River of No Reprieve
Descending Siberia's Waterway of Exile, Death, and Destiny
Houghton Mifflin / 230 pages / $24
Anyone who wants to understand Russia, the great northern empire, might as well go to the Far North to find its essence. Jeffrey Tayler did just that, traveling in a two-man rubber boat almost the entire length of Siberia's Lena River. He began in Ust-Kut in the forests near Lake Baikal at the beginning of summer and finished in mid-August in the tundra town of Tiksi on the shores of the Laptev Sea high above the Arctic Circle. If there was a single big theme he drew out of the experience, it has to do with the destitute, waiting-for-something nature of life in the villages of one of the most remote parts of the world.
Eastern Siberia was settled by Evenks, who were pushed north by Yakuts from Mongolia, who were eventually brought into the Russian orbit by Cossacks, followed by czarist prisoners, followed by Stalin's prisoners, followed by the bonus-collecting builders of communism in the era of Nikita Khrushchev. The bonuses are gone, the money is gone, the jobs are gone. The vodka is still there, and the tumbledown houses, and the limitless forests and bracing air and gigantic mosquitoes.
Tayler hired a man named Vadim Alekseyev to be his guide and shipmate, and the two didn't hit it off. Alekseyev is a recognizable type, the bronzed Russian who is thoroughly competent at living in the wild, disdainful of towns and civilization - Soviet, Russian, American or otherwise. He lectures Tayler on the beauty of the North, is irritated that what Tayler mostly wants to do is talk to people they meet along the way, and is exasperated that Tayler is so unredeemable a foreigner. I had a somewhat similar experience several years ago at an Arctic bird sanctuary on the White Sea; my guide, a ranger of sorts for the sanctuary, treated me with the sort of elaborate courtesy and deference that Russians reserve for foreigners whom they deem to be idiots. I was mightily fed up, then we went out in a small boat fishing, and in the space of a few minutes I landed three cod. After that I was happily accepted as one of the guys. (And yes, it was illegal to fish there, but it was a bird sanctuary, not a cod sanctuary, and anyway it made for a delicious lunch.) I kept wishing, reading this book, that Tayler would catch his cod - literally or figuratively - but he never did. I began to sympathize with Alekseyev.
Tayler is a correspondent for The Atlantic who lives in Moscow with his Russian wife, and in truth many of the conversations he has with people along the way are wonderfully illuminating, sometimes quite funny, and often - well, I would say sobering, but that's not really the right word when so much vodka and beer is going down so many hatches. There is little in the villages to do on a summer evening but drink, so Russians drink, and not for merriment.
Tayler shows he can listen, which is a surprisingly rare and valuable trait in a journalist. But can he write? Siberia is an elemental place - of cedar and birch, of log cabins and tart berries and mushrooms and wood smoke, of shamans and windstorms and bad teeth and rotten livers. It's scratching chickens and mangy dogs and mud at the threshold. It demands an earthy vocabulary, and instead Tayler treats us to descriptive passages that employ words like asthenic, oneiric, delectation, Aeolian and estival, and phrases like "permeated my first moments of wakefulness." Can you imagine sharing a boat with this guy for 2,400 miles?
Nearly at the end of the book, though, he has a great line: "Sometimes we have to see things for ourselves." Every roving correspondent and adventurer lives by that line, or should. I wanted to cheer when I saw it. There are better writers than Tayler, but they haven't traveled from one end of the Lena to the other; until they do, I'll take River of No Reprieve.
Will Englund is the associate editor of The Sun's editorial page and a former Moscow correspondent for the newspaper.