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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

Saturday, Sept. 20


Starting on Sept. 18 and ending tomorrow is the Extreme Fantasy Wakeboarding Festival in Sunpark by Sredny Suzdalskoye lake in the Ozerki region of the city.


Those after something more laid back can instead head to Jazz and Wine night at TerraVino with legendary jazz guitarist Ildar Kazahanov. 12/14 Admiralteyskaya Emb.



Sunday, Sept. 21


Learn more about African culture and get some exercise during today’s “Djembe and Vuvuzela,” a bike ride starting in Palace Square that includes several stops where riders can listen to the music of Africa or watch short films about the continent. The riders plan to set off at 4 p.m. and all you need to join is a set of wheels.



Monday, Sept. 22


Do you love puppetry? If so, then be sure to go to BTK-Fest, a five-day festival that starts on Sept. 19 celebrating the art. Contemporaries from France, Belgium, the U.K. and other countries will join Russian artists to put on theatrical performances involving a variety of themes, materials and eras. Workshops and meetings are also scheduled for a chance to discuss the artistic medium in further depth.



Tuesday, Sept. 23


Marina Suhih, Director of the External Communications Department at Rostelecom North-West, and Yana Donskaya, HR Director for Northern Capital Gateway are just some of the confirmed participants of today’s round table discussion on “Interaction with Trade Unions” being hosted by SPIBA. Confirm your attendance with SPIBA by Sept. 22.


Kino Expo 2014, an international film industry convention, will be at LenExpo from today until Sept. 26. The third largest exhibition of film equipment in the world, the expo focuses on not only Russia but former Soviet republics as well.



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