Where time goes in circles

Saturday 23 October 1999 23:00

In Siberia by Colin Thubron Chatto £17.99

In Siberia by Colin Thubron Chatto £17.99

In parts of Eastern Siberia, writes Colin Thubron, the "snow-glazed desolation" of the forest is "over a thousand miles deep from north to south, and the suffocating closeness of its trees, crowding out all distances, any perspective, has driven people literally mad. Magnetic anomalies can doom even a sane traveller here, while his compass-point swings uselessly." Much of this astonishing book evokes a world so vast, so lacking in landmarks, that it is easy to see why many are driven to madness, to excessive drinking of vodka (or machine oil), to nostalgia, nationalism or religious fanaticism.

Lake Baikal is full of weird evolutionary leftovers: sturgeons carrying 20 pounds of caviar; red-eyed shrimps packed 25,000 to the square yard "fondling the dark with preposterously long antennae"; and the fatty golianka, "some so translucent you can read a book through them". And, unlike the mammoths freed from the permafrost, many of Siberia's human inhabitants seem trapped in a past not yet ready to release them. A drunken illegitimate descendant of Rasputin struggles to create something from his heritage. An academician living near Khrushchev's now dilapidated "city of science" in Novosibirsk pontificates about the origins of civilisation: "Intelligence emerged in several regions simultaneously - in Siberia, in Africa, in Central Asia. Siberia was first! ... Darwin, you understand, is nonsense."

In Siberia starts in Yekaterinburg, where the last Romanovs were put to death. Dull in life, they have now become the centre of a kitsch cult. "They are already saints!" one devotee exclaims. "In the church where I worship, the Mother of God has told John the Baptist that they are her favourite ladies-in-waiting, her favourite children."

As Thubron makes his way east, with side trips to the Arctic Circle and towards the Mongolian border, he encounters much more ersatz religion. A shaman asks him about a London he has only read about ("How do you see in all that fog?") and hopes he will return next year with some walrus essence. Old Believers, long persecuted for minor liturgical heresies like honouring the Trinity with a double (rather than a triple) Alleluia, struggle to re-assert themselves. A priest performs a clumsy makeshift Mass on the boat crossing Lake Baikal: "In lieu of the Holy Gospel, he processed with an uplifted service sheet; in place of the chalice (since no one was expected to take communion) he cradled an egg-cup. His trainers squeaked with each duty."

Most of this seems to reflect the desperate longings of an older generation disillusioned by the failures of communism, and of their children who never believed in anything. An elderly woman living in a remote forest blots out all Russia's current problems with soap operas and laments: "In Brezhnev's years we were told that America was sinking. Now half our people are out of work, and the Americans all seem to live in Santa Barbara." An ageing historian struggles to view the whole Soviet era as "a long, tragic falling-off from a pure Socialism which she cannot quite locate in time". Birobidzhan, the bizarre "Jewish Autonomous Region" established in the 1920s as a rival to Palestine, is now taken over by Chinese market traders "watchful and needle-hard. They lived on nearly nothing, crammed noodles into their mouths where they worked, camped all together in cheap tenements ... Their Russian competitors, by contrast, were comfortable and slow."

Birobidzhan is close to the Pacific coast but, instead of making direct for Vladivostok, Thubron turns north again one last time, towards Yakutsk and the former death camps of Kolyma. This may sound a bit contrived - like writing a travel book about Europe which ends in Auschwitz - but the impact is almost overwhelming. A Jew called Fedor takes him to dungeons, still stinking but now knee-deep in water, where prisoners "used to press the bodies of the dead against the walls to insulate themselves from the cold". Yuri, a young geologist, shows him the radioactive slave mines. His grandfather had been sent to the camps for five years for making a silly (and not even subversive) joke about Stalin. Perhaps two million people were worked to death here.

Distraught, Thubron cries out: "Whatever it's like now, things are better ... You'll never go back to that." But Yuri is unsure: "We're not like you in the West ... With us, time still goes in circles." Can this really be the last word? "His hand, which was tracing a circle, now tentatively lifts. 'Maybe we spiral a little,' he says, 'a little upwards.'" In Siberia is full of horror, many flashes of humour and a deep humanity, but of hope there are only the faintest glimmers.

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