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Trial by Water

Published: October 20, 2006 (Issue # 1214)


"North of Mongolia and Manchuria, draining an area as large as Spain, France, and all the countries of Eastern Europe combined, and fed by five hundred tributaries, the Lena is the tenth longest river in the world, and the third longest in Russia. It flows down from the Baikal Mountains through the taiga of the Siberian Plateau into the boggy lowlands and tundra of the Republic of Sakha ... to empty, through a broad delta, into the stormy Laptev Sea, a bay of the Arctic Ocean, some 450 miles above the Arctic Circle."In the summer of 2004, the writer Jeffrey Tayler decided he would traverse that distance by raft, braving sudden storms and crushing rapids, horseflies large enough to bite through clothes, bears, wild dogs and the Soviet gulag's semi-deserted outposts, now populated by drunken villagers, thieves and corrupt officials. One wonders, Didn't he have any better way to spend his summer vacation? Why not St.-Tropez?

As Tayler, Moscow correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and author of four other travel books, explains in "River of No Reprieve," "Those wilds, I sensed, had something to teach me." Having lived in Russia for the past 13 years, he wanted to know, "Had any of the strength I so admired in Russians rubbed off on me? In short, could I hack it on the Lena, camping amid clouds of mosquitoes, enduring the cold and Arctic storms, as the Cossacks did? I felt I had to know or how could I ever understand, let alone be worthy of, the country to which I had devoted my life?"

Surely there are other ways to understand Russia than journey for two months in an impossibly small raft down a Siberian river. But Tayler's intrepid curiosity and passion for his adopted homeland are winning on the page. By the end of the book we almost agree with him: There could be few better strategies for contemplating the colossal contradictions of Russia's populace and history than tracing the Lena, the unexplored heart of the largest nation on earth.

The voyage is undertaken in a custom-built raft, and by Tayler's own admission is made possible only through the skills of his "beefy-shouldered" Russian guide, Vadim, a former dentist who now spends six months a year exploring Russia's Far North. It is Vadim who designs the raft to personal specifications and who navigates the river's myriad dangers. At times he aggressively forces them to race impending winds and storms; at other times he is frustratingly cautious, beaching the raft for days until conditions improve. Vadim is moody, isolated, even antisocial, and the two men do not get along. "You're just a writer living on paper," the Russian scolds Tayler. He also baits him: "America doesn't have its own cuisine. Your national dish is hamburgers."

I admit to feeling this last one in the gut. But Tayler keeps his poise, aware that his life depends on Vadim. Wistfully, he confesses near journey's end that the two men have not grown close. But it says something about the book's honesty that, despite Tayler's feelings, the reader grows to admire Vadim's skills, loyalty and devotion to the success of the trip. By the time we say goodbye to Vadim in a camp on the Arctic Ocean, where he has saved the near-failed expedition in a brilliantly rendered confrontation with a shady, if powerful, Arctic official, we want to give the prickly man an enormous bear hug.

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ALL ABOUT TOWN

Wednesday, Sept. 3


Although thesand sculptures at the Peter and Paul Fortress are more centrally located and therefore more visible to the throngs of tourists, the 300th Anniversary Park of St. Petersburgs own collection closes today so fans of the classic beach activity should get there while they can.



Thursday, Sept. 4


Vladimir I. Danchenkov, Head of Baltic Customs, will be in attendance during AmChams Customs and Transportation Committee Meeting convening this afternoon at the organizations office near St. Isaacs Square at 3 p.m.



Friday, Sept. 5


Scrabble lovers and chess masters get their chance to assert their intellectual dominance at the return of the British Book Centers Board Game Evenings tonight. Held weekly on Friday nights, the event gives both board game lovers and those hoping to improve their English the chance to meet, greet and compete. Check out the centers VK page for more details.



Saturday, Sept. 6


Athletes will relish the chance to get the latest gear and try out something new at I Choose Sport, an annual event at Lenexpo forum that plans to welcome more than 30,000 people this week to the international exhibition center. Not only will visitors get to try their hand at various athletic endeavors but they will also be able to peruse equipment that can fulfill their dreams of becoming a champion.


Local KHL team SKA St. Petersburg open their season this evening at home against Lokomotiv Yarovslavl at the Ice Palace arena next to the Prospekt Bolshevikov metro station. See their website for a full schedule and available tickets.



Sunday, Sept. 7


Check out retro and antique cars at Fort Konstantin on Kronstadt Island in the Gulf of Finland at FORTuna, a yearly car festival that highlights the eccentricities of the Soviet automobile industry. A car race, contests and a stunt show will give visitors a chance to rev their engines.



Monday, Sept. 8


This evening marks the opening of the two-week ballet festival High Season at the Mikhailovsky Theater. Check the theaters website for more details about performances and featured dancers.



Tuesday, Sept. 9


Discuss the latest news and issues at the AmCham Hazardous Waste Management Roundtable this morning in the Tango Conference Hall of the Sokos Hotel Palace Bridge on Birzhevoy Pereulok. Starting at 9 a.m., planned topics include the Krasny Bor landfill and waste transportation between Russia and Finland.


Learn more about the citys modern architectural trends at the SPIBA Real Estate and Construction Committees meeting on the topic Contemporary Petersburg Style: What is It? Participants will get the chance to discuss whats in-demand with RBI Holdings Irina Petrova and Lubava Pryanikova, and the current state of the local real estate market. Please confirm your attendance by Sept. 5 through SPIBAs website if you wish to attend.



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