Perpetual Prisoners

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For the first time in Russia's xenophobic history, foreigners are able to roam more or less at will through Siberia. So what? In the 400 years since Russians began colonizing this land mass that covers one-twelfth of the earth's surface, very little that stirs the soul has come out of its featureless, mosquito-plagued (in summer), ice-bound (in winter) expanse. łA traveler needs to believe in the significance of where he is," the British writer Colin Thubron observes at one point in In Siberia (Chatto & Windus, 320 pages), a finely crafted account of a 25,000-km journey through the region in 1997. łNothing, it seemed, has ever happened here." Most of Siberia is like that--profoundly isolated, profoundly monotone and profoundly boring.

In Czarist times, Siberia was settled by exiles and convicts from European Russia as a way of ring-fencing dissent. In Stalin's time, it became a byword for cruelty and degradation. Today, as Thubron makes clear, the pendulum has swung back a bit. Now Siberia and its 30 million inhabitants have come to epitomize--in deluded nationalist minds at least--łthe Russia that was lost, the citadel of the spirit."

At the start of this heroic project (he was nearing 60 at the time), Thubron half believed this cosy theory himself. "I was trying to find the core to Siberia," he writes. "I could not imagine a Russia without faith." Instead he found himself face to face with something far less palatable--a perversion of progress. "Everything achieved under slavery, it seemed, was being destroyed by freedom," he notes bleakly at the midpoint of his four-month journey. By the end, in an irradiated hellhole called Butugychag in the heart of Stalin's Gulag archipelago, he wearily informs a somewhat skeptical Siberian: "Whatever it's like now, things are better than they were then." Which elicits the supremely Russian response: "People believed things [then]."

Travel writing of this caliber is rare. Thubron journeys for understanding, not effect. Mostly he confines himself to the margins and lets others talk for him. At times his prose soars, as though the sheer awfulness of what he is seeing spurs him on. In the collapsing hubris of Komsomolsk-na-Amur--Stalin's "City of the Dawn" founded by idealistic young communists in 1932--his eye for detail alights on the grandiose architecture: "The snow was falling along their avenues so that little infidelities of style, the crumbling corbels and collapsing balconies, faded down long vistas of puritan uniformity, almost beautiful."

What Thubron found in the fishing hamlet of Potalovo, south of Norilsk and close to the Arctic Circle, deserves a book in itself. Here a native community, the Entsy, "had declined into barbarism." Unemployment was over 50%, life expectancy was down to 45 and the triumph of vodka was complete. Only an indomitable doctor called Nikolai offered any hope. Things had been worse, he claimed. For years the Entsy had been dying of dysentery because of foul drinking water. Now they drank snow water in winter and river water in summer. Siberians are like that, muses Thubron. "They adapt, cut down, muck in, suffer, wait."

Nikolai is just one of a cast of strong, resilient characters who have given Siberia its life-blood down the centuries. They parade across Thubron's pages like beacons. In Komsomolsk he unearths an ebullient Baptist pastor who was once a kgb officer. On the border with Mongolia he meets an unabashed Stalinist burying her head in local history. He interviews an 87-year-old former political prisoner "bitter for all my life's waste" and in Akademgorodok--the once high-flying science city outside Novosibirsk--he has a crazy encounter with an academician who rambles about cosmic wave experiments.

Siberia, of course, has always seemed larger than life. Bigger than the U.S. and Western Europe combined, it lends itself to extremes. Temperatures can plunge to -60°C. It is home to three of the world's great rivers (the Ob, Yenisei and Lena) and the world's deepest inland lake (Lake Baikal). It stretches across seven time zones and is traversed by a railroad that stretches for 8,851 km.

Thubron's lasting achievement is to convey this epic scale and yet to do so in a way that brings alive the smallest detail--larches "wasted to leaden filigree," in Ulan Ude "the biggest head of Lenin in the world," police barracks in Magadan with "each dungeon sheathed in ice." The book ends gloomily as Thubron visits the detritus of Stalin's prison camp system in northeast Siberia and wonders if he is any closer to defining Siberia than when he set out. But by reporting what he saw and heard in writing of supreme talent and clarity, Thubron has created that most precious artistic blend--a memorable work of scholarship, beauty and enduring value.