BOOK REVIEW / The frozen east: wonders built on human bones: 'East of the Sun' - Benson Bobrick: Heinemann, 20 pounds

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'RUSSIA'S might will grow by way of Siberia,' wrote the great Russian academic Mikhail Lomonosov more than 200 years ago. Today it is Russia's survival that depends on that ice-bound continent stretching from the Urals to the Pacific. With the Soviet Union gone, and much of Russia's empire with it, even Siberia has turned into an ocean of secessionist discontent. Moscow is struggling to impose its will in its own backyard.

East of the Sun provides a dramatic backdrop to this contemporary morass. It tells a story of conquest and settlement stretching back hundreds of years. And what a story. Those vast expanses of snow and forest are peopled by the ghosts of explorers, hunters, mad scientists, mass murderers and millions of prisoners who worked the mines and built the cities.

Last and, as usual, least come the ghosts of the indigenous populations, such as the Chukchi, who have been murdered, raped and exploited; now, in a final indignity, they find much of their homeland permanently stained by radioactivity. The life expectancy of a Chukchi is just 45 years.

The name Siberia comes from the Mongolian word for 'wonder'. And a wonder it remains, whatever man does. The beauty of a frozen dawn over Lake Baikal, with the sun rising in a host of white flames, can turn in moments into an all-consuming blizzard. At the turn of the century an expedition set off to find traces of the Garden of Eden in Siberia; and the story goes that God's hands froze here as he was distributing the Earth's bounty. Even those who suffered in its camps are drawn back to its majestic 'otherness'.

For those first explorers who trekked months, or even years, across the snows, the hardships were extraordinary. This book (and today's map of Siberia) is dotted with their names. The greatest was perhaps Vitus Bering, who led the first two major expeditions and gave his name to the strait that separates Alaska from Siberia.

Bering describes a world 'so far out of reach of the rest of Mankind that it could never have been visited . . . but by the Russians'. As so often amid the frostbite and scurvy, rape and murder, great science also came from Bering's expedition. Georg Steller, one of many Germans who made their reputations in the name of the Russian tsars, lived and died in Siberia. His descriptions of plants and animals apparently remain models of their kind, while his account of a now extinct sea cow's attempts to save his partner from the hands of starving sailors is simply beautiful: 'It is a most remarkable proof of their conjugal affection that the male, after trying with all his might, although in vain, to free the female caught by the hook, and in spite of the beating we gave him, nevertheless followed her to the shore and several times, even after she was dead, shot unexpectedly up to her side like a speeding arrow.'

Then there are the tales of Siberia the prison, more familiar but no less shocking. Bobrick does not fall into the trap of retelling the whole history of the Soviet gulag. But he rightly establishes that while tsarist labour camps and exile were terrible punishments never to be condoned, the Soviet system's use of prisoners as a disposable commodity to dig, build and die was of a completely different order of terror. Little of today's Siberia is not built on human bones.

And that madness has led to the incredible problems that face non-Soviet Siberia. A glance at the maps of Siberia and Canada suffices. While all Canadian conurbations and industries hug the milder climate and extensive market of the border with the United States, the development of Siberia has not followed any such rational precepts. Enormous towns have grown up for reasons of defence or simple colonial ambitions, towns once financed by slave labour and then by the fictional book-keeping of the Soviet planned economy.

Millions of people work in Siberian factories, producing everything from airplanes to plastic fish. Most were attracted by the pay differentials offered to those willing to work in the harsh world of the East. A centrally planned economy hid the cost of producing goods in an environment where labour costs were higher and productivity lower than in central Russia. A real market economy will close down many of the major towns and most of the manufacturing of Siberia. And what are these free people supposed to do then?

Bobrik wisely avoids speculating on the future. But the history he recounts, in particular the whole Russian relationship with Japan and China, shows how important are the answers to Siberia's problems. If the accepted wisdom that the Pacific Rim will dominate the next century is correct, one can only hope that Moscow has more Chinese speakers today than it did in the 17th century. An important offer of peace and trade made in 1618 was apparently not translated for 50 years.