Thursday, February 22, 2007

Reading: River of No Reprieve

Jeffrey Tayler is more than just a travel writer for publications like Condé Nast Traveler, Harper’s Magazine, and National Geographic. He is an adventuresome risk-taker.

In his book, River of No Reprieve: Descending Siberia's Waterway of Exile, Death, and Destiny, Tayler writes of his harrowing 2,400 mile journey down Siberia's Lena River from Lake Baikal to the town of Tiksi on the Arctic Ocean. Guiding him is a hardened and curmudgeony Soviet-Afghan War veteran named Vadim, whose love of Siberia knows no bounds.

As their journey commences, Tayler begins an ever-unfolding narrative of the region's intriguing history. From the Cossacks of the 16th century who conquered this vast expanse for the Russian Tsar "Ivan the Terrible," to political prisoners sent to the Soviet gulags, to the most recent Russian transplants (20th century) who came for the high pay offered for harvesting the region's rich resources, the area is a true melting pot. Poles, Germans, Finns, Balts, Ukranians, Mongolians, native peoples such as the Yakuts and the Evenks, descendants of Russian intellectuals and plain old criminals have all been thrown together by choice and by oppression.

Not only does Tayler describe the landscape in vivid detail, he relates many stories of the colorful characters he meets along the way. Tayler is compelled to stop at every town and interact with the residents. But Vadim treasures solitude, often remaining with the boat while Tayler visits with the locals. This leads to occasional tension between them.

The two men travel in a custom-made, seventeen foot raft, camping most nights along the river's banks. But occasionally Tayler stays in a hotel in one of the many towns along the route, or occasionally as the personal guest of a local he has met.

Perhaps the most interesting component of Tayler's story is the consistent yearning of many Siberian residents for a return to the days of the old Soviet Union. Some even speak longingly of "Papa Joe" Stalin, a leading mass murderer of the twentieth century, who nonetheless kept the "machine" of socialism running. Sadly, without the Soviet government to manage things—as inefficent as it was—local economies are nearly bankrupt. Unemployment and alcoholism run rampant. And the young especially seem without purpose and direction.

River of No Reprieve artfully blends the stark physical beauty of this region, with the stark reality of life without meaning. It is a compelling, though heartrending story.

Tayler, an American, has lived in Moscow with his Russian wife since 1993. He speaks eight languages.

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