the Lena, we forced our way through storm after storm, heading north toward Tiksi. Now the taiga gave way entirely to tundra, carpeted in lichen and moss; stony mountains arose on both banks, overflown now and then by golden eagles. As we approached the delta, strong winds prompted us to stop at Tit-Ary, a nearly deserted village of gray shacks and wrecked fishing boats. I spotted crosses atop a sandy hillock, a monument to Finns and Lithuanians interred there—more of Stalin’s victims. A plaque at the base of the tallest cross read: “TORN BYVIOLENCE FROM THEIRNATIVE LAND, FALLEN, BUTNOTFORGOTTEN.” The wind had blown away the sand to expose the coffins. There was something telling in their exposure. Here and there across Russia, monuments have been erected to the crimes of the Soviet era, but they are ill-tended and appear insignificant besides the poverty and neglect of the hinterland.

I hurried back to our boat. We would skirt the delta’s eastern banks, where mountains rose sheer and stony from the water’s edge, to enter the churning Laptev Sea. By then I had grown to admire Vadim. We had quarreled at times. But no matter how high the waves, he never slackened in spirit. He turned desolate riverbanks into comfortable campsites. Nikolai Nikitin, the prominent Russian historian, might have had him in mind when he described Siberia’s Cossack pioneers as “harsh, merciless, but always hardy, steadfast, and courageous, hesitating neither before the boundless Siberian expanses nor its inhospitable weather nor its thousand unknown but unavoidable dangers.” Vadim embodied the frontier spirit that allowed Russia to expand across 11 time zones and turned the country into a superpower (if now only a former one). Vadim told me he admired strength and strongmen most of all—whether good or evil—and had no faith in democracy taking hold in his country. His powerful presence reminded me that, ever since the Cossacks first ventured onto the Lena and made Siberia Russian, the rest of the world had had to take notice.


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