This is an account of Nansen’s trip through the Arctic Sea, then upstream along the largest rivers in the Russian Empire and across the vast stretches of Asian Siberia to the Russian Pacific Coast. This north-eastern region was the Russian equivalent of the American Wild West. Modern man was wresting the almost immeasurable natural resources from the area - the motives being profit and the supply of food, materials and land to the explosively increasing populations of Europe.
In 1911 a company was formed with the intent of promoting trade between Norway and Russia. This was to utilize a trade route across the Arctic Sea north of Siberia. The first attempt was a failure because the ship was stopped by ice in the Kara Sea. A second attempt was to be made in the summer of 1913, and Jonas Lied, the businessman behind the enterprise, invited Nansen to accompany the venture.
Following the death of his wife and the consequential responsibility of bringing up his family, years of hard work on oceanography and simultaneously five years spent on writing In Northern Mists, Nansen was happy to accept his role as distinguished passenger. This did not, however, prevent his advice being sought as the Correct picked her way through the ice in the Kara Sea. For much of the way she was following the course taken by the Fram twenty years previously.
The Imperial Russian Government invited Nansen to join a motorboat at the mouth of the Yenisei and travel upstream along one of the longest rivers in the world as it meandered through Siberia. Then he was to join the Trans-Siberian Railway and see the Russian Pacific coast at Vladivostok. The journey totalled twelve thousand miles.
Nansen’s regarded this epic journey, which most people would count an adventure in itself, as a vacation. On this occasion he was not the guiding hand directing his and his companion’s destiny - he could afford to take a more relaxed view of the undertaking.
Chapter 1 From Norway to the Kara Sea
It was already 3.20 on August 2, 1913; the train was due to start at 3.25 from the Eastern Station in Christiania, and there was still no sign of the others. I can’t deny that I was beginning to get rather impatient.
At last a man appeared, carefully prepared for travelling, accompanied by a servant carrying various traps. He introduced himself as Loris-Melikov, Secretary of the Russian Legation, and my shipmate on the trip. He had seen nothing of the others either.
Now there were only a few minutes left. Then Mr. Lied came up and said he did not think we could start to-day, as Vostrotin’s things were still lying at the Grand Hotel; by some mistake they had not been brought down. He was going to look for Vostrotin, and would see whether the station master could keep the train a few minutes. Then he disappeared.
As I stood there, uncertain whether to wait till next day or to start at once, Vostrotin arrived, out of breath, hot and flustered, and got into the train. He said he was going on; his luggage would have to be sent after him; he had not seen Lied at the station - and with that he went off to find a seat.
Consul-General Lorentzen and Mr. Whist, both directors of the Siberian Company, came to say good-bye to us. Whist declared he had faith in my lucky star, and his insurance company had therefore underwritten the ship. At that moment the whistle sounded, and with a jerk the train began to move. Was the luggage on board? and Lied? Nobody knew. But there he was, calmly walking up and shouting that he was going to wait till next day and would bring Vostrotin’s things with him. Then we might just as well have waited too, and there were several things I wanted to clear up before starting. But there we were, and we should have to put in a day at Trondhjem for nothing.
At Eidsvold I had a telegram from Mr. Whist, saying that they were sending Lied and the luggage after us by special train to Hamar. And by the time we had had a good dinner there, Lied rolled into the station, calm as usual, with his special train and the luggage.
Then everything was in order, and all four of us were able to go on happily together to Trondhjem, and from there by the steamer northward to Tromsö along the coast of Nordland, whose wonderful beauty we had to imagine behind the drizzling rain and grey weather at sea, and above the low bank of fog in which every blue peak and white glacier was hidden.
The object of the trip was nothing less than to make another serious attempt to open up a regular trade connexion with the interior of Siberia, via the Kara Sea and the mouth of the Yenisei. Mainly with this object in view the Siberian Company had been formed, through the enterprise of Mr. Jonas Lied and with him as manager.
The Company had already made an attempt to complete the trip, but this had been a failure as the boat had been unable to navigate the ice in the Kara Sea.
This year a more serious attempt was to be made; the steamer Correct had been chartered and lay waiting for us at Tromsö: this time Lied was going to make the voyage from Norway. The boat was laden chiefly with cement from Stettin, which was to be delivered to the Siberian Railway.
The question now was, whether we should get through or not. If the attempt failed again this year, it was thought that the Company would have to give up the idea of going on. If, on the other hand, it was successful, it would perhaps inaugurate a new line of annual sailings to the mouth of the Yenisei. Considerable interests were therefore involved in this trip.
In Siberia itself the development of this sea route has long been regarded as a vital question...
If regular annual sailings could be established, in spite of the ice, between the Yenisei estuary and Europe, so that in future the immense quantities of produce could be sent by this cheaper route, it would naturally be of the greatest importance to the future development of the whole of Central Siberia...
As I have said, there were four of us who travelled north together. First there was the Director of the Company, Jonas Lied, to whom this expedition was due. A man of a little over 30, who had spent some time in Russia and Siberia... he had succeeded in forming his company with Norwegian, English, Russian and Siberian capital...
Then there were we three who had been invited to take part in the voyage as guests.
There was Stephan Vasilievitch Vostrotin, a gold mine proprietor from Yeniseisk, formerly mayor of that town... A better companion for a voyage to Siberia it would be impossible to find. He had already sailed through the Kara Sea once, on his wedding trip in 1894... and was like a walking guide book to everything one wanted to know... in addition to this he was himself for a long time part owner, in the nineties, of vessels trading in the Kara Sea and on the Yenisei; he had himself bought steamers for this trade and lost a lot of money in it...
The second passenger was Joseph Gregorievitch Loris-Melikov, who for many years has been Secretary of the Russian Legation in Christiania. By birth he is an Armenian from the Caucasus; he was educated for some years in Germany, studied at a German university, and, besides Russian and German, speaks excellent Norwegian, French and English. And on this trip he had opportunities of picking up some words of Yurak, Samoyede and Yenisei-Ostiak... Always friendly and obliging, always the well groomed and elegant diplomat, always an amiable and entertaining companion, he was just as ready to make as to appreciate a quiet joke, and always had the same immutable faith in the Russian system of government and its excellence.
Then there was myself. How and why I was of the party is still a riddle to me. I am very far from being a business man, and I have never had anything to do with Siberia beyond once sailing along its northern coast. But of course this does not prevent my having always taken a lively interest in that immense country and being very desirous of making its acquaintance. Nor do I know of any other qualification which would make it desirable to include me, except that I once sailed through the Kara Sea, and that I have had some little experience of going through the ice.
But however that may be, Lied had been to see me once or twice to hear what I thought of the possibilities of annual navigation through the Kara Sea. Thus he probably got the impression that I was interested in the question, and one fine day an invitation arrived from the Company to take part as a guest in the voyage of the steamer Correct to the mouth of the Yenisei; and at the same time I received a very kind invitation from Mr. Wourtzel, the engineer at the head of all Imperial Russian railway construction, to go on with him up the Yenisei and by rail to Eastern Siberia and the Amur district, to see the new railway in course of construction there. And through him the Russian Traffic Minister sent a message that I should be welcome as the guest of Russia on this journey.
Why not? It was temptingly easy way of making a trip through the Arctic Ocean to the Yenisei, and then seeing the whole of Siberia to the farthest east, without any trouble or preparation. I wanted a holiday; there could not be a better way of spending it, and I accepted with thanks...
Chapter 2 Visits from Samoyedes
The westerly wind on our beam drove us slowly in towards the land. As we came nearer we could make out people moving on shore... Were they Samoyedes? Or were they perhaps Russians... We could not tell.
Johansen sang out from the crow's nest that a boat was putting out from land. There was great excitement on board...
Then we nodded in a friendly way and made signs to them to approach; and they rowed slowly and cautiously up to the gangway ladder, while Vostrotin continued speaking to them. It then appeared that there was one who knew a little Russian. He came from the Pustozersk district and must have been a Syryenian. The Syryenians are the bloodsuckers of the Samoyedes, said Vostrotin.
The Syryenian explained that he was the old man's partner in fishing and hunting. He probably had some reindeer besides, and certainly carried on trade. He looked a crafty fellow, and was altogether different from the others. He told us, seemingly with a certain pride, that the scar on the right side of his lower lip was the result of a cut in a fight with knives. Vostrotin told me that the Syryenians were great fighters and fond of vodka, while the Samoyedes were peaceful, though they don't mind getting drunk either, when they have a chance.
We invited them on board and they came clambering up the ladder, really not unlike monkeys. They cautiously pattered about and stared at all the wonderful things on the big steamer. She must have been the biggest ship they had ever seen. All the costly iron that was everywhere about had to be carefully felt... They looked down into the black depths of the engine room and heard all the strange noises that came from the stokers below, who were singing and clattering their shovels. It must have seemed like a mysterious underworld.
Meanwhile Lied's business instinct was aroused; he began bartering with them and bought two knives with brass mounted sheaths and belts, and brass chains. He offered in exchange... a pocket electric lamp, which of course made a great impression. One of them could not resist that. He must have created a great sensation when he got home to the camp with that bit of magic; but what sort of faces would they put on when the magic did not work any longer and there was no more light?
Then they came into the saloon and had a look round, and there they were given a performance of the gramophone, but it did not impress them very much. They had heard a better one in Obdorsk, they said, it made still more noise!
But after that they were taken to the chart room to hear the whining and humming of the wireless, while the operator worked his keys. They stared open mouthed, one over the head of another, and their faces showed unconcealed astonishment and wonder. Whether they had any idea that all this extraordinary mechanism could send messages through the air to places far distant, (not that this wireless did!) is rather doubtful; but at any rate they understood that they were here in the presence of a new and marvellous force.
[Arthur C. Clarke's 'third law' states that 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic'. In this case his dictum deserves the adjunct: '- even if it doesn't work.' Editor].
Chapter 5 Nosonovski Pesok and the Samoyedes
One of the things that tempted me most on this trip was the opportunity I hoped it would afford of seeing some of the numerous primitive peoples of Siberia at close quarters. There is always something very attractive about primitive peoples, and the more primitive they are, the stronger the attraction; and in this extraordinary country there are numbers of them that are still comparatively little known, strange as it may seem.
Here, going up the Yenisei, before we come to Yeniseisk, we have races enough: first the so-called Yenisei-Samoyedes [now known as the Enets] - then Yuraks [still called by the same name], another branch of the Samoyedes [the largest and most widespread group living in an area extending from the White Sea to the Yenisei, and now known as Nenets] - then, between the [Rivers] Yenisei and the Obi, Ostiaks [known as the Khanty], who are a Finno-Ugrian stem - then, on the eastern side of the Yenisei, Dolgans [still known by this name, and of Tungus origin] - then that mysterious people, the Yenisei-Ostiaks, quite different from the others and probably a last remnant of a great and mighty people that once occupied vast tracts of Siberia...
[The Yenisei-Ostiaks are now known as the Ket. Their language is classified as part of the widespread Paleo-Siberian [or Hyperborean - see In Northern Mists] group but the three main sub-groups of this class of language seem not to be related to each other and have not been demonstrated to be descended from any other language groups in the world. They may be remnants of a great diversity of language which existed in prehistoric Siberia before the advance of the Uralic, Tungus and Turkic peoples. Loanwords to the various Paleo-Siberian languages come from widespread sources. They include words from the Eskimo, Selku [a Uralic language originating in the Ural Mountain area], Ainu [a language of northern Japan], Manchu-Tungus, the Turkic language Yakut as well as Russian. Paleo-Siberian languages, Encyclopædia Britannica, Britannica (R) CD 99 Multimedia Edition (C) 1994-1999 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.]
On this stretch of country alone there was more than enough to occupy the philologist and anthropologist. Since the eminent Finnish philologist, Alexander Castrén, travelled here before the middle of the last century, and the great Siberian authority, Middendorff, visited the region about the same time, these peoples and their languages have been little investigated.
[Language, as we have all experienced, is learned rather than genetically inherited. However, there is a very significant association between the major language families and the various races of humans. This is generally thought to be due to the development of initial differences in speech, intensified over a long period and maintained by thousands of years of geographical separation. A study of comparative linguistics is still as important today as it was in Nansen’s time for distinguishing the origin and history of specific groups such as the Samoyedes [or ‘Nenets’]. But research into the history and origin of these groups is now carried out in tandem with a study of human genetics. A knowledge of the Ten Commandments would not now be taken as proof of the Jewish origin of a particular tribe without a clear indication, from genetic analysis, of Jewish heritage.
Closely neighbouring groups tend to speak related languages, as happens in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, part of Belgium and England. Languages which are distinct from their neighbours are often found in genetically distinct groups e.g. the Basques whose language differs markedly from French or Spanish and whose gene pool shows significant differences from their close neighbours. This holds true in the north for the modern-day Finns who are strongly distinct both genetically and linguistically from some other nearby groups. However there are exceptions, for example the Celtic speaking Irish, who although retaining a distinct language of their own, seem now to be genetically almost indistinguishable from the general population of the British Isles. On the other hand, there were large colonies of Norse in Orkney, Shetland and in the Dublin area of Ireland. Place names still betray their presence, but the distinctly Norse language has almost disappeared. However, there is still a strong genetic link between the present day inhabitants of the Scottish islands and the present day Scandinavians.
Over time one language may displace another because of the political domination of one group over another. The English language, for example, contains many words [loanwords] which have come from the Danish or French languages and which reflect invasions which happened many hundreds of years previously. Encyclopædia Britannica, ‘Language and Population’, Britannica (R) CD 99 Multimedia Edition (C) 1994-1999 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc].
Although the Samoyedes are not so very numerous, they nevertheless have an immensely wide distribution over the Siberian-European tundra and over the northern forest regions... On the south, too, they must formerly have been widely diffused, and a small isolated tribe of Samoyedes, called Kamassintses or Kamassins, is still found on the rivers Kan and Mana, tributaries of the Yenisei...
As to where these widely spread Samoyedes [Nenets] originally came from, we know, to be candid, very little. Many hypotheses on the subject may be as probable as that of the learned monk, who gave Castrén a manuscript in which he had clearly proved that the Samoyedes were descended from the Israelites, because they knew the Ten Commandments. But the general supposition is that they were a people divided into several tribes, who originally inhabited the Altai and Sayan Mountains. The Chinese historians mention in the seventh century a people called Dubo, living in the Altai, on the plateaux to the east of Lake Kossogol. They were neither a pastoral nor an agricultural people, but fishers and hunters. Two other kindred tribes are also mentioned. They had wooden horses (i.e. ski) on their feet and props (ski-sticks) under their arms, and at every stride they went forward at least a hundred paces; at night they committed all kinds of thievery and pillage…
Chapter 8 Dudinka to the Kureika
At last the fish business was concluded, and the captain and crew got their kegs of seld aboard for salting. We were able to go on, and soon we arrived at Dudinka, the Moscow of the north, the most important place in the whole district for this is the centre of all traffic and trade eastward over the tundra to Khátanga and Anábara.
The place stands on the high east side of the river, and as usual the houses were up on the top of the slope. But I could hardly believe my eyes: there was a house up there far bigger and longer than anything one would have expected to find in this part of the world. With its long rows of windows and doorways it looked like a fairy palace, standing up there against the sky in the setting sun. It was the house of the principal trader of the district and was just now being reconstructed; the owner himself was ill and had gone away. He was reported to be the fairest and most honourable trader in these parts, and a good man to the natives.
There was a pretty little church, with a belfry and no fewer than seven bells. There was also a French shop, Revillon’s, where we bought a coffee pot, glasses, plates, and various other things to supplement our scanty messing outfit.
In the shop at the big house we got bread, biscuits and cigarettes, which, of course, are smoked by all Russians, even up here. I was not a little surprised when I took up the dark brown packets of cigarettes and saw the name NORA on them in big white letters, above a handsome woman’s head in white relief. Strange - the first thing I bought in Siberia was these cigarettes, and there I came upon Ibsen. I must confess it flattered my national vanity to find that he and the woman’s movement were so well known even here that it paid to name cigarettes after his feminine champion [The lead character of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Nora was the embodiment of female rebellion and sexual emancipation]. I did not remember at the time how many there were who could read in this country. The cigarettes were very cheap, but not good, as we found out afterwards.
Two young political exiles lived here, we were told. While we were making our purchases, Loris-Melikov went out to call on them. As he came up to the house where they lived, he heard singing and a guitar accompaniment which had a strangely home like sound... He was well received, and was not a little surprised to find two countrymen from the Caucasus, and from the very same place that he came from, so that they knew his family there. Truly then, it is a small world. A little later I went and called on them and was well received.
One of the exiles was an Armenian, 24 years old; he had lived at this place since 1912; at home he had belonged to the political party called Dashnaktsutyun, the object of which was the foundation of an independent Armenian kingdom in the Caucasus. He had been exiled to Siberia for five years, and he had now served three of them.
The other was a Georgian (or Grusin), and was rather older... He had been exiled for three years, but did not know for what reason. He had been visiting a sick friend at Rostov on the Don, when he was suddenly arrested and sent to Siberia without trial, as usually happens. The policeman or detective had said he had seen him at Rostov in 1899, when there was some trouble there. The Georgian admitted that that was correct; he had been there at that time; but he had no knowledge of any kind of revolutionary movement. The prefect at Turukhansk, however, told us later on that he was accused of being concerned in some larceny case or other, probably of a political nature. He was a remarkably handsome type, dark, with a short black beard and brown, melancholy eyes, as soft as velvet, though there might be fire in them at times. They are generally reputed to be a fiery people, these Georgian’s, and they do not think long before striking. He was a nobleman, and knew Loris-Melikov’s cousins well.
Here, then, these exiles had their quarters; but they complained of the entirely unoccupied, inactive life they had to lead. There was nothing for them to do, except read. No work was to be had here. They might have found some amusement at least in shooting, but that was out of the question, as the exiles are not allowed to have arms. The only other thing was a little fishing when they had the chance, and, otherwise, they had to let their summers and winters slip by as best they could, till their time was up and they were free again to return to life and the world.
The political exiles receive 15 roubles a month from the Government, so that they may not starve to death; but as soon as they earn any money themselves by work, this monthly allowance is stopped… These 15 roubles (then £1 11s 8d) a month may thus easily act as a premium on laziness, even though they may be given for philanthropic reasons…
[Nansen’s contact with the political exiles of this time may seem atypical to those who have heard of the forced labour camps or ‘Gulags’ scattered throughout Russia in the Communist era. Exile had been a punishment for centuries in Russia, but it seems that Nicholas II’s regime was comparatively lenient to prisoners exiled to Siberia. More than half a century before Nansen’s visit, in 1849, Fyodor Dostoyevsky was charged with being a member of a revolutionary group. He and his friends had been discussing socialism but he read aloud a document which had been banned by the censor. The group was sentenced to be shot. However, when the firing squad was in position, Emperor Nicholas I reprieve was read, and the condemned men’s sentence was commuted to hard labour. The entire farce had been prearranged but the emotional trauma remained with Dostoyevsky for the rest of his life. One of his companions went permanently insane on the spot.
Dostoyevsky was impressed with the hostility shown by the ordinary criminal exiles towards himself and his fellow political prisoners: ‘They hate the upper classes to a fantastic extent, they were most hostile and they rejoiced at our sorrow. They would have killed us had they been given the chance, they never stopped persecuting us, it gave them pleasure, it distracted them - it was an occupation...’ Despite this attitude, Dostoyevsky tried to delve beneath the surface animosity: ‘How much joy it gave me to find gold under a thick outer crust. Some of them one could not help admiring and some were just wonderful... The time has not been wasted as far as I am concerned, even if I have not got to know Russia I have got to know the Russian people well.’ [Quotes from a letter to Dostoyevsky’s brother written a week after his release.]
In fact neither Fyodor nor his father had lived the completely empty lives of the idle rich. Dostoyevsky’s father had been a medical doctor in Moscow before retiring to his estate where he was murdered by his brutalised workers. Fyodor was educated at the Institute of Engineering at St. Petersburg before joining the army, although he soon resigned his commission to become a full-time writer.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky presented a fictionalised account of his experiences in his book The House of the Dead written in 1861-2. This was the first book to be written about the Russian system of exile and remains one of the most powerful and authoritative books on the horrors of an individual’s loss of freedom. At the time the portrayal of the laxity of the regime and the relative sympathy of the guards towards the prisoners caused something of an outcry for more rigid governance. Liv Nansen Høyer, Fridtjof’s daughter, records that Dostoyevsky was her father’s favourite author in old age.
Exile to Siberia was reintroduced by the very Communists who had suffered the punishment during the Tsar’s time. Under the Communist dictators, and particularly Stalin, the often arbitrary sentence to a forced labour camp could easily result in death [between 15 and 30 million people are estimated to have died in labour camps between 1919 and 1956] either through cold, starvation or disease, or summary execution. The system of repression was exposed, after Stalin’s death, by President Khrushchev. In 1962, encouraged by the loosening of restrictions, Alexander Solzhenitsyn published One Day in the Life of Alexander Denisovitch in Russia. This chronicled the author’s experiences in the Stalinist ‘Gulag’ [prison] system. Solzhenitsyn went on to write The Gulag Archiapelago which documented the extent of the prisons and forced labour camps under Stalin. By comparison, the Tsar’s political exiles seem to have been well treated at the time of Nansen’s visit to Siberia.
Lenin, the founder of the Russian Communist Party and the most important figure in the history of communism, was perhaps typical in his experiences of political exile. Lenin, whose real name was Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov, was one of six children born into a happy family. He was both strong and very intelligent. His parents were well educated, his mother the daughter of a physician, and his father, himself the son of a serf, became a teacher and ultimately inspector of schools. Despite their comfortable life all the children became involved in the revolutionary movement. Before 1915, despite liberalisation of the system, even the highly educated professional classes were denied many basic civil and political rights.
Lenin’s eldest brother, a university student, was hanged in 1887 with four others, having been arrested as they carried a bomb down a street on their way to assassinate Tsar Alexander III. Following the early death of his father, Lenin became at 17 the male head of the family but his mother’s pension allowed him to go to university. He was soon exiled to his grandfather’s estate after a student riot. It was during this period of enforced idleness that he read Marx’s Das Kapital, met exiled revolutionaries, and became a Marxist. In 1889 he was allowed to return to university and complete his law degree.
He soon began associating with revolutionary Marxists and he was sent abroad by his Marxist colleagues to make contact with Russian exiles in Western Europe. On his return he and others unified the various Marxist groups in St. Petersburg within an organization known as the ‘Union for the Struggle for the Liberation of the Working Class’. This group supported strikes and infiltrated workers’ education classes in order to disseminate Marxist ideas. In 1895 the leaders of the Union were arrested and Lenin was sentenced to 15 months imprisonment and then sent into exile to Shushenskoye in Siberia for three years. He seems to have been well treated, and his fiancée, who was also arrested, was sent to the same place of exile. The two were married in Siberia and there Nadezhda Krupskya acted as Lenin’s indispensable comrade and secretary. Lenin visited other revolutionaries exiled in the area, and shot duck and snipe. He also gave free legal advice to the peasants. While exiled Lenin and his wife engaged in illegal correspondence with other revolutionaries. They also [legally] translated the key work of the influential British socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb: their Industrial Democracy].
[Nansen and his party returns to the boat which continues to drive upstream against the current…] I saw rocks, large and small, all the way along the shore; sometimes fairly big, as much as half the height of a man or more. Only in a few places did these rocks lie up on the bank itself above high-water line. Most of them were on the flat foreshore near the water. I never saw them imbedded in the strata in the steep slope of the bank, and it did not look as if they could have been washed out of these strata; they are most likely to have been carried to their present position at a comparatively recent time. It was chiefly along the east, or right bank that I saw these rocks.
Some of them are fairly angular, not unlike erratic blocks from the Ice Age, while others are more rounded by water, though few of them have attained the form of round boulders. I can see no other explanation than that these rocks have been carried by the river ice... in some places they are so large that it seems difficult to imagine how even the ice could manage them; they may sometimes be the height of a man. But it has immense force, this ice, especially in the spring, when it is crushed together in huge masses and carried along by the rushing flood. It may then push large rocks before it bit by bit along the bottom and sides of the river. Even if they are only moved a little way each time, this would mount up in the course of years...
Even the natives seem to find these rocks remarkable, and have no idea of how they can have been brought to their present positions. Middendorff mentions an enormous block lying on the Yenisei below Dudinka, to which the Samoyedes make sacrifices, ‘because,’ they say, ‘so heavy a stone can have been brought here by none other than the Creator himself.’ This is something like the popular belief with us: the large erratic blocks from the Ice Age are called giants’ stones, which have been thrown or carried to the spot by giants or trolls.
A beautiful sunny morning with blue sky; it is grand, and almost warm, to stretch oneself in the sun on deck.
Imperceptibly the trees have become thicker and thicker as we have gone south, and now we have real forest; rather thin and with no very big trees, but still forest, mostly larch, but with a few firs here and there, some birches, which are already quite yellow. Autumn begins early here.
And this forest, that we are now slowly gliding into, is the most extensive forest in the world. From here it spreads unbrokenly to the cultivated tracts and steppes of the south, and far to the south of Lake Baikál - an extent of more than 1200 miles in a straight line from north to south - and from the Urál Mountains on the west to the Pacific and Kamchatka on the east, more than 3700 miles, a single continuous mantle of forest, only broken by the broad waters of quiet flowing rivers. This is the Siberian taiga…
Here we can see how it is that the Siberian trees drift to sea in such quantities. There are plenty of them overhanging the river bank. The flood water undermines the bank, which slips into the river; the trees lose their hold with their spreading roots and fall. Then the flood takes them next spring and carries them out to sea, where they drift with the ice and are, perhaps, finally cast ashore somewhere on the coasts of the Arctic Ocean, or drift right over to Greenland and provide the Eskimo with the wood they require for their boats and implements.
We saw many of the Yenisei-Ostiaks’ birch-bark tents along the banks, especially on the low west side, where I could count as many as eleven tents along the river at one time; they had come there to fish. I had been wishing to see as much as possible of this mysterious people more than any other; but we had no time to stop here, and I was promised that we should find plenty of them farther south.
They are unlike any other people in Siberia. Their peculiar language does not seem to be related to any other living language in this part of the world; it must have an altogether different origin... it is rather a one-syllable language originally, more like Chinese...
Where these people originally came from it is not easy to decide. But in any case it is certain that they must formerly have been far more widely spread on the south than they are now, and it is probable that those now living are a last remnant of a race that in former times was widely diffused in Asia. Dr. Andreas M. Hansen, has even put forward the hypothesis that these Yenisei-Ostiaks belong to the same race as the short-skulled primitive people which inhabited Scandinavia before the Germanic immigration... If this were so, these Yenisei-Ostiaks might claim no ordinary share of attention. But even if such hypotheses as these may rest upon a slender foundation, it is in any case certain that these Yenisei-Ostiaks are an extremely interesting people, who deserve closer investigation than has hitherto been bestowed on them. Especially as they seem to be rapidly dying out, their total numbers being probably between 700 and 900, in any case not 1000...
At five in the afternoon we anchored at the mouth of the River Kureika, where there was an oil depot from which the Omul had to replenish her supply.
When we went ashore, the first sight that met our eyes was a tame wild goose, which stood calmly on one leg looking at us, and then waddled up to the house. It had been brought to the people here this summer by natives who had caught it as a gosling. It now made long excursions, flying right across the Yenisei to the west bank, but always came back to the house. It was so tame that I afterwards saw the woman carry it in, petting it and stroking it, which it seemed to like.
While Vostrotin went to the house to have a chat with the people and discuss their affairs, Loris-Melikov and I went into the forest.
It was wonderful to be in the woods again. There was rich soil, firm and dry to walk on, with bilberry and marsh whortleberry bushes, as far as I could make out, but no berries to be seen; they had all been killed by frost in the spring, we were told...
As we went back towards the house we saw some wild briar bushes with red hips. There was rank high grass in some places and all kinds of herbs. Cloudberries were also said to be common, but they had no berries this year either. Much of the ground under the trees was covered with the withered white hair of ‘mare’s tails’ (Equisetum), which grew there to a good height and in great quantities.
In walking back through the forest, we suddenly found ourselves on the slope above the river. The slope was overgrown with the most luxuriant forest vegetation, and yellow birches hung over the sandy bank far below. It was just like coming out of a primeval forest.
As we were following a path leading to the house along the slope, we unexpectedly came upon two wooden crosses which stood under the birches at the very edge of the clearing. They were two old graves in this sylvan solitude; a beautiful spot had been chosen for them, but long, long ago, and they were now almost entirely overgrown and hidden by the birch forest.
On one of the graves lay the remains of an old sledge, which showed that was a native grave, probably Yenisei-Ostiaks. They put sledges on their graves, no doubt in order that the dead may travel in them to the land beyond...
They are badly off for communication with the world in this country. As we were sitting in the house, Vostrotin told us of his experience here thirteen years ago. He was then going up the Yenisei from the estuary and met policemen farther down who were going round to tell those fishermen that those of them who were still on the roster as soldiers would have to go at once to Yeniseisk and from there to Krasnoyarsk, as there was a mobilization. Vostrotin could not find out the reason for this mobilization; the policemen did not know that, and he could not imagine with whom Russia was at war. When at last he got as far as this Kureika River he was told that the Tsar was at war with seven other Tsars, and that things were going well for ‘our Tsar.’ Who these seven Tsars were, nobody could explain; but they were Angeleska [Queen Victoria of England] and Franseska and a few more; that was all he could find out.
On arriving at Yeniseisk, Vostrotin heard that it was the Boxer rising in China that had led to armed intervention by the Powers and the combined march on Peking. The English and French were there right enough; if we add Germany, America, Italy, Japan and China, that makes seven.
Vostrotin was not very proud of the condition of his country, as regards education, newspapers and intellectual interests...
Here in Siberia, however, the question is not merely that there are no [news]papers, but that only a small fraction of the people would be able to read them, if there were any.
I privately wondered whether, after all, this was as great a loss as people generally imagine. Think of all the mud they are spared, and all the dirty politics that they don’t have to touch. But I did not say this aloud.
Chapter 9 Troitskiy Monastir, and on to the South
We had hoped to reach Svyato-Troitskiy Monastir (i.e. the Monastery of the Holy Trinity) that evening, but had to anchor for the night some distance to the north. It was too dark to go on.
Wednesday, September 10. But next morning, about half past nine, we arrived. While still a long way off we could see the lofty white church of the monastery with its cupolas shining on the top of the river bank over the forest and flat country, and by its side the green roof of a big house rose above the line of trees. On coming nearer we could also see a row of lower timber houses round it. This was the village...
As soon as we had anchored we went ashore. On the bank were the first crows I had seen in Siberia. They flew up with the same flight and pretty nearly the same ‘voice’ as our crows at home; but they were quite black. Crows - they are a sign of civilization; farther north along the river we have only had the company of gulls, besides geese and ducks…
Then we had to… call on the prefect of police, or pristav, Mr. Kibirov, a quiet, really pleasant and good natured looking man, who received us in a very friendly way. There was not a trace in him of the savage cruelty that one expects to find in so powerful a man in this country of convicts and exiles. He came from the Caucasus, so here again Loris-Melikov found a countryman. He was an Ossetin (pronounced Assetin), and they are the wildest people in the mountain districts of the Caucasus, and are often enough robbers, Loris-Melikov told me; but this one looked anything but wild or predatory. The Ossetins are Tatars (Cherkesses) and Mohammedans, but our Ossetin here and his Ossetin wife were towns-people and Christians.
We arrived quite unexpectedly; but the pristav immediately went out and put on his full uniform with sword, which he wore in our honour all the time until we left.
The most remarkable thing I saw there was an almost empty room by the side of his office, with an iron safe containing the Government’s money, by the side of which stood a Cossack with a rifle and a sword to guard the treasure. But he had not a very terrifying appearance, this guardian; he was a weak and innocent looking fellow, who told us, indeed, that he was a descendant of the first Cossacks that conquered the country, and that there were not many of them left. One of these Cossacks stands every day by the side of that safe from morning till night. This custom was introduced after the robbery a few years ago…
There are 10 Cossacks in this town; but there are 20 political exiles and convicts. In the whole Turukhansk district there are 90 political exiles and last year alone 35 political exiles and convicts arrived, having been transferred to the district after serving part of their sentences. Ten of these Cossacks do not appear to be an overwhelming force for keeping these people in check; but for that matter they all looked about equally peaceable and harmless, exiles and Cossacks and police, as far as I could make out; only a few of the released convicts had an ugly look. Many of the people here are not very pleased at this addition to the population. On the other hand, they rather like the political exiles, as they are often worthy and capable men, who may be very useful.
But things are not always so peaceful as they now appeared. It was five or six years ago that a number of political exiles banded themselves together to the south of this place... with the object of escaping from Siberia, plundering as they went. They were about twenty in number, and had procured arms in various ways. They had evidently heard of the American system of ‘hands up,’ and they entered houses and took what they found. If anyone resisted, he was shot. In this way they went down the Yenisei plundering one village after another. It was the beginning of winter, so they drove in sledges with horses and reindeer which they easily procured without payment. It was mostly food and money that they took. In this village, at Troitskiy Monastir, a trader was killed and money taken. On reaching Turukhansk they seized the public buildings, shot the prefect of police and several traders, took the Government funds, amounting to 30,000 roubles, and then set fire to the buildings. After that they went on in the same fashion down the river to Dudinka, and from there across the tundra with reindeer towards the Khátanga and Anábara, with the idea of going eastward through Siberia to America.
Meanwhile news of the raid had reached the Governor General at Irkutsk, and he declared martial law over the whole country, and sent a strong detachment of soldiers northwards from Krasnoyarsk. From Dudinka a party of soldiers took reindeer over the tundra in pursuit of the fugitives, and came up with them before they had reached the mouth of the Khátanga. The house they were in was surrounded and a regular battle took place, which ended in more than half of the fugitives being shot down. The rest were captured… The Government’s 30,000 roubles were traced, and more besides, and some of this money is said to have found its way back to the State coffers.
But one could not imagine the possibility of such warlike excesses when standing in this peaceful office talking to this amiable man, who invited us in the kindest way to drink a glass of tea with him and his wife; the tea would soon be ready…
At nine p.m. it was quite dark, and we anchored for the night. There was a stiff breeze which tore at the rigging. Inshore of us, on the edge of the forest at the top of the bank, the reflection of a fire shone among the tree trunks out into the black night. It must have been telegraph workmen who had a tent there with a fire in front of it.
What a strange incomprehensible attraction there is in a light like this in the forest. I sat on deck looking at it, while the wind increased and lashed the water against the side of the little craft, and she pitched more and more on this mighty river, which winds away to the north through the endless flat forest country. This monotonous, confined life on board, with so little space, no doubt makes one impatient, for I actually find myself wishing I could see what the faces are like that are staring into the fire over there, and how those men live - longing to sit beside a fire like that beneath the murmuring forest, while the flames of big logs throw dancing shadows over the tree trunks, and the daylight dies away in a narrow streak under the roof of trees far in the west, and the night falls thicker and thicker. Ah, that forest; and here it is vaster and more infinite than any we have seen before, this endless taigá. Assuredly men were not made to live in towns…
But what in heaven’s name is that yellow blaze that suddenly flares up on the edge of the forest over on the south east; it looks like a forest fire! Oh, it is only the moon slowly rising over the river bank, while every tree top is sharply outlined against it. It mounts higher and higher, and sends a quivering band of light over the surface of the water. It is nearly full, as it comes up clear of the black forest. The disk and the streak of light are a deep orange against the blue vault and the blue water. And what a power it has; the whole expanse of heaven becomes a marvellous dream of night and solitude. Not a cloud in the sky - only a few dark banks low down in the south-west. Along the skyline on the north west there is still a deep red afterglow of daylight, which passes through yellowish green into the boundless blue higher up, arching over us with hundreds of pale stars. Along the southern horizon there is a veil of purple light below the moon.
We are driven to the south by the regular beat of the engine while the mighty, never-resting mass of water under us glides onward to the north, spreading on all sides its dark blue surface, like watered silk, rippled by the wind between the smooth eddies, which flow on, ring after ring, till they merge into one another out in the darkness. And then on both sides there is the river-bank and the endless forest.
We anchor under the high east bank. By about midnight the moon has set. The sky sparkles with a thousand stars, strangely brilliant. It must be the dryness of the atmosphere within the great continent that makes the sky such a deep blue and the stars so brilliant, and brings out such an infinity of them as one does not see near the ocean... How still it is! A faint whisper across the water is, perhaps, the ripple of the waves against the western bank - and a low murmur comes from within the forest.
Friday September 12. I cannot help admiring our pilot; he stands there at the wheel steering from morning till night without a rest. I see he even has his meals in the wheelhouse. He looks a pleasant, good natured man, and he greets me with such a friendly smile all over his face, and such a roguish twinkle in his little eyes when I come on deck in the morning. He seems a shrewd and capable fellow. I have often wanted to go up and have a chat with him and hear about his life. But then there is the trouble about the language; it drives one mad to travel in a country where one can understand nothing and cannot make oneself understood.
But Loris-Melikov and Vostrotin talked to him a good deal. He was a Tatar from Yeniseisk and a Mohammedan, and could read his Koran in Arabic. He had travelled far and wide in this part of Siberia. His father was a fisherman of the Yenisei and had his own boat, in which they went up and down the river to fish, so that he learned to know these waters from an early age. He had also travelled with traders as far as the Khátanga and Anábara. He had even been as far as Obdorsk. Of the natives he had seen most of the Tunguses, and had much to say about their manners and customs. He spoke Tungus and other native languages.
On a winter journey with a trader over the tundra far north, he put his right arm out of joint in lifting a weight. There was nobody there who knew how to put it in again, and no doctor within reach. He came back to Dudinka in a helpless condition; the arm remained out of joint, and is still so. It hangs loosely down and he cannot raise it; but in the course of years he has got so far as to be able to use the hand a little and move the forearm. He manages his pilot’s work, which is chiefly steering, with the left arm; but what that man must have suffered before the pains in the shoulder joint gradually passed off. Anyone who has himself tried an arm out of joint will know about that. Now, he says, his shoulder does not hurt him any more; though he certainly had rheumatism in it.
In the afternoon, about five, we came to a low, flat sandbank in the middle of the river, called Syrianski Pesók. On it stood the birch-bark tents of some Yenisei-Ostiaks, and as the motor wanted cleaning, we stopped for the night. When we landed we found only women and children in the tents, besides a cripple of a man, lame and bent, with a bandage over one eye. The men were all out fishing. All the grown-up people understood Russian. There were two elder women, both of whom had babies. One of them had her infant in a basket-work cradle, which was hanging inside the tent and looked very much like a violin-case. This is the usual form among these Yenisei-Ostiaks.
The younger woman was rather dark-complexioned, whether it was the colour of her skin or want of washing. Her face was short and broad, with broad cheeks and a frank and winning expression. She had a long, green coat or gown, and her child was also dressed in green. It looked like the same piece of stuff. As we were coming, she went off to her own tent, which was a little farther on, and did not stop when we spoke to her, whether it was that she was afraid of us or what. We had to overtake her, and Loris-Melikov gave her one of Lied’s necklaces of green glass beads. Lied had bought a lot of this sort of finery for the natives and had given it to us, so that we might make an impression with it. She just stood still with the necklace in her hand and asked what she was to do with it. Loris-Melikov explained that it was to wear round the neck. Whether she cared for it we never found out; but at any rate she became more tractable, and we were able to take some photographs of the women and children and the crippled man.
A fourth woman came up, carrying a child, from a tent farther off. We wanted her to stop so as to get her in the picture; but she rushed into the tent with her child and all our shouting was of no use. After a while she appeared again, rigged out in shabby Russian clothes, with a handkerchief over her head. Now she was ready to be photographed; but we would rather have had her as she was before...
Chapter 10 Verkhne-Imbátskoye to Sumarókova
At seven o’ clock we reached Sumarókova, where we were to take in oil for the engine. There was plenty of life on the shore when we arrived; people walking hither and thither, shouting and bawling; and along the low, sandy beach lay over 30 Yenisei-Ostiak boats, with a forest of masts. This was a joyful sight; now, at last, we should have a good look at these people... The noise and shouting increased as we came nearer. It was easy to guess that vodka had been flowing freely, and Russians and natives seemed about equally drunk.
As we landed, we were immediately surrounded by reeling Yenisei-Ostiaks, half drunk and whole drunk, but all quite placid and in extraordinarily good humour. Here and there drunken people lay on the ground, bellowing and rattling in their throats like dying animals. They were mostly elderly women that I found lying among the nets hung up to dry and the boats of the village, which were drawn up on land. Others sat in an almost insensible state, leaning against the side of a boat. Some of them cautiously got on to their feet and staggered a few steps, but soon fell down again and lay prostrate. I saw young girls stop and talk to these old people, as if there was nothing the matter with them and it was all quite natural.
When once the native has had a drop, he will sell anything he possesses to get more liquor… for a bottle of vodka he will sell again the goods he has just got on credit from the trader. This is the weakness of which many unscrupulous people avail themselves, in this part of the world as elsewhere, to fleece the natives; and for this devilish drink they can often coax them out of their treasures, especially, of course, the valuable furs they collect in the winter.
It was altogether a sad sight, and we left it and went up the river bank to the village to call on a trader, whom Vostrotin knew, and who had sent a message asking us to visit him. The houses were the same snug, low timber buildings as in all these villages. As we entered the low, cosy room, with the usual small windows, we were received by the master of the house, a well built, pleasant man to look at, of about eight and thirty. He gave us a hearty welcome, but made a longish speech to Vostrotin, and deeply regretted that he had not been expecting us till now; he naturally thought we should come in one of the big steamers. If he had imagined that we should come on in this little boat, he would have taken care not to be drunk when we arrived. That was the politest thing I have heard, from a drunken man; but it was impossible to notice anything wrong with him; he walked as steadily as a soldier, and was perfectly pleasant and amiable.
We were introduced to his wife in the inner room, and had to taste her fresh-made caviar, which was first-rate. According to the hospitable Russian custom we also had to drink tea, of course; and then there was supper, a rye-bread cake with fish baked in it, which is a Russian national dish, and with it caviar and pickled gherkins, followed by tea with preserved wild strawberries in it.
The man told us that it was an eventful day, as tomorrow they were to celebrate the semi-anniversary of his father’s death. ‘And as I’m a rich man, you see,’ he said, ‘I’ve invited the whole village to come here tomorrow. Every one who likes may come, and if they don’t come, I shall be very much offended.’ Great preparations had been made in the way of food and drink, and we were obliged to sample the feast. It was a sort of rehearsal for it that had been held today...
He had much to tell us about the Yenisei-Ostiaks. They were a poor, miserable people, who were dying out, he thought. They were all deeply in debt to the traders, some owing as much as 500 roubles each, or more, and during the last few years they had not been able to pay much of their debts, as the squirrel-catch had been poor, and this year had dwindled almost to nothing - nor had the fishing been particularly good either. And on account of their poverty there were very few of them, if any, who had proper nets. The main trouble was liquor, he thought; unless the traffic could be stopped, they were bound to go steadily down hill. Of course, the sale of vodka was prohibited; but what was the use of that, when they got it just the same?
The Ostiaks had arrived only a few days before in these travelling boats of theirs, to make their purchases for the winter; chiefly meal, which they get on credit, against an undertaking to sell their skins to the trader, when they get them. He said that as a rule they were very honest, and paid their debts when they could; but they had little idea themselves of what they owed. ‘And let me tell you, I’m not such a dishonourable man, for a trader. When I ask one of the Ostiaks what his debts are, he may answer that they must be 500 roubles; and then I tell him that he only owes me 200 roubles.’
When asked what he thought was necessary to preserve the Ostiaks from ruin, he replied that the only thing would be for the Government to take everything into its own hands and keep ‘us traders’ out. This was plain speaking; but when the man went into the next room for a moment, his wife followed him. When he and the wife came back, he told us she had scolded him for sitting here and talking so openly to strangers; but what he had said was true, all the same...
There is something unspeakably tragic in a destiny like that of the Yenisei-Ostiaks; formerly; it seems, the dominant people over a great extent of this country to the south - on the northern side, and no doubt also for a long way to the south, of the Altai mountains. Now all that is left of them is this small, poor, rapidly disappearing tribe along the Yenisei and some of its tributaries, where they eke out a wretched existence by doubtful and uncertain hunting and fishing, which moreover are declining every year. Thus, one of their former great sources of income, the sable, is now almost extinct, and the Russian Government will soon entirely prohibit its being caught. The Yenisei-Ostiaks complained bitterly of this, as may be imagined, since it means taking away their livelihood. True, there are not many of them to catch, but one or two might be picked up in the course of a winter, and a little animal like that pays a lot of debts. How were they going to pay them now? a people doomed to perish.
In his interesting book on the northern parts of Russia, Sidórov expressed the opinion that the decline of the various native races, and the famine among them, date from after 1805, when the granaries were started in Siberia, and the natives learned to appreciate bread. Before that time they only ate meat and fish, and were not badly off, he thought. They may be something in that; their wants have increased, but not their incomes. Otherwise there was perhaps at least as much truth in what the trader we were talking to here said about liquor having so much to do with the decline of these natives. Along with diseases that are communicated to them, especially venereal diseases and epidemics, liquor is no doubt their worst enemy.
The Government, undoubtedly with the best intentions, has prohibited the sale of liquor to the natives in the whole of the Turukhansk district. But what is the use of that, if the prohibition cannot be enforced? Nay, a prohibition of this sort may even have the opposite effect; it makes liquor a disproportionately valuable article, when it cannot be sold legally; and the temptation may then be too great to use it for obtaining great advantages. In the district to the south the sale of liquor is permitted, for which reason the price is lower there, and it certainly cannot be shown that the natives suffer more from it; it is not made so much of there nor do they have to part with so much of their belongings to get it.
One of the traders we talked to on the way, told us frankly that he had given the natives liquor when they came to the village to trade. ‘For,’ said he, ‘if I had not done that, one of the other traders would have given it to them, and he would have taken away my customers, and had a call on their skins for the winter.’ And then nearly all these natives were already in his debt, he said, and so he would have lost the payment of the old debts besides. No there was nothing for it but to keep them warm with vodka...
In these relations between the trader and the natives, who are given credit and are always in debt, there is a great resemblance with the state of things which formerly prevailed in the north of Norway, when all the fishermen were in debt to the trader, and it was the same in Iceland...
It takes an honest man not to avail himself of the opportunity of making a profit on both sides; and no doubt the result is that the fisherman and hunter often do not get what they ought for their catch. If liquor be added as an auxiliary on the side of the trader, the conditions are made even more unequal.
There were now assembled at Sumarókova most of the Yenisei-Ostiaks that are to be found in the neighbourhood. There might have been about a couple of hundred of them in the boats here. I was told that the whole tribe of Yenisei-Ostiaks numbered about 700 in all, but Donner writes to me that the total should be about 900, and that is probably more correct. They live along the Yenisei and its tributaries northward, from this district here to some distance beyond Turukhansk. But it is rapidly dying out, this race…
The impression I had of the first Yenisei-Ostiak I saw, that they reminded one of gipsies, held good here also in some measure. I found several faces, both of men and women, which might well have been gipsy faces. But, for the most part, I am bound to say they had a somewhat less European look. It appeared, however, that there might be a strong admixture of Russian blood in some of them...
At one of the fires a woman was engaged in cooking a porridge of dark rye-meal with lumps in it, which she squeezed out with her shapely little hand and threw into the porridge. It seemed to be a sort of middleings. It was for the dogs, she said, in reply to our question; and it was exactly like dog’s porridge at home...
It must be said that, in spite of their poverty and possible future destitution, they seemed enviably happy and contented; and now they were all getting ready to leave, as soon as they had had their breakfast. They had got their goods and had their spree, and now they were homeward bound for the forests where they pass the winter. Soon we saw them beginning to get their boats ready, and there was a busy scene all along the beach. They stow many of their things on the top of the roofs of the boats, and the women were now occupied with this...
There were many good types among them; most were dark haired, and with only one or two exceptions they were entirely beardless, but it is true that these were mostly young men, while the bearded ones were older. It is significant that only the men were loafing about like this, smoking, staring, chatting and doing nothing, while the women worked first at preparing the breakfast, and then at getting the boats ready. Among us it is rather the ladies who are supposed to waste their time in gossip...
Out on the boats the women were busily engaged in making ready for the start. At the same time the fog was beginning to lift, and the sun was shining brightly above it...
We were told that they had a real shaman among them. As we wanted to see him, he was at once summoned from one of the boats and led by the hand by a younger man; for he was quite blind. Yes, he was a shaman, he said, but it would take some time to rig himself out to shaman to us, and besides he had to have a special tent for it. As the weather was already fairly clear, we could not wait long, we wanted to get away. But he might have time for the lesser shaman dress, he thought. It was fetched by his assistant. The costly treasures were kept in a little square wooden box, which looked new and had a cross carved on the outside. Then he and the wooden box were taken to a special tent, and there he seated himself, cross legged, with the box before him. Together with a lot of young Ostiaks we crowded into this tent as well as we could and sat down on the ground.
The casket was now solemnly opened, and proved to contain a copper crown with a cross on it, something like an old mediæval royal crown; but Vostrotin and Loris-Melikov said afterwards that it was a Russian brides crown. There was also a stomacher with a cross and ornaments like a chasuble [sleeveless vestment worn by a priest in Christian religious ceremonies], and it was obviously a clumsy imitation. He set the crown on his head and put on the stomacher. Then the performance was to begin - but suddenly the blind man paused and said that the contribution must first be paid, a rouble for each of us, otherwise it was impossible for him to shaman. Three roubles were handed over; he felt them and rang them, to make sure that they were good. Is it not strange that the priesthood of all nations throughout the ages, whether heathen or Christian, should be such good judges of coin?
Then at last he was ready; and all at once he started a strange, monotonous song in a tremulous voice full of trills, while incessantly making the sign of the cross, like a Russian priest, and bending forward; then he lifted his face to heaven, stretched his arms upwards and raised his voice, as though invoking the lord of heaven. After that he bent his head forward again towards the ground and gave a low muttering, no doubt to conjure the spirits of the earth. Altogether he was a great actor, and imitated the priests as well as he could.
But now the excitement increased. He took off the crown and put it on his assistant, while he himself sat up on the little wooden box. The singing grew louder and the gesticulation more violent; now and then came a refrain, or whatever it was, which had to be repeated by the listeners; or perhaps it was more like what is heard in church, when certain sentences are uttered by the whole congregation. Soon the exaltation increased still more, he had to get higher up and rose to his feet; evidently he was now drawing near the lord of heaven and a wild note came to his voice. But at that moment a dog barked outside the tent. He broke off abruptly and became perfectly silent - sat down and mumbled something about having been interrupted by the dog, ‘and that is an unclean animal, because it eats excrement,’ he said. Therefore he had to begin all over again. And then the whole performance was repeated, with the same monotonous singing the whole time, while the voice rose and became more insistent, with more and more tremolos.
At the same time he began to prophesy, saying that there was a foreigner in the tent, and that there was one who stood near the Tsar (this must have been Vostrotin, who is a member of the Duma [Russian parliament]), and then there was a third, who was a wily fellow and one to beware of - no doubt this was intended for Loris-Melikov, who is a diplomatist. He also informed us that a great universal war was soon coming. But we had no time for more, we wanted to be off.
[The Shaman was correct - the First World War began less than a year later.]
We kept going for a long time that evening in the bright moonlight and fine weather... One feels the unbroken stillness within that great forest world, on the floor of which the trees cast deep shadows in the faint moonlight. How strange it is that these endless wooded plains, with their rivers and their natives, have never had the same attraction for the childish imagination as the primeval forests of America with their Redskins. Names like Yeniséi, Léna, Angará, Tungúska, Baikál, with their Ostiaks, Tunguses and Yakuts, have never sounded the same to a boy’s fancy as the Hudson River, the Delaware and the Great Lakes, with their Mohicans, Delaware Indians, and Sioux. Is this merely because the forest of Siberia have never had their Cooper? [The celebrated writer, James Fenimore Cooper, 1789-1851]. The life here may certainly be equally romantic, and it is still going on.
But just as the great forests with their Redskins along the Hudson and Delaware have long ago vanished, and their place has been taken by cultivated fields without beauty and by somewhat prosaic farmers, so will also these forests and these natives disappear. In a hundred, nay, in fifty years, the forests will certainly be gone, and the wandering hunters with their tents and their furs will be seen no more. There will be nothing but a trivial flat country with cultivated fields, like the uninteresting plains of North Germany, but with room for millions of human beings. Then, as now, the moon will still shine down upon the quietly flowing surface of the Yenisei, but this great stillness will be gone. Already the silence has been invaded by a new kind of life. Far away in the wilderness on the east they are working in the mines, to find that almighty metal of good and evil, which has brought happiness to so many, but perhaps ruin to still more.
Destruction of the taiga of Siberia has not been so rapid or complete as Nansen feared. By the end of the twentieth century the forest still covered 680 million hectares and amounted to approximately 19 percent of the vastly reduced forested area of the world. By this time about 400,000 hectares of the Russian taiga were logged each year and about the same area again was burned, perhaps half of the burned area resulting from destruction by humans. Since the end of the Communist era logging has slowed, but joint ventures with foreign companies are set to dramatically increase timber extraction. This has now made the fate of the Siberian forests a matter of international concern.
Vast tracts, estimated at over 2 million hectares, of the taiga near Norilsk and the Kola Peninsula have been devastated by air pollution. The rich deposits of oil discovered in Siberia have led to contamination mainly because of leaks in pipelines. The spills affect not only Siberia itself, but through the rivers crude oil is now carried into the Arctic Ocean. [Terrestrial ecosystems: Boreal Forests (Taigas), Encyclopædia Britannica, Britannica (R) CD 99 Multimedia Edition (C) 1994-1999 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.]
By the start of the twenty-first century Jonas Lied’s and Nansen’s dreams of the Arctic Ocean carrying the mineral wealth of Siberia to the world are coming true. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new company set up within the country is planning to transport oil from Siberia via pipeline to a terminal being built on the Siberian coast. Here oil will be carried by a fleet of ice-breaking tankers straight across the Arctic Sea. Oil pipelines are also transporting the huge reserves of western Siberia to the Baltic where it will be loaded onto tankers.