Jeffrey Tayler is a Moscow based American journalist who in 2004 set off on a 2,400 mile along the Lena River in Siberia, following the route taken by Cossacks 300 years previously as the Russian empire expanded into the east. Accompanied by Vadim, a guide for whom there appears to be a considerable sense of loathing, he travels from Ust’-Kut up river to Tiksi on the Lavtev Sea, stopping off at a succession of ever more shambolic and decaying settlements, each, with few exceptions, dying of neglect and drowning in alcohol. He paints a bleak picture of a land that is overwhelmingly peopled by dangerous and unpredictable Bich’yo, people who according to a woman he meets in a remote outpost “were once intelligent who have degraded into devil knows what”.
The death of Communism heralded the death of industry here and with that also the death of the labour camps, for which Siberia was once famous, yet it is in the remains of one of these camps that the author comes across some of the most cheerful and upbeat individuals on his journey. The book is peppered with characters who are in various measures cheerful, kind and at the same time realistic about their future in a harsh environment where there is no economic future.
Even though this book does not paint a welcoming picture, and is unlikely to have the reader booking a flight to Russia, it is an engaging and interesting tale. The addition of pictures by the author would have been welcome, and in their absence we must paint a mental picture. It’s certainly a vivid one.
River of White Nights: A Siberian Odyssey
ISBN 1 86105 949 3