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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

Thursday, Jan. 29



Attend a master class on how to deal with complicated business negotiations today at the International Banking Institute, 6 Malaya Sadovaya Ulitsa. Running from 3 to 6 p.m., Vadim Sokolov, an assistant professor at the St. Petersburg State University of Economics, will introduce aspects of managing the negotiation process and increasing its effectiveness. Attendance is free with pre-registration by telephone on 909 3056 or online at www.ibispb.ru



Celebrate what would be writer Anton Chekhov's 155th birthday at the Bokvoed bookshop at 46 Nevsky Prospekt. Starting at 5 p.m., the legendary author will be feted with readings of his stories and short performances based on his plays by various St. Petersburg actors. Chekhov's books will also be offered at a 15% discount during the event.



Friday, Jan. 30



The Lermontov Central Library, 19 Liteyny Prospekt, will screen 'Almost Famous’ in English with Russian subtitles at 6:30 p.m. Cameron Crowe's Academy Award-winning comedy from 2000 stars Billy Crudup, Kate Hudson, and Patrick Fugit, and tells the story of a budding music journalist at Rolling Stone magazine in the 1970s. Admission is free.



Meet renowned Russian poet, journalist and writer Dmitry Bykov, famous for his biographies of Boris Pasternak, Bulat Okudzhava and Maxim Gorky, and winner of 2006 National Bestseller Award. Bykov will read old and new poems as well as answer questions about his works at the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Main Hall, at 7 p.m. Tickets start at 1,000 rubles and are available at city ticket offices and the from the Philharmonic website www.philharmonia.spb.ru.



A retrospective of the films of Roman Polanski starts today at Loft-Project Etagi, 74 Ligovsky Prospekt, with a screening of ‘Repulsion’ at 7 p.m. and ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ at 9:15 p.m. The series runs through Feb. 4 and will include Polanski's eminently creepy ‘The Tenant,’ the cult comedy ‘The Fearless Vampire Killers’ and ‘Cul-de-sac’ among others. Tickets are 150-200 rubles and the complete schedule is available at www.vk.com/artpokaz/



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