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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Raging Rivers

Air Date: Week of

Photo: (c)Tatyana Shchukina

Author Jeffrey Tayler takes us on a journey down the Lena River into the wilds of Siberia. He shares tales from his new book “River of No Reprieve; Descending Siberia’s Waterway of Exile Death, and Destiny.”



GELLERMAN: An icy wind sweeps across the frozen tundra of Lake Baikal, Siberia, Russia. Here in the vast expanse Stalin exiled millions to Gulag prison camps….
A horrible place then, a harrowing place now, as Jeffrey Tayler found when he traveled up Siberia’s Lena River. It’s the tenth largest in the world. Tayler chronicles his journey in his book, “River of No Reprieve: Descending Siberia’s Waterway of Exile, Death, and Destiny.” He joins us from Moscow. Jeffrey, Z’drastvotya.

TAYLER: Z’drastvotya.

GELLERMAN: Kadk dela?

TAYLER: Chadasteo, oo vas tiya.

GELLERMAN: I’m fine, thank you very much. I appreciate you taking the time to talk with us.


GELLERMAN: Your trip up the Lena River sounds, well, on the one hand terrific, and then you’ve got this awful place. Can you describe it, and why you would possibly want to go up this river?

(Photo: (c)Tatyana Shchukina)

TAYLER: Well, this river was the river down which the Cossacks sailed in the 17th Century, out into the Arctic Ocean, and then from there around the eastern edge of Russia between Alaska and Russia. So it was sort of the route of some of the first Cossack explorers of Siberia. They were basically runaways from the Czars so I picked this route historically for that reason and also because it runs through some of the most pristine scenery on the planet, including some of the bleakest in the northern regions. During the winter it freezes over. It’s got a layer of ice about 8 feet thick. And trucks use it as a highway in a land where there are almost no roads.

GELLERMAN: And in the summer it gets intensely sweaty and hot.

TAYLER: Yeah, once you get out of the highlands near Lake Baikal then the river drops into this bog and flat land where it can go up to 105 and it was easily close to 100 during a stretch of this trip. There were certainly a lot of insects. You wouldn’t be able to last very long out there. Even out on the river they tended to they followed us.

GELLERMAN: What did you use to fight them and fend them off?

TAYLER: I wore a protective hat with a net because otherwise you would just breathe them in and choke on them. And my guide didn’t bathe. He thought that by not bathing his skin would become clogged and emit less of an attractive smell to the insects. So that was his approach to it.

GELLERMAN: That’s your guide, Vadim He’s quite a character. I mean he’s like your companion, your travel guide. He’s this curmudgeon. You describe him as a tragic figure.

TAYLER: Yeah, I think he was...even though I hired him to take me down the river, he basically gave me the feeling the whole way that I was almost like an unwelcome guest on his excursion. And he’s decorated with war heroes for fighting in Afghanistan and he was an extremely strong person, which he still is, but disdainful of humanity in general. And the only thing he really likes are the woods and the tundra and that’s why he did the trip for me.

GELLERMAN: There were many places in the book that were dangerous but there was one place where you almost buy the farm. Can you tell us about that?

TAYLER: I think you mean the pipe. It was about 80 miles long as I recall. It was a section of the river where, the very very wide river, 9 or 10 miles wide in many places, shrinks into what looks like a pipe. And all of that water goes rushing through, probably about not even a half mile. And the current is very strong and the waves are very high. And we had this terrible wind. So we navigated that and then that led us right out into the Arctic Ocean into what were probably the most dangerous parts of the trip.

GELLERMAN: I know, 8-foot breakers, you got the temperature of the water is less than 40 degrees. Vadim’s not wearing a life jacket.

TAYLER: Yeah, neither was I. I mean there was no point in wearing a life jacket, given that if we’d fallen in the cold would have given us hypothermia, so we wouldn’t have been able to get ashore.

GELLERMAN: You traveled through the republic of Sakha and meet the Yakuts. Who are the Yakuts?

TAYLER: They’re a Turkic people that basically moved out of Central Asia during the era of migrations when Genghis Khan and others where setting themselves up. And they moved north and they kept moving north. And now they’re one of the many minority peoples of Russia. And they have a huge republic. I think it’s the size, oh I think it might be the size of Western Europe.

GELLERMAN: Yeah, and they have only a million people.

TAYLER: Yeah, they have practically no people. It’s just taiga and tundra.

GELLERMAN: You tell the story of a myth, a Yakut myth that takes place in a place called simply the pillars. Would you mind reading a little piece of that?

TAYLER: Ah, sure. (reading) “Once, eons ago, legend has it, the pillars were castles of gold. The demesnes of a vicious flying dragon. The dragon terrorized the Yakuts and extracted tribute. Hearing of a Yakutian beauty named Kere Kyys, the dragon demanded that they hand her over. They did. But the chaste Yakutian maiden happened to be born to a great shaman and engaged to a fearsome hunter named Khorson Uol, and had no intention of remaining the beast’s concubine. She tricked him into revealing the locus of his magic powers: his tail. During the fateful duel between Uol and the dragon, Kere shouted this vital piece of intelligence and – whop! – Uol lopped off the tail. All at once the castles of gold metamorphosed into the Lena Pillars. Uol turned to stone and a tree sprouted where the shaman stood, on which Yakuts to this day hang shreds of cloth for good luck.

GELLERMAN: You actually met a shaman.

TAYLER: Yeah, I did in Yakutsk the capital of Sakha. He performed a sort of a detoxification rite on us. And he probably is the only shaman in Yakutia who has his own website.

GELLERMAN: (laughs) Well, detoxification, he probably has his work cut out for him because it seems every stop along the Lena River you run into people who are drop down drunk.

TAYLER: Yeah, I suppose. Heavy drinking, as you know, is a part of Russian life. But out there very often people tended to just drink throughout the day in smaller doses. So it wasn’t, not everybody was drunk, but there were a good number of people who were sort of two sheets to the wind, starting early in the morning. And the mortality rate as a result is very high.

GELLERMAN: There is this overwhelming sense in the book, and it repeats again and again and again, about a kind of hopelessness; a pervasive sense of despair among the people that you meet along the river.

TAYLER: Yeah, I think that maybe despair and anger sums it up. Although people were living basically unmolested out amidst these beautiful woods on this great river, that people did value. But as far as politics went, and the idea of getting any help from the state, they were hopeless.

GELLERMAN: Vadim is a man who believes in very few things. At one point though, he says, “Russians are a herd, they can only be ruled by force.” What did he mean?

TAYLER: Yeah, well, I think he’s articulating the view of a lot of people who have imbibed the lessons of Russian history. I don’t agree with that. I think the future of Russia lies in disagreeing with looking at humans as cattle that have to be whipped into line. But one aspect of the national psychology is to see the strength of a people in the might of the state. And the mighty state herds and whips its people ahead. And he was referring to what he thought were bad years, the Stalin years, in part, but also when the country was feared. And a lot of Russians feel now that Russia is no longer feared and they are sort of ashamed of it.

GELLERMAN: I was wondering what music we’d play with this piece.

TAYLER: Um, it would seem like – do you know that song....


TAYLER: It’s sort of like oh my native land is so broad or wide or. It was, I think Stalin had it written. I don’t remember the composer. But it certainly gives the majesty of the landscape, these endless forests and bogs and it’s a great Soviet era song. One of the most famous.

GELLERMAN: Well Jeffery, spaseeba bolshoi.

TAYLER: Nezhezdah.
[MUSIC: Shiroka Strana Moya Rodnaya “How Broad is My Country?” from Russian Film Soundtrack (Archives - 1944)]

GELLERMAN: Jeffrey Tayler’s new book is called “River of No Reprieve: Descending
Siberia’s Waterway of Exile, Death, and Destiny.”



River of No Reprieve: Descending Siberia’s Waterway of Exile, Death and Destiny


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