One of today's most intrepid writers chronicles a deadly trek through the legendary region that gave birth to the gulag and gave Siberia its outsize reputation for perilous isolation.
In a custom-built boat, Jeffrey Tayler travels some 2,400 miles down the Lena River from near Lake Baikal to high above the Arctic Circle, recreating a journey first made by Cossack forces more than three hundred years ago. He is searching for primeval beauty and a respite from the corruption, violence, and self-destructive urges that typify modern Russian culture, but instead he finds the roots of that culture—in Cossack villages unchanged for centuries, in Soviet outposts full of listless drunks, in stark ruins of the gulag, and in grand forests hundreds of miles from the nearest hamlet.
That’s how far Tayler is from help when he realizes that his guide, Vadim, a burly Soviet army veteran embittered by his experiences in Afghanistan, detests all humanity, including Tayler. Yet he needs Vadim’s superb skills if he is to survive a voyage that quickly turns hellish. They must navigate roiling whitewater in howling storms, but they eschew life jackets because, as Vadim explains, the frigid water would kill them before they could swim to shore. Though Tayler has trekked by camel through the Sahara and canoed down the Congo during the revolt against Mobutu, he has never felt so threatened as he does now.
Reviewed by Tom BissellIn his fifth book, Tayler returns to the Siberian hinterlands of Russia, the country where he has lived for the past 11 years and of which he wrote in Siberian Dawn. This time, however, he struggles 2,400 miles up the Lena River in an inflatable raft with his guide (and bane) Vadim, an ill-tempered veteran of the Soviet-Afghan war. Tayler follows the likely route that the Cossacks who embody "the best and worst" of the Russian spirit took in the 16th century, when they annexed much of Siberia for Ivan the Terrible. It was a hard trip then; it is a hard trip now. Tayler, a freakish polyglot who speaks eight languages, is unique among contemporary travel writers. Despite his fondness for death-prowled lands, he rarely complains and never falls prey to self-aggrandizement. The Lena River, however, very nearly undoes him. After a pleasant spell, the temperature drops, bad weather rolls in and soon Tayler is gagging on clouds of mosquitoes and shooing wasplike horseflies all of which is grippingly described. "In more than two decades of travel," he writes, "I had never... hit this nadir of gloom." Along the way, he and Vadim come ashore to find devastated villages, teenagers dancing away in surreal Arctic discotheques, Soviet irredentists flying the hammer and sickle, drunken Russians and aboriginal people, Baptist missionaries, Yakut shamans (one of whom has his own Web site) and, in what is perhaps the book's most moving interlude, some of the last of Siberia's Volga Germans. The many incidental pleasures of this harrowing if sometimes repetitive book are chiefly literary and sociological. Tayler is good at describing the summer Siberian sky ("a glowing canopy of lavender"), and his thoughts on Russian president Vladimir Putin, who is adored by the very people for whom he provides the least, offers the American reader some borscht for thought about the appeal of their own benighted leader. About halfway through, the book catches fire when Tayler's patience ruptures beneath Vadim's shower of abuse. Movingly, Tayler and Vadim neither become friends nor grow to "understand" each other.This is a book about survival, and Tayler's observations are as bracing, and sometimes shocking, as a lungful of Arctic air: "Had any other people on earth," he writes of the Russians, "done so much to destroy itself?" Tayler's Siberia is unremittingly depressing, and the book concludes with little hope for its people or its culture. As a sympathetic but clear-eyed portrait of an unhappy but beautiful land, River of No Reprieve will be a difficult book to surpass. Tom Bissell is the author of Chasing the Sea and God Lives in St. Petersburg. His new book, The Father of All Things, will be published early next year.