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Russia's Other World
Jeffrey Tayler talks about his new book, Siberian Dawn, which tells the story of his 8,000-mile odyssey through lands rarely visited

March 10, 1999

Siberian Dawn Regular readers of The Atlantic may remember Jeffrey Tayler's 1997 article "This Side of Ultima Thule" -- a vivid account of time spent in the bleak Siberian town of Chernyshevsk. The episodes described in that article were part of an overland journey that Tayler made, in 1993, across the entire length of Russia; they now form a chapter of his first book, Siberian Dawn, which is a chronicle of that whole journey. Tayler began his trip in Magadan, on Russia's east coast, with $900 in his pocket; some 8,000 miles later, after braving snowstorms, truck rides on frozen rivers, and various friendly and not-so-friendly overtures from the Siberians he met along the way, he arrived in Poland. The book is a portrait of a part of the globe that has been very little seen by Western -- and even Russian -- eyes.
Previously in Books & Authors:

Islam Rising (February 1999)
A conversation with Mary Anne Weaver, the seasoned foreign correspondent whose new book, A Portrait of Egypt: A Journey Through the World of Militant Islam, shows that there is much more to Islamic activism than guns and bombs.

Portrait of the Artist as a Social Satirist (February 1999)
Bret Easton Ellis -- whose latest book, Glamorama, has predictably stirred up critics -- talks with Harvey Blume about the line between life and art.

Will We Survive? (January 1999)
Our environmental future looks bleak. What can we do about it? Mark Hertsgaard, author of Earth Odyssey, traveled around the world in search of answers.

The Animal Point of View (December 1998)
Stephen Budiansky, the author of If a Lion Could Talk, says that in order to truly understand animal intelligence, we need to move beyond our sentimental fascination with elephants that "weep" and gorillas that "save children."

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Tayler is a regular contributor to The Atlantic Monthly and to Atlantic Unbound. He is currently at work on a book about his travels along the Congo River, a portion of which, "Vessel of Last Resort," appeared in The Atlantic in 1996. He makes his living as a freelance writer and traveler, and is based in Moscow.

Tayler recently corresponded by e-mail with Atlantic Unbound's Toby Lester.

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Jeffrey Tayler   

What prompted you to make this trip?

Ever since I was a teenager the very word "Russia" has conjured up for me a bourn snowbound and vast, Byzantine and remote -- a wintry other world. I traveled around the western Soviet Union in 1985, but the eastern regions -- the realms of gulags and gold mines and Siberian wilderness -- remained mysterious and intriguing to me.

A song by Vladimir Vysotsky prompted me to choose Magadan in the Russian Far East as a starting point. The former gulag capital of the Soviet Union, Magadan is so remote that people there refer to the rest of Russia as "the continent" -- as if they were stranded on an island. Magadan functioned as a sort of predeterminant for me: the only way out was west across Siberia. Getting to Europe from there meant crossing all of Russia and the Ukraine.

Can you talk briefly about Siberia's physical nature?

Siberia is composed of six and a half million square miles of territory -- almost a million square miles more than the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii. It stretches east from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, and south from the Arctic Circle to China, Mongolia, and the Central Asian Republics. Aside from the Pacific and Arctic Oceans, Siberia has no natural borders -- it is simply a plateau of forest and tundra, steppe and bog, with a few minor mountain ranges.

Out of Russia's hundred and forty-seven million people, a mere twenty-five million live in Siberia -- and with good reason. The greatest temperature variations in the world occur there. In Verkhoyansk, for example, temperatures of -90° Fahrenheit and +98° have been recorded. The coldest inhabited place on the planet is Oymyakon -- a former gulag and currently a dwindling mining settlement -- where 95.8° below zero is the official record. Steel shatters like fine French crystal in such cold, and human breath freezes, crystallizes, and falls to the ground with the softest of tinkles.

Siberian Dawn is full of wonderful anecdotal accounts of the people -- both Russians and ethnic minorities -- that you met during your trip. To what extent can all of these people be considered "Russian"?

What do you mean by "Russian?" Vodka-drinking Ivans in fur hats stamping out lively dances with their arms folded? Orthodox Christian, Slavic-blooded inhabitants of Russia who speak Russian as a native language -- ethnic Russians, in other words? Or native speakers of Russian who happen to be Evenks or Yakuts or Nentsy or Jews?

" 'If I may ask, [Sergei said,] what drives an American from the comforts of the U.S. to Magadan? This doesn't seem normal to me.' " Read an excerpt from Siberian Dawn.

It is almost impossible to say what "Russian" means without getting more semantically specific. "Russian" in English can mean either of two words in Russian -- and they are not at all interchangeable. One, Russky, means ethnic Russians who speak Russian and who are likely to be orthodox Christian. The other word, Rossiyanin, means "citizen of Russia," be that Buryat or Tatar, Russian or Ukrainian or Evenk. All these citizens carry internal passports marked with their natsional'nost, which here doesn't mean country of origin, but rather ethnic background -- a legacy of the Stalinist era.

There's another problem: Russia as a state ceased existing soon after the Bolshevik coup, and returned only eight years ago. It's worth remembering that the Soviet Union that replaced it was a multi-ethnic state.

All people in the Soviet Union were Sovietized, but this doesn't mean Russified. It means forced into collective farms, forced to spout Marxist-Leninist dogma in Russian, forced to read a host of writers who wrote odes to hammers and hymns to sickles, who sanctified the murder of millions in fourth-rate "epics" about class struggle. They were also forced to read a certain number of nonethnic Russian authors cultivated as examples of minority-people prosperity in the Socialist Paradise.

During the Soviet era, anyone of any ethnic background who did the dirty deeds demanded of them to get ahead was rewarded with a crummy but better-than-average apartment, a steady supply of cheap sausage and low-grade vodka, and a host of other plebeian amenities too dull to talk about here. Certain peoples, to be sure, were suspect and hounded mercilessly -- Ukrainians, for example, and often Jews -- but on the whole the Soviet precept regarding national culture prevailed: nationalist in form, socialist in content. In other words, speak your local languages, but use them to sing ever more sonorously your joy at living in the Socialist Paradise. If you don't, be you Evenk or Udmurt, Russian or Khakasian, pack your bag for Siberia.

That said (and that was a mouthful, I know), it is probably safe to assert that a "typical" Russian might be Orthodox Christian in heritage, an atheist or confirmed agnostic in practice, have dashes or dollops of Tatar, Armenian, or Ukrainian blood, speak Russian as a first language, and -- definitely, most importantly -- carry the mark of "Russian" under the heading natsional'nost in his passport. Such a broad definition probably fits the majority of Siberians.

"He whipped his shirt over his head and began snatching at snow and smearing it over his sallow chest, under his arms, onto his face, into his hair." Read an excerpt from Siberian Dawn.

I don't think a certain type of person can be said to inhabit Siberia, but certain factors have precipitated the arrival there en masse of all sorts of Russian and Soviet citizens -- namely, imprisonment, exile, and Soviet schemes to exploit the resources of the region.

What preconceived notions do non-Siberian Russians have about the region? Does Siberia have a place in the Russian psyche the way the American West does in the U.S. psyche?

Siberia's prison past has shaped many non-Siberian Russians' notions about the place, and these notions belie comparisons with the American West. (Unlike the Wild West, which is long gone, Siberia is a place with which millions of Russians alive today have or have had direct experience.) Since its conquests by Cossacks in the sixteenth century, Siberia has been a land of internal exile and stockade towns. However, in Czarist days, for many of the intelligentsia imprisoned in Siberia, imprisonment there brought with it a degree of freedom not easily obtained in European Russia -- in Siberia they had time to write and congregate with other exiles, they rusticated among fir forests and birch groves, they strolled in the taiga and tiny villages whose beauty no one would deny.

Lenin and Stalin turned Siberian exile into a less contemplative experience. Both were exiled and developed as revolutionaries there, and they knew better than to allow further tomfoolery of this sort. Rock-breaking, uranium-mining, and starvation diets became the rule. Most of the other Russians who were not Cossacks and prisoners went there to earn a living; for the hardy, there was money to be made in furs and gold. In Soviet days the region suffered from labor shortages, so wages were high. But I wouldn't call it a Klondike, or use other hearty New World analogies, unless you're prepared to envision a Klondike with Agitprop and apparatchiks, gulag guards and Komsomol.

What would you say were the highlights of your time in Siberia? What about the low points?

The highlights were golden moments interspersed throughout grueling iron-gray months: the lingering violet dusks of Kolyma, the feeling of deliverance upon arriving in Irkutsk, ethereal noons on Lake Baikal. In some places, the very monotony of the steppes or forests gave the land a somnolent quality befitting a dreamscape. As far as people are concerned, I will never forget the softly tragic charm of a woman named Galina, or the courage of the two men, Sasha and Sergei, who drove me for six days across the frozen rivers of Kolyma.

The low points? Often I had the sense I would never arrive, that I was moving deeper and deeper into a sea with no shore, a night with no dawn. Any time I boarded a train I knew I was in for a twenty-four-hour ride. That rarely felt good. But as I progressed I split away from my distress, seeing that I would survive, that people were helping me, at least at times. That's the same fatalism adhered to by Siberians -- a fatalism born of vast distances, implacable climate, and poor governance.

What do you think is in store for Siberia in the coming century?

With so much of the political and economic life of the country underground and thus unknowable, it's only possible to predict with certainty more stormy unpredictability and further less-than-sunny surprises. In Russia, the only optimists are the insane or the dangerously naive or the swindlers -- not the kinds of people you would want to share your borsht with.

I don't believe the republics or regions in Siberia will ever declare de jure independence, though many now enjoy a de facto independence that is deleterious to Russia on the whole. They pass laws that contradict the Russian constitution and forbid the export of food to other parts of Russia, for example. But this is a reaction to misrule from Moscow; it doesn't derive from substantial separatist convictions. Though Siberians often refer to themselves first as Siberians then as Russians, and the place they live as Siberia and only afterwards as Russia, they are level-headed enough to know that secession would be absurd. The issue basically exists in the Western press for headlines' sake, but not on the ground in Siberia.

" 'It's peaceful here in eastern Siberia, that's true [the fat fellow said]. And you can make money. Ooooh! So much money!' " Read an excerpt from Siberian Dawn.

Siberia's problems are Russia's problems; the two cannot go their own ways. In both places history never really arrives: there's just chaos without foreseeable end. But this doesn't mean Armageddon. Russians are used to chaos, and as long as there's no war, they may simply accept it, feeling that things could be worse.

What would you say you learned from this trip?

A bedbug is a bedbug, and a leaky faucet is a leaky faucet, whether in your own apartment or in a Siberian hostel -- that's what I've learned. There is nothing artistically meritorious or spiritually purgatorial about substandard accommodations. The point is to write about something that inspires you, and for that you need an interest in the subject that transcends the inconveniences suffered in its pursuit. In the case of the trip I made for Siberian Dawn, my fascination with Russia eclipsed the ranting drunks, Arctic blizzards, and swarms of midges that popped up along the way.

What's next on your agenda?

These days I'm writing a book about the time I spent on the Congo River a couple of years ago. So despite the snow, ice, and frost-crested crows cawing outside my Moscow window, I am now somewhere between Bumba and Mbandaka, paddling a pirogue and keeping a sharp eye out for crocodiles.

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Toby Lester is the executive editor of Atlantic Unbound.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.