Siberian Dawn: A Journey Across the New Russia


When Jeffrey Tayler decides to make his way across the entire Russian continent (over 8,000 miles from Siberia to Poland), everyone he discusses it with discounts the idea as dangerous and/or impossible. In fact, in Magadan, the former gulag capital in eastern Siberia where he chooses to start his journey, he is told again and again that there is no overland way out - that the only way in or out is to fly. Nonetheless, he finds a ride with a trucker - not on a road, but over frozen marshland. Traveling with a ...
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When Jeffrey Tayler decides to make his way across the entire Russian continent (over 8,000 miles from Siberia to Poland), everyone he discusses it with discounts the idea as dangerous and/or impossible. In fact, in Magadan, the former gulag capital in eastern Siberia where he chooses to start his journey, he is told again and again that there is no overland way out - that the only way in or out is to fly. Nonetheless, he finds a ride with a trucker - not on a road, but over frozen marshland. Traveling with a Moscow-only visa, Tayler finds new adventures and hurdles almost hourly in this country still reeling from totalitarianism and ill-prepared for travelers needing food and lodging. As a stranger with a camera, he is often mistaken for a KGB or CIA agent. Threats range from the general lawlessness of highway robbery to the disorder created by widespread alcohol abuse and poverty, from bureaucratic apathy that can arbitrarily bring anything to a standstill to the inescapable history of toxic waste. As the first American to visit many of the places he goes, his reports on a country in transition are timely and unforgettable. It is also the account of one man's love for a fragile, desperately troubled country.
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Editorial Reviews

Carroll Bogert
Siberian Dawn is beguiling, in its own sad way. Mostly that's because Tayler writes well and finds an impressive variety of ways to describe the bleakness of the Russian Far East in the dead of winter...he's wonderfully evocative.
USA Today
Matthew Reed Baker
...Tayler neither romanticizes nor patronizes the Russians as he weaves their tales and his own into a haunting saga.
Brill's Content
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The ideal readers for this book would be World Bank advisers drawing up credit agreements in their five-star Moscow hotel rooms as they dine on German beef. Yet anyone seeking an understanding of post-Soviet Russia that goes beyond the dull CNN cliched fade-out of a Lenin monument standing before a McDonald's will be mesmerized by this account of an American's overland journey from Magadan to Warsaw. Completing a trip that even few Russians would be willing to attempt, Tayler portrays a Russia to which foreigners have long been denied access, both geographically and spiritually. Tayler (a contributor to Atlantic Monthly and commentator for NPR's All Things Considered) begins his 8325-mile trip by hitching a ride out of deepest, darkest Siberia, above the Arctic Circle, where the remnants of the Gulag system lie strewn about the frozen steppe. His willingness to press onward and calmly accept local conditions distinguishes this experience from most Westerners' travels in Russia. The Kalmyk, Burati and other Siberian peoples, including the Russians, are a reminder that this is a country straddling Europe and Asia. The reader is confronted with a bleak landscape blighted by ecological disaster, alcoholism, poverty, bad roads (where roads exist at all) and a systemic breakdown so severe that many pine for a return to authoritarianism. Yet, through the entire book, Tayler's fascination with and love for the birch forest, the steppe and the enduring Russian spirit remain at the fore. Refreshingly, cracker-barrel discussion of who "won the cold war" and suggestions for reform are left out. (Feb.)
Library Journal
In 1993, Tayler, an American journalist who lives in Moscow, decided to brave a trek across the vast expanse of the former Soviet Union, from the gulag city of Magadan in the far east to the border of Poland. The over 8000-mile route--almost never undertaken over land--took him through some of the most difficult terrain on the planet as he stopped in small, bereft towns and witnessed the shattered remnants of communism and the false starts of capitalism. Alternately hitching with truckers and taking trains, Tayler reveals the profound poverty, environmental degradation, and hopelessness faced by people in the midst of economic collapse. In spite of Tayler's often choppy prose and somewhat abrupt judgments (especially about the many victims of alcoholism he encounters), this book provides a rare view into the very real human crisis that continues to play out in Russia. Recommended for all public libraries.--Rebecca Miller, "Library Journal"
Tayler, a journalist who frequently contributes to , , and who currently lives in Moscow, has turned travel writer in this tale of his overland journey across the entire Asian continent (from Siberia to Poland), a trip totaling 8,000 miles. Often mistaken for KGB or CIA because of his camera, he encountered innumerable adventures. Through it all, however, his focus on the people and his commentary on the political and social distress this region is facing as it tries to transition from communism to democracy are sincere and at times heart-rending. No index. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Matthew Reed Baker
...Tayler neither romanticizes nor patronizes the Russians as he weaves their tales and his own into a haunting saga.
Brill's Content
Washington Post Book World
With haunting lyricism…Siberian Dawn makes the armchair traveler grateful that Tayler has taken this trip instead.
Kirkus Reviews
A young American's encounters with arctic cold, violent vodka-induced drunkenness, unknown levels of radiation, and mafia-ruled hinterland cities reveal the bleak and desperate side of life in the post-Communist Soviet states. Inspired by his love of Russian culture and finding himself at loose ends in Moscow, Tayler decided in 1993 to cross the entire landmass of Russia. Naively enthusiastic, yet ill-equipped and underprepared, the young American started out on a perilous journey from the desolate byways of the Russian Far East, across Siberia and the Urals, to the Polish-Ukrainian border. The journey embodies both a personal quest and a search for the heart of Russia. Tayler explains, "I wanted to fuse my fate with the country's in a crucible of my own making." And a crucible it was. Against the odds of inadequate equipment, incredible coldness, unwise decisions, and the constant threat of violence in Russia's depressed provinces, Tayler survived the solo journey. He describes his travels by bus, train, truck, and car, his fleeting friendships and sometimes violent encounters with almost uniformly desperate men and women, the astonishing changes in weather and landscape in this vast region, and the physical state of Russia's hinterlands, including its environmental devastation-none of which is uplifting. The harrowing stories he shares about life in Russia's desolate hinterland sharpen our understanding of Russia's past and present with their unforgettable details: cockroaches emerging from hosts' wallpaper and ceilings during a meal, scary confrontations with several of Russia's drunks that lead to exchanges of words and blows, and the filth and dangers of life in pollutedChelyabinsk, the once-thriving center of the Soviet nuclear and defense industries. By the trip's end, it's a toss-up who is more relieved to cross the Polish border, Tayler or his reader. Graphically describes the deeply disturbing state of the "new" Russia and its demoralized citizens. .
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781886913400
  • Publisher: Ruminator Books
  • Publication date: 6/1/2000
  • Pages: 301
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.16 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Moscow and Russia's
Unruly Elements

"This is a bad time here," said the driver, clenching a cigarette between his teeth, as we shot out of Sheremet'yevo Airport down Moscow's dark and empty causeways, rifling stray newspapers with drafts of displaced frigid air. "Our Supreme Soviet is about ready to force Yeltsin out. Who'll be the alternative? The speaker of the Parliament, Khasbulatov? He'd be worse than Stalin. He lies and looks you straight in the eye while doing so. And he knows you know he's lying. There'll be civil war if he takes over."

    A banner fluttered over the road: RUSSIAN CINEMATOGRAPHERS SUPPORT YELTSIN! We flew under it and ran a red light.

    As the driver balanced his forearms on the wheel he lit another cigarette.

    "Don't worry. The police have other things besides red lights to worry about these days. Say, where did you say you were from?"

    We had already agreed on the fare, so I told him I was from the States.

    "American! You should have told me so! I get fifty dollars from foreigners for this ride into town. That's what you should be paying!"

    "We've already agreed on the price. Why should I have told you where I'm from if I'd have to pay ten times more for the same ride?"

    "You earn ten times more, that's why. But no matter—this time, I'll let it go."

    We pulled up in front of the building of my American friend Betsy. Three police cars flew past us, shoutingthrough their loudspeakers into the March gusts, heading toward demonstrations down at the Kremlin. Moscow was tense: people stepped lively around blinking police lights, hurried by their sirens.

    Betsy put me up for the few days I was to stay in Moscow. She introduced me to her grim bodyguard-assistant, Sasha, a veteran commando from the war in Afghanistan, and told me I might ask him for pointers on my trip. Sasha thought it sounded like a bad idea ("It's dangerous outside the Moscow Oblast. There are unruly elements everywhere, and there's not even food in many places"). He suggested I take a gun, and so did Betsy. Both thought I should get more advice from Russians before starting out. To placate them, I decided to call two Russian friends I had in Kiev, Valya and Oleg, whom I had known since my 1985 trip. Both got on the line.

    "This could all turn out very badly," said Oleg. "Now is absolutely the wrong time for such an adventure. As terrible as our system was under the Soviets, there was at least order in the streets. Now there is no more dangerous country than ours, and we have the Bolsheviks to thank for it. They destroyed our morality and built in its place a system of repression that has made people vicious. Wait a couple of years, and then try it. Yeltsin may not last—you see what's happened in Moscow since he declared presidential rule-and without him we'll have civil war. If you're caught out there and things blow up—"

    Valya jumped in.

    "To put it mildly, this is an ill-conceived idea. You will be all alone out there in places we'd never go. You should thank the thug who decides to rob but not kill you! Take a gun, or at least a gas grenade."

    "Or a knife!" shouted Oleg.

Although I had no intention of buying a gun and regarded myself as lucky, all the warnings and fears and objections voiced by my Russian friends and Sasha took their toll on me, and I slept very badly the next few nights. I did my best to keep in mind what drove me to undertake the trip, but an image haunted my mind's eye: I was racing toward an abyss, and all my assertions that I knew the risks and could handle them would be of no use when I hurtled over its edge.

    But I fortified myself with a vignette from my past, a memory that sustained me during my most difficult moments. Nine years earlier, during a March just as gloomy and disconsolate, I had climbed a stony path to a small cemetery above Iráklion, on the island of Crete. The grave of the writer Nikos Kazantzakis had drawn me there. Thunderclouds brooded over the mountains beyond the town. A wind whirled dust around crosses standing crooked over the recumbent dead, but there, atop Kazantzakis's grave, inscribed in stone, were three simple lines that were to become like haiku or a mantra for me:

I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.

    It seemed to me then, in 1984, that such a state without fear, where no hopes for the future stole energy from living in the present, would signify the dawn of true liberation, a fierce bliss of now rendered more intense by knowing tomorrow might not come. In Moscow, I meditated on these lines and tried to conceive of the freedom this trip would offer: the opportunity to exist solely in the present, to shape it and be shaped by it, and to utterly renounce the notion that tomorrow mattered, that anything existed but a now that had to be both accommodated and conquered.

    I also believed in fate, that something had tied my life to Russia and would continue to do so, and that what I experienced on Russian soil would be to my ultimate benefit. But this abstract conviction did not offer me protection—it could, in fact, lead me to my destruction, fate not being synonymous with the guardianship of Providence. But now, having resigned from my job with the Peace Corps, and having made my way to Moscow for the sole purpose of undertaking the trip, I was coming up against something truly destructive and disheartening: the well-meaning, but ominous, words of friends, their descriptions of what they "knew" I would find in the farthest reaches of Russia. I argued against them during the day, but at night, they dogged me, gave me nightmares, and wouldn't let me recover from jet lag. The only consolation I could see was to buy my plane ticket to Magadan and leave as soon as possible; better to hurl myself clear of the abyss's edge with bold momentum than to hesitate and risk crashing down its walls from crag to jagged crag.

Betsy had come to Moscow with her two teenage children, Joe and Stephanie. One afternoon in the apartment, Stephanie dropped into my room as I was making an entry in my journal and plopped herself into a chair, holding her nails out to dry. There was someone she thought I ought to meet, she said.

    "You're going to Magadan, right? There's this guy I know from there. His name is Steve. I call him Steve although he doesn't speak English and his real name is Stanislav. He likes me, and always stands around in our stairwell waiting for me to come out. He's studying here in Moscow. I should introduce the two of you. He might as well be of use to someone, instead of standing around in the stairwell all day."

    A few minutes later, as I was poring over my National Geographic map of Russia, Steve came in. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with black, short-cropped hair, and skin so white it appeared never to have seen the sun. He shivered, still cold from being out on the stairs. We shook hands. He was a bit awkward, as teenagers can be, but hearty and sober.

    "Can I see your map?" he asked. "Oh, it's in English. Where's Magadan?"

    I showed him. He squinted at it and sniffled.

    "So what is it you are planning to do?"

    "I'm going to Magadan. From there, I want to cross by land to Yakutsk, by this road here."

    I drew my finger along the thin tentative red line wavering from Magadan inland. Its thinness worried me: the key defined such a scribble as "road or highway," leading me to consider that it could be anything from a dirt track to an asphalt throughway, although it was not nearly as substantial a line as those zigzagging over western Russia, which at best, I knew, represented two-lane highways in ill repair.

    Steve squinted at the line, looked up at my face, and dropped his eyes to the map again.

    "What they're showing here is not a road but the Kolyma Route, a sort of track built by gulag prisoners in the thirties. It goes only to Ust-Nera, about halfway. After that, there's nothing. Only a zimnik [winter track, passable only when frozen, from the Russian zima, or winter]. We don't go by land to Yakutsk from Magadan. We fly."

    Magadan was a natural prison, walled by the Arctic Circle to the north, the Sea of Okhotsk to the south, and ice-bound mountains to the west and east. In the past, prisoners were ferried there by boat from Vladivostok. I had seen the line on my map and thought a road had been built since those days.

    "Are you saying it's impossible to cross to Yakutsk from Magadan by land?"

    "It's possible, but only during the winter. We never do it, but sometimes trucks make the run. The problem is that the zimnik may have thawed by now—you may be too late. And then there's the issue of your safety. Trucks are often robbed once they cross from Kolyma into Yakutia. Drivers carry guns now."

    "I'll worry about my safety when I get there, but the possibility that I might fly all the way to Magadan and not be able to get out because of the mud bothers me."

    Steve agreed to call his father in Magadan and ask him if the zimnik was still passable. The next day, Stephanie brought him up from the stairwell. He shivered on his way in and shook my hand.

    "I've talked to my father. He's not sure about the zimnik—no one has made the run lately. But he's given me a name to give you. When you get to Magadan, go see Alexander. He runs a local newspaper. Don't try to do anything on your own, he says. It's dangerous these days. Two Russians who tried to hitch last year were killed on the route."

The next day I was to depart. Stephanie sat and watched me pack.

    "Do think you'll make it?" she asked absentmindedly.

    "Of course. I'm not traveling through a war zone. Russians love to tell people how bad things are now. I think they're exaggerating."

    "Sasha thinks you'll be killed. But then what does he know?"

    Betsy was flitting about the kitchen nervously, slicing ham, buttering bread, and slapping the two together into sandwiches.

    "You remember what Sasha said—you may find that there's no food, so I'm making you some sandwiches." She stuffed them all into a plastic bag and threw in some mandarin oranges and cheese, all with hurried motions driven by nervous energy. "At least you can eat this on the plane. Sasha is downstairs with your car."

    Down at the entrance, Betsy and I found Sasha, but no car.

    I looked at Sasha, who leaned against the railing, arms folded on his chest. His sullen eyes were fixed on me.

    There were put-puts and bursts of backfire. It sounded as though the Beverly Hillbillies were rolling up in their jalopy; instead, a battered Zhiguli taxi, half brown and half orange, sputtered to a stop in front of us.

    Sasha and the driver, Dima, exchanged greetings, and we all said good-bye. I tossed my bag in the back and jumped in. To my annoyance, I discovered sticky brown paint on my hands—I'd touched the brown patches on the yellow door getting in.

    "I couldn't get yellow paint. Brown was all they had," griped Dima, as though my groan on seeing the paint had more to do with his sense of decor than the sticky blotches on my fingers. He handed me a rag and I set about trying to wipe it off. We sputtered out of Betsy's lot onto Novy Arbat Street toward Domodedovo Airport.

    When we chugged past the city limits and the road split off into drab woods littered with dirty snow, the gearbox began puffing an acrid brown smoke. Dima waved his hand furiously to disperse it. I reached for the window latch but found it had been broken off. Dima said, "Open your door," and I did, holding it ajar the rest of the way to the airport.

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Table of Contents

1 Moscow and Russia's Unruly Elements 3
2 Chasing the Dawn to Magadan 11
3 The Kolyma Route and the Zimnik to Yakutsk: Close Calls 35
4 Yakutsk 61
5 Blizzard 75
6 Tynda: Reprieve and White Fever 95
7 A Personal Guarantee for My Safety in Chernyshevsk 105
8 Bad Vibes in Chita 123
9 Ulan-Ude: Doing Business on Communist Street 143
10 A Stone from Lake Baikal 153
11 Tomsk: Searching for Salvation 163
12 Omsk: Saying Good-bye to Siberia 177
13 Chelyabinsk: Bogs of Fire and Bioenergy 191
14 Magnitka: Vodka for a Faded Beauty 207
15 Crossing Bashkortostan to the Volga 225
16 The Volga 235
17 Building Peace in Saratov 243
18 The Fate of Lenin's Brothers, the Kalmyks: Elista and Exile 251
19 Black Earth under Cossack Boots 259
20 Ukraine: Unlawful Entry, Uncanny Exit 269
21 Return to Moscow 291
Epilogue 299
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