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Siberian Dawn
by Jeffrey Tayler


From Chapter Two

Siberian Dawn "This is a first for us -- we've never had an American here at Indigir-Zoloto. In fact, we've never had any foreigners here at all."

Sergei Vasilyevich was young, blondish, and sturdily built. To his right, a large map spread the Magadan Oblast over the wall. It was massive and starkly empty of human habitation, and stretched almost to Alaska.

"You must know that life for our drivers has become almost unbearably difficult, but they are tough guys," Sergei said. "All our roadside rest houses where they could spend the night and eat have closed since Moscow decided it would no longer keep funding our gold and coal mines. So people are abandoning the settlements -- you know they were set up first as gulags during the twenties and thirties -- and things have become unstable. We all are worried about our future. So, are you ready for all this? If I may ask, what drives an American from the comforts of the U.S. to Magadan? This doesn't seem normal to me. And frankly, I wonder if an American can handle the toughness of it. You are used to luxury."

"No, actually, I'm not."

"Well, I watch Santa Barbara. I see the way you live and the mentality that goes with it. But if you're ready, you're ready. I'll call in Sasha, your driver."

Sasha was a Tatar in his late twenties, of sinewy build with high Asiatic cheekbones and smiling eyes. His mustache ends drooped like walrus tusks, and they, along with his cheeks, gave him a Genghis Khan visage. When we shook hands, I thought he might burst out laughing.

"You are American? And you think our life here is interesting? I don't know," he said. "I suppose everyone is allowed his quirks."
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The high salaries paid in Kolyma had drawn Sasha from his native city of Ufa, in the Ural Mountains, to Magadan some ten years ago. He neither understood nor accepted any motivation other than financial for living in Magadan. He did not dramatize the North or romanticize it -- he knew what he needed to know to survive and concerned himself with little else.

We said good-bye to Sergei Vasilyevich and went out into the lot and over to the shining military-green Kamaz trucks ("made by Tatars in Tatarstan," Sasha said), and met his naparnik, or work partner, Sergei, a lanky Russian of similar age. Sergei wore a floppy-eared fur hat and picked at his mustache with thick, callused fingers. I stood with them as they discussed their load (beer and wine bottle conveyers for a plant in Yakutsk) and details of repairs that they had made to ready their trucks for this run, and my mind wandered as I looked out over the expanse of sopki that spread to infinity from Magadan's scraggly edge. Gusts of wind picked up snow and drove it onward into the folds and valleys between the sopki. Desolate. Forlorn. Only these words came to mind -- the vista of emptiness ahead drove a stake of fear into my heart.

In the truck lot, the wind did little more than stir dust into our eyes and make us wince. We all shook hands and jumped aboard, I with Sasha, Sergei alone.

The Kamaz was clumsy in town, oversized for the ruts Magadan had for streets. It seemed we might crack the pavement, squash a Zhiguli, or run down a pedestrian, so bulky was the truck. After Sasha picked up his map, he opened the throttle on the road leading to the route. Only when we passed the city limit sign did I realize we were alone.

"Sergei will be waiting for us at the edge of town. We've been naparniki for years now. That's how we work. We never leave Kolyma without each other. A driver needs a reliable naparnik with a good head to survive here. There's no one else but your naparnik who can help you make a repair, give you spare food, or a warm cabin when your heater breaks down. We owe our lives to each other many times over."

We rumbled past the shacks and junk-strewn yards of Magadan's outer reaches out onto the route. Sergei was waiting as planned, and we took off in the lead. No sooner had we cleared the shacks than it seemed as though Magadan had never existed, so insignificant was it amidst the desolate expanses of the North.

"People mean nothing out here, nothing," said Sasha. "Kolyma gives you only one chance. I think in America, you can regulate everything. Not here. It's a man's world, Kolyma. There's no reason to be here if you're not a gold prospector or coal miner. Are these women's jobs? The few people who lived here before the Russians came were Chukchis, and they bred reindeer. The name Magadan means 'hut' in their language. That's all Magadan was meant to be -- some Chukchi huts in the middle of nowhere. It's not a place for a woman."

Sasha had learned a lot about Kolyma. As we drove along, he would point out various settlements and give brief histories. Waving toward strange lumps on the ground, he told me, "That mound there is what's left after they dig for gold and displace earth. A mess, isn't it? They've ruined nature up here." They certainly had: huge, barren, snow-covered mounds popped up everywhere along river beds, disrupting the steady rolls of the sopki. Only occasionally would we see a derelict draga (a bulky, mobile gold-mining steamer that drags the river bottom and sifts it for gold) collapsing under its own weight; more often we came on the remains of miners' cabins buckling under heavy snows with their windows knocked out, like skulls with empty eye sockets. Kolyma's prisoners had disappeared and its mines withered, leaving it a skeleton abandoned to the Arctic wastes.


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Reproduced by permission of Hungry Mind Press, St. Paul, Minnesota. From Siberian Dawn, by Jeffrey Tayler, pp. 29-32. Copyright © 1999 by Jeffrey Tayler. All rights reserved.
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