Siberian Dawn: A Journey Across the New Russia

Siberian Dawn: A Journey Across the New Russia

by Jeffrey Tayler


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Siberian Dawn: A Journey Across the New Russia by Jeffrey Tayler

No guidebook existed for my route; no one had ever done it before", writes Tayler. 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781886913400
Publisher: Ruminator Books
Publication date: 06/01/2000
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.

Table of Contents

1Moscow and Russia's Unruly Elements3
2Chasing the Dawn to Magadan11
3The Kolyma Route and the Zimnik to Yakutsk: Close Calls35
6Tynda: Reprieve and White Fever95
7A Personal Guarantee for My Safety in Chernyshevsk105
8Bad Vibes in Chita123
9Ulan-Ude: Doing Business on Communist Street143
10A Stone from Lake Baikal153
11Tomsk: Searching for Salvation163
12Omsk: Saying Good-bye to Siberia177
13Chelyabinsk: Bogs of Fire and Bioenergy101
14Magnitka: Vodka for a Faded Beauty207
15Crossing Bashkortostan to the Volga225
16The Volga235
17Building Peace in Saratov243
18The Fate of Lenin's Brothers, the Kalmyks: Elista and Exile251
19Black Earth under Cossack Boots259
20Ukraine: Unlawful Entry, Uncanny Exit269
21Return to Moscow291

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