Esteemed Passengers!

Searching for equanimity in the skies above Siberia

Illustration by Marcellus Hall

Yakutsk, the capital of the Russian Republic of Sakha, in northeastern Siberia, is surrounded by nearly two million square miles of wolf-haunted forest and bear-stalked bog. No proper roads connect the city to the larger world, and the ferries that ply the adjacent Lena River, though providing a scenic and relaxing mode of travel, take seven days to reach the railhead, the settlement of Ust' Kut—when the river isn't frozen and the ferries can run at all. The only practical way into—or, as is more often fervently desired, out of—Yakutsk is by air. Only a few airlines, however, serve the city, the largest of which is Sakha Avia, one of Aeroflot's progeny in the post-Soviet era of privatization and fragmentation. Standards of safety and service on Aeroflot, much improved in recent years, are generally acceptable, but those of its regional offspring vary widely and are of some concern to Russians who have to fly to or from the provinces.

That Sakha Avia was born of Aeroflot was all I knew about it when, at the end of a summertime visit to Yakutsk, I bought a ticket for the six-hour flight back home to Moscow. The talents of the republic's people, the Turkic Yakuts, have historically lain in herding reindeer and trapping sable, which told me little about their potential for operating jet aircraft. But Sakha produces a quarter of the world's diamonds, and this suggested sufficient funds for the maintenance of if not a fleet of luxury 747s then at least a couple of sturdy, well-appointed Il'yushin-62s—the Russian equivalent of French Airbuses. (I later learned that my assumption was misguided: Sakha's diamond industry is rife with corruption and scandal, and the republic is heavily in debt to Moscow.)

So, ready for a more or less comfortable flight, which I hoped to pass engrossed in Charles Dickens's Bleak House, I arrived at Yakutsk Airport and was deposited curbside by a battered taxi. The terminal's façade, with its chipped white-marble walls and grime-streaked windows, presented a modern but prematurely aged and dismal aspect, hinting at shoddy construction and the corrosive ferocity of Sakha's -90° frosts. Inside were a dozen or so kiosks selling Snickers bars and Russian soft-porn magazines, flimsy Chinese underwear and bootleg translations of Tom Clancy. A few dozen Yakuts circulated among them, lugging nylon duffel bags and checkered plastic suitcases as they examined the goods. Their cheekbones were high and flat, their hair jet-black and lustrous.

I searched for an electronic monitor to learn the status of my flight but found none, so I went to the check-in counter. Registration was a breeze, a formality unhindered by seat assignment or the surrender of baggage: the two clerks, heavily made-up women with short frosted hair, whose lively colloquy about new Yugoslav footwear I interrupted, just glanced at my ticket and shoved a general boarding pass at me before returning to their chat. The boarding pass designated no gate, however, so I interrupted them again. One rolled her eyes and snapped, "Oh, please, just go up to the second floor!"

Upstairs I entered a cavernous marble waiting room, which I had more or less to myself, and settled in to wait for the boarding call. Hours later, having heard no announcement, I perceived a rising clamor of voices and a rush of footsteps heading my way. A crowd of chattering Yakuts and saturnine Russians (several of whom were drunk, judging by their red eyes and slurred speech) brandishing suitcases and duffels suddenly appeared at the top of the stairway and spilled into the broad expanse of the waiting room. A plump, blue-uniformed woman holding a walkie-talkie swung open the glass door to Gate 2. She waved at the crowd to make haste, and the trot across the marble steppe turned into a stampede. I walked over to make sure this commotion wasn't somehow related to my flight, but my curiosity was taken as an attempt to jump the queue. Heckled, elbowed, and bounced to the back of the line, I asked an old Russian fellow, who seemed to understand that I had meant no harm, if this was the flight to Moscow. He winked in a friendly Russian gesture of affirmation.

Illustration by Marcellus Hall

Outside, a quarter of a mile down the tarmac, against a tableau of thunderhead and bog, was an old Tupolev-154M jet. Emblazoned with Cyrillic letters, it resembled a tail-heavy steel pterodactyl. Tupolev-154Ms are cramped Soviet-era planes, holding about 150 passengers, that are still sometimes used for short hops around Russia; I hadn't imagined that one would be capable of flying the 3,500 miles to Moscow. The crowd began jogging toward the plane, but the gate attendant let loose a stentorian protest.

"Esteemed passengers! Just where do you think you're going? Get back here! A bus will take you to the plane!" They circled back and sheepishly set down their bags.

The bogs around Yakutsk boast an astonishing variety of insect life, many specimens of which, from gargantuan fleshy mosquitoes to dragonlike beetles, visited us as we waited. The bugs dispersed only when enveloped by the noxious cloud of exhaust emitted by a honking, rattling fuel tanker that raced past. Minutes later an ancient Soviet municipal bus appeared, first following the route of the truck but then turning and bearing down directly upon us, stopping only at the last minute. The bus took us to the foot of a mobile staircase leading up to the aircraft. The passengers, now an anxious mob, were shoving and jostling: all 150 or so were clearly going to try to board the plane simultaneously.

A squall of damp flesh, tearing plastic, and rasping nylon propelled me through the plane's door and into the fuselage, past the empty business-class cabin and on into the economy section. The lack of assigned seats assured a scramble down the aisle, where loose bits of murky-hued carpet snagged shoes and tripped sprinters. Passengers hurled satchels, apples, and small children into the rows to claim their seats, which were upholstered in what appeared to be spare swatches of rug. Before long the ventilation system failed. We sweated, fanned ourselves with our hands, and waited.

Soon our plane pulled out of its parking space and bounced toward the main runway. As we took off, a number of overhead compartments flew open, showering jackets and plastic bags onto the heads of those below. There were many screams, but they derived from exhilaration rather than fear, and mingled with admiring oohs and aahs as we left the earth with engines roaring and wings wobbling. Clearly, many of the passengers had never been in a plane before.

In this nauseatingly close and vaguely terrifying environment I found myself turning for comfort to the russkyi avos' (the "Russian just maybe"), the almost untranslatable catchphrase and saving philosophy of Homo Sovieticus, born of helplessness before God and Stalin, before cruel winters and man-made famine, which posited a chance, just slightly better than even, that the KGB agent shadowing him would not have divined his seditious musings, that the harvest for which he hoped would not fall prey to frost, that the plane in which he was riding would make it one last time—this time. Only by relying on the avos'—by saying to themselves, in effect, "What the hell, things will probably work out after all"—could Russians retain their sanity under circumstances of unmanageable threat and superior adversaries.

Once we had leveled off, a semblance of calm pervaded the plane. I took out Bleak House. London was muddy, Esther angelic, and while I was waiting for the tyrannical beadle to make his appearance, I dozed off.

Four hours later I awoke to more oohs and aahs, to our descent from the azure into the clouds. On the ground we rolled to a stop beneath the bright-blue neon sheremet'yevo airport sign. The early cosmonauts, I had been told, invoked the russkyi avos'. And now so had I.