• Email
  • Print

The Blue Pearl of Siberia

I.

Past eight in the evening on the last day of August, after a ten-hour climb, we haul ourselves to the high rim of the Baikal Canyon. From where we stand, high plateaus, in hard, clear light, seem to stretch forever westward to the Urals. Facing east, my companion, the huge Siberian woodsman Semyon Ustinov, spreads his long arms. Far below, his beloved Baikal, the most ancient lake on earth, is shrouded in mist that drifts up the steep talus slope as if in search of us. The canyon rim on which we stand is a mile or more above the surface of the lake, whose greatest depth is 6,300 feet, or 1.2 miles, with an additional four miles of sediment above the bedrock. The great Baikal rift is seven times as deep as the Grand Canyon, by far the deepest land depression on the planet.

For the past week we have been exploring Lake Baikal and talking about the threats to its ecology with a group including Semyon and his friend the controversial writer Valentin Rasputin. The lake, which lies in a great crescent nearly four hundred miles long, fills a widening valley where two tectonic plates, pulling apart, drop the depression ever lower. This vast plateau north and west of Baikal, known to geologists as the Siberian Platform, is being separated from Asia to the south and east by this shift in the earth’s crust. Because the fault’s floor is widening about one inch every year, Baikal can collect new sediment without any loss to its huge volume of water. Although its surface is more or less the size of Lake Superior, Baikal holds nearly the equivalent of all five of the Great Lakes, or about one fifth of all the fresh water on earth. (This astonishing volume might be better understood another way: if all of Baikal’s 334 tributaries were diverted, and its sole outlet, the Angara River, were to drain it, the emptying would take four hundred years. The Amazon, Ganges, Mississippi, Nile, and Congo, together with all the other rivers and streams on earth, would have to flow a year or more just to refill it.)

Because the rift grows ever larger, the four miles of lake floor contains matter that has accumulated for twenty to thirty million years. (Lake Tanganyika, in Africa’s Western Rift Valley, which looks like a miniature Baikal even in its distinctive crescent shape, is the earth’s second oldest lake—two million years—and second deepest, at 4,700 feet.) Even the largest of ordinary lakes may live at most 50,000 years before they fill with silt, evaporate, and die, and, by this criterion, “The Blue Pearl of Siberia” is all but eternal. It is often called an inland sea—“Ye glorious sea, ye sacred Baikal” goes an old Siberian song—or even, like the Red Sea, an incipient ocean. Hydrothermal vents in the lake floor at Frolihka Bay, in the northeast—the first such vents ever located in fresh water—support rich communities of bottom life, including translucent shrimps and snails, large mushroom-shaped sponges, and other forms ordinarily associated with salt water. What is more, life exists right to the bottom (in Lake Tanganyika it dies out a few hundred feet down) because of deep oxygen circulation that is thought to be caused by mysterious tides drawn from such deep water by the sun and moon.

Warm water from vents in the cold deeps doubtless contributes to the plenitude of life. Whereas an ordinary lake might have three amphipod species and eight flatworms, Baikal has 255 amphipods and 80 flatworms, including a brute well over a foot long that devours fish. Of Baikal’s two-thousand-odd aquatic forms, at least 1,200 are endemic; two thirds of the lake’s flora and much of its fauna are found nowhere else. Among these is the nerpa, the only fresh water seal on earth, a creature I have long wanted to see.

Little sediment enters Baikal from the crystalline rock formations all around, which release a bare trace of salts and other minerals; the primordial deep, left undisturbed, is traditionally as clear and pure as distilled water. Its extreme clarity is intensified by the activities of a minute crustacean, Baikal epishura, which strains out algaes, plankton, and bacteria. In good years, the three million epishura that inhabit the water column under each square meter of the surface keep the water so pristine that a bright kopeck, cast away, might still be seen glinting a hundred feet below.

Epishura is but one of the hundreds of endemic crustaceans, including two-hundred-odd species of freshwater shrimp, that make the lake a vast laboratory for the study of ecology and evolution.[^1] For all these reasons, this huge blue crescent in the farthest part of Central Asia is generally considered the most interesting body of water on the earth.

Like the Galapagos, Baikal is a closed ecosystem, since all of the lake’s water comes from these surrounding mountains, and the whole watershed is only twice as large as the lake itself. Even its main tributary, the Selenga River, which brings about half of Baikal’s water north out of Mongolia, is entirely isolated from other watersheds or river systems and introduces no outside genetic influence. The forests surrounding Lake Baikal have few endemic species, yet they abound in robust Siberian wildlife, including the lustrous tree weasel called the sable, as well as red and musk deer, moose, Eurasian wolves, brown bears, and, not so many years ago, the Siberian tiger. One also finds the turkey-sized wildfowl called the capercaille, a huge black grouse which is rumored to become so transported by its own courtship song that it closes its eyes and deafens itself with its own din.

Semyon Ustinov was born east of the lake at a village called Fox Place, in the country of the Buryat Mongol people north of Ulan Ude, and he speaks movingly of the River Kurba, where he spent many lonely hours as a boy. One day near sunset, from a large hill across the stream, he heard a Buryat shepherdess on horseback “singing about everything she saw, and her singing harmonized heaven, earth, and mountains.” He remembers “the currents of water filled with light, and how her high voice, singing of them, was so pure and clear.” Some years later his father took him to the high point in the eastern mountains from where the boy first saw the sacred lake. “I understood at once,” he says, “that Baikal represented the same mysterious totality of the universe that the Buryat shepherdess was celebrating in her song.”

Here on the peak of the Baikal ridge the wind is growing cold. A lone raptor, as if drawn to the last sunlight, circles high in a darkening blue sky that will fill with stars. Quickly, in dusk, we descend loose rocks to a small gorge with a rivulet of cold gray water. Dark comes as the last dry wood is gathered from silver skeletons of a recumbent pine. We build our fire and make tea, devouring dry hunks of bread and sausage. Already the half moon has gone behind a sharp peak of the rim, and with no light on this treacherous incline, we must perch all night on big, cold, broken slabs, huddled close to the wind-whipped fire, one side burning and the other freezing in temperatures which, by Semyon’s estimate, would fall into the thirties before dawn.

During a long night spent thinly clad on rocks on a steep mountainside, I have time to consider why I find myself in such hard circumstances after scarcely a fortnight in the Soviet Union. The reason lies below, in great Baikal, which has drawn me since the day, long years ago, that I first learned of a primordial deep lake of diamantine clarity that lay off to the north of the Gobi Desert. Even today, despite serious damage, Baikal remains the cleanest large lake in the world, not because care has been taken but because its enormous depth and volume have absorbed—so far—man’s efforts to despoil it. Only recently has it been known how swiftly the lake’s ancient ecology could unravel, and how close man has come to losing it forever.

1.

The decline began less than a century ago with the arrival in 1896 of the Trans-Siberian Railway, which rounds the south end of the lake on its way east. Crude timbering and primitive agriculture soon followed, bringing erosion and increasing silt into the lake, but no fatal destruction was proposed until 1957, when a vast industry at the lake’s south end was approved by the state planning boards in Moscow. The Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Combine would exploit the limitless timber and pristine water required to produce cellulose for the manufacture of high-quality rayon cord used in airplane tires.

Construction was about to begin when, in 1961, Dr. Grigori Galazi, director of the Limnological Institute of the USSR Academy of Sciences at nearby Irkutsk, warned that the cellulose plant together with a smaller combine in the Selenga River would do permanent damage to the lake’s ecological balance. Alarmed articles soon set in motion an organized defense of the sacred lake that most citizens would never see, yet which was to become the emblem and first battleground of the USSR’s environmental struggle. (In the same period the Siberian writer Sergei Zalygin, now the editor of Novy Mir, spoke out against the planned construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Ob River that would have flooded an enormous tract to the northwest. The Soviet environmental movement had begun.) In 1963, Mikhail Sholokhov, the author of And Quiet Flows the Don, denounced the pulp mills at the Communist Party Congress; there was also a supporting letter from Siberia’s intellectuals, including a young writer named Valentin Rasputin.

Claiming that the rayon cord was needed by the Air Force, the bureaucrats of the USSR State Planning Committee denounced these early champions of the environment as CIA agents and traitors. The Siberians’ protests were entirely unavailing, and the Baikalsk plant began operation in 1966, despite general agreement that it could have been built downstream from the lake on the already polluted Angara River, at 35 to 40 percent less cost, and that anyway, a better, cheaper, tire cord of lighter weight made from metal and synthetic fibers was already available. A series of subsequent experiments with effluent control failed to keep toxic chemicals out of the lake, and meanwhile the clearing of large stands of timber devastated much of the surrounding taiga, or boreal forest, causing increased erosion and siltation. There was also serious contamination from factory wastes and untreated sewage dumped into the Selenga River at Ulan Ude, made worse by the strong chemicals from the Selenginsk pulp factory downriver. In 1968, the Irkutsk soviet forbade environmentally destructive enterprises in this province, but its rulings were systematically ignored.

Earlier, in the 1950s, construction of the first hydroelectric dam on the Angara had begun at Irkutsk, followed by an immense dam at Bratsk. The four dams currently in operation have brought a welter of heavy industry to the four cities in the once-beautiful Angara Valley, which is now as polluted as any region in European Russia. Meanwhile, the old river villages disappeared beneath the flood, including Ust’Ude (between Irkutsk and Bratsk), where Valentin Rasputin was born in 1937.

As a newspaper writer in the 1960s, when the all-out industrialization of Siberia got under way, Rasputin was among those who celebrated the huge Bratsk dam and what the government described as the greatest timber-processing combine in the whole world, but a growing awareness of the damage to his native earth soon changed his mind. When the paper refused to print his articles describing the cost of ruthless industrialization to the uprooted peasants, never mind to the land and air and water, he quit his job and turned to writing fiction, in which he would pursue the same ideas. Though Rasputin had never joined the Party, neither had he spoken out against the socialist system, yet his entire work indicts the government-sponsored destruction of his beloved Russia. “I am from the ranks of the drowned,” he has remarked, referring to the obliteration of his village by the dam, and this sense of tragic loss—of the old village, the old Russia, the old ways—is the dark thread that runs throughout his life and work.

Rasputin’s profound and moving stories, which brought a new metaphysical dimension to the realism of Siberia’s “village writers,” drew favorable attention from a number of critics and writers, including the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. In 1976 he won general praise with the publication of Farewell to Matyora, a powerful novella based on the flooding and ruin of an ancient village community much like his own. By that time he was already so involved in his country’s appalling environmental problems that he had little time left for his own work.

Rasputin’s outspoken criticism of heedless socialist industrialization made him seem almost counterrevolutionary to the authorities. In the winter of 1980 he suffered a severe concussion and was left for dead outside his apartment building in Irkutsk after he was brutally beaten by five men with brass knuckles, and it was widely supposed that his assailants had been sent by the KGB. Rasputin was so badly injured that he lost most of his eyesight for a year and required several operations to rebuild his face, and there are those who feel that his high spirits and even perhaps his creativity have never quite recovered. Nevertheless, he was now prominent among the few good writers who still spoke out, yet had not fled the country; indeed, in the opinion of many, Valentin Rasputin had become the greatest living writer in the Soviet Union.

Despite his high reputation, Rasputin was questioned and harassed by his government when, in 1985, he paid a visit to the United States as a guest of his translator, Professor Gerald Mikkelson of the University of Kansas. Mikkelson was editing Siberia on Fire, a collection of Rasputin’s essays and stories that includes the powerful dark novella called The Fire, a painful account of a dehumanized community in the new Siberia. Its contrast of the soulless housing that replaced the drowned villages of the Angara—replaced, that is, what Rasputin perceived as the kind and moral life of the age-old Russian village culture—renewed the theme of Farewell to Matyora.

Not long after his return from the United States, Rasputin was elected to the Politburo seat assigned to the Soviet Writers’ Union. With the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, the official attitude toward the environment soon changed, for Gorbachev himself, as a Politburo deputy in 1982, had decried his country’s drastic neglect of the vast problem of soil erosion. In his speech to the UN in December 1988 he avowed that international security depended not only on disarmament but on the removal of grave threats to the environment. “In a number of regions,” Gorbachev said, “the state of the environment is frightening.”

Rasputin continues to speak out harshly and sardonically on the immorality of those “cosmopolitans” who welcome the worst influences of the West and would sell off the country’s resources to the highest bidder; he also condemns the Chernobyl cover-up and says, “Our young people died senselessly in Afghanistan.” Nevertheless, in May 1990, he was appointed to Gorbachev’s Presidential Council as an adviser on Russian culture and the environment, perhaps in hopes of persuading him to shut up. (The Council was disbanded on Christmas Day, 1990.) As the cultural attaché in the US Embassy in Moscow told the American musician and environmentalist Paul Winter, “if Rasputin’s work were not so popular, he would be in jail.”

2.

Paul Winter first came to Lake Baikal in 1984 on his second trip to the Soviet Union. Stirred by Baikal’s beauty and immensity, Winter returned twice in the next year with the idea of composing a “Baikal Suite” that might help to convey not only the wonder of Russia’s sacred lake but its urgent symbolism in the worldwide rise of environmental consciousness. The suite would be based on the mythic adventures of a young Russian boy, and the music would be counterpointed by the sounds of nature—water, wind, and echo—as well as the voices of wild creatures, an effect he had already experimented with successfully in musical colloquies with wolves, elephants, and whales.

In September 1986, during a concert tour of the USSR, his ensemble, the Paul Winter Consort, was finally permitted a brief boat excursion on the lake, which has been generally inaccessible to Russians and all but forbidden to foreigners. By this time Winter was acquainted with Dr. Grigori Galazi of the Limnological Institute, who for nearly three decades, until he was removed just a few years ago, refuted the self-serving data produced by the “scientists” at the Baikalash pulp plant and issued stubborn warnings of a future crisis. Yevtushenko introduced Winter to Rasputin, and it was Rasputin who guided him on an extensive survey of the lake in 1988 with Semyon Ustinov, who has lived at Baikal since 1952 and spends most of the year in this remote region where we now find ourselves—the Brown Bear Coast, sixty-six miles along Baikal’s northwest shore, which was set aside two years ago, as the Baikal-Lena Nature Preserve, with Ustinov as deputy director.

Beginning with the album Common Ground (1979), Paul Winter, an imaginative jazz musician, has turned increasingly to nature for his inspiration, and his generosity in the environmental cause has made him a favorite of the Russians. In the same spirit Winter telephoned me in July to invite me along on this year’s Baikal expedition, although he had never met me in his life. There were no conditions on the invitation, yet he felt confident that Baikal itself would induce me to write something in its defense, and indeed I kept a diary as we traveled.

August 21. We meet in the Domodeveo air terminal east of Moscow, and depart together for Irkutsk, the capital of Siberia, a journey approximately as long as the journey from New York to Moscow. The plane crosses the Urals after midnight, not far north of the town of Nizhni Tagil, on the eastern slope, where air pollution is so intense, according to one factory worker, that “at our works, pigeons disappeared long ago. We don’t even have crows. We look up at the sky and we are horrified.”[^2]

To the south lies the Caspian Sea, afflicted these days with high counts of dangerous chemicals known as phenols, and farther east, what is left of the great Aral Sea, which, because of unwise and heavy-handed irrigation projects commenced at the same time as the exploration of Baikal, has shrunk by two thirds in the past twenty-eight years.

East of Omsk and west of Tomsk, the plane descends through dark, foul weather to lone lights sadly separated from one another, like the mast lights of scattered fishing vessels moored in darkness. This is Novisibirsk (New Siberia), the most populous Siberian city. All around is the black and hulking taiga, mostly evergreen, that comprises more of the land surface of the USSR than the steppes and deserts, the mountains, seas, tilled lands, and tundra all together.

Before daylight we are aloft again, headed east across the River Ob into the dawn. The rain has stopped and a glow appears over the wing, and earth and sky separate at last as daybreak illumines a great formless swamp and a wide river. This is Rasputin’s beautiful Angara, which flows out of the southwest end of Lake Baikal. The sun appears as the plane circles Irkutsk.

Sib Ir (the “Sleeping Land” of the native Buryat Mongols who ruled the region when the first Cossacks arrived in the seventeenth century) is still widely discounted as a dark and barbarous land of icy cold, wind, trackless swamp, and labyrinthine forest, of starving wild beasts and desperate prisoners. But the Siberian capital of Irkutsk, at one time (like St. Louis) a frontier trading station about two thirds of the way between the Urals and the Pacific, arose at the crossing of many ancient routes to Mongolia, Tibet, and China, and could already claim a geographic institute at the time of American independence. Irkutsk equipped Russia’s expeditions to the Pacific, including those which discovered the Bering Sea and founded the first European settlements in Alaska and northern California.

August 22. At Irkutsk, our group is met by Leonid Pereverzev, who in 1983 published an admiring essay on Winter’s music in Foreign Literature. A long-time amateur of American jazz, Pereverzev is an electronics engineer who now works on general theories of industrial design under the auspices of Moscow’s All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Technical Aesthetics—he enunciates this cumber-some bureaucratic name with dry contempt—and serves the USSR Academy of Sciences as a member of a special task force on advanced education. A saturnine, gray-bearded man of fifty-eight with the gaunt air of some bedeviled Dostoevskian priest, Pereverzev makes no effort to disguise his bitter hatred of the Soviet system, which sacrificed, enslaved, and stunted so many million Russian lives in the seven decades that include his own lifespan. His weapon of choice is not denunciation but soft-voiced, smiling, vitriolic irony. Later I learn that it was Leonid Pereverzev who carried Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s notes for the vast Gulag Archipelago while escorting the writer’s wife and their three children to the airport on their way to exile.

With Pereverzev is Tatyana Khomutova of Irkutsk TV, which is making a film of Paul Winter’s Baikal visit and has arranged with the state (Siberia is part of the huge Russian Republic, which is largest by far of all the Soviet republics) to provide a ship for our extended voyage. She is a native of Irkutsk, and as we drive out of the town, she points out the concrete monstrosities erected by the state among the charming old wood buildings of her city. “Those things are our shame,” says Tatyana Khomutova.

We drive up the Angara River past the Irkutsk dam that has raised the level of the lake more than a meter, turning the upper Angara into a long basin and drowning the celebrated rock just off the point where the Angara flows out of the southwest corner of the lake. (According to the Buryat people, this holy rock covered the entrance to the Kingdom of Justice.) I walk out on the point for my first good view of sacred Baikal, a soft pearly expanse of shifting distances, stretching away north, east, and south to the high Sayan Mountains on the Mongolian border, which even in late summer shine with snow.

In the southeast, forty miles away, there billows from beneath the lake horizon a heavy shroud of yellowish smoke that thickens the clouds as it blows east over the forests. Thanks to Lake Baikal’s defenders, the Baikalsk plant will turn to making furniture by 1993, but meanwhile the dumping of its chemically contaminated waste water will continue, although it has already ruined twenty-three square miles of the lake’s floor. This latter figure represents the area of dead lake bottom; more insidious pollution has spread so far northward that the In-tourist hotel here at the lakeshore fishing village of Listvyanka can no longer serve the celebrated water straight from the lake. (In recent years, a state ministry plan to pipe Baikalsk’s toxic waste across country to the Irkut River was fought by Grigori Galazi, Valentin Rasputin, and many others.)

Air pollution from that yellow cloud does even more harm than the dumping of waste water. At latest estimate, the toxic fallout has damaged perhaps 770 square miles of taiga, in particular the fir trees, and this local situation is made worse by pollution from other sources. Wind-borne sulphur and nitrogen oxides from coal-burning industries on the Angara River to the west pour acid rain into the lake, and analysis of the lake sediments shows polluting chemicals used in plastic manufacture that have come on the winds from European Russia, thousands of miles away. Contamination resulting from poor agricultural practice on the southeast shore, together with erosion from overgrazed lands, does further damage, as does logging silt and log detritus in the streams. Oil tankers crisscross a lake with violent and eerily erratic weather (notably the sudden sarma wind that bursts from the Sarma River valley on the northwest shore, with gusts of up to ninety miles an hour), and rickety oil tanks have been set up in an earthquake zone that in 1861 dumped many square miles of the eastern shore into the lake near what is now the Selenga River delta and still registers two thousand shocks each year.

Lake Baikal has already suffered a very serious decline in both size and populations of omul, an endemic subspecies of Arctic whitefish that is Baikal’s main commercial fish. The native creatures, specially adapted to the lake’s uncommon purity, are thought to be ten times more vulnerable to habitat pollution than more widespread forms, and among the most fragile, it appears, is the minute filtering agent epishura; an estimated 7 percent of epishura habitat is already lost. Other forms are being replaced by more tolerant and widespread Siberian species that usurp their age-old niches in Baikal.

Therefore it seems fatuous to assert, as the distinguished British publication Nature did quite recently, that “the alarms of the past few decades have been without foundation; Baikal remains more or less in its pristine state.”[^3] This shortsighted assessment ignores how rapidly the lake’s delicate balance is currently being destroyed. “We are nearing the point,” says Dr. Galazi, “where the process of negative change becomes irreversible.” Indeed, from the viewpoint of science, Baikal is already “in crisis”—unable to sustain further the effects of man.

August 23. Valentin Rasputin, who will join us tomorrow, has been friends with Semyon Ustinov since 1959, when they attended university together in Irkutsk. Even then, Ustinov tells me, Valentin Grigoreivich was appealing to local writers to help publicize the fight against the Baikalsk paper factory. Rasputin since has lent strong support to such environmental initiatives as the scrapping of a desperate plan to reverse the flow of north Siberian rivers to restore water to the vanishing Aral Sea. Ustinov speaks about Rasputin with near reverence. Rasputin, he says, keeps himself informed about “almost everything. Therefore he’s extraordinarily precise and accurate in all he says. He gives the impression of a truly great man who knows profoundly the effect that his words may have. And his writing is so great, in a spiritual sense, that it purifies the soul—that is the role it has played and is still playing in my life.”

At Listvyanka we board our ship, the 540-ton Baikal, black-hulled and white-cabined, forty-six meters in length, 9.5 meters in beam, with a crew of eight and three tiers of comfortable and well-lit cabins. The ship is owned by the River Fleet Ministry and her captain is Alexandyr Nikolaevich Bitudsky, who has a fine big chart of Baikal on the wheelhouse wall. The Baikal is a comfortable, converted tug, used formerly to tow huge rafts of logs down the lake to the Baikalsk factory.

We depart early in the bright afternoon and head north under the mountains of the western wall. I study this new coast from the wheelhouse roof. As the day passes, the mountains grow higher; farther north they will rise steeply to the Baikal Ridge. On this western shore, there are few roads through the high mountains, and few settlements. Thirty miles east across the lake is the delta of the Selenga River, a great breeding ground of cranes and waterfowl.

Although the lake appears sparkling clear, the Selenga River and Baikalsk together have seriously damaged all this southern part of Baikal. With the north end contaminated, too—largely from new towns that have sprouted up around the construction of the Baikal-Amur railway—“the heart of Baikal” is now the central section, the widest and also the deepest part, comprising perhaps two thirds of the surface area. This “heart of Baikal” is our destination, and the “heart of hearts,” so far as I’m concerned, is the Ushkanyi Islands, four small mountain peaks out in the deeps, much frequented at this time of year by the nerpa, or Baikal seal.

This first evening, studying a map, I discover that the headwaters of the great Lena River—largest of Siberia’s 53,000 rivers, and the one from which Lenin took his name—spring forth up there west of the rim, entirely separate from the Baikal watershed, though both flow north two thousand miles to the Arctic Ocean. If the map is accurate, the Lena’s two ancestral streams are not far west of the Brown Bear Coast, one of the places where Paul Winter plans to go ashore. Would it be possible, I ask, to climb up to the ridge that day and have a look?

Through Leonid Pereverzev, who gallantly performs the interpreting duties for the entire ship, Semyon Ustinov, a formidably large man, assures me sternly that it is not possible, it is too high—he points straight up—it is too far! And anyway, these maps are useless! And anyway, it is forbidden by the law! I have already been given to understand how lucky we are to see so much of Baikal, which except for a few designated points such as Lystvyanka, has few visitors (throughout most of the lake, there are no villages or ports, far less facilities). Though stricken by a peculiar longing to gaze upon the headwaters of the great Lena, I defer to Semyon’s vehemence and soon forget about it.

August 24. The weather clears steadily all day long, and the night brings stars. I go to sleep with the soft sound of a ship’s prow on a waveless surface. Our first destination, Olkhon Island, is by far the largest island in the lake. At Khuzir, on the island’s western shore, the ship is to pick up the last member of our party, V. Rasputin.

Mr. Rasputin, whom I behold for the first time next morning over a breakfast of dark bread and cabbage and raw omul (the delicious fish that is the main catch of the once prosperous Baikal fishery), had fled from Irkutsk to Khuzir to escape the plague of Western environmentalists such as myself who were descending upon this threatened region. I give him a letter and some documents from a Russian neighbor of mine on Long Island, who met him during his visit to the United States in 1985. (As president of the American Society for the Preservation of Russian Monuments and Culture, my neighbor is a great admirer of Rasputin, whom he describes as “wonderfully candid and open, a pure soul—a child of Siberia!”) Recalling him, Rasputin remarks wryly, “Now that fellow is Russian from head to toe!”

The Soviet deputy proves to be a tall, shambling man of fifty-three, with hazel eyes under a round cap of dark hair and a small-nosed, round, red, worried face deeply lined by what looks like chronic psychic pain. His voice is muted, rather mild, and his manner shy. A pumpkin grin splits his face wide when he smiles, but his eyes remain shy, a little sad.

August 25. Late in the morning, we go ashore. Olkhon is drier than the mainland, and the little town of Khuzir in its extreme bareness looks less like a taiga settlement than a sub-Arctic outpost in the tundra. A joint Russian-American archaeological expedition to Olkhon in 1975 uncovered two skeletons of Asiatic-Mongoloid stock, one of them eight thousand years old, and it is thought that the Buryat have been here since that time. In the thirteenth century, the nomadic Buryat Mongols under Genghis Khan, who was born in the rolling hills south and east of Baikal, ruled most of what is now the Soviet Union, from the Pacific west all the way to the Moscow River, but in the sixteenth century the last khan of Sibir was overthrown by the tsar’s Cossacks, or frontiersmen, and in the seventeenth century the Buryat, at least, were pacified for good by the advent of Lamaist Buddhism from Tibet.

According to papers by American scholars kept in the ethnographic museum in Khuzir, the peoples who traveled across the Bering Strait to North America originated in the region of Lake Baikal (a theory made more interesting by recent findings that the Amerindians were not many different peoples, as was once assumed, but closely related groups from a single region). Similarly, the racial makeup of the Japanese changed drastically in the five hundred years between 250 BC and 250 AD, apparently because of the arrival of a new people who overwhelmed the aboriginal Ainu and Jomon. According to recent blood-type studies by Professor Keiichi Omoto of Tokyo University, this new people is also thought to have originated near Baikal. Baikal’s proximity to the Gobi Desert of Outer Mongolia, once an abundant grassland swarming with game, supports the theory that this sacred lake was a gathering and dispersal point for Asian peoples.

In recent decades, the Buryat, like the Yakuts and Evenki, suffered forced collectivization, together with virtual annihilation of their shamans and tribal leaders, in what an Evenki writer has described as “an all-out war against our ancient way of life.” An estimated ten thousand of the Buryat people perished under Stalin, and almost all their Buddhist temples were destroyed.

These days the Buryat mostly live across the lake in Trans-Baikal, in their own “autonomous” republic of Buryatia; its capital is Ulan Ude, on the Selenga River. Other indigenous peoples, the Evenki and Yakuts, have their own “autonomous” regions farther north. But “Mr. Rasputin” (as Leonid insists on calling him, so weary is he of the word “Tovarich”) informs us that there are still about five hundred Buryat on Olkhon, about a third of the sparse island population, and a few copper-colored Buryats, flat-faced and slit-eyed, may be seen here in the little town.

Climbing uphill from Khuzir, we cross the hard-cropped moor to a jutting rock that overlooks a beautiful clear crescent beach of sand, and here Paul Winter, in search of natural echoes, plays on his soprano saxophone the compositions that he calls “earth music.” With Rasputin and others I listen a while, enjoying the solitary crooning call of the reed instrument to the immensities of sea and silence.

At the north end of the island in late afternoon, we climb across the moors. There are blue gentians in the grass, and dandelions, daisies, purple thistle. Wandering ahead, I find Semyon Ustinov on the cliffs, huge and exultant. He points north toward a far dark island that resembles a beached whale—Ushkanyi! Ushkanyi is a Buryat word meaning “hares,” so it is said; these are the seal islands of our destination. He swings his big arm in an arc toward the northwest where the mountain wall is shadowed in blue mist—Ritti! he cries, naming a Buryat sacred place on the Baikal-Lena Preserve where he lives—then down the cliffs to a grotto in a tower of white marble that is set off by brilliant orange lichens. Buryat! Where a ledge overlooks the black and depthless water—or so he seems to say in pantomime—the Buryats of old came to spear seals for meat and fur. Nerpa!

With the exception of a few odd bits of German, Semyon and I have no common language, only good will and a silent affinity for wilderness and wild things, but I do my best to convey to him how very beautiful I find this lake and his home country, from the blue sea and mountains all around to the bountiful asters that can be picked on these high moors by the bouquet. Ramashka! Semyon shouts, throwing his arms wide as if to welcome these sunswept lavender wildflowers, and bursts into a ramashka song in the asters’ honor.

3.

August 26. Under a gray northern sky, the Baikal rounds the northern tip of Olkhon Island to the meteorological station at Ouzour Bay, a small cove and pebble beach between rock portals. From here we travel inland on a truck bed to a lonely farmstead in high barren country inhabited by an old Buryat woman and her family.

Alexandra Argalovna Bozsueva is pure Mongol, her skin the color of dark copper filled with sun. She wears copper earrings, a blue kerchief, blue dress, boots. Talking with Valentin Rasputin, she explains her Buryat patronymic: her father had the name Argal, the word for an old male seal. Both the Buryat and Evenki peoples had seal-worship cults, since this animal provided meat and fat as well as dense warm fur. “I am of the Seal’s family,” she says. “In other days, children were given names of the wild animals, but now, of course, they are given Russian names.” Her daughter is married to a Russian, and although Alexandra Argalovna sometimes speaks Buryatin to her grandchildren, her daughter prefers that she speak to them in Russian. She shrugs and smiles with the quiet composure of an old Inuit (“Eskimo”) woman of North America, whom she much resembles.

As a young woman Alexandra Argalovna was forced to work on a collective farm, yet her people have retained such traditional practices as the burning of the dead, which allows the soul to travel swiftly to the spirit world. As she explains, a soul buried deep in the earth can never see the sun. Her own mother was buried in the earth because it was a time of drought, and had her family been suspected of having caused a forest fire, they would have been shot as “enemies of the people.”

The old woman says this cheerfully, without resentment. After all, the leaders had explained to them that they had to work hard and sacrifice unceasingly to avoid war, since only the state and its heroic Red Army stood between the Buryats and the American bases that encircled them with missiles and hydrogen bombs.

Her father had instructed her not to be resentful but to accept with a good heart whatever came. Saying this, she laughs a deep and quiet laugh to show that she has lived accordingly, and means to accept life in the same spirit to the end.

Suddenly and unself-consciously, in a strong voice, Alexandra Argalovna beings singing. Her song is a peaceful chant about seeing the grains grow, and how watching one’s children and grandchildren gives one the same deep feeling of the seasons—how fine life was when the harvest was good and the children grown strong. When her song is finished, she says quietly, “Perhaps that is all I can sing now. In the old days we used to dance and sing, but now we have abandoned that completely. On the collective farm we had no time for it, they gave no holidays.”

After a while she says, “There were sacred trees known to my parents and when my parents died, the trees died, too. Nevertheless, we still make offerings at those places, and we ask for rain or for fair weather. We believe in all living things. We have stones and trees we revere very much and we bring them offerings each month, and when we kill a sheep we make an offering, too.

“There were sacred places in the mountains where only men could go, but the shamans all died long ago, and even when I was a young girl, these sacred places were thought of as unimportant. In ancient times all life was considered sacred. Now those times are gone, nobody thinks about it any more.”

Paul Winter offers to play for her and does so, standing in the yard on this gray day, as behind him a dark harrier hawk, crossing the chicken pen, causes a great squawking. Winter’s soprano sax is accompanied by Glen Velez on the large light hand drum; he drags his nails to make it hum, rubs the stretched skin until it moans, flicking and tapping and rapping and ringing, his long fingers flying.

The old woman of the seal clan remarks quietly that hearing the drum brings back a sudden memory of “something very old” that had been lost, and Winter’s reed instrument the sound of “a small wood flute my father played. I am very moved.”

Rather stiffly, Rasputin observes how fortunate these people are without TV, which would only have afflicted them with the crass materialism of “Western values.”

Rasputin seems as sternly moralistic as he was over breakfast when Leonid joked at the expense of the late President Brezhnev. Although Brezhnev had promoted the relentless industrialization of the Soviet Union that has damaged the motherland for decades to come, Rasputin growls, “We should not attack dead men who cannot defend themselves. We should attack the live ones who are still doing harm.” Occasionally this man displays a puritanical, judgmental side that is not likable, but nothing about him seems hypocritical or false.

August 27. The Baikal heads north again toward a rainbow over the Ushkanyi Islands. In late afternoon, Leonid Boriseivich taps at my cabin door, suggesting that we go forward to the bows and see the islands. Gazing over the water, he tells me about his grandfather, Vladimir Pereverzev, a man of the intelligentsia who became head of the railroad workers’ union under the tsars, and led a railroad strike in 1905 that set off a premature revolution. Accused of treason, he escaped to Paris and did not return until 1917. “Eventually he died in bed, but his son did not.” Boris Pereverzev was among those seized and executed during Stalin’s purges of 1937.

Rasputin comes forward to join us in the bows. He points out Marble Island, the largest and highest of the four Ushkanyi, whose low east point reminds him more of a sturgeon than a whale. A few years ago, he tells us, an Italian firm proposed a joint venture with the Soviets to mine its crystalline white limestone, but this project was stopped by Baikal’s defenders.

“Six months before I was appointed to the presidential council, I’d approached Mr. Gorbachev with some proposals. I told him there were four government decrees protecting Lake Baikal and that not one had been implemented. Gorbachev promised he would put the Baikal question to the very next meeting of the Politburo, but the general situation in the country was growing more and more complicated and more urgent, made worse by all the ethnic unrest, so Baikal was not put on the agenda. Then suddenly, at the last Party congress a few weeks ago [July 1990], the Politburo lost all power to affect anything, while those in power in the Socialist Federation of Russian Republics, which had also been considering the Baikal problem, were replaced by new people, and their Baikal decrees were not put into effect. Eventually Mr. Gorbachev ordered his council to find a solution to the Baikal problem.

“Last spring, when I agreed to join the council, I had two ambitions—to protect our Russian culture [from corrupting changes] and to protect nature, especially Baikal. But in the light of our national turmoil, it seems inappropriate just now to insist on Baikal, and anyway, I may have overestimated my abilities as a politician. It’s not so easy to solve problems just because one is a member of the presidential council! Up to now, in fact, I’ve found no way to accomplish anything!”

Rasputin has spoken and written with eloquence not only on Baikal but on a great many other environmental problems, Chernobyl included, but he has published no fiction since The Fire (1986). When I ask him if politics has disrupted his work, he nods unhappily. “It takes all my time. I don’t think it’s appropriate to resign right now but I think that in a year or two I shall. Sometimes I even feel that I should give up environmental work, but this, I’m afraid, will never happen”—here he smiles one of his rare smiles—“nor to you either. There are simply too many urgent problems to ignore.”

In an elegant article about Lake Baikal published in 1981, he described how an Evenk “standing on the shore of Baikal as he was about to cut down a birch tree out of necessity would repent for a long time and ask the tree’s forgiveness for being forced to destroy it. Nowadays we are different.”[^4] This custom is similar to the American Indians’ custom of expressing gratitude to nature when they take a tree or deer for their own use. I ask him if he felt that the traditional values of original Siberians such as the Buryat and Evenki and Yakuts should be protected.

“If we’d paid more attention to their values in the past, we’d have none of today’s problems with Baikal. It is a great loss to our society that we have severed our connection with that old sense of harmony with nature.” He nods as if to himself. “For a long time, if somebody had told me that one of the designers of the Baikalsk plant had been a Buryat, I would not have believed it, and I would have been right. But today a huge hydroelectric plant is being planned for the Altai Mountains, and one of the leading proponents of this dangerous project is a native man—an example of what happens to us when our bonds to our native earth are broken. As soon as that Altai plant is built, all sorts of industry will follow, and the most beautiful region in Siberia will be ruined.”

Saying this, he takes a long breath. “So perhaps our top priority is to protect the national, cultural, ethnic values of the local people in every region, because without those values, human beings will not even protect their own environment.”

A few years ago, Rasputin remarked in Winter’s hearing that Soviet environmental efforts were too little and too late, that “all was lost,” and I ask if this is still his view today. He nods without hesitation. “I remain gloomy and sad about environmental prospects, not only in the USSR but everywhere. Almost all our country’s rivers and lakes, especially in Europe, are polluted to a very high degree—by comparison, this lake is in fine condition—and even in Siberia there are regions where the water problem is truly serious. There are many groups trying to save the Aral Sea, the Volga Basin, but it’s very doubtful they’ll succeed. It will cost billions of rubles, and nobody has the slightest idea where that money will come from.

“To be sure, ecological consciousness is growing, but many still argue against environmental protection. For example, the cellulose plants polluting Baikal employ thousands of workers—the Baikalsk Plant alone has twenty thousand—who naturally resist closing them down, since these workers have so little chance of finding jobs anywhere else without the retraining they’re not going to get.

“So there seems little hope that humanity will recognize its own danger any time in the near future. We are like a man with his hands tied and a noose around his neck. The more desperately he struggles, the more the noose tightens. And the end is near.”

August 28. The nearest relative of the nerpa (Phoca siberica) is the ringed seal (P. hispida), two thousand miles to the north, in the Arctic Sea, and although the two species have been separated for at least a million years, an occasional nerpa shows vestigial spots or rings in its silvered fur.

The nerpa, which may attain a length of 4’6” and a weight of 280 pounds, is slightly smaller than its relatives—it is the smallest pinniped on earth. Otherwise it is distinguished by very large black eyes in a flat face, strong forelimbs, and long, unsheathed foreclaws, the better to grasp fish and claw through ice, which may be three to four feet thick in winter. Hunting mostly after dark, it can swim down six hundred feet and more, and remain beneath for thirty minutes in pursuit of fishes, in particular two species of sculpin and two species of the transparent oilfish called golomyanka, a pinkish, scaleless, and translucent creature with broad winglike pectoral fins which makes a daily ascent from deeper water (down to five hundred feet) to the surface. The golomyanka, some ten inches long, is confined to Baikal, and its viviparous habit—in which the female gives birth to perhaps two thousand live young, then sinks and dies—is so efficient that its biomass—an estimated 150,000 tons—exceeds that of all the other fifty-one fish species in the lake.

The nerpa prefers golomyanka to the commercially valuable omul, on which it has no important impact. Since the oilfish is fatty with vitamin-rich oil, Phoca siberica is fatty, too, and the fat stands it in good stead in the wintertime. The nerpa spend the winter in the water, maintaining ten to fifteen air holes in the ice. The pregnant females build lairs in the ice and have their snow-white pups in February.

The sixty to seventy thousand seals in Lake Baikal are all that remain of hundreds of thousands that were hunted to near extinction for meat, fur, and blubber, and there is still a commercial harvest of about six thousand animals a year, which keeps their numbers at their present level. To date it has not been demonstrated that seal numbers have been reduced by lake pollution, but the nerpa is at the top of the Baikal food chain, and accumulated toxic chemicals may well have weakened its resistance to disease. In recent years there has been a general decrease in the seal population in the southern part of the lake, where pollution is greater.

Precisely how the lake should be protected has not yet been decided, to judge from the near absence of specific measures advanced by the experts and agencies from Europe and America now studying Baikal and offering advice, but all agree that the first step is to put a stop to the present sources of pollution, particularly the industrial combines at Baikalsk and at the Selenga River. Lumbering is now forbidden anywhere close to the lake shore, and the rafts of towed logs headed for Baikalsk, which often broke apart and sank in the severe storms, must now be carried aboard ship. Even the tourist industry, already limited by difficulty of access to the lake, will be closely controlled. All ships and boats that travel Lake Baikal must be equipped with devices for dealing with their own garbage and sewage, and most of the small settlements on Baikal’s shore shelters have patrol boats that monitor commercial craft. However, the captain tells us that the four hundred patrol boats—many times more numerous than the ships they monitor—have no antipollution devices, or even septic tanks. The sardonic Rasputin likens them to ambulances careening through the streets, stopping only for the people that they have run over.

In the present desperate economic straights of the Soviet Union, help for Baikal will be limited to preventive measures, in the reasonable hope that, given respite, the immense deep lake will find a way to heal itself.

II.

The Canadian writer Farley Mowat, who passed through Irkutsk in 1966, recalled in his book The Siberians “a vivid, cheerful young writer improbably named Valentin Rasputin,” and even today his friends agree that Valentin Grigoreivich can be witty and charming, but on this voyage, despite humorous moments, he has seemed for the most part distracted and morose, an impression deepened by the heavy downward cast of his expression. From the first morning, I have sensed something broken in this man, or perhaps “heartbroken” is what I mean.

Last summer, when Rasputin was appointed a member of Gorbachev’s now disbanded presidential council, he was already a People’s Deputy, a USSR State Prize laureate, and a certified Hero of Socialist Labor. To judge from his gloomy demeanor, none of these honors has given him much pleasure, perhaps because they must have interfered with his own work. But I also wonder if he feels ill at ease among Americans, because of the allegations of anti-Semitism that have been raised against him in the West.

In his new role as a politician, Rasputin must spend time in Moscow, which he sees as a den of iniquitous foreign influences from abroad. There he takes refuge among other Russian nationalists who have made the environmental restoration of Mother Russia their great cause. Unfortunately, these activists include the National-Patriotic Front, better known as Pamyat (Memory), which holds the Jews responsible not only for “the ritual murder” of Tsar Nicholas II and for the worst violence of the Revolution but for seven decades of terror and misery ever since; it also supports a virulently anti-Semitic, blackshirt faction that actively assails and threatens Jews, scaring many into emigration.

Pamyat’s philosophy, such as it is, derives from the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Russian forgery of the late nineteenth century that was later to inspire Adolf Hitler. Thus Russia’s ruin is attributed not to communism but to the “enemies” and “shady powers” of the “Zionist-Masonic conspiracy”—in a word, the Jews—who infiltrated the Party and have made life miserable for the Russian people ever since. It is typical of Pamyat’s confused ideology that its spokesmen support communist ideals, the Orthodox Church, and the pre-revolutionary monarchy all at the same time. However, its members are not confused about what they detest, namely the Western, or “cosmopolitan,” virus with which Russia has been infected by these Masonic-Zionist-Russophobic plotters. Beyond a doubt, Russia’s wretched situation is the work of the aforementioned enemies, who conspire to destroy Mother Russia through encouraging alcoholism (they cunningly substitute yogurt with alcohol instilled in it for infants’ milk at public dispensaries), AIDS (moral degeneration of the cosmopolitans), the Chernobyl disaster (Pamyat claims that no Jews were harmed by the explosion).

With the advent of perestroika and glasnost, the anger and frustration caused by the country’s grinding domestic problems, weariness, and widespread poverty have been accompanied by anti-Semitic and aggressive ethnic claims. In the autumn of 1989, in a letter to President Gorbachev, a group of writers that included Yevtushenko and Andrei Voznesensky expressed apprehension “regarding what might happen if urgent measures are not taken which guarantee Jews safe residence in the USSR.” But not until April 1990 did President Gorbachev (informally, in answer to a question) speak out against anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, where in addition to ugly episodes in the streets, Jewish cemeteries are being desecrated, and vile leaflets distributed urging Jews to emigrate before harm comes to them. According to the novelist Irina Ginzburg, “every Russian who wants to enter Pamyat must give the organization four full addresses of Jewish families to use when the time is ripe.”[^5]

On January 18, 1990, a Pamyat gang disrupted a plenary meeting of the Union of Writers of the Russian Federation at which a number of Jewish writers were present, shouting, “Yids! Get out! Go to your Israel!” In August, the Pamyat member who led the attack in the Writers’ Union was actually brought to trial, and to almost everyone’s surprise was sentenced in November 1990 to two years at hard labor for “inciting ethnic hatred.”

Rasputin is not associated with Pamyat, but he has defended its positions on the environment and on Russian culture, and although he witnessed the ugly eruption at the Writers’ Union, he has maintained silence both about what happened that day and about Pamyat’s other disreputable activities. In the March 2, 1990, issue of the weekly Literaturnaya Rossiya, Rasputin lent his name to a collective “Letter of the Writers of Russia to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR”—known as the “Letter of 74,” because that number of writers were involved—which reads as if it might have been composed in the Pamyat office; the letter refers not only to the need to protect Russia’s natural environment but to “the criminal visage of Zionism”—Zionist being a code word for Jews generally—and castigates Israel as that “monstrous offspring of the Jewish people.”

A few months before the Letter of 74 appeared, Bill Keller, the bureau chief in Moscow of The New York Times, published an article in The New York Times Magazine of January 28, 1990, which included an interview with Rasputin, quoting him as saying, among other things, that Russia’s Jews “should feel responsible for the sin of having carried out the Revolution, and for the shape it took…they should feel responsible for the terror…that existed during the Revolution and especially after the revolution. They played a large role and their guilt is great. Both for the killing of God and for that.”

This dreadful judgment of communal guilt was attacked in an open letter to Izvestia in June signed by six members of the Leningrad Writer’s Union, who demanded that Rasputin’s words be judged by the Supreme Soviet Ethics Committee as well as by the Presidential Council. Rasputin defended himself in the same paper, conceding that the quotations attributed to him, if quoted accurately, were indeed “worthy of indignation” but that, in fact, they were not accurate. “I said that it is no good to speak today of the responsibility of Jews for the so-called God-killing, but from the pen of Mr. Keller the exact opposite emerged.” (In fact, Keller had noted, without quotes, Rasputin’s view that Jews today should not be held responsible for the Crucifixion.) According to Izvestia, Keller subsequently apologized, acknowledging that his article “contained mistakes in translation which distorted the views of Mr. Rasputin on one question.” But as Izvestia commented dryly, “there were many questions and answers in the interview.”

The full text of the interview, which Keller made available to The New York Review after I returned, shows that Rasputin does in fact claim that the Jews should feel responsible for the sin of having caused the terror during and after the revolution, though not for the killing of God. However, he also says that it is “totally absurd” to have no regard for someone because he is a Jew. The main part of Keller’s interview in which Rasputin discusses Jews, most of which did not appear in The New York Times, is printed below:

Bill Keller: …How would you answer the Jewish question, which often arises together with the Russian question?

Valentin Rasputin: The Russian–Jewish question is not a recent one. In this respect I hold a centralist position, between the two groups—although there are people who consider me a Russian chauvinist, a nationalist, and so on. I think that if there is a nation (narodnost) within the nation (narod), within Russia, then it should have the right to exist. We have to look for ways of reconciling our contradictions. There are contradictions between our nations. But that didn’t prevent our coexisting before, and it shouldn’t prevent it now.

The sin of killing God is such an ancient one, it happened so long ago, that a people can’t be considered responsible for it now. Sin is not in the blood. It’s totally absurd to have no regard for someone just because he’s Jewish. We have to judge by the qualities of a person, although there are specific traits characteristic of a people.

I think today the Jews here should feel responsible for the sin of having carried out the revolution, and for the shape that it took. [They should feel responsible] for the terror. For the terror that existed during the revolution and especially after the revolution. They played a large role, and their guilt is great. Not for the killing of God, but for that.

BK: Is that a Jewish sin?

VR: In this country, it is. Because many Jewish leaders took part in the terror, in the suppression of the Tambov Rebellion, in the repression of the Kulaks, of the peasants, and so on. Ideology was produced by the Jews. But to make them answer for it; and to say that we won’t be able to coexist, is the wrong approach. There’s no way out. We can’t make all Jews emigrate, and it’s not necessary either, because they are the brains we need.

And I think the two nations have merged to such an extent, that a separation would be painful—painful for the Russian nation, too. With all their faults and merits, they need each other, because on the one hand it makes for a kind of spiritual competition, and on the other hand it spurs the Russian people out of their lethargy. And then, I think one always needs an opponent. It’s necessary for one’s healthy development to have an opponent.

There is a problem, and it’s not a small one. But to find a way out of this problem, we need reconciliation, not antagonism.

BK: But what is the guilt of the Jews of today in the revolution and the terror?

VR: Today’s Jews aren’t guilty, but they don’t accept any criticism, either. The guilt of today’s Jews is that of attempting to put themselves forward in the cultural and in other spheres, and of ignoring other nations. I believe in this guilt.

BK: When you say that the Jews formed the ideology, you mean that this is a Jewish ideology?

VR: No, they provided the revolution with an ideology. Why a Jewish ideology? It’s the ideology of world revolution.

BK: Yes, but that’s not a particularly Jewish ideology.

VR: Well, I’ve never thought about whether this ideology is a Jewish one, or a European one, saturated by Jewish philosophy…or how European the Jewish philosophy is…that doesn’t interest me. I’m talking about the implementation.

BK: Trostnyakov [a Russian writer who gave a lecture the night before in Irkutsk] also talked about the role of Jewish capital and Jewish administration of the mass media. Do you also think that plays a nefarious role in the fate of the Russian people?

VR: As to the mass media, yes. In this field, national identity is taken into consideration, of course. I like the poet Boris Pasternak very much. I’ve always liked him, and I still do. I don’t like his prose as much, but I think he’s a great poet. There might be some other opinions, but just try saying something—not even anything negative, just something lacking the usual superlatives—about any of the Jewish cultural figures, and you’ll immediately be attacked.

In the US I have found that because of the excerpts from the interview printed in The New York Times, the label of anti-Semitism has been firmly affixed to Valentin Rasputin. His attribution of various kinds of “sin” and “guilt” to Jews collectively is clearly anti-Semitic, but he also advocated “reconciliation, not antagonism” in relations with Jews. Everyone I talked to who knows Rasputin personally, whether in the Soviet Union or in the United States, defended him against the charge of anti-Semitism.

“There’s been a change in personality—Valentin’s only spoken this way in recent times,” says his Russian friend Antonina Bouis, who is also his translator and the director of the Soros Foundation in the USSR. “Valentin comes from the deep woods of Siberia, and he is a very provincial man who has had little contact with foreigners until now; he is naive to a degree that his talent belies. As a person so concerned about the environment, he has terrible fears of the changes that are coming. While he has never been in Pamyat, so many of their cultural aims coincide with his that he has allowed himself to be identified with those that don’t.”

Ms. Bouis acknowledges that Rasputin, like millions of his countrymen, might wish to blame his country’s woes on a “Zionist conspiracy,” but “even if he made such a naive general statement. Valentin would never be anti-Semitic on a personal, human level.” She couldn’t recall a single anti-Semitic remark that he had made during the ten years or more of their friendship.

Paul Winter tells me that Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who is angry with his old friend for not repudiating the Pamyat extremists, considers it simplistic to say that Rasputin is anti-Semitic, despite the evidence of his words and actions. This trait, Yevtushenko seems to imply, won’t fit with the deep and apparently genuine longing for a just and moral life that lies at the foundation of Rasputin’s work.

Leonid Pereverzev was upset by the references to Rasputin in the American press, including the article in The New York Times Magazine. “All these American reports seem to me so superficial,” he said, “without any understanding of this writer’s background. Valentin Grigorievich doubtless grew up with the crude stereotypes of Stalinist anti-Semitism that reached the villages; there was also the fact that he and other young regional writers resented being patronized as ‘village writers’ by the urban literary elite, and that some of these urban writers happened to be Jews. Thus you might say he was susceptible to anti-Semitism through his upbringing in a small village here in Siberia.”

The other night, Leonid told me, one of the Irkutsk TV crew aboard ship was inveighing against “them” (the Jews), who have been the ringleaders in bringing so much misery to so many millions of the Soviet people. Leonid denounced this notion of collective guilt, declaring how absurd it was to blame so much horror on the very few Jews who had held power. Even if there were such evil people, what about the thousands of non-Jews who inflicted misery, and the millions of Russians who stood by and did nothing? And Rasputin said quietly, “I absolutely agree with Leonid Boriseivich. One cannot blame any one group for the crimes of the past.”

August 29. In the morning a warm wind from the south brings heavy rain, and as the ship crosses the lake seeking a sheltered bay, I spend the rough and rainy afternoon in Rasputin’s cabin.

Scarcely an hour ago, Leonid tells me on our way to join him, Valentin Grigorievich observed in passing that Russia’s Jews had shared with all the rest in their country’s sufferings, that Jews were a part of Russia, part of its history, and that the nation could not afford to lose them. Leonid is seeking to dissuade me from questioning “Mr. Rasputin” on the subject of anti-Semitism, saying “how touchy and fed up he was” with this subject. Unfortunately, the remarks Leonid has quoted strike me as more ambiguous than he considers them. Couldn’t they mean, “We are stuck with Jews whether we like them or not”? I do not wish to be aggressive or ungrateful, I tell Leonid—after all, Rasputin is one of our hosts—but it seems less than honest, knowing what I do, to limit our talks to literature and the environment.

In the cabin, Rasputin and I sit opposite each other on the two berths, upright, a bit stiff, knees not quite touching, like two unhappy boys being punished for fighting. Leonid, more unhappy still, hovers over his tape recorder, which he’s placed by his side. In a polite preamble I convey my sincere admiration of Rasputin’s literary and environmental work, then express concern about these recent allegations of anti-Semitism, which I hope that his comments might clarify for American readers.

Glancing at our translator, Rasputin gives a rueful laugh. “The inevitable question!” he exclaims. Then he falls silent for a little while, and when he resumes speaking he looks grim.

“It seems to me unjust, this charge of anti-Semitism,” he says finally, and he pauses again, raising his palms above his knees, then dropping them. “I am searching for words that might adequately explain this to one not living in our society.” Another pause. “Yes, there is anti-Semitism in my country, and what’s more, it is rather strong. It also exists in your country, in Europe, and in Eastern Europe. Therefore it seems curious that our Russian press doesn’t write about anti-Semitism in the US and Europe, whereas all the world knows about anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union.

“Also there is an element in the Jewish intelligentsia that overreacts to the slightest hint of anti-Semitism, and perhaps a few even exploit it, for whatever reason. And such people tend to respond negatively when I try to speak about restoration of traditional Russian values. It has become unacceptable to speak about either self-respect or patriotism! According to their way of thinking, the very idea of a Russian national identity is anti-Semitic by definition—a sin!—although Jews themselves are perfectly free to discuss their own ethnic identity!

“Among our very serious ethnic problems, anti-Semitism is far from the worst. We have war in the Caucasus right now! The Crimean Tatars, the Volga Germans—how much is written about them? Nevertheless, there is a problem in Russian–Jewish relationships that needs to be discussed.

“It is my belief that all these rumors of future pogroms in Russia have been fabricated to scare Jews into emigrating, and are spread by those who would wish to make the bad situation in our country even worse. There’s nothing dividing the Russians from the Jews. This is a big country, one can do what one likes. I consider Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union, which keeps growing and growing, to be an abnormal situation.

“So far as I know, there have been no pogroms, and I don’t believe any pogrom will occur in the foreseeable future.” He looks up. “But in the unlikely event that this should happen, I myself, who am called an anti-Semite and a nationalist, would be the first one to defend the Jews.”

I do not question Rasputin’s sincerity but his outlook seems to me chilling, nonetheless. He has talked generally about Russian anti-Semitism, not about the feelings of Rasputin, and seems to lay blame on the Jews without criticizing those who are harassing them. He does not even mention Pamyat’s propaganda, the many incidents that have been reported, or the violent attack on the Writer’s Union that he himself witnessed.

“True, there are several points of misunderstanding,” he is saying, “perhaps because the Jewish community lived here for so long deprived of their own land, their own culture. Rural writers have always understood that a person is tied to his own native land. I sincerely hope that we will solve this problem. As a so-called ‘grass-roots writer’ from a Siberian village, I may find it more difficult to understand the urban cosmopolitan view, whether Jewish or German. And the cosmopolitan Russian is the most frightening of all!”

The quasi-cosmopolitan Leonid translates this without blinking, though doubtless he would agree with Sinyavsky, Yevtushenko, Tatyana Tolstaya, Vosnezensky, and many other leading Soviet writers that the Pamyat Russian is far more frightening than the “cosmopolitan Russian.”

“Possibly the solution lies in reviving one’s own culture, whether Russian or Jewish. We have no trouble understanding nationalist Jews—there’s nothing to argue about. Being so absorbed in the restoration of my own Russian culture, I am also interested in restoring Jewish culture.”

He slaps his knees. “The point is, we have no territory to quarrel over. We have a very large country, we have large problems in common. It wouldn’t make any sense to be anti-Semitic!”

Everything Rasputin says, however sincere and well-intended, reflects his perception of a separation between Slavic Russians and the six tenths of 1 percent of the Russian population known as Jews, as if even after all these centuries of shared misery, those Jews who considered themselves good Russians would not be considered so by Slavic “patriots.”

I remark how at odds anti-Semitism seems with the holistic, spiritual, even mystical vision of life that underlies his work. For reasons not quite clear to me, this remark upsets him, for he now exclaims in a pained voice that the allegations against him are nonsense. To this effect, he cites Mikhail Agursky, a Russian Jewish literary critic who has emigrated to Israel but who nonetheless came strongly to his defense. “We’d never been friends or anything,” Rasputin says, “so his words were precious to me.”

When I ask about the Letter of 74, Rasputin says, “My main reason for signing that letter was that it promoted some sense of national pride in our country. I disliked some of the phrasing, and I was embarrassed when its negative aspects were reprinted everywhere, but if each of the seventy-four widely scattered signers started making corrections, it would never have been drafted. And anyway,” he adds, almost stubbornly, “I supported the general principles of what it said.” He shakes his head, smiling ruefully once more. “Perhaps the letter was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Under ordinary circumstances, I would never have signed it, but by the time I was asked to lend my name, I already had such a bad reputation as a nationalist and anti-Semite that I didn’t think I had very much to lose.”

This last remark is puzzling. Although the article was reprinted in the nationalist publication Nash Sovremenik without Rasputin’s name on it, his apparent obliviousness to the moral implications of signing such a letter seems strong evidence of the insensitivity which many people hold responsible for his damaged reputation in the West. As Leonid, who much admires him, says later,

“If Valentin Grigorievich saw something unjust that was happening before his eyes, I feel sure he would respond in an ethical manner, but he keeps bad company when he is in Moscow, all the ones who are whipping up hatred by accusing those who favor foreign ways of Russophobia. Also it seems he is badly informed on issues he has not experienced directly. If someone he trusts gives him some tailored account of something, he is too uncritical, too ready to believe it. But I’ve always found him very open-minded; he is willing and able to change his ideas, and I think he will.”

Back in the US, I have repeatedly heard people who had never read a word of Rasputin’s works and knew nothing of his efforts on behalf of his country dismiss him simply as an anti-Semite. It seems to me that an unsophisticated artist whose writings and whose courageous fight for the environment are admirable should not be labeled prematurely, particularly since his ideas appear to be changing.

Rasputin rose and shook my hand, and we parted in a friendly manner, but by late afternoon he seemed remote, as if overtaken by the gloom of the bad weather that remained with the Baikal all the time he was aboard. I told Leonid I was sorry if I had upset him. “He is very shy,” Pereverzev assured me, “and also very delicate inside, if you understand me. I have seen him this way before. He feels beset by ‘them’—the Westernizers, the environmental polluters, all the enemies of his beloved Mother Russia. And now he finds himself in this role of his nation’s champion and hero, which by nature he is not—he is an artist.”

III.

August 30. Still seeking refuge from the weather, and wishing to be close to the seal island if the weather breaks, since the seals eluded us the first time, the Baikal crosses the lake once more to Chivyrkuisky Bay. This is Buryatia, where permission is needed to land, but a passing fisherman informs the captain that a large store of vodka was unloaded at Chivyrkuisky only yesterday, and that the entire community, its elders and youngsters alike, drank themselves into oblivion as soon as possible. Therefore it is early afternoon before permission comes to go ashore.

In quest of solitude I climb uphill into the pine woods, which at this time of year are carpeted with rich mosses and red and blue berries and plentiful mushrooms, white, orange, and red. I eat rose hips and sweet pine nuts from the cone. At the south end of the ridge, overlooking a Buryat camp down on the shore, is a grassy headland—a sacred place, since colorful rag offerings to old Buryat deities are tied into the trees. Off to the south is the broad isthmus with its central lake that Semyon says is the last known nesting place of the wild swan, as well as a great gathering place for cranes and other migratory birds.

Whereas only in the last decades have Russians risen to defend the lake itself, concern for Siberian wildlife has been more or less constant since early in the century. Not far to the north on this east shore lies the 650,000 acres of Baikal’s first nature preserve, established under Tsar Nicholas in 1916 to protect the very valuable Barguzin sable, which was hunted to near extinction by the turn of the century. Five years later, under Lenin, protection was extended to all life on the Barguzin Preserve, plants and trees included, and today the sable, wolf, brown bear, wolverine, and other creatures have recovered. In recent years, under Gorbachev, two more preserves have been set aside, one of them Semyon’s Baikal-Lena, where we will go the day after tomorrow.

By early morning, when the Baikal rounds the northern point of the Holy Nose peninsula on her way back out to the seal islands, the lake surface is still, smooth as pearl. Approaching the smaller islands in the ship’s rowboat, the mew of gulls and ratcheting of terns can be heard over the oars at a great distance. In the channel between islands, like a black ball glinting on the pewter sea, rises the head of the first nerpa I have ever seen, and as I shout, the shining body rolls out of the water as the creature slides beneath the surface, and another head emerges, then another.

We go ashore on a beautiful beach of pale lavender marble and jade stones, then climb the bank and cross the high spine of the island to the south shore, which we had visited by boat four days before. Once again, the rocks are empty, though two nerpa surface a hundred yards offshore, and farther east, a third one, closer in, is making its way toward the rocks. Each time it submerges, we run and crouch, coming a little closer, until through binoculars I can see the languid twisting of its long hind flippers as it crosses the pale underwater boulders. Perhaps it sees us through the bright clear water, for it vanishes without coming on the shore.

I work my way around the island, hoping to catch a lone seal on the rocks, taking note of birds. A far eagle, a far falcon, a lone osprey. A flight of terns lilting along over the water turns silver against the far and dark gray mountains. I sit for a time on a rock point, eating red vaccinium berries and watching the nerpa rise to watch me, sometimes four or five round shining heads together. Soon one surfaces quite near, turning its earless mastiff’s head in a slow circle, all the way around, and around again, the sun transfixed in its shining hair. In the hard morning light, the creature stares, its huge eyes like black holes in a black skull.

August 31. This morning, on the northwest coast, Semyon announced that he and I and young Andrei Zakablukowski of the TV crew are to go ashore at once and attempt an ascent of the Baikal Ridge that towers above us. Semyon arranges with the captain to pick us up farther down the coast, and though the rendezvous is for noon tomorrow, we will take no tent or sleeping bag or even blankets. “We’ll have good weather,” Semyon assured us.

From the lakeshore, a forested valley climbs to a bench ridge from which a steep slope of talus rock mounts to the rim. We enter the forest of white birch, larch, and Siberian pine and begin our ascent. This is the part of the preserve called “Brown Bear Coast” or “Bear Corner” because of its robust population of brown bears, which are much larger here than in Europe, Semyon says. Almost at once we come upon signs of bear—not only feces but bear-ripped trees and saplings snapped while marking territory (to demonstrate, Semyon hurls himself into the roaring and the clawing), and even an anthill raked flat by a bear, then used as a bed by a passing red deer (Cervus elaphus, called izhuber).

I pick up some bear scat to see what they are eating, and Semyon hisses at me, urging me to drop it, growling a word that might be “Triginosis!” Semyon and Andrei speak little more English than I speak Russian, and without Leonid to translate, I climb somewhat apart, to spare all three of us the struggle of trying to include me in the conversation. However, Semyon is acquainted with the Latin names of many of the plants and all the animals, and this is useful. For many years he has been a naturalist-ecologist, advising hunters about wild animals in this region. “I live everywhere here,” he declares proudly.

Ravens and Eurasian jays, brown spotted nutcrackers. In a clearing stands a small tree of orange-berried ryabina from which Andrei picks a few fine sprigs to flavor vodka. Higher up, we pass through rhododendron thicket and spiraea. We pause to eat black gooseberries, red heath berries. In sign language I inquire if the dim path we follow intermittently was made by large animals or by man, and Semyon halts, to lend weight to his answer. The only ones using this path, he informs me, banging his chest, are “Bar! [Bear!] Izhuber! I!”

Near the mountain ridge, the forest is laid open by avalanches of rough dark gray talus. The chipmunk burunduk gives its birdy call, and there is also a small ground squirrel, gray in color. We see no other animals, and birds are scarce. On the ridge, the day is hot and humid, there are sweat bees. Semyon hurls the flow of rocks aside in an effort to uncover the trickle of water far beneath, but on the steep slope, his excavations keep collapsing, and finally he straightens up, disgusted, an ancient cross on a small chain dangling from his shirt. He is a descendant of the Old Believers, the conservative sect of Orthodox Christianity that fled European Russia when Peter the Great exposed his countrymen to dangerous liberal ideas, much as Mr. Gorbachev has done today.

Again we climb, picking our way across the talus slopes, coughing out sweat bees which keeping flying into our mouths, in search of moisture. Counting on rivulets, we carry no canteens, but the day is hotter and the terrain drier than Semyon expected, and the water we find lies in a stagnant pool that elk have turned to a green wallow. Eventually there is no choice, we must descend again, losing too much hard-won altitude in the process. We travel down across rock and alder thicket to a low wood on the saddle, where Semyon locates a shady pool used heavily by bear and other animals. (“Bar! Izhuber! Peoples!—all trink!” Andrei cries.) The water is clouded but not stagnant, and it is cold. We drink deeply, then make tea over a fire to go with our hard thick bread and sausage, topped off with sticky candies for dessert.

Toward four o’clock we resume our ascent, watching each step in the treacherous rock, which slides on the steep slope and could twist an ankle. Semyon hopes we will find water up there, but the rim is still so high above us, and so far, that I wonder if we can possibly make it before dark.

In late afternoon, at higher altitude, the day cools rapidly. The night is certain to be cold. Although they have dispensed with sleeping bags and water, the Siberians pack lots of heavy gear, including canned food, cameras, and a pistol. Even so, Andrei, whose archaic movie camera must weigh thirty pounds, comes jumping down over the rocks to present me with three very small wild raspberries, as Semyon berates him for rock jumping so carelessly in the loose Cossack boots that both men wear. The tart, wild taste clears my mouth of the condensed milk we have just drunk from the tin for want of water. Andrei’s generous spirit, Semyon’s, too, refresh my own, and I cry Horosho! (Good!) and imitate their thumbs-up gesture to show how splendidly I’m doing although in fact I am thirsty and exhausted, and gloomy about the long, cold night ahead.

High up, at the base of the last ascent, Andrei finds a rivulet under the rocks, and here we leave our packs behind, anxious to get up to the rim before dark. In this last steep climb, I must stop every few feet to gasp for breath, for we have been climbing for ten hours, and the air seems thin. Step after step, with heaving chest, I drag myself, on all fours at times, toward the sky, taking pains not to look up, to avoid discouragement. Horror show! I cry in response to distant calls, for I have long ago lost sight of my companions. Then I am there, in a cool wind on the rim, gazing down on the great stillness of Lake Baikal.

Semyon, huge against the sky, the sun a halo in his flaxen hair, turns and points westward, where a tableland of black rock and white lichen slopes away for a few hundred yards before falling away into a canyon deepened by night shadow. The twilight is softened by clouds of pink lavender as the sun descends like transparent fire to the sharp horizons. Already, down to the southeast, a half-moon is riding up over the rim in a stone-blue sky.

We cross the narrow Baikal Ridge, over black rock and white lichen. Semyon stamps a heavy boot on the lichen underfoot, from beneath which a clear trickle threads its way over the flat rock to join others descending to the silver glint in the dark canyons. That sinuous glint is a high mountain torrent, and there is another farther north, and these will form a confluence in the ravines not very far west of the place we stand.

“The Lena,” I say, and Semyon nods, triumphant.

Scarcely a hundred yards from Baikal’s rim, we are standing on the sources of the Lena, the great Mother River of Siberia. I think of how Semyon earlier said we would never be able to travel to the headwaters. In this evening silence and great solitude, broken only by a solitary hawk, those mountain torrents fading swiftly in the dark are a mysterious and moving sight. Down that river toward the north is the great salmonid, the taimen, one hundred and fifty pounds or more of piscatorial splendor, which can rarely be taken, so it is said, unless it is whacked each time it leaps by shotgun salvos from the angler’s confederate; down there is the Great Bend of the Lena, which some American Indians identify as the original homeland of their people.

Soon the silver glint of mountain torrents is extinguished. Deep down in the canyons night has come. Semyon believes (or so he will tell Leonid next day) that I am the first foreigner ever to behold these remote headwaters of the great Lena. Probably this is untrue but it’s fun to think so.

September 1. At dawn, the sun’s broad golden path illuminates Baikal, but as we descend from the Baikal Ridge and the sun rises, the glitter fades to an old gold, then silver, and finally to soft pewter in the mist. In the saddle between the talus slope and the descent through forest to the lake, we surprise no deer or bear, only a mountain or varying hare which moves off in no haste, white tail waving in the rhododendron.

Evergreen forest, a steep grassy slope, hawks, autumn wind. Asters and gentians, yellow daisies, purple vetch. The Baikal passes offshore in the mist, bound south for the cove where she will pick us up for the return to the Ushkanyi Islands; the helmsman does not see Semyon waving from the forest.

According to a fisherman, seals are lying out on the north end of Narrow Island. We go ashore on the south end and walk the island’s length through sunny larch wood, moving in silence over the thick mosses, then crawling to the edge of the low bank.

Today, at last, we are among the nerpa, which are crowded sociably on two large boulders, spilling over onto smaller rocks along the shore. A group of about forty takes the air directly in front of us, and a second group of similar size basks on other boulders to the south. (There are no young among them, since pups of the year, born in February and March, remain in the open water during their first summer.) Those emerging from the water are a shining black, but as the silver hair tips dry, the fur turns a deeper gray color, with a silver sheen on the fat rolls on the neck, until finally the whole animal is lustrous silver gray, shading to yellowish white along the belly. Once their place is secure, the animals arch their backs, twisting smooth heliotropic heads toward the sun. With one draped over the other and both hoisted off the rock, the hind flippers resemble nothing so much as a soft propeller.

A seal wishing to gain a place upon the boulder may lounge a long while at the water’s edge, using its strong bearish forepaw to splash water into the squinched-up face of the incumbent, which may hide its own head underwater while attempting to splash water back at its tormentor. Places on the rock are sparred over more or less amicably, with little or no biting and snarling, and even the largest of the males appear to be unscarred on their heads and necks, a very unusual condition among pinnipeds. (A seal biologist from San Diego Sea World, Dr. Brent Stewart, later tells me in Irkutsk that P. siberica is even gentler than the equable ringed seal, permitting itself to be handled without biting when caught in nets for scientific purposes.)

The broad boulders are scarcely ten yards from the bank, and so the nerpa seem aware of an intrusion, rolling their round heads to stare, then going on about their business, which is basking. Excepting occasional predation by bears, they have no enemies apart from man, whom they don’t associate with pale faces in the moss (the hunters usually come at them across the ice). Not unless we stand or thrash or otherwise act rudely will these gentle animals charge from their rock in the galumphing panic and loud water crash that alerts all others within earshot. No, they simply stare and stare, unblinking, while the eastern sun, piercing the open forest, reflects from the immense black eyes in strange gleams of ruby fire. Nostrils flare open, then shut tight, as if in anticipation of the night pursuit of the translucent golomyanka, making its evening ascent from the depths of the oldest and the deepest lake on earth.

Letters

What Rasputin Said April 11, 1991

  • Email
  • Print