Some place-names – Samarkand, Andalusia, Tahiti, Marrakesh – set the imagination tingling. “Siberia” – for me and, I suspect, many others – numbs it. Emptiness, cold, punishment, exile, meaningless immensity: these are the usual associations. It would take an unusually gifted travel writer, surely, to fill in that enormous blank.
On the short list of great contemporary travel writers – including, say, Norman Lewis, Paul Theroux, Jonathan Raban, Alex Shoumatoff, Redmond O’Hanlon, Jan Morris – Colin Thubron ranks very high. “The most poetic of us all,” Morris has written, her italics testifying to the wonder that Thubron’s peers as well as his readers feel before his extraordinarily lyrical prose. Thubron has written a half dozen novels, another half dozen travel books about the Middle East and China, and two previous volumes about the former Soviet Union: Where Nights Are Longest, on western Russia, and The Lost Heart of Asia, on Central Asia. In Siberia rounds out this Russian trilogy in magnificent style.
The statistics (which Thubron mostly eschews) startle. Siberia is as large as China and India combined (or alternatively, as all the NATO countries, including the United States) but contains only 30 million people. The lowest temperature at any inhabited site was recorded in Siberia:
-97°F. The region has three rivers more than 3000 miles long, each draining an area larger than Western Europe. Lake Baikal contains one-fifth of all the fresh water on earth; if it were emptied and all the world’s rivers were diverted into it, they would require more than a year to fill it again. A large fraction (no one knows exactly how large) of the world’s lumber, diamonds, oil, and natural gas are located in or under Siberia.
But Thubron is a novelist and word-painter rather than a journalist, so facts of this kind take a back seat to sense impressions, individual portraits, and deft, unobtrusive historical sketches. History figures more largely at the beginning of his journey, on Siberia’s European border. At Yekaterinburg he visits the site where the last Czar and his family were murdered and briefly but vividly recreates that primal scene of Russia’s 20th-century history. In a nearby village he ruminates at the grave of Georg Stiller, a brilliant 18th-century naturalist who was the first white man in Alaska and who discovered Stiller’s Jay as well as the rare and marvellous-sounding Stiller’s White Raven, Stiller’s Sea Eagle, and Stiller’s Sea Cow. A little further on he encounters a self-styled descendant of Rasputin; like a heartbreaking number of other middle-aged or older Siberian males Thubron meets, the man is a drunkard, a fantast, a beggar.
As Thubron travels east, Czarist history gives way to Stalinist history, whose main legacy seems to be pollution and prison camps. In Omsk, whose suburbs “bristle with petrochemical plants, textile combines and oil refineries,” the pollution is so thick that driving at night is sometimes forbidden. The Ob and the Yenesei rivers – the world’s fourth and sixth longest, respectively – are so filled with industrial waste that they no longer freeze in winter. For a hundred miles around the chemical complex at Norilsk, in the Arctic Circle, the reindeer herds have been decimated by acid rain and toxic fumes. Still, so irrepressible is Thubron’s lyric impulse that he always rebounds, describing, for example, his steamship’s departure from a depressingly polluted industrial city in this dreamy, exquisite prose:
“The city drifts away from us. … Our foghorn booms lonely beneath a bridge. We thread between marshy islets where fishermen stand in black waterproofs and do not look up. A flight of duck is heading west. Our engine putters in near-silence. Moored along the quays, the barges barely rock in our wake. Even as we break clear of the last suburbs, long banners of smoke are streaming from unseen factory chimneys to our north. Then even these vanish, and on either shore the hills flow down under a soft blaze of trees – birches turning amber, dark layers of cedar and pine gashed by the scarlet of mountain ash. Sometimes, when the river narrows, the cliffs steepen into serrated blades which drop sheer to the water. At others, the way smooths out into an island-studded calm, and the light falls flat and glassy on a meandering half-lake.”
The human residue of Siberia’s 20th century also appears pretty grim. “Everything is falling to bits there,” an Azerbaijani merchant warns Thubron at the beginning of his journey. It’s true; though the bits don’t seem to have been very well organized to begin with. But at least with the Communists in power, things were predictable. Now half the people Thubron meets have no job, and half of those who do work don’t get paid. Everyone hustles, scrounges, steals, or simply endures. The only entrepreneurial energy or capital comes from across the Chinese border.
There is now religious freedom, though, which means more to Russians than we comparatively godless Americans can perhaps appreciate. Thubron encounters believers of many stripes, some of whom cling to shards of traditions all but extinct after seventy years of suppression. The Orthodox Church is flourishing, of course, having long since achieved a modus vivendi with the state. The ranks of Old Believers, on the other hand – fundamentalist Orthodox exiled from western Russia in the 17th century – have thinned drastically since 1917. In southern Siberia, shamanism had almost guttered out but is now flickering, however briefly. Buddhist enclaves survive along the southern border, looking toward Mongolia and Tibet. There are even a few Baptist missionaries, and a dwindling remnant of the Jewish Autonomous Republic in remote Birobidzhan.
This almost chaotic religious and ethnic diversity is one of many respects in which Siberia resembles the American West – Thubron calls it Russia’s “Wild East.” Fabulous natural resources, mythic purity untainted by civilized corruptions, religious sects in flight from persecution, land rushes, lawlessness, mistreated indigenous peoples: all these figure in the history of both regions. But fate has been kind to California and cruel to Siberia.
Thubron’s journey ends in Hell: i.e., in Kolyma, the lowest circle of the Soviet Gulag. The book’s last dozen pages are a meditation – solemn, painful and, yes, at times lyrical – on the unfathomable horror of the Stalinist death camps. Yet so fine a writer is Thubron that this meditation is both humbling and exalting, like a glorious, mournful Orthodox chant.
Back thousands of miles in Kyzyl, near the Mongolian border, Thubron came across a granite obelisk marking the geographical heart of Asia and drifted into a reverie. “Asia,” he mused: “it has consumed my adult life.” Lucky for us.