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.
Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" and Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" are the obvious touchstones to Tayler's perilous river journey. Like Conrad, Tayler takes us to the darkest regions of a nation's soul along a river whose impenetrability and mysteriousness haunt the book from the opening pages. Like Twain's hero, Tayler's protagonist is an innocent sharing the journey with a guide who is stronger and more knowledgeable, though struggling with personal demons. Down Twain's Mississippi River lay the harsher excesses of slavery. Down the Lena lie the increasingly isolated outposts of the gulag. As Twain did with slavery and Conrad did with colonization, Tayler peels away the injustices of contemporary Russian life to expose a nation from the inside out — and to better reveal it to its own citizens.
The book achieves its broad insightfulness largely through alternating accounts of river travel with social reportage. "You always want to stop in villages and meet people — the one thing I do not want to do out here," Vadim rants. Indeed, Tayler disembarks in every barren town, village and hamlet along the way, leaving his guide guarding the raft and mumbling, "I hate returning to civilization." Tayler has considerable skill in searching out friendships. He is amazed by the warmth of the people who take him in and supply food and shelter. "Once again, I thought, the feared 'village barbarians' were turning out to be among the friendliest souls I had met in Russia."
These souls are eager to discuss the difficulties of their lives in the doomed towns along the river, and do so in conversations that, lubricated by samogonka, are at once candid, humorous and chilling. In Olekminsk, a regional capital, a member of a Siberian hip-hop dance troupe complains, "Look at this dump we live in. It's not a city but a village! Cows graze at our bus stops. Not one traffic light. No indoor plumbing anywhere. Imagine using an outhouse when it's forty degrees below!" As for the possibility of help from further west: "Moscow doesn't care what goes on out here."
Similar sentiments are heard throughout Tayler's travels. "People now are hungering for a new Stalin," a young Russian Baptist in Yakutsk warns. "They want someone to lead them out of this chaos. They're really suffering from a spiritual hunger, but they don't know it." A former weightlifter and amateur historian in the tiny hamlet of Petropavlovskoye breaks into song and says, "I need to sing sometimes or I'd lose my mind. ... There's too much grief in our history out here."
Many of these complaints — the nostalgia, the false romanticizing of the past, the passive suffering, the "pride Russians often take in showing foreigners that no one, but no one, could live worse than they" — are familiar and could equally apply to Central Asia or to any village in the Russian Far East. Like the endless bends of the Lena itself, Tayler's conversations sometimes grow repetitive. Still, for Muscovites and those living in the mainland's bubble, it is crucial that the voices of the dispossessed be heard if a complete picture of their nation is ever to be understood.
After Tayler has snapped a village photo, a madwoman accosts him and implores, "Send that picture to President Putin! I want him to see how bad we live out here. Our town is a dump — just look at those drunks! We should be rich but our mayor is robbing us blind, stealing the money Putin sends to help us." In surviving the Lena and writing this harrowing book, Tayler delivers that picture to Putin and the world.
Robert Rosenberg is the author of the novel "This Is Not Civilization." He teaches writing at Bucknell University.