|Siberian Village (photo taken from train)|
This post is mostly a book review. But I added some of my own photos from my summer trip that took me from Beijing, through Mongolia, on to Ulan Ude, Russia and across Siberia the Urals and on to Moscow and St. Petersburg. These photos were used in the posts that I made in the blog I kept during the summer.
|Sunset over Lake Baikal|
Colin Thuborn, In Siberia (1999, HarperCollins ebook, 2009), 270 pages
During the Soviet era, much of Siberia was closed off from the West. The Soviets utilized this vast area (which contains nearly a fifth of the world’s landmass) as the Czars earlier: a place to exile criminals and political prisoners. During the Second World War, industry began to develop in Siberia, far from the reach of Hitler’s tanks. It is a place of great resources—minerals, oil, timber, wheat—and great hardship—the coldest temperatures ever recorded in inhabited place is in Siberia. After the breakup of the Soviet Union and two years after the end of collective farming, Colin Thubron set out to explore this region. Thubron, an Englishman, was familiar with Russia, having spent time there during the Cold War and having written on the nation. In his travels, he takes the Trans-Siberian Railroad as well as the BAM (Baikal-Amur Railroad), a line that runs north of Lake Baikal, and a steamer up the Yenisei River to the arctic. In the East, he flies to remote locations. In all, he covers the region from the Urals to the Pacific, from the “Altai Republic” along the Mongolian border to Dudinka, beside the frozen waters of the Arctic.
Siberia, Thubron suggests was “born out of optimism and dissent.” (22) Starting in the 1750s, Siberia became a place to exile criminals (just as Britain exiled its criminals to Australia) and although the number of criminals outnumbered the political prisoners, the later served as a “leavening intelligentsia” for the region (162) Ironically, Siberia with its vastness was also a place of freedom. In the 18th Century, those who moved there had a saying, “God is high and the czar is far off.” (22) In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, Siberia was a stronghold out for the White Russians who fought against the Bolsheviks. Thubron tells of talk in Irkutsk to build a statue to honor Adm. Kolchak, a leader of the White Russians who was shot by the Bolsheviks at Irkutsk and his body pushed below the ice. He doubts the monument will be built. (This summer I discovered a beer brewed in Irkutsk with his name on it, which to me seems a fitting tribute.)
|Along the Trans-Siberian (old water tower)|
Traveling in the years after the breakup of the Soviet system and the end of state-sponsored atheism, Thubron is surprised to find religion so alive. “Russia’s atheist past seemed no more than an overcast day in the long Orthodox summer,” he noted. (56) As he traveled he witnessed new and renovated churches opening. At the dedication of a monastery outside of Omsk, he asked himself, “Why had this faith resurrected out of nothing, as if a guillotined head had been struck back on its body? Some vital artery had preserved it.” (59) Not only does he explore the resurgence in the Orthodox faith, (who seemed to be profiting from the ability to import and sell alcohol and cigarettes tax free (56), but also Buddhism among the Buryat (165ff), a dying Jewish settlement in Eastern Siberia (208ff), Russian Baptist (220f), Old Believers with their insistence of the correct way to cross themselves in prayers (175f), and even a few who were trying to revive traditional shamanistic practices (98ff). In each situation, he meets with religious leaders. One of the more interesting interviews was with an Orthodox priest in Irkutsk, whose father had been a communist and whose mother was a Christian. He told about how in the Army, he began to be convicted of his sin and came to God through his guilt. This priest feared a war between China and Russia and also felt that America was a godless land (156-7).
|Dining on the Trans-Siberian|
But not all of Siberia is teaming with religious revival. Many of the encounters were with people who had lost faith in communism or who felt their world had been pulled out from them. There was a woman who had been sent to Siberia by Stalin, yet still refused to criticize the Communist Party. Toward the end of his journey, in northeastern Siberia, he visits Kolyma, the location of some of the most deadly camps. Being sent here was a death sentence. In the winter of 1932, whole camps (prisoners, dogs and guards) froze to death. It is here that the coldest inhabit place on earth is at, where the temperature has dropped to -97.8 F, where ones breath will free into crystals and twinkle onto the ground, a phenomenon known as the “whispering of the stars.” (254) Yet, despite such harsh conditions, they produced nearly a third of the world’s gold in the 1930s. It is estimated that one life was lost for every kilogram of gold produced. Over 2 million people died here. (251f) The condition of the camps horrified Thubron, who seems concern that the residents of Siberia accept the camps of the past without much thought.
In his last collection of Stalin horror stories, Thuborn tells of the prison ship, the SS Dzhurma, which got caught in ice in 1933 with 12000 prisoners on board. All the prisoners froze to death and half the guards went crazy, according to Thubron. This would also be the most deadly maritime disaster ever, in terms of life lost. When I read this, I thought it sounded like fodder for a horror story and I did some checking and from a couple sources on the internet, found that there are some questions of the validity of this tragedy. Two things don’t fit according to these sources. First of all, the ship that became known as the Dzhurma wasn’t even sold to the Soviets until 1935. Secondly, it was only a little over 400 feet long, making it nearly impossible to have had 12,000 prisoners onboard. However, in 1939, another “death-ship,” the SS Indigirka sank with its human cargo trapped below deck. (256)
|Along the Trans-Siberian, note kilometer marker (km from Moscow) |
I really enjoyed this book and wish I would have read it before traveling through Siberia last summer. At that time, I read Ian Frazier’s excellent travelogue, Travels in Siberia. Thubron’s book is a little out of date, but it is also excellent. His writing is engaging and never boring as he weaves together a story about this vast and unknown landmass. I found reading this book on a e-reader both pleasant (it’s nice and light) and also a little troublesome as I wasn’t able to easily flip back to the map at the beginning. However, the map doesn’t show up that well and when I was home, I found myself dragging out an atlas to locate places Thubron traveled. I recommend this book.