River of No Reprieve: Descending Siberia's Waterway of Exile, Death, and Destiny [NOOK Book]

Overview

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...
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River of No Reprieve: Descending Siberia's Waterway of Exile, Death, and Destiny

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Overview

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.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In 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. (July 11) 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. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Siberia today comprises many small, poor villages that grew out of the trade routes and exile and resettlement policies of various Soviet regimes. Tayler (Angry Wind; Siberian Dawn), who has lived in Moscow for the last decade, visited many of these villages on his 2004 trip down the Lena River. Traveling more than 2400 miles from southern Siberia to the Arctic Ocean in a small boat, Tayler has only his Russian guide, Vadim-a Soviet army veteran, survivalist, and "tragic figure"-as companion. The beginning of their trip offers good weather and many opportunities to meet the locals, whom Tayler depicts as isolated, resilient victims of alcoholism. Farther north, Tayler and Vadim encounter gale-force winds, cold weather, and people more reserved and wary of outsiders. This engaging travel narrative mixes history with the author's personal desire to understand the region and its people; indeed, its strength lies in Tayler's interactions with the people and in his depiction of the flavor of rural Siberian life. Recommended for armchair travel collections.-Sheila Kasperek, Mansfield Univ. Lib., PA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
After 11 years in Moscow, American journalist Tayler took a river trip through Russia's Siberian hinterlands, encountering a punishing climate and plentiful nostalgia for the communist past. In the early 17th century, Tayler (Angry Wind, 2005, etc.) writes, the Cossacks sailed the Lena River from Lake Baikal to the Artic Circle, annexing the land for the tsar as they went. Since then, the settlements they established have been Russian outposts: home to exiles, ethnic minorities and pioneers who sought to build the Soviet state. Tayler set out to recreate the Cossacks' voyage in the summer of 2004, traveling 2,400 miles of the river north in a raft. He was inspired, he explains, by a desire to escape the confines of Moscow and to try to understand the people who are President Vladimir Putin's most stalwart supporters. The trip was punishing. Mosquitos and other pests abounded. Storms whipped up huge waves that threatened to capsize the raft. The guide, a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, made it clear from the beginning that he preferred the company of Siberia's beautiful and barren landscape to that of his employer. Tayler, on the other hand, was interested in people, and he vividly sketches his sojourns into the remote river communities. Drunken, hopeless teens danced in shacks; drunken, hopeless adults bemoaned the end of communism; Tayler heard stories of underground nuclear blasts and resulting cancers; he saw villages abandoned and left to decay. Most of the people he met voiced enthusiasm for the Soviet days, glossing over Stalin's death camps to remember the monetary support and sense of mission they had under communism. Their enthusiasm for Putin reflected their desire fora return to this idealized past. An evocative glimpse of an isolated, seldom visited part of Russia, though its depiction of volatile drunks in a bleak landscape does no favors for the Siberian tourist industry.
From the Publisher
"This is a fiercely evocative account of an astonishing journey, wrenched out of near-disaster."—Colin Thubron, author of In Siberia and The Lost Heart of Asia

"Tayler . . . is unique among contemporary travel writers . . . bracing . . . River of No Reprieve will be a difficult book to surpass." Publishers Weekly

"Thanks to Tayler's keen powers of observation, readers will relish this trip of high adventure." Booklist, ALA

"This engaging travel narrative mixes history with the author's personal desire to understand the region and its people." Library Journal

"An evocative glimpse of an isolated, seldom visited part of Russia." Kirkus Reviews

"Reading this exciting, engaging book gave me an adrenaline rush."—Spencer Rumsey Newsday

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780544277298
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 8/7/2013
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 148,845
  • File size: 792 KB

Meet the Author

JEFFREY TAYLER is a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and a contributor to Cond� Nast Traveler, Harper's Magazine, and National Geographic. He is the author of many critically acclaimed books, including Facing the Congo, Angry Wind, and River of No Reprieve.
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Read an Excerpt

1 The plane was half empty, the air inside muggy and rank, redolent of sweat and latrines. A couple of hours into the all-night flight from Moscow to Bratsk, where I hoped to find a car or truck to take me three hundred miles northeast through the taiga to Ust’-Kut, I wiped away the condensation and peered groggily through the porthole. Below the jetliner, a Soviet-era TU-154 seating some eighty passengers, a darkly verdant carpet of forest laced with silver- gray rivers — Siberia — swept away toward the horizon under a pale sky — midnight on the twentieth of June.
Always an expedition’s first hours hit me the hardest, leaving me the nonplussed victim of my own wanderlust and obsessions. My distress began at Domodedovo Airport, in southeastern Moscow, earlier that hot, humid evening. Jostled by red-faced travelers dragging checkered vinyl sacks and plastic-wrapped suitcases for flights to Siberia, I had stood on the dusty linoleum with my wife near security control. Her eyes watering and wide open, she pressed her trembling cheeks to mine. We had been rushed on departure from our apartment and had not managed to sit for a few moments of silence, hands clasped and eyes locked, as Russian custom required for good luck on such a journey. Being Russian, and knowing her country, Tatyana distrusted everything Russian. I knew her fears. She felt she might be touching me for the last time before releasing me into a semibarbarous hinterland beginning just outside Moscow and stretching into infinity, all forest, bog, and low mountain, peopled with drunks and thugs, divided into satrapies ruled by petty tyrants who would love to get their hands on an American. Her fears were exaggerated, I knew, but I no longer argued with her — to make positive predictions before an undertaking in Russia is to tempt fate.
They called my flight. I pulled away from her, shouldering my bag. She stood at the guardrail and watched me pass through security, alarm washing over her face as an airport policeman pointed to my knapsack and asked me to open it. He pulled out my maps of the Lena. Largescale maps are still viewed as quasi military in Russia. What would a foreigner need them for, if not espionage, he asked? Expedition? What sort of expedition? What exactly was I planning to do in Siberia? And why Siberia, for that matter? During Yeltsin’s time, he probably would not have cared about maps or bothered detaining me. Now, with Putin in power, security officers did whatever they wanted and were as suspicious as they often were greedy. How much money was he going to demand to let me go? He questioned me for so long that I began worrying whether I would make the flight. Only mention of my affiliation to Dmitry Shparo won my release.
Finally free, I waved goodbye to Tatyana, jogged to the gate, and just made the bus that took me on a rattling ride over heat-warped tarmac and out to the plane. Now, gazing through the porthole, I started to doze off. But soon the sky shaded into azure and swords of sunlight from a point on the earth’s sharp rim stabbed my eyes. Before I knew it, I was standing in Bratsk’s dank terminal barn, swatting mosquitoes, dazed by the lack of sleep and the five-hour time difference, waiting next to a derelict luggage conveyor for my backpack and other gear to appear, with three or four drunken passengers who had also checked bags. (To avoid theft, most in Russia prefer to carry on.) Luggage retrieved, I then found myself haggling outside in the sun with the sole driver on the lot: a shaved-headed, pug-nosed, paunchy man in his late forties. His Russian’s aspirated g’s indicated Ukrainian provenance. With his crude mug and scarred hands, he looked like a criminal, but then out here driving was serious business; vehicle repairs in Siberian frosts often involved getting your damp bare hands frozen to steel and losing shards of skin. He had a peasant frankness about him that I found reassuring.
His taxi was a gray, listing Volga sedan of a model that I had seen only in old Soviet movies.
“Ust’-Kut?” he said. “Christ, we’ve had rain and the road’s all mucked up. But, well . . . well, okay, hop in.” He introduced himself as Volodya. We drove off the lot, rocking onto a narrow, beat-up highway running like an alley through the forest. I tried in vain to sleep. The violent ascending road, a swerving track of gravel in parts and mud in others, cut through a looming taiga of scraggly larch and majestic spruce, lucent with light flooding through broadly spaced boughs. Now and then logging settlements appeared on the hillsides, above rushing streams blue with the sky, glittering with the sun.
“Look at this mud!” said Volodya, wrestling with his wheel. “They daare call it a ‘federal highway’! Just this winter wolves tore a woman to pieces out here.” He was smiling with pride. “Siberia!” “When did you move here from Ukraine?” “Back in the seventies. I came to work at the dam power station in Bratsk. I’m too old to go home now, and anyway, I like the peace and quiet here. You can’t leave Siberia once you learn to live here.” The news came on the radio. I waited for the now customary litany of Putin’s daily meetings and wise pronouncements, but they never came. Local events filled the airtime.
“You don’t get national news out here?” I asked.
“Hell, we don’t care what they do in Moscow,” Volodya declared.
“Whatever they decide in the capital, whatever wonderful changes they say are coming to us, out here nothing changes. Our local deputies are always fending off some inspector come from Moscow to make trouble. Either that or they’re out for themselves. What do I care about Moscow, tell me!” A minor explosion sounded from the front of the car. A tire had blown out. We stopped. Volodya continued his tirade as he wrestled the spare free from debris in the trunk. “However, all politicians everywhere, even here, are just out for themselves . . . But who cares, and who does anything about it? But let some poor drug addict break into an apartment to get money for his fix. They throw him in jail for stealing a few rubles. Look, I don’t need the materik” — the “mainland,” as Siberians call European Russia. “ ‘A fish rots from the head,’ we say. Get it? See why I don’t care about hearing Moscow news? Here I have my peace and quiet. No rotten smells.” After we finished changing tires, I stepped away from the road and walked to the edge of the taiga. Here it was all birch, leaves so green they seemed to glow, and trunks gleaming as if painted with fresh coats of white and zebra-slashed with black from base to crown. Bumblebees buzzed around my ankles; a giant horsefly sailed out of the foliage and took to circling me. Soon I was standing in cloud of fat bugs, all swirling slowly as if drunk from the heat and sun.
“Hey, get away from the woods!” Volodya shouted. “You can get a tick in the grass and catch encephalitis! You could be dead in a day out here! Siberia!” I trotted back to the car and jumped in for the last three hours of jolts and bumps to Ust’-Kut.

For most of Russia’s history, nothing more than a mud track, which north of Mongolia and China disappeared into bog and forest, connected Saint Petersburg and Moscow to the Far East. In 1891, however, the tsar ordered the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Once completed twenty-five years later, it would run almost six thousand miles from Saint Petersburg to Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan. Yet even before the Trans-Sib was finished, Russians began suspecting that in wartime the railway, paralleling the Chinese border in places, might be vulnerable to attack. Desiring a more secure and thus more northerly line, in 1911 the government started work on BAM — the Baikal-Amur Magistral’ (trunk railway). To be built at a strategically sound distance from the frontier, BAM was to carry Siberia’s wealth in timber, coal, gold, and other minerals safely back west to the materik, while opening up the region north of Lake Baikal to settlement. Plans metamorphosed, waxing and waning with their political expediency (one pre-Soviet scheme even had BAM connecting easternmost Siberia to Alaska) but in any case, over the coming seven decades some two thousand miles of track were laid to branch off the Trans-Sib at Taishet (2,600 miles east of Moscow), reach Ust’-Kut (its northernmost station, another 375 miles east), and wend across the taiga to finish at Sovetskaya Gavan on the Tatar Strait. Crossing through bog and over permafrost, BAM constituted the largest and most complex construction project the Soviet Union ever undertook. To build most of it, the government, as short of cash as ever, initially had to resort to the deployment of troops and gulag prisoners, Japanese POWs and indentured students. Later, in the 1960s and 1970s, Soviet propaganda persuaded tens of thousands of young workers to head east and advance the project. Owing to secretive and shoddy Soviet accounting, BAM’s true cost will never be known, and large segments remain incomplete. Still, in a few decades BAM transformed Ust’-Kut from a village of twelve thousand into a town of seventy thousand, and longtime residents past the age of forty I was to meet sang the joys of being young and strong and full of hope in BAM time, when they were engaged in the great project of putting Siberia’s riches at the service of the mighty Soviet state. In Ust’-Kut’s heyday two million tons of freight — timber, minerals, and fish shipped by barge up the Lena, and supplies brought from the materik by rail for the settlements downriver, as far as Tiksi — passed through the town every year. Now, with the death of Soviet planning and construction projects, scarcely 500,000 tons pass the docks per annum.

After paying Volodya and wishing him Godspeed, I checked in to the Hotel Lena on the poplar-lined square opposite Ust’-Kut’s old river station. The station was a teal green Soviet baroque palace of sorts, attesting to pretensions of the past: a transport hub for the Communist taming of Siberia had to project a grandeur in which the proletariat could take pride. Now the building exuded tranquility in homey decay, and I recognized it with a tinge of nostalgia as where I had begun my ferry trip to Yakutsk four years earlier, on a morning cooled by a breeze fragrant with spruce sap and pine needles. If on the plane I had been disoriented and despairing, here, now, I felt I was coming home.
This sensation only increased as I unpacked in my room. My blood began stirring, yet not really in anticipation of the expedition. Rather, every time I leave Moscow to venture into the glush’ (the “outback”; the noun, the root for the adjective glukhoy, or “deaf,” conjures up the dreamy tranquility of a Russian birch grove), an inspiring élan steals over me once the shock of departure passes. In the glush’ life is slow, people earnest, the air fresh, and the nights placid — balm for a Moscow resident’s soul.
I would relish my last hours of solitude. My guide, Vadim, wasn’t due to arrive until the day after next, so I left my room to find a seat at one of the several cafés on the square. There, in the lambency of a summer’s eve, shaggy poplars shed seed puffs over green and red café tarpaulins painted with Heineken and Coca-Cola logos. Clustering near the station on a warped tarmac, amid unkempt grass lots intersected by cracked sidewalks, the tarpaulins looked like the remnants of a circus long gone. Most of the tables stood outside them, in the open air.
I pulled out a chair at one of them and sat down. Beyond the greenwalled station, the Lena surged a rippling band of bluish silver, reflecting the sky of the white nights. The river here was a quarter-mile across, narrower and faster than it would be ahead, and it tugged frothily at a buoy in midstream. From radios playing on the opposite bank, in the yards of izbas, or traditional Russian log cabins, old Soviet dance tunes drifted over to us, amplified by the waters. It seemed impossible to imagine now that there had ever been a Stalin, or a time when the town had been the port for gulag land beyond, in a country called the Soviet Union.
A waitress approached, creamy-skinned, cat-eyed, dressed in a frumpy blue cashier’s smock and jeans and flip-fl ops. Her long russet hair was pinned up in a bun, with locks dangling over her pale and fleshy cleavage. She didn’t greet me but rather lingered by my table, drawing circles with her index finger on the dust, as if waiting for an indecent proposal. I asked her for a beer. Saying nothing, she sloughed away, rattled around behind the bar, and returned to me smiling, a bottle in hand.
Most of the socializing on the square, I noticed, took place just off the café grounds, where people stood drinking at a nearby kiosk rather than pay for a café seat. Loud young men, their voices hoarse from smoking, their skulls shaved, gathered in threes and fours and guzzled beer from two-liter brown plastic bottles and cursed and laughed. On the sidewalks pretty young women pushed baby carriages, navigating the buckled cement, sipping bottles of beer or sucking on cigarettes, chatting, brushing the poplar puffs from their eyes — pale blue eyes, jade eyes, honey eyes, set in regal faces. In 1848 the tsar had exiled Polish gentry here after the anti-Russian revolts in Poland — surely these women were their descendants.
By a charred brazier near my table, an Armenian kebab-maker stood turning spits of pork chunks roasting over coals, fanning the flames with a sheet of cardboard. Sniffing the meat, I developed a ravenous appetite and ordered some. “Happy Nation” then crackled through the loudspeaker, a song that took me back to my early days in Moscow, halcyon days for me, days of discovery and risk and erotic adventure in the summer of 1993. There was something fitting in this. Though the firebrand revolutionary Leon Trotsky didn’t enjoy his time in exile here (the locals never cottoned to the aloof intellectual), Ust’-Kut had been known as a party-hardy haven since the early seventeenth century, when Pyanda’s bedraggled Cossacks arrived after years of sailing down whitewater tributaries. Finally, on this beatific spot of land, they could rest and have fun. They named the tributary entering the Lena here “Kut,” from kutit’, “to carouse”; and carouse they surely did, intermarrying with local Evenk women, peaceable, teepee-dwelling animists. Popular lore has it that the name “Lena” itself came not from Yakut or Evenk but rather, in the spirit of kutit’, derived from the verb polenit’sya, “to be lazy.” If this isn’t true, “Lena,” by coincidence the diminutive of the Russian “Yelena” (Helen), has a soft feminine ring to it.
Mosquitoes now danced thick against the sky. The cook brought me a plastic plate laden with kebabs, a daub of adzhika hot sauce on the side, and I dug in. Savoring the meat, I gazed away from the river and into town, out onto the crumbling five-story cement apartment blocks built during Ust’-Kut’s “boom years.” From their midst a black Opel careened toward the square, its sides painted with lizard-tongue flames, Russian rock blaring from within. A gray militia van followed and pulled up alongside. The officers, billy clubs in hand, got out and peered at the young men inside. The Opel peeled out, forcing a young woman to yank her baby carriage out of the road; soon, by the station two teens were scuffling. In Russia, during the evenings, even in the glush’, public places are often more unsafe the later it gets: vodka and beer mix to liberate anger and charge the air with tension.
The sun set, tinting rose the gray underbellies of clouds billowing above the fir-covered sopki (the low mountains of Siberia) ranging up and down the Lena. A chill settled over the square and the mosquitoes turned in for the night. I decided to do the same.

The day after next dawned hot and humid. At half past seven Vadim arrived on the train from Moscow, and I went to meet him at the station. He jumped down from his carriage’s doorway, relaxed from the four-day trip, and shook my hand with his powerful grip. Dressed in loose camouflage pants and sandals, with a white T-shirt stretching over his muscled frame, three days’ growth on his cheeks, and his hair cropped short, he looked both at ease and imposing. Straightaway I noticed a blue-flame burn in his eyes, which rarely met mine. For the first time I became aware of his height; he was more than six feet tall.
In Moscow, when I saw him in city clothes, with longer hair, I had not noted his presence, his stature. There he had been talkative; here he was taciturn, almost glowering. I thought, I hardly know this guy, but I’m about to spend two months at close quarters with him. I’ll be putting my life in his hands. I wondered how we would get along.
We climbed back aboard the carriage and set about unloading our gear. I grabbed at the straps of our packed-up and deflated raft, yanked, and almost threw my shoulder out of joint. It weighed almost two hundred pounds. Vadim silently prompted me to step aside and with one arm slung it over his shoulder, leaped down onto the platform, and hoisted it into our hired van. He then whisked our hundred- pound motor into position beside it. Two other man-size canvas rucksacks, bulky as if loaded with cadavers, contained our staple foodstuffs — sausage, dried beef, fl our and buckwheat and macaroni, plus myriad condiments and little things Vadim said we couldn’t do without. These sacks he allowed me to help him lug to the van. A dozen twenty-liter plastic jerry cans — still empty, of course — would carry our fuel.

After a morning spent buying perishables, I found myself at loose ends for the afternoon. Relaxed by the fresh river air, and feeling melancholy, as though I had left already and Ust’-Kut was nothing but a memory, I dropped into the town museum. A woman in her late thirties was the only other visitor.
She wore a pleated skirt and fresh white blouse. Her eyes were slanted and set above high cheekbones — features common to Russia’s Tatars (who have their own republic on the Volga, with Kazan, as in Ivan the Terrible’s day, still its capital). The museum was small, so we ended up staring at the same exhibits. Usually I would have felt uncomfortable starting up a conversation, but here in Ust’-Kut I didn’t.
We reached a heated jumpsuit from the 1950s, a wire and felt getup that looked positively dangerous. Wiring often failed in Russian apartment buildings, causing terrible fires; the thought of one’s own garb exploding in flames out in negative-seventy-degree frosts was terrifying. I told her this. She had a different take on the suit.
“Oh, the government wouldn’t have issued common workers with such high technology. That’s just for show. Most people worked out here in whatever they had.” Through the window the river shimmered with sunlight.
“It’s peaceful here,” I said.
“Oh . . . oh, yes,” she answered. “You’re new in town?” I told her why I was here. She said her name was Alina and told me she often came to the museum to relax and ponder the exhibits and “better times.” With her thick russet hair and svelte figure, I thought her quite pretty. But there was something sad about her.
“How do you like it here?” she asked.
“I like it very much. People seem friendly and forthright. Much different from Moscow.” “Oh, I agree with you on that. I’m from Tatarstan myself, so I know the difference between the materik and Siberia. I ended up here because the state sent me here to do obligatory service after university.
I married a local and ended up staying. I’m a trader by nature; the market is in my blood. Even in Soviet days I could manage to sell anything.
Now and then I’ve had to go to Moscow on business. I hate it.” “Why?” “They see people like me, from the provinces, and don’t give me the time of day. They’re deceitful.” “Unlike here.” “Well . . . maybe.” “Are you working in sales now?” She began trembling. Ever so slightly, but she was trembling.
“I . . . well, I’m taking a break from my work. An indefinite break.” She looked down. I noticed lines on her neck, careworn skin around her eyes.
“Is something wrong?” “You like it here. I should too. But my son . . . he finished high school with the highest marks. That and my family’s financial situation meant that he qualified for a free spot at the engineering institute.
He applied and we began making plans for his move. Well, he was refused.
They said he’d have to pay.” “Why?” “I went to see the institute’s director in his office. He listened to me tell about my son and how he should have won a free spot. I started crying, and he laughed. ‘You’re nadve enough to believe that free spots go to the poor? Wise up, honey: I give them out to the children of influential people here, people who can do me favors. What can you do for me?’ I was trembling with rage! He had ruined my son’s future and he was laughing at me!” She paused, and when she began again her voice quivered. “Well, it was then that I began suffering tremors and other problems. I couldn’t calm down anymore, I couldn’t sleep. The doctor told me I was suffering from something called chronic fatigue syndrome and that I needed a break from my job. So, now I spend a lot of time in my apartment, which looks out onto the Lena. Seeing the river gives me peace.” Ust’-Kut, of course, was still Russia. The élan I felt on arrival began to dissipate.
After we said goodbye, I walked out to the Lena. The sun was gone, and thunderclouds were now rolling in from the northeast, where we were about to head. All at once I remembered the thousands of miles of river between us and the Arctic Ocean; I foresaw, with a shudder, storms and snows and our raft pitching on the Laptev Sea. And then I remembered the blue flame in Vadim’s gaze. He knew what we faced, and I had to be ready.
I returned to my room to pack, passing youths in suits and girls in gowns. It was graduation day at the local high school, and that evening there would be a ball.

The rain fell in warm torrents that night, and with it came blasts of thunder, tridents of lightning, and gales that tore awnings from stores, branches from trees. Now and then through this meteorological anarchy sounded the hollering of boys, the squeals of girls, the smashing of bottles — graduates in revelry.
At six in the morning, when the storm ceased, just as I managed to doze off, my alarm buzzed. Looking out the window at the milky weeping sky of dawn, I dressed and then went to the next floor to rouse Vadim.
In silence we loaded the Gazel’ minivan, waiting by the lobby doors, that we had hired to take us down to the river. As we labored, a dense fog settled over the town, which was strewn with leaves and broken branches from the storm and with spent champagne and vodka bottles and soggy corsages.
Our driver was Sasha, a chain smoker in his forties with sleep- mussed hair, a phlegm-clogged voice, and a scrunched-up face. He drove us out of the town center, talking nonstop about how rotten life had been here since the Soviet Union collapsed. (“Everything here’s breaking down, falling apart — there’s no life.”) After filling our jerry cans at a gas station with enough fuel to last to Yakutsk, we crossed a bridge and turned off the road onto a dirt track that led down to a secluded spot on the river. Vadim and I agreed that, for security reasons, no one should see us leaving.
Frost-scarred concrete tenements rose above the Lena’s southern bank, their windows still dark, their entranceways empty, junk-scattered muddy fields out front. We would not manage to depart unnoticed: teenage boys sporting crewcuts and rumpled brown suits and rouged girls in strapless gowns staggered along the gravel road ahead of our minivan, laughing and shouting and bumping into one another, clutching giant brown plastic bottles of beer, heading home to the tenements from graduation festivities petering out only now. Among graduates in Russia it is traditional to “greet the sunrise” of the first postschool day — a custom symbolizing hope and a fresh start. That morning the sun had not risen, but the kids had gathered on the riverbank all the same.
“Things can’t be that bad here if these kids have preserved this tradition,” I said to Sasha.
He snorted and smirked, the cigarette in the corner of his mouth dropping ash. The van hit bumps, and he coughed acrid smoke, his lungs wheezing, but he took fresh, deep drags. Ahead of us, an apple-cheeked girl tottered giddily on high heels, her hair in permed loops.
He honked to scare her out of the road. As if hit by gunfire she contorted herself violently and stumbled toward the side of the road.
“Screw your mother!” Sasha muttered. “Whore! Just look at these kids, still drunk and now guzzling beer to kill the dry mouth! And this neighborhood is banditsky! Don’t take your eyes off your gear or those punks will snatch it!” “They don’t look like punks to me,” I said.
“I mean those kids.” He grimaced toward a pair of skinheaded brutes with low, bony brows farther on. Past us bounced an ancient motorcycle. It crisscrossed the road ahead of us, its young male driver so drunk he couldn’t steer. Sasha honked again. The cyclist veered off the road and slowed so much that he toppled over into the mud. He did not get up.
Soon thereafter we left the road and clanked down rutted clay swells to a gravelly spot by the river’s edge. Sasha cut the motor. The water — panes of liquid silver speckled with raindrops — coursed lazily away into the fog-shrouded forest and hills to the northeast.
Vadim and I could hardly contain our enthusiasm, Sasha, his misgivings.
“Look,” he said, “Ust’-Kut used to send a boat or a helicopter to airlift villagers to hospital if they got sick. But since the Soviet Union fell apart, everything’s rotted away. These days we don’t even a first-aid team, let alone a boat or a helicopter. People’ve been thrown to the mercy of fate out there. They’re trapped in their villages for months on end, with no roads. Up ahead, for a while, you’ve got Russians. After Vitim, you’ve got Yakuts. A drunken people, nasty and violent. You won’t have it sweet. No sir, not sweet at all.” “Da ladno!” said Vadim. “We’ll manage.” “I think we can handle it,” I added.
“Oh, you do! A good number of our young in the villages are idle these days. You think they’re polite. Well, you’re right. They come up to you and politely say, ‘Uncle, please give me a light!’ before they bash in your skull. You don’t know what you’re up against out there.” I really couldn’t take him too seriously. Pontificating about their country’s flaws is a favorite pastime among Russians, who surely must be the most self-deprecating people on earth.
We started unloading our gear: jerry cans of fuel, provisions, a kit of spare parts for the motor, our rucksacks filled with foul-weather suits, insulated underwear, everything we would need to survive Siberia’s climate until we reached Tiksi . . . Tiksi, on the Arctic Ocean! How impossibly distant!
Vadim last pulled out his double-barreled shotgun and a box of ammo. He handed me the gun. “Be careful,” he warned. “It’s loaded.” Not paid to lift, Sasha stood by and hacked smoke in our direction.
He cleared his throat and spat onto the gravel, wiping raindrops from his brow. “What’ll you be eating out there? A lot of canned crap, I bet.” Vadim grabbed a trunk and plopped it down onto the gravel. “Oh, no. We’re going to fish. I’ve got nets. We’ll hunt if we can.” “Huh.” Sasha hawked up phlegm and spat. “My brother likes fish. I always tell that son of a bitch, my favorite fish is pork! You’ll get mighty sick of fish out there.” We set about assembling our raft, spreading it on the bank, straightening it out, pumping it up, and attaching the motor to the wooden panel at the stern. After we launched it, I climbed in, noting the bouncy pontoons, the hard bench just behind our tarp-covered load just in front of the wooden crossbeam. We didn’t tarry. Within an hour the raft was loaded, the motor chugging. Sasha delivered an expletive-laden valediction, and we shoved off into the drizzle and fog.
The tenements soon ended, but beneath rising and falling sopki, here green with spruce, through hanging patches of mist, lay ruined barges and wrecked tugboats; crumbling cement docks and rickety cranes; ancient heaps of scrap metal rusting to dust — the very graveyard of Russian civilization, I thought.
Two hours later, the skies cleared. We passed under a rusted bridge and out of the wasteland of barges, gliding atop burbling currents dappled with the fresh turquoise of the sky, the green of the conifers, and the rippling black and white serrations of birches.
I was spellbound by the boreal beauty of the land. Vadim wasn’t.
“This isn’t the north yet,” he said. Ust’-Kut, he pointed out, was “only” at the latitude of Juneau, Alaska. His beloved north began at the sixtieth parallel — on a geographical par with Greenland — where hardy larches stood beneath summits too wind-battered for anything else to take root. Such a severe landscape was impossible for me to conjure up on the first heady day of our expedition.

Copyright © 2006 by Jeffrey Tayler. Reprinted with permission by Houghton Mifflin Company.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 12, 2014

    Apprentices's den

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 18, 2013

    Great book

    This is a can't-stop-reading book. This book is about much more than an adventure trip down a big river in Russia. Our leaders in Washington DC need to read this book to realize the results of government corruption, decadence, and indifference on a society.

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