SINCE my teen years I have been enthralled by Russia -- by its literature and language, its history and geography. I have devoted the past eight years of my life to the country, living in it, journeying across it, even writing a book about it. The region of Russia that has intrigued me most of all is Siberia. And within Siberia, I have longed to travel a particular river: the Lena. When I first saw the Lena River, in April of 1993, it was under the wheels of the truck that was taking me across Siberia, covered by an eight-foot-thick layer of ice. But the ice was almost as blue as the sky, and I conceived a desire to take a ferry down the Lena when it would be bare and beautiful, bathed in light that would show it at its best -- the soft and delicate light of summer's white nights. I knew that two of the Russian hinterland's main problems, alcoholism and poverty, would make such a cruise less than tranquil -- but then, tranquillity is not one of Russia's virtues. This year I flew from Moscow to Siberia and set out to realize my dream.
I boarded the steamship Blagoveshchensk, in Ust' Kut, a Siberian settlement that sits astride the banks of the Lena, on a morning that fell less than a week before the longest day of this past year. At Ust' Kut's latitude that is long indeed: the sun sinks below the horizon for only four to five hours. The breeze, though doused in sunlight, carried what felt like an autumnal freshness, blowing through the surrounding forest and delivering to the dock the scent of spruce groves and birch sap. Here the river is a quarter of a mile wide and flows northeast, mirroring a shifting tableau of tufted clouds and lapis-lazuli sky. On the opposite shore cows grazed in lank grass, and chimneys trailing plumes of smoke rose above houses of storm-scarred larch.
Gradually other people arrived at the river station, to board the ship or to see travelers off. Finally a prolonged blast of the ship's horn followed by three toots signaled that we were about to pull out. In front of me people were hugging and saying good-bye, and hurrying clankety-clank across the bouncing gangway. I was conspicuous by my solitude. The captain appeared on the bridge, huffed puff-puff into his microphone, and ordered "Mashina! Mashina gotova!" ("Engine! Engine ready!") The horn sounded again, and the boat shuddered to life with the first belabored and sloshy rotations of the paddle wheels hidden under its hull. Crew members hoisted the gangway aboard; an orange-vested boatswain on shore unlooped the mooring ropes from the cement piles and tossed them onto the deck. Within minutes we were pulling out, Ust' Kut's dusty gray assemblage of stone and concrete houses receding from our stern. Our destination was the city of Yakutsk, 1,242 miles and five days' travel away.
Winding from just west of Lake Baikal toward the Laptev Sea, on the Arctic Ocean, through vast stretches of tundra and taiga (boggy coniferous forest), the 2,734-mile Lena River has for almost 400 years served as one of the great nautical highways of Siberia. In the early seventeenth century Cossack explorers first reached the banks of the Lena and established the ostrog, or stockade town, of Ust' Kut, whence they made a trip downstream into eastern Siberia, on log rafts, and built another ostrog at Yakutsk. They found the water rich in sturgeon and salmon-like omul, the earth loaded with silver and gold, the taiga teeming with lustrously pelted sable and ermine. Later, using Ust' Kut and Yakutsk as supply bases, the Cossacks traveled along the Lena's tributaries, exploring and subduing the rest of eastern Siberia for the Czar of Muscovy and their own lucrative fur trade. It was the acquisition of Siberia, with its minerals, fossil fuels, and timber, that eventually turned Russia from a poor European country of middling size into a major Eurasian superpower. This primeval terrain contains the world's largest forest, which covers more than three million square miles.
In many ways Siberia has changed little since Cossack days. But before I boarded the Blagoveshchensk, a visit to the museum near the river station and a glance at the rusted leg irons preserved under glass there had reminded me of the tragedy and grief Ust' Kut witnessed once the era of exploration was over. This was long one of the places where the prison Siberia began. In later czarist decades intractable dissidents were shackled and marched thousands of miles from European Russia to Ust' Kut, where they were herded aboard barges for the journey to Yakutsk, to serve sentences of hard labor in its mines. In Soviet times Stalin built a railroad to Ust' Kut and converted the ostrog into a staging post for the exploitation of Siberia's wealth by gulag prisoners. Many of those who survived stayed on after their release; to understand why, one need only gaze at the taiga in which they toiled, and breathe its spruce-scented air.
I left my rucksack in my cabin, a single-berth room in first class, and went to the bow. The quickening breeze was stirring the Lena's silky blue into pools of rippling silver. White-boled birches covered the hills; along the ridges shaggy spruces and spindly larches stood crooked against the sky. The other passengers left the deck to settle in, and I found myself alone again, listening to the croaks of ravens, the screams of russet hawks, and the steady chop-chop-chop of our paddle wheels.