TOP 500 REVIEWERon 24 August 2017
Siberia is a land haunted by the past, millions of ghosts from the past. They refuse to be quiet. Those who were enslaved, tortured and killed seem to hover above it at almost every turn and corner, never quite resting, which may explain much of the unease that permeates the landscape. This is the part of the world where three centuries of the Romanov dynasty, came to a definitive and violent end when the remaining royals were executed in 1918, even though they had abdicated a year earlier. Siberia is also a place that conjures up a series of bewildering statistics. Bigger than the US and Western Europe combined. It is also home to the coldest city on earth and the largest fresh water lake too. Siberia covers almost 10% of the worlds’ land surface.
Thubron slips in between the cracks of Siberia, making his way through a hidden world of hardship, uncovering it in all its cruel forms, meeting vagrants, hermits, geologists, fantasists, mafia and babushkas with back stories. These are mostly the people who got left behind by the oligarchs, the ones who remain forgotten. The serfs may have been emancipated back in 1861, but out here most people remain downtrodden and exploited, by a succession of self-serving leaderships, the leaders and the systems may change names, but the pain and suffering for the majority always remains. Corruption is as common as the cold in Russia and Siberia is no exception, most people suffering from the fallout, resign themselves to a life of crime, violence and vodka.
Our narrator ventures to and through such places as Yekaterinburg, Norilsk, Akademgorodok, and Irkutsk as well as many others. He brings the history faithfully alive and pulls it together with conviction, bringing alongside the present to give us a haunting picture of this vast, inscrutable place. It’s almost as if the more he sees the less you understand, such is the nature of this vast puzzle. He manages to uncover much of the mystery, magic and misery of the places, like when he finds himself on the mighty Lake Baikal where, “Its waters seem to cherish the strange, but kill the ordinary.” Although more than 300 rivers and streams fall into Baikal only one flows out, the Angara. He also tells us that, “It harbours nearly one fifth of all the fresh water on the planet: equal to the five Great Lakes of America combined, or to the Baltic Sea. If Baikal were emptied and all the world’s rivers diverted to its basin, they would not fill it within a year.”
He talks about the roots of the Jewish Autonomous Region of Birobidzhan, “In 1928 the Jews were allocated this wilderness along the borders of China. Larger than Palestine, it was conceived as a propaganda counter-blow to Zionism. It would attract Jewish finance from the West, while populating the Soviet East against Japanese expansion.” In the first decade around 43’000 settlers arrived from America, Europe, Palestine and Argentina. They found a derelict, mosquito ridden land without the proper tools or equipment. Eventually more than half left and as Thubron says, “By 1990, during emigration to Israel and America, the Jews dwindled to fewer than 10,000 just 6 % of the inhabitants, and Yiddish vanished from the streets.”
He speaks to countless disillusioned and suffering inhabitants, “I don’t know what policy drives our government, or even if it has one! Science is now as cut off from the State as the Church used to be. As far as I can see everything’s run by mafia!” So reflects the general secretary of a gravely underfunded institute. At times, Thubron’s command of language is quite striking and profound, his ability to speak Russian gives him a huge advantage over most other travel writers who have ventured to Siberia, and it’s through this, that he manages to dig out some great stories, facts and inside knowledge. What is an impenetrable permafrost for other non-Russian speakers becomes a gold mine for Thubron.
With an almost desultory whim he pulls out one mind bending horror and statistic after another, like, “In 1939 the SS Indigirka went to the bottom with her freight trapped inside. In 1933 the SS Dzhurma mistimed her sailing and was locked in pack-ice for nine months while her 12,000 prisoners all froze to death, and half the crew went insane.” This is the notorious region of Kolyma, where as someone explains, “Kolyma is the land where the sun is without warmth, the flowers without scent, and the women without hearts.”
Thubron illustrates that Siberia is a place where often beauty and horror collide in a confusing yet compelling way. He goes from spellbinding tranquillity to nightmarish horror within the same page and yet maintains a measured balance throughout. This is an unforgiving part of the world that can never be tamed. He shows us that it’s a place that is reluctant to give away its secrets, but one which is even more desperate for answers.