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A bleak twilight across a forgotten land
on 1 October 2001
"In Siberia" is Thubron's painstakingly bleak account of a journey across the cold, oddly unknown region of Siberia. He begins his assessment of post-Soviet Russia at the Ural Mountains, and travels slowly west, following broadly the route of the trans-Siberian railway. His account is one of enduring struggle, against both the cold (in Dudinka, where the River Yenisei meets the Arctic Ocean, houses must be build on concrete pillars, otherwise the heat exerted by the foundations will melt the permafrost that lingers just a few feet beneath the ground, and cause the building to subside), and the economic collapse that has followed the collapse of communism. For most of those he meets, it is the everyday necessities of survival - food and warmth - that form the focus of their lives.
In parts, one can sense a fond yearning for the days of the Soviet Republic - when the collective farms functioned properly, with working tractors, to produce food for all. Now the mechanics of such planned economies have disintegrated, prices have spiralled upwards, the savings of the old have been rendered worthless and the young have little enthusiasm, other than to leave. Despite this, some do still find space to find hope, perhaps in the renaissance of forgotten religions, or perhaps simply in some strained, optimistic view of the future.
Throughout the book the shadow of the Gulag, the Soviet labour camp, lingers. Throughout Stalin's reign, criminals, political opponents, or simply those that were deemed to be a threat, were sent to the bleak wastes of Siberia for imprisonment. In the mines, inland of Magadan, on the Pacific coast, nobody lasted long; Thubron seems to touch upon suffering of the millions who died with a sense of quiet bleakness, rather like the snowy, barely living landscape in which they died.
This is not a book to read to cheer oneself up. True, the old Shaman, Kunga-Boo, playing wildly on his tambour, and enthusiastically requesting the author to return with a walrus, provides an endearing caesura within the enfolding sense of gloom. But the lingering picture that Thubron lyrically creates is of a people with a broken spirit, and a vast wilderness of slow, cold decay.