BOOK REVIEW: In Siberia
by James MacLaren
In Siberia, 1999, Colin Thubron.
HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 10 East 53rd Street, New York NY 10022
Well the Empire of the Soviets may have gone away, but Siberia is still very
much alive and well.
Poor choice of words there. Nothing, it would appear, is particularly alive or
well across the vast tract of hell that calls itself Siberia.
Sitting here in a cozy room with my butt firmly planted in a comfortable chair,
it’s really difficult to even IMAGINE Siberia. I have far less trouble imagining
places like Antarctica, or even the Moon. There’s just SOMETHING about Siberia
that will not allow my tiny little brain to get a proper handle on the place.
Colin has done a masterful job, traveling across Siberia from east to west and
north to south. Or at least some of it. The place is just too big for one person
to cover in a lifetime. Colin did the best he could, though. From the Ural
Mountains to the Sea of Okhotsk. From Vorkuta to Kyzyl. And a lot of other
Anybody who’s read The Gulag Archipelago will be chillingly familiar with such
fatal place names as Norilsk, The Kolyma, Krasnoyarsk, Novosibirsk, and a host
of other god-forsaken places so far off the beaten trail that back in the bad
old days they didn’t even have to fence the sonofabitches off. Escaped
prisoner-slaves literally had NOWHERE to go. Thousands of miles of hellishly
frozen wasteland in all directions. Exactly zero by way of transportation
infrastructure. If you’re going, you’re going on foot. Forget it.
Nowadays, the prison camps are gone for the most part, and people are out there
trying to scratch a living from a ferociously unpleasant land. I think that
might be part of the reason I have such a difficult time understanding the
place. When people go to Antarctica or the Moon, they’re fully equipped with the
latest and greatest gear to allow them to survive and execute whatever job
they may have in such a far off and lethal place. In Siberia, they pretty much
don’t have diddly. And yet they somehow get by. Unfortunately, that’s about it.
Just getting by. Barely, I might add.
Three huge rivers, each of them the size of the Mississippi, flowing north and
emptying into a barren coastline on the shores of the Arctic Ocean.
Gigantic petrochemical complexes, spewing unimaginable pollution, surrounded by
cities with a million inhabitants, utterly and completely isolated in a stark
flat landscape covered with dirty snow.
An impossibly gigantic lake, harboring one-fifth of all the liquid fresh water
on the planet, with seals swimming in it.
Ancient pensioners with no family left, surviving yet another winter in a wooden
shack with nothing more than an oven to keep the place warm.
Slave labor camps, abandoned in place, with the wind whistling through empty
barracks and across mass graves of unknown people who died in the middle of
nowhere, for nothing.
This is an excellent book and I strongly recommend you read it.
I’ve always wanted to go there.