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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Seven weeks after departing Ust-Kut, with snowcapped black mountains to the south and a gray sea roiling to the north, we saw, on a ridge, the boxy concrete barracks of Tiksi’s military base. Afrigid rain began to fall. An hour later, we pulled up beneath a blue shack and a beached barge in Tiksi harbor. An army truck stood against the stormy sky, by the shack. We stepped onto the gravel shore and congratulated each other with a handshake. I felt strangely empty. Vadim disdained the comfort that Tiksi’s one hotel would offer and set up his tent onshore. I grabbed my pack and took out my permits, which the military in this closed settlement would surely want to see, and hiked up to the truck that would take me to Tiksi proper.

Like a vision from a gulag survivor’s nightmare, Tiksi’s wind-battered tenements and lopsided larch huts stood bleak and lonely under a bank of fog. Slogans painted in tenfoot red letters (GLORYTO LABOR! CHILDREN ARE OURFUTURE! BLOOM, MYBELOVED YAKUTIA!) covered the weatherworn facades of the hilly center, reminding me that this town of a few thousand souls, mostly Russian military and state functionaries, used to be a bustling Soviet port, as well as one of the USSR’s most secretive places. Tiksi’s population—about 12,000 in Soviet times—enjoyed high pay and privileges for tours of duty that included two months of polar night and 120 days of gale-force winds a year. Now most of the remaining 6,000 or so Tiksians seem stranded.

I and my two hosts, Tamara (a manager at Tiksi’s port) and Olga (a sailor and cook), went to the settlement’s one barrestaurant, an unmarked yellow shack. “What the hell do you want?” shouted the doorwoman, a hefty troll with a bristly mop of peroxided hair. “Why didn’t you let us know in advance you were coming!”

“Is that any way to treat customers?” replied Olga. “Why not just save your breath and slop manure on us instead!” “Yeah!” chimed in Tamara. “We don’t have to patronize your establishment!”

“Then don’t!” The troll slammed the door.

In fact, we had no choice, so we forced our way in, and mounted the stairs to a cavernous bar. The troll flicked on red, green and white Christmas lights strung around the walls. A glum aproned barwoman took our orders. Tamara and Olga spoke of their glorious Soviet past. “We felt like such pioneers out here! The state used to supply us with only the priciest delicacies!” said Tamara. “We knew only luxury! Our husbands used to fly to Moscow just to have a beer!”

The bar filled with a somber crowd in jeans and black leather jackets: delicate Yakut women, pale and high cheekboned, and young men, Russians and Yakuts, mostly sloshed and stumbling. As I tucked into my steak and fries, the troll actually smiled. The Lena’s harsh wilderness receded from my consciousness, and I felt delivered.

A week later, Vadim and I boarded a plane for the flight to Moscow, six time zones back. We flew over mountainous tundra, then a carpet of forest laced with silver rivers. It would take us nine hours to fly across Siberia—terrain the Cossacks had annexed to Russia over the course of a century. For good or ill, their exploit affects us still.


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