This Side of Ultima Thule

A dispatch from eastern Siberia, a realm of steel-shattering cold, nullifying vastness, and withered hopes, which is sometimes called "the white hell." 

FROM atop the rickety steel bridge over the railroad tracks, I could see Chernyshevsk spread out before me. Pockmarked concrete apartment blocks sat in fields of dun-colored earth studded with rusting fenders, tire rims, and axles. Across the way dark-brown wooden huts brooded behind larch fences, and past the edge of town a barren steppe extended toward Mongolia. From this steppe's most distant reaches came a majestic wind driving clouds of dust that one minute took the shape of galloping dragons, the next disintegrated into rolling swells as on an angry sea, but ever swept over the town and into the twilight emptiness that lay beyond. And yet what was beyond from here? It seemed that I was standing in the outer reaches of beyond -- that Chernyshevsk was lost in it, hunkered down against plangent gales blowing from nowhere to nowhere.

Journey's start: Magadan

Given that it stretches almost halfway around the Northern Hemisphere, it is odd that Siberia should remain so unacknowledged. Even non-Siberian Russians know relatively little about it, though it makes up more than three quarters of their homeland. Dubbed in prison songs bely ad ("the white hell"), Siberia remains for many former Soviets a place of exile, personal knowledge of which they have not cared to acquire. Historically, however, it was once a Klondike of hope, where the fetters of society could be shed and riches hewn out of the frozen taiga.

To gather material for a book, I was traveling from one end of Russia to the other, and thus crossed Siberia -- no mean feat, given that much of its territory has no real roads, no rail lines. By way of zimniki&nbsp-- tracks negotiable by vehicle only when frozen&nbsp-- I trucked my way more than 1,800 miles west and south from Magadan, on Russia's eastern coast, through Kolyma and Yakutia until I hit the town of Tynda. From there I caught the train to Chernyshevsk, a blight of a settlement 180 miles north of Mongolia, six time zones east of Moscow, and as close to nowhere as one can get this side of Ultima Thule.

That evening I wanted to find a truck heading for Chita, renowned for its high radiation and ICBM silos ("All our missiles there were pointed at your homeland!" a Russian woman had informed me with a smile), but a clerk in the train station told me that for this "only Solovyov can help you -- in the morning." I'd have to spend the night in Chernyshevsk.

Rest Stop

I asked the station manager where there was a hotel in town.

"A hotel? You are in Chernyshevsk! Why risk it? You can stay right here on the second floor." I paid him 200 rubles (about fifty cents) and went upstairs to the key lady. Why the grave tone, the urgency?

Everything about Siberia defeats attempts at intimate understanding. No one can come to know or even effectively conceive of its 5.3 million square miles of territory (larger than the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii, by more than a million square miles), inhabited by a mere 25 million people. Little else about Siberia lends itself to handy comparisons. The greatest known temperature variations occur in Verkhoyansk, where Soviet meteorologists have recorded both -90° and 98°. About 400 miles to the southeast lies the coldest inhabited place on the planet&nbsp-- the former Stalinist gulag and mining settlement of Oymyakon, where -95.8° is the official record; under pressure steel shatters like fine French crystal in such gelidity. Elsewhere in Siberia -- in Yakutsk, for example -- January temperatures can average a balmy -58°. Such temperatures would jell the mercury in almost any thermometer sold in the United States. Siberians recognize them by shopot zvyozd, the "whispering of the stars" that occurs when human breath freezes upon exhalation and drops to the ground with a barely audible tinkling -- an ethereal experience.

intruck picture

But Siberia is anything but ethereal. It is perhaps the dreariest, most nullifying place on earth. Stretching from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, from China and the deserts of Central Asia almost to the top of the world, its expanses show little variation across their 4,000 miles east to west or nearly 2,000 miles north to south. Siberia is flat, flat, flat -- with the exception of low hills, called sopki, in its eastern regions, and remote mountains, such as the Suntar Khayata, so far north that few Siberians have ever seen them. Broad rivers -- the Ob', the Irtysh, the Yenisey, and the Lena,  for example -- wend their way across the tundra toward the Arctic Ocean, but by October they freeze over so thickly that they can be used as truckways until spring. There are huge expanses of taiga, and permafrost covers more than half the land, reaching deeper than 4,200 feet into the earth in the north. The few native Siberians (Evenks, Yakuts, Tuvins, Buryats, and Khakases, among others), once disparagingly termed inorodtsy ("those born of another stock") by the Russians, and natsmeny ("national minorities") by the Bolsheviks, have effectively been disenfranchised by their Slavic neighbors-turnedconquerors. The Soviets forced most of them to forsake their traditional nomadic ways for the settled life of reindeer kolkhozes (collective farms)and similar absurdities. Today many simply drink themselves to death on cheap Russian vodka.

In Chernyshevsk, however, not a reindeer or a Khakas was to be seen. An old Russian lady bundled in a sheepskin shuba tottered along the station platform, bleating a ditty about her only ware, a bottle of sour milk. On the dusty street a youth with a bloodied eye lurched about in a funk of booze, surrounded by a circle of taunting urchins who pelted him with stones. Across the lot two drunks, alike in their floppyeared fur hats and trousers stained with crescents of urine, staggered and swayed in odd harmony amid whirlwinds of dust, as if performing a final pas de deux before the onset of a nuclear winter.

"I'D like a room," I said, presenting my chit from the station manager.

"A room?" the key lady rasped, hoisting herself out of her chair. "We have one common room. You'll get a bed!" She snorted and extended her arm. "Around the corner. No key. Go." Around the corner was only a stench and a bathroom door. I walked back to her cubbyhole and told her I couldn't find it. She got up and pointed a bony finger at the bathroom. "I told you, that's it!"

The stench grew stronger as I approached the door. I opened it. On one bed a man lay snoring face down, his arm hanging over the edge of the mattress, his hand clutching a vodka bottle that lay on the floor. There was a puddle of urine next to the wall. On another bed a man lay face up, his eyes wide open and unblinking. He appeared dead. His pants were soiled with urine. On the bed in front of me reclined a burly-shouldered fat man in his fifties with a shaved head and filthy bare feet, the toenails of which had been eaten away by fungus. He was reading a stained newspaper that looked as if it had been rescued from the garbage.

"Zdrasstye! Come on in!" He put down the paper. "Don't mind the boys. They're a little depressed."

I took a deep breath and sidestepped the urine. The stench in the room was rancid, organic.

"We've been out of work for a year. We were gold miners in Yakutsk. Twenty years we worked up there, and we were paid well for it too. But perestroika killed our mine."

Lucre drew Russians into Siberia. In 1581 the Cossack chieftain Yermak Timofeyevich led the first campaigns to break through the khanates left over from the Mongol invasions and bring under Muscovy's control the terrain east of the Urals. Much more than real estate was at stake: Siberia abounded in furs&nbsp-- sable, beaver, polecat, mink, fox, and wolf -- and under late czarist and Soviet rule would prove to be one of the natural-resource treasure chests of the planet, containing vast oil and natural-gas fields, coal reserves, lodes of ferrous and nonferrous metals, gold, diamonds, and timber plots larger than the whole of Europe. This was crucial wealth for a country of limited agricultural potential.

But this bounty lay hidden in a remote and frozen desolation that intimidated even the hardy Russians. Thus it took the Czar's Cossack brigades, composed of freedom-loving outlaws and assorted renegades from civilized society, to build an array of military-mercantile ostrogi, or stockade towns, that would open the region to exploitation, chiefly along the strip that became the route of the Trans-Siberian Railway. At first common criminals served their time at hard labor in the ostrogi, but others, revolutionaries, soon joined them. For the latter, who included the Decembrists, Lenin, and Stalin, Siberia was a prison land only in the vaguest sense of the word: here they simply led rustic lives removed from the mainstream of Russian life. Isolation was their punishment, and it proved conducive to creativity for many writers and thinkers. Some even came to love Siberia and applied their talents to beautifying their abodes of exile; the gentrified architecture of Irkutsk, "The Pearl of Siberia," is largely the product of the Polish elite banished there after failed nationalist revolts against czarist rule in the nineteenth century.

Siberia's image changed during Soviet times. Realizing that the land's riches could make the USSR an industrial and military behemoth, Lenin and particularly Stalin turned Siberia into a domain of diamonds and death, of gold and perdition. Prisoners, known as zeki, who might be non-Bolshevik socialists or well-off peasants or later, during the purges of the 1930s and afterward, virtually anyone -- including entire ethnic groups whom Stalin designated as "enemies of the people" -- were consigned to bone-breaking labor amid its icy wastes, excavating metals, sawing down forests, even mining uranium without protection and dying from their finds. Eventually the expanses that had once meant freedom to at least some Russians came to signify only exile, the mineral bounty of Siberian earth only hard labor. In the infamous gulags of Kolyma, for example, about half the prisoners died, and those who survived were often left with lifelong debilities.

THE fat man wiggled his toes. An ashen light suffused the room. The windows rattled with the wind.

"Don't be afraid!" he said. "You have my word -- I'll personally guarantee your safety. No need even to check your bag. Take that bed by the wall. It's the only free one, actually."

gurgle picture

I sat on the free bed and put down my bag. A gurgling sound emerged from the dead man. His arm began to twitch and jerk; his hand groped for the vodka bottle on the table next to him. He missed, and his arm dropped back to the floor. The fat man queried me with a contrived offhandedness that aroused my suspicion.

"So, what have we got in our bag?" he asked. He pointed at my camera bag and jiggled his eyebrows. At this moment a meaneyed man stumbled in and collapsed on his bed in a stupor. The fat man shouted, "How rude of you, Kolya! We have a guest!" Kolya began to snore.

I got up to leave without thinking, instinctively. The fat man sat up and spread his arms. "Where are you going? Listen, I personally will guarantee your safety. No need even to check your bag!"

Grabbing my luggage, I thanked him and said that I was just on my way out to get a bite to eat.

His eyes widened. "In Chernyshevsk?"

Down in the lobby I approached the left-luggage attendant, a sturdy middle-aged woman who looked sensible in horn-rimmed glasses and a neat blue uniform.

"I've got to go to the hotel."

"You are a nice young man," she said, sighing and removing her glasses. "It's already getting dark. We have very dangerous streets. No one goes outside at such an hour. We are scared even during the day. There are robberies and beatings and worse. I'm from here, but I'll tell you, we have been cursed by God. Chernyshevsk is exile, the end of the road."

Much of the foul history of this land can be traced back to Nikolai Chernyshevsky, the Russian revolutionary author, and his flat socialist propaganda novel What Is to Be Done?, composed in St. Petersburg's Fortress of Peter and Paul during 1862, in which he wrote, "[The socialist society] is bright. It is wonderful. Love it. Strive toward it. Work for it. Bring it nearer. Bring as much as you can from it into our present." For these now-forgotten words the czarist authorities in 1864 sentenced him to hard labor at the Nerchinsk mines and imprisonment in Kadaya, not far from where I was. There revolutionaries, deprived of the inspiring taigas of more northerly Siberia, got to mine coal, zinc, and lead in one of the bleakest environments on the planet, a barren steppe where the wind wailed day and night and inhabitants were thankful for blizzards because they calmed the dust squalls.

I finally got directions and headed out the door into the last traces of twilight. The wind had died down. I wandered about among refuse heaps, each with its growling canine sentinel, and between abandoned hovels, avoiding the eyes of the drunks and the rock-toting youths huddled in doorways.

Eventually I came upon a square brick structure some four stories high. I walked over to it and then around it, but could find no door. On the second floor, though, a dim light burned; above it I made out a sign hanging sideways: HOTEL NORTH. A huge plank of plywood lay against the building's entrance. I pushed it aside. At first I could make out nothing inside, but as I stared, my eyes grew accustomed to the dark. Against the back wall three cigarettes glowed orange. There was a cough.

"Is this the hotel?" I asked.

A low voice grumbled that it was. To the left emanated a faint light from a stairway. Unable to see the floor, I stepped inside and onto a shard of glass. The cigarettes alternately glowed and dimmed. My next step landed on someone's wrist and provoked an angry moan of pain. I made it to the stairway through the stench of urine, stepping over bodies and bottles, ascended, and emerged on the second floor.

yakutsk picture

The administrator, a thin woman in her fifties who was holding her oversized head in her hands like a pale hairy gourd, started at my voice.

"No single rooms," she rasped, clearing her throat. "Only beds in a common room."

"I'll take a whole room. I'll pay for all the places."

The room she showed me was shadowy and ridden with drafts. A window at the far end looked out into a gloom subtly textured with the dark outlines of izbas (wood huts) and the looming vastness of the steppe beyond.

"Where's the light?" I asked her.

"Here," she said, drawing a bulb from her apron. "Plug it in where you like. Either over the sink or by your bed. And just take blankets from the other beds. Our heating is broken. And we don't have a bathroom. The uncultured men we get staying here just use the window as a toilet. I ask you to please use the street!" She said good night and closed the door. I piled all the blankets I could find onto my bed, slid under them dressed as I was, and fell asleep.

Later that night drunken cries that resolved themselves into a malevolent chanting, aggressive and wordless, resonated like a horrific martial hymn. They grew nearer, fully awakening me, and stopped, stifled in asphyxiated gags. There followed a scream and more screams, a frantic scuffling of boots on gravel, and a smashing of glass. Silence.

Silence. Weeks in unheated cattle cars, forced labor, and malnutrition broke the health of millions whom Stalin delivered into this boreal hell, but it was the senseless suspicion and climate of treachery inspired by Soviet ideology that shattered their spirits and left only cynicism and mute despair in their stead. This affected all Soviet citizens, prisoners or not, Siberians or not, but in Siberia it was particularly bad. From 1929 to 1953 Stalin transformed Russia into the Soviet Union largely through the labor-camp system of Siberia and the fear it generated in his subject population. Speaking out became pointless suicide; language devolved too often into a series of besotted grunts. For many the only remaining escape from the lie of sovietism was descent into an alcoholic stupor, wordless and sullen, repeated over and over again until the cognitive functions withered, the liver gave out, and death arrived as a relief.

In Chernyshevsk this perdition was still everywhere in evidence: spider veins reticulated even young noses; the stench of stale urine lingered after men passed by; peregar (the scent of alcohol on human breath -- perhaps only Russian has a word for this) crept up on me when I found myself in proximity to others.

SNOW fell during the night. The early-morning sun shone feebly through tattered clouds, dabbing the steppes with tints of pale blue and frail yellow. I asked a woman on the street to direct me to Mr. Solovyov's address.

"Mr. Solovyov? You are going to see Mr. Solovyov?" She seemed amazed -- even intimidated -- and directed me to a squat, unfinishedlooking concrete structure around the corner. CHERNYSHEVSK REGION -- SOVIET OF PEOPLE'S DEPUTIES read the red-and-gold sign hanging by the entranceway. I walked in.

"You are going to see Mr. Solovyov?" the old doorman said, his lower lip dangling in dumbfounded trepidation. "Please, follow me!" He led me up two flights of stairs, down corridors and around corners, shuffling with an urgency I could not understand, and stopped in front of a doorway. "This is Mr. Solovyov's vicedeputy," he muttered into his armpit, and he hurried away.

A woman in a gray suit emerged from the office. I explained who I was and that I had been told to see Mr. Solovyov about a ride to Chita. She smiled diffidently and asked me to follow her.

CHAIRMAN OF THE SOVIET OF PEOPLE'S DEPUTIES -- V. A. SOLOVYOV read the doorplate of the chamber she led me into. I recoiled almost instinctively, realizing that Solovyov was no mere functionary in some regional government. He was its head, the chief of the soviet -- the governor, in a word. In the old days such figures did little more than enforce Bolshevik rule in concert with the KGB; at the time of my trip they were biding their time until the Communists returned to power.

Across a sea of red carpet in a cavernous whitewalled chamber, Chairman Solovyov sat under a fierceeyed portrait of Lenin that reached to the ceiling, bellowing orders into one of the four phones on his desk, paying us no attention as we approached him. Sturdy of build, with a shock of dark hair, he looked to be about fifty. When he finished with his phone call, his vice-deputy, with a self-effacing hunch to her shoulders and a meek grin, explained that I was an American just passing through Chernyshevsk, seeking a ride to Chita and hoping for Chairman Solovyov's most gracious assistance, and could he possibly see fit to do something to help? She seemed to sink into his carpet as she spoke, growing smaller in stature to mute the veracity of her words, undermining her credibility and mine.

When she ran out of things to say about me, she bowed and scurried out. He raised his brows in silent suspicion and his eyes landed on my face like a two-byfour. I could think of nothing to say except that I hoped I was not disturbing him, that perhaps this was too trivial a matter for a Soviet chairman.

He interrupted. "Excuse me -- do you have any documents that prove you are who you claim to be?"

I pulled my passport from my shirt pocket. He took it and reached for the phone. "Viktor, in front of me is a comrade -- or rather not a comrade:that is, a man claiming to be an American -- who claims to be here trying to get a ride to Chita, where he claims to be going. Step in here at once."

He turned to me. "I have asked the Chernyshevsk chief of internal affairs to verify your story. You claim to be an American. Do you speak English? Why do you speak Russian?"

While I explained, his eyebrows remained elevated in suspicion -- a rank and growing suspicion, I could see.

The door flew open. In marched two uniformed militia officers with a small, steelyeyed man, who appeared to be a Buryat, in plain clothes. "Documents!" the small man commanded.

Solovyov handed him my passport.

"You claim to be an American. What is this?" demanded the internal-affairs chief, holding my passport in front of me.

"An American passport."

beyond picture

He put the passport down slowly, not taking his eyes off me, and then began scrutinizing it, while the militiamen pulled my visa free of the paper clip holding it to the cover. Solovyov stared at me with his hands clasped, his face assuming the contours of Lenin's face above his head.

Much may have changed in Moscow and European Russia since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, in 1991, but the Asian hinterland remains the domain of xenophobic bureaucrats in whom the presence of a foreigner provokes doubt and bewilderment, even alarm. Local officials reason that their dreary demesnes would never attract a "normal" tourist from abroad. While Muscovites were at work tearing down their Lenin statues, citizens of the outback&nbsp-- which is everywhere but the capital and St. Petersburg&nbsp-- were busy fortifying theirs. On the central square of every town and city I passed through along my 8,325-mile route across the former USSR, Lenin stood vigilant in bronze, right arm outstretched toward the bright socialist future that Chernyshevsky had been exiled to Siberia for promoting -- and that the collapse of the USSR was supposed to have repudiated.

Solovyov sat as heavy as a mountain behind his oak desk, his eyes leveled at mine as though I might slip at any moment and reveal the "true" reason I had come to Chernyshevsk. The internal-affairs chief began questioning me about an Egyptian visa in my passport. The militiamen interrogated me about the time of my arrival, whom I had met in town, and the purpose of my trip. After twenty minutes or so of this, Solovyov cleared his throat and they shut up immediately.

"Enough! Mr. Tayler, I am a Communist. Before the recent changes we had no foreigners here in Chernyshevsk. And we have none now. There is anarchy in Moscow, and control is looser than it was. Foreigners do not come to Russia for vacation; they come with certain motives. It is entirely possible that these motives are inimical to the security and well-being of my citizens. You must understand. It is my duty to protect them from such subversive elements."

"I am not an element. I'm just trying to get to Chita."

"You must understand that our investigation is called for under the circumstances." He turned to the chief. "Viktor, it has gone far enough."

The chief, somewhat deflated, handed me my passport. I was relieved but sat still, afraid that I might somehow provoke Solovyov into continuing the interrogation. After a moment of silence I asked if I could use the bathroom. Solovyov accompanied me to the back lot, where a proud-looking old man with a war medal on the lapel of his gray suit stood waiting for me with toilet paper at the ready. The only facility the soviet had was an outhouse, and the pensioner was its attendant.

When I emerged, Solovyov put his hand on my shoulder. "I have taken the liberty of calling a little meeting of my staff," he said flatly.

Back in his office some thirty former Soviet apparatchiks and functionaries sat around the wall, buzzing and twiddling their pens. We entered, and Solovyov directed me to a seat behind a long table. He took a place next to me and cleared his throat. "Ladies and gentlemen, the first American to visit Chernyshevsk!"

There was a subdued round of applause from amid the pale faces and beehive hairdos and flesh-colored leggings. I bowed.

Solovyov's face was stony, his voice level. "Mr. Tayler will be so kind as to answer a few questions you may have. You can think of the topics yourselves: workers and their rights, issues the simple American struggles with every day, even how much Santa Barbara reflects real life."

"Are you married?" a middleaged woman asked.

"How does your family feel about your traveling to Russia? Are they worried?" asked another.

"Why are you not married? Can you not support a family?"

"What is your income?"

One man in a dark suit, privileged to sit at the end of Solovyov's table, leaned forward intently. "Tell us about your pornography."

A woman exclaimed, "Leave it to the men to ask such questions!" and everyone laughed.

Solovyov silenced the gathering by clearing his throat, and then spoke in an oracular baritone. His people were suffering, he said; Russia's status abroad diminished by the day, production in Chernyshevsk had fallen by 40 percent this year, and the foreign goods that reached his town were shoddy wares of Chinese and Korean provenance. How could I possibly support the reforms? When I began to say that I thought they could have been better planned, he thundered back at me, "Aha! So even you, a capitalist, use the word 'planned'!"

At ten-thirty Solovyov ended the meeting with a sharp clap of his hands and leveled his eyes at the crowd, which fell silent and filed out instantaneously. After that he turned to me and said, "You will be leaving now." The two militiamen marched in from the outer office and took up positions on either side of me.

"Stand up!" Solovyov said. Was I under arrest? What for? He turned away and walked back to his desk. The militiamen led me out the door and down the halls. Heads peered round doorjambs at me, as though I were an apprehended felon. We emerged into the empty lot in front of the building, and a blue-and-white militia car drove up. Snow was dusting the frozen earth, and leaden clouds unfolded over the steppe. One of the officers opened a door for me, and I got in.

"My orders are to take you to the city limits and place you in the first car heading for Chita," he said tersely as we pulled away from the soviet. We trundled down the deserted tracks of Chernyshevsk and picked up the dirt road leading out of town.

IF I was the first American to visit Chernyshevsk, the dynamics of my encounter with Solovyov and his staff were as old as Russia itself, and as indicative of the painfully ambivalent relationship to the West that affects it to this day, even after five years of reform. The Soviet boss took pride in being able to present me to his subordinates, and they brimmed with curiosity about a remote and glittery world of which I was the only genuine example they had ever seen. But he directed this assembly in a way that made it impossible for me to overstep its bounds and enter into the normal human contact that would have resulted without his stewardship. As Westerners were largely segregated under Peter the Great (who invited them to Russia, admired them, and in a brutish but determined way modeled his reforms on their habits), so in the Siberian outback I was often held apart by officials, for as long as I was there, whenever my identity became known. And I was to be put "in the first car heading for Chita." A courtesy? Or a sure way of ridding the town of a "subversive element"?

My officer was grim and silent as he drove. When I commented on the empty prostory (expanses) stretching away toward every horizon, he said, "Prostory. That's all we have. In America you would have done something with this land, built farms and cities and Disneylands on it. But we have done nothing with it. All we have is prostory. It's such a waste."

We had to go a third of the way to Chita before we found a jeep with a pair of geologists in it; they accepted me and I got in. They asked me no questions, spoke not a word to me, though being commanded by a militiaman to haul an American 120 miles to an ICBM site once strictly off limits to foreigners could hardly be an everyday event. I didn't take it personally: I had grown used to feeling irrelevant in the face of the hydra-headed problems with which Russia was wrestling unsuccessfully. The geologists, in turn, seemed irrelevant on this vast plateau under equally vast and threatening skies. No one, nothing, seemed to matter out here.

Throughout my journey the poverty of Siberia's steppes, the monotony of its endless open spaces, the meandering courses of its great rivers, even the umbral folds of its birch and larch forests, often drew me and Russians at my side first into drowsiness, then into reflection, and finally into debates on Russia's past, its grandeur, its future, what must be. Ideas and a passion for discourse filled those prostory, and my Russian travelmates usually proved to be great talkers, well read, and fervently concerned with achieving a justice greater than the flawed temporal one existing around them. But this was talk, not action -- and, at that, talk amid a debased reality that, if there were to be Russia-wide revival, demanded action.

In Chernyshevsk, as elsewhere in Siberia, the past hobbles the present, partly because there is no way to distinguish the two. Although the nomenklatura system of Party days disappeared in the rubble when the USSR collapsed, its former appointees make up an oldboy Red club, and men like Solovyov remain in power throughout the land, with a few notable exceptions. Their domains are hellholes, but they consider them their hellholes, reforms or no, and who would dare dispute them? When Yeltsin could have swept the nomenklatura out of office, in 1991, he did not. In the provinces those who had effectively presided over the ruin of the country were left to direct its "reformation," with predictable results.

Still, all around me in eastern Siberia, I could see one effect of the breakup of the police state: without the KGB's whiplash of fear to goad people to even minimal exertion, people weren't working and things were falling apart.

The snow thinned away. The geologists and I trundled across terrain so desolate that it nurtured not a blade of healthy grass. Above us spread ridged clouds of iron threatening some unnameable cataclysm, and the villages we passed, all weathered wooden shacks and decrepit cattle sties, seemed to huddle and cower on the denuded earth. This was hell on earth, I thought -- hell. Or maybe not. It might better be called limbo, the outermost circle of the inferno, the abode of the lorn and the lost.

Photographs by Jeffrey Tayler

The Atlantic Monthly; April 1997; This SIde of Ultima Thule; Volume 279, No. 4; pages 24-41.