Letter from Siberia

I’m writing you this letter from a distant land. Its name is Siberia. For most of us, that name suggests nothing but a frozen devil’s island – and for the czarist general Andreyevich, it was the biggest vacant lot in the world. Fortunately, there are more things on heaven and earth than any general, Siberian or not, has ever dreamed of.

As I write, I let my eye stray along the edge of a grove of birch trees, and I remember that in Russian, their name is a word of love: beryoza (береза).

This might be autumn in Ermenonville, or New England, if it weren’t for these telegraph workers, booted like Mikhail Strogoff, going through the motions of shoemakers at the altitude of tightrope walkers. They convince you that you’re looking at Siberia, and it’s not just the local color: the boots, the fur caps, and the peppermint collars around their horses’ necks; it’s the realization, for example, that if one of these climbing Cossacks absentmindedly reeled in his line he’d find himself holding a ball of wire 8000 kilometers long.

This gash in the forest means the city has gone by like a wild animal; follow the wrong trail and you may come to a bear or a tiger, follow the right one and you’ll come to a city.

Angarsk, 300 kilometers from the railroad. The city was planned in 1947, but it took four years to cut a path through the forest, yard by yard, to reach the Trans-Siberian. The foundation stone was laid in 1951. Today it has 100,000 inhabitants, including the 35,000 children born during construction – natives of the city which didn’t yet exist.

When you’ve left the last house behind you though, you’re back in the Stone Age forest: the taiga.

I’m writing you this letter from the edge of the world. According to a Siberian proverb, the forest was made by the devil. The devil did a good job; his forest is as big as the United States of America. But maybe the devil made the United States too.

When he’s not busy making forests, or states, the devil steals peoples’ souls – or at least that was how the Siberians regarded death for many centuries. In this frozen ground, corpses never rot. In these graves, which rest on foundations of ice, life and death are separated by nothing more substantial than a breath of air. Bring back the breath and the body is ready to live again, to come back and share in the slow chilly existence of the wooden villages, rounding up stray horses, building snowplows, or leading herds on their pilgrimage to milder pastures.

This morning I saw a kolkhoz of ducks. The duck is collectivistic by nature; there are no kulaks among ducks. It was a cold morning, and out of sympathy for the cameraman, and to promote friendship between peoples, they gladly gave an exhibition of naval maneuvers on the freezing water, at the risk of being trapped in the ice, which was the sad fate of a bigger, more famous, and much rarer animal in this same part of the world: the mammoth.

The mammoth elephants of old Siberia
Dreamt of a holiday in Iberia
Fleeing the Ukase and the Knout
Quite a few got lost en route
Thirty centuries later we had to dig them out.

Oddly enough, the only animal which the Siberians and the Chinese could conceive to be related to the mammoth was the mole. They were convinced that he was one of the giant variety – digging huge tunnels and humping the earth with his forehead.

That imposing animal’s weak spot was his extreme sensibility to sunshine. If he was struck by a single ray of light he died, instantly. And the proof of this, said the Chinese – who were strong on logic – was that whenever you met a mammoth in the open, it was dead.

Hence the Chinese word for mammoth: chu-mou, which means ‘mother of mice.’

For Westerners the mammoth raised other problems. They knew what he looked like. He’d had his portrait painted by some of the most popular artists of prehistoric times. His publicity agent was Father Breuil. And anyway, mammoths had always been on good terms with the church: a mammoth’s tooth attributed to St. Christophorus was worshipped in Valencia, and as late as 1789 a mammoth’s thigh bone presumed to have come from St. Vincent’s own skeleton was still carried in the Saints Day procession. When the first mammoths were discovered in the 18th century, the effect on public opinion was unspectacular. It wasn’t until 1900 that the mammoth became wildly fashionable, after hardy pioneers had made forays into the Siberian wasteland and brought back quick-frozen mammoths in the flesh.

Men of science in that rugged clime
Had to be sturdy and still in their prime
They had to speak Yakut loud and clear
They had to banish all doubt and fear
In order to bring back a mammoth by the ear.

Mammoths generally appeared after a landslide. By the time an expedition got there, it might have sunk back into the ground again – or been eaten by wild animals.

Several skeletons were found however, and even some well preserved meat.

Between 1707 and 1908, eighteen mammoths and six frozen rhinoceroses were found. It was in the faint hope of bringing back at least an incisor that we made the trek to the nearest diggings, on the banks of the great Siberian river: the Lena.

L(i)ena, S(i)ena: five times as long as the Seine, and fifty times as wide, the Lena, in Russian, is kind enough to rhyme with our French river. So just picture to yourselves a huge lazy Seine, like an assembly line running backwards, gradually coming to pieces at each new dollhouse settlement, until it reaches its destination somewhere up north, broken down into its component parts and spread out over an estuary 200 kilometers wide. It’s the only highway in this land without highways, it’s Main Street in the Siberian village, it’s the road everybody uses. And by the side of the road, asleep under tarpaulins, waiting for transportation, there are city buses, bulldozers, farm machinery, statues of Lenin for culture parks, rocket mock-ups for planetariums, imitation jeeps, and genuine Pobiedas. Not to mention the crates of furs from various animals, such as the sable, a nasty little beast that will make you like furs, or the arctic fox, a sweet little thing that would make you prefer nylon.

Lissa Patrikaievna
My beautiful fox
Little sister fox
Princess most wise
What was the use of creeping into the Ark
Since you’ll end up as the collar of the captain’s coat.

Eagle, oh eagle
When you walk, we see your socks
You fill the goats with terror
And yet they’re…
So why are you always crying out
(Чуръ, Не Я, Чуръ, Не Я)

I’m writing you this letter from the land of childhood; between the ages of five and ten this is where we were chased by wolves, blinded by Tartars, and carried away on the Trans-Siberian Express with our pistols and our jewelry. The Trans-Siberian is the longest railway in the world, it has carried away Anton Chekhov, Cendrars, and Gatti . I felt obliged to gather them all together here, and Jules Verne too, and Larbaud, like sacred cows under a canopy of wild ducks, to watch romanticism plus electrification go by.

It’s 7 a.m. in Irkutsk, 3 a.m. in Baghdad, 6 p.m. in Mexico, and midnight in Paris. You’re asleep or having dinner, I’m looking at the Irkutsk dam sitting on its own reflection like a station in outer space.

The morning shift goes to work on the dam when the third shift is coming off at Renault. Big pressure cookers made out of Erector Sets loom through the fog, not yet moving.

Here, across the river Angara, on the very spot where Mikhail Strogoff was surrounded by fire, they’re building the biggest power plant in Southern Siberia.

While Angara fishermen are already catching their first fish, Seine fishermen have already caught ten in their dreams. It’s one o’clock in Malta, noon in New Zealand.

And now here’s the shot I’ve been waiting for, the shot you’ve all been waiting for, the shot no worthwhile film about a country in the process of transformation could possibly leave out: the contrast between the old and the new. On my right: the heavy duty truck –40 tons. On my left: the telega, two hundred forty pounds, the past and the future, tradition and progress, the Tiber and the Orontes, Philomena and Chloe, take a good look because I won’t show them to you again… It’s one minute past seven. A truck from Irkutsk makes the pontoons bob under the floating bridge, and at the same instant a lorry honking its horn rouses two hundred eleven people out of a sound sleep in Dijon.

Four turbines are already functioning. But the problem is not just to light Irkutsk; the problem is to electrify a whole district, which will constitute the base of operations for the conquest of those frozen wastes. This is where everything begins: the soil reclamation program, the increase in natural resources, and the resulting rise in the standard of living – but also the spiritual acquisitions that come after material transformations, the way nuts come after bolts: curiosity, contemplation, extended horizons… and culture.

It’s two minutes past seven. The pressure cookers start to move. They’re real monsters, 30 meters tall. And naturally there’s a girl to go with each monster. She orders him around in monster language, and the monster obeys. It’s easy to imagine a romance between the girl on the ground and the man in the crane. ***(missing section: …les mots d’amour ou les scenes de jalousie glissés en code entre deux signaux. Le poète russe Alexandre Vierny compare ces tounettes à des poissons-pilotes.) It would be nice to be a crane driver in Irkutsk, to give your girlfriend a box of birthday chocolates, as high as a house on the end of your hook.

Now the dam site comes to life. Cars wend their way between the cranes like cats playing hide and seek in a railway depot. Overhead the cranes stand aloof – alternately courteous and curious with one another, like a herd of dinosaurs. And the whole dam becomes a spectacular display combining a Ferris wheel and a naval battle, and the Ville d’Este, and a pinball machine.

Back to the taiga, the rationalistic aspect of Siberia is that a hiker walking in a straight line is always sure to get lost in the forest. If he walks north long enough, his reward will be 11 million square kilometers of tundra and ice floe that have to be conquered and transformed. But first they have to be studied. That’s the job of Pavel Melkinov, head of the Low Temperature Institute at Yakutskt. In this climate, winter temperatures can drop to -60° C. But it’s not for sentimental reasons that Pavel Alexandrovitch has an electric fan on his desk; in summer they climb to +40° C.

In Siberia the weather jolts you – so do the roads, but cars are insanity when you’ve got a handy conveyance that suits the terrain to perfection: the reindeer.

The entire economy of the Arctic peoples is based upon the reindeer. It serves as wheat, flax, rowboat, Christmas tree, medicine chest, and sacristan, all rolled into one. When gelded it serves as a horse, and is allowed to keep its beautiful satiny antlers, whereas the foolish males cut theirs to ribbons.

Oh reindeer, sweet and just
Friend of the birds and owls
They nest in your branches
Happy he who has ideas in his head
Happier still, he who has birds

Brown reindeer on a brown plain
Like an old spot of blood on dead leaves

White reindeer on white snow
Like the beloved’s silence in the midst of silence

You could go on praising reindeer forever. Those velvet handlebars and the way they have of kicking themselves along with their heels – they’re the closest thing to a bicycle that God ever created. If I had the money, I’d shoot a spot commercial in their honor, and I’d run it between two showings, or better still between two reels. The picture would break off suddenly, and you’d see something like this:

(United Productions of Siberia Presents)

“We interrupt this film not to sell you some new miracle product, but to remind you of an ancient irreplaceable product to end all products: reindeer. They make fine pets; they’re less of a nuisance than dogs, less intimidating than cats, less insidious than fleas. Reindeer are all these things and more. Are you dissatisfied with your car?  Reindeer will transport you. Are you dissatisfied with your tailor?  Reindeer will dress you. Are you dissatisfied with your doctor?  Reindeer will look after your health. Are you dissatisfied with your interior?  Reindeer will redecorate you. Are you dissatisfied with your destiny?  Reindeer will bring you luck. And don’t forget that for young and for old alike reindeer are wholesome food, chock full of life giving chlorophyll. Housewives of the world, wherever you may be, in Moscow, Rome, New York, Peking or Paris – beware of imitations such as moose, or elk. Always ask for genuine reindeer.”

We followed the reindeer to the Evenks’ camp. Evenks, as you well know, are Tunguses. Reindeer and Tunguses have always been associated, but it’s a question whether Tunguses like reindeer because they’re useful, or whether reindeer like Tunguses because they’re light. For centuries Tunguses and reindeer were nomads together. But now all that’s changed. With a wisdom that would have done credit to King Solomon they’ve been assigned home bases. They may not show up there for years on end, but they’ve nevertheless graduated from the dubious category of ‘nomads,’ into the respectable one of ‘householders on the move.’

Having presented the head of the family with a plastic wallet, a gift which he appreciated all the more as the Arctic world suffers from a serious lack of Woolworth’s stores, we were treated to the ritual offering of freshly sawed off reindeer antlers. But don’t waste your pity – the operation hurts about as much as trimming fingernails. At least that’s what we were told by the grandfather in Tungus, by the father in bad Russian, and by the little boy in excellent Russian. For these children, who have inherited their ancestors bear hunting instincts, go to school, and learn trades. This may be a bad sign for the future of bear hunting, as one hundred three year old grandfather Innokenti says, “Bear hunting is for youngsters. When you’re over eighty it begins to be dangerous, because in the days when Innokenti hunted Mishka – the name these people give to every bear, as if there were only one – he was armed with a spear, and nothing else. But Innokenti killed that single bear eighty-five times over.

As for Mishka himself, I met him in Yakutsk. Actually, his name was Ushatik, which means “Little Ears.”  Beneath the somewhat moth-eaten exterior, due to an overturned samovar when he was little, he was a jovial, rather talkative, bear. Boris Sergeivich found him in the Taiga as a baby, and he’d been a member of the family ever since; he was “cousin bear.”

After a breakfast of red berries, Ushatik the bear took his morning walk through Yakutsk. We went with him. Since you can never tell how a bear will react to a camera, we were offered the protection of an armed policeman. Since we’re much more frightened of policemen than we are of bears, we politely declined.

On our way we attracted the attention of a group of Pioneers, who were thrilled to meet a film crew, and even more so when they found out that we were French. Here we met with all the ingredients of the Soviet citizens’ incredible, rather touching, admiration for our country: one quarter French Revolution, one quarter Zola’s novels, one quarter Comédie-Française, one quarter secret passion for Gay Paris, and four quarters Yves Montand…

When Yves Montand’s voice
resounds over the short-wave,
the branches of Paris chestnut trees
come and peer into my window.

When our distant friend sings
warmth and joy spread everywhere
and distances shrink to nothing
when our best friend starts to sing.

Lovers revolve in time
to the singer’s voice.
The music extends the Boulevards of Paris
all the way to the Parks of Moscow.

Kogda poet
Daleki droug
Toptei i radostniei
Stanovitsia vokroug

Distances shrink to nothing
when my faraway friend starts to sing.

As I listened to this tribute to Yves Montand I looked around me.

Undeniable energy, enthusiasm, and the will to work. A faith that the future will be as bright as the past was dark. Huge gaps, and a firm determination to fill them. While recording these images of the Yakutsk capital as objectively as possible, I frankly wondered whom they would satisfy. Because of course you can’t describe the Soviet Union as anything but the worker’s paradise, or, as hell on earth.

For example: “Yakutsk: capital of the Yakutsk autonomous Soviet socialistic republic is a modern city, in which comfortable buses made available to the population, share the streets with powerful ZIMs, the pride of the Soviet automobile industry, in the joyful spirit of socialist emulation, happy Soviet workers, among them this picturesque denizen of the Arctic reaches, apply themselves to making Yakutsk an even better place to live.

Or else: “Yakutsk is a dark city with an evil reputation. The population is crammed into blood colored buses, while the members of the privileged caste brazenly display the luxury of their ZIMs, a costly and uncomfortable car at best. Bending to the task like slaves, the miserable Soviet workers, among them this sinister looking Asiatic, apply themselves to the primitive labor of grading with a drag beam.

Or simply: “In Yakutsk, where modern houses are gradually replacing the dark older sections, a bus less crowded than its London or New York equivalent at rush hour passes a ZIM, an excellent car, reserved for public utilities departments on account of its scarcity. With courage and tenacity under extremely difficult conditions, Soviet workers, among them this Yakut, afflicted with an eye disorder, apply themselves to improving the appearance of their city, which could certainly use it.

But objectivity isn’t the answer either. It may not distort Siberian realities, but it does isolate them long enough to be appraised and consequently distorts them all the same. What counts is the drive and the variety. A walk through the streets of Yakutsk isn’t going to make you understand Siberia. What you need might be an imaginary newsreel shot all over Siberia. I might screen it for you in the town’s spanking new movie theater. And the commentary would be made up of those Siberian expressions that are already pictures in themselves.

“The season of dying water” is winter. “The ghost of the winter hare” is snow, with its foolhardy flakes. “The grey ox that drank all the water in the valley” is the frost, which leaves trapped angry boats behind it.

My newsreel would begin with these images of winter – a long white night that lasts half the year. A weather balloon would take you high over the Verkhoyansk mountains, the coldest region on earth, with a temperature of -69° C, and a population of eight thousand. You’d see huge caterpillars carved out of pebbles by gold mining dredges. You’d see silver birches that look like owls’ tracks in the snow. And then, as if someone had gathered up the forest in a giant sheaf, trunk against trunk, and sheared it off with cheese wire, you’d see Yakutsk planting its paving stones. You’d see a topsy-turvy world in which houses move to their tenants on sleds, and hunters take live animals into the forest and set them free.

A year from now the hunter of the streams will kill the beaver he’s caressing today. A year ago the trapper of the tundra was playing with the silver fox that he’s going to snare. There’s not much time to be sentimental over animals whose furs are a natural resource. For centuries past, the country’s only one. Actually there were others though. Siberia has turned out to have been a poor man sleeping on a mattress stuffed with gold. The problem was how to get at the mattress. And now for the Siberian version of Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend: Larissa Popugayeva is a parachute jumping geologist who was dropped into the middle of the taiga in the spring of 1954, to look for a blue layer. After four months spent enduring the unendurable she made her strike, and they wound up with diamonds. The deposit is richer than any in South Africa.

To look for gold they drown the land. Before the dredges scoop up the ore and carry it away, a kind of firemen, dressed like Breton fishermen let fly at the soil with hoses. The real firemen are dressed like aviators. Because when there’s a fire in Siberia it’s most likely to be the forest, that other great natural resource that’s burning up. And when there’s not enough rain to put it out they make it rain firemen.

To go from the forest to the factory, to go to the market, to school, or on a holiday, Siberians always take an airplane. With no competition from trucks or trains, these planes have lost all their glamour. They’re like women in a world without men. They’re just flying buses. Except that they set you down in out of the way places where you’re advised to dress like a bear if you want to pass unnoticed.

And then I’d show you the Yakuts. Now don’t get the idea they’re distant cousins of Nanook of the North. They’ve got their artists, and surgeons, their writers and bards. In very ancient times the wise Eley and the daughter of the mighty Omogoï joined in matrimony to produce the first Yakut.

But most of all I’d show you the spring festivals, when the dancers whirl, the curdled mare’s milk flows freely, and the old shamanic poems are revived:

Approach, O stallion of the steppes and teach us,
Come forth magic bull of the universe and answer,
O spirits of the sun, who live on the seven southernhills,
O jealous mothers of light,
Let your three shadows stand tall and straight,
And thou in the west on thy mountaintop,
O Lord my father,
With thy dreadful strength, thy powerful neck,
Come forth with me.

I’d show you the whirling dervishes of the spring thaw, and the routed armies of winter retreating under insults, while a whole pagan people invent the resurrection. I’d show you reindeer coming down to meet the rising tide of warmth. And further north, the last days of winter, when the reindeer shows an athletic streak I’d forgotten to mention earlier.

And my imaginary newsreel would end here, with this Kentucky Derby in the looking-glass world in which there are no losers – everybody wins a prize. The most treasured prize of all undoubtedly being the return of summer, and its companion: color.

Now we can go back to Yakutsk, and there, in the ruthless light of the wintry climate that has forged this country, that has laid so many pitfalls and landmines for its people, we might better realize what a victory even the simplest achievements represent: houses protected from the cold, schools, libraries, and all the other things which they point out to us so proudly we can’t help smiling. And yet, our irony may be more naïve than their enthusiasm.

Twenty years ago, Grigory Savine is thinking, I fought a bear right here where we’re building now. Every Russian knows the story of the bear that helped the peasant build his house. In the end the bear turns out to be a well-bred Stakhanovite bear, who gives the whole village a helping hand, like in the song by Charles Trenet, and who wipes his feet before he goes into the isba. The tradition must have died out though, since this is where I came across my friend Ushatik again, having a swim in the river.

Bear, bear, little ears
With a belly like a pope’s
You give yourself airs in your overcoat
But you don’t look happy
You don’t want to go home
You don’t want to come to my house
You don’t want to go to church
You don’t want to go to school
You want to walk down the street
Giving candy to the little children.

On the outskirts of Yakutsk, as we were coming back to town, an interested audience was watching the antics of Ushatik the bear. He’d managed to slip his leash and was demonstrating his anarchist tendencies with the shifty quickness of a puppy. For a moment it even looked like he was going to get his paws on Boris Sergeivich’s motorcycle. Had Ushatik been corrupted by the movies?  Was he going to ride away like the trained bears in the Moscow circus?  But no, his greediness got the better of his thirst for freedom, a touching sight. But let cynics be comforted: Boris Sergeivich watches over Ushatik with such fatherly concern because he’s thinking of the day not so far away when he’s going to eat him.

I’m writing you this letter from the Land of Darkness. That was the name Marco Polo gave it, and that was the picture in the minds of the first conquerors from Muscovy, who left behind these wooden ostrogs, like rooks standing on a chessboard after the kings have died. Schoolchildren learn how the emperor of Russia and the emperor of China fought over the province of darkness. Since neither of them knew the other’s language, the final treaty was drawn up in Latin by two Jesuit priests, the only ones who could understand it. Christianity got very little out of that transaction. One more evil spirit in Siberian legends named Jesus Christ is the only trace left by the interim rule of the popes, between the shamans and the commissars. From this point on, the work of today’s builders runs parallel to the older themes of Siberian mythology, and the underground journey of the black shaman, the men and women who succeeded in making stone houses stand upright on the Siberian soil have made that journey too, and for the same reason.

I took the shamans journey down one of the shafts at the Low Temperature Research Institute. Two meters below the surface you come to the ice layer, and that frozen ground we’ve mentioned already. Beneath that are the caves. I was expecting machinery, long tunnels, and lunar landscapes – but I wasn’t expecting flowers.

Preserving flowers until springtime is merely an attractive sideline for these technicians. In their spare time they’ve invented a Frigidaire for nostalgia. But there is more to be gotten out of this cold mine, or rather this cold menagerie. Here the enemy is under lock and key, he can be studied, manipulated, and tested to see how he reacts. All this is done on grocer’s scales in subway corridors at a constant temperature of -3° C. Apparatus that might have been borrowed from a physics classroom provides data on the resistance of ice to stone and metal. We see showcases full of frozen jewels and earrings for a giantess. We even see André Gide in person, as well preserved as the flowers.

The walls and ceiling of the mine are carved out of sand, solidified by the freezing temperature, which acts like cement. But at the slightest touch they crumble to dust. Seen from close up, they are nebulae of seashells – not so long ago the ocean was here. However it’s the future that makes the low temperature experts’ heads spin. They believe that man will find hospitality beneath the surface of this hostile land. Their laboratory experiments are the working model of an underground universe straight out of science fiction. Like all Russians they’ve read Jules Verne, and are getting ready for the journey to the center of the Earth, just as their colleagues, the astronauts, are giving the kickoff from Earth to the Moon.

When we surfaced again, we were a bit dizzy from the cold, and from looking into the future. We pictured to ourselves the Yakutsk soccer team playing host at last to a team from Odessa, or even Marseilles, in an underground stadium with electronic referees that go ‘tilt’ whenever the fans boo. There’ll no longer be a season for soccer and a season for track, but perpetual springtime for all things, including the culture parks, those playgrounds for adults which winter also empties of their visitors. Culture is what’s left behind when everyone has gone home.

We wandered through that deserted freezing park. We looked at the posters announcing the last movies of the season. Oddly enough the titles were familiar:  Fidelio, The Queen of Spades, Don Quixote. A little gypsy wind was scraping our bones, and in front of the library the statue of Ordjonikidze, bolted to its pedestal like Ulysses lashed to his mast, looked as surprised as we were to see a strange visitor at the far end of the path: a black horse with its legs hobbled.

Ordjonikidze had been deported to Yakutsk before becoming its protector. Had he also become the guardian angel of escaped horses seeking refuge in this windswept cathedral?

Like Mozart’s Commendatore, Ordjonikidze nodded at the horse and the animal vanished into the woods. Seeing us, he must have realized he was on the wrong set. He probably reappeared instantly in a Yakutsk legend a thousand years earlier.

Man’s memory is incapable of retaining more than one name in any one category – which explains monogamy and advertising. In North American the gold capital was Dawson, in Siberia it was Aldan.

This settlement used to be called ‘Camp Invisible,’ after the little river that runs through it. When it became a town they changed the name to Aldan because it sounded better. The new name was taken from another river that doesn’t run through the town. But you can’t have everything.

Fretwork windows, curtains, and rubber plants, there’s no doubt about it we’re in Russia alright. But let a buckboard drive by, let the band play a little gold music, and you’re in frontier America.

Siberia had its own gold rush, on those same steamers with the tall smokestacks that would one day bring Charlie Chaplin home a millionaire, in those same railway stations where the trains always stop at high noon; the same mirage worked its magic. If you’d already struck it rich enough to buy a ticket on the Trans-Siberian, the first part of your journey was relatively easy, in fact it was downright luxurious.  The Trans-Siberian, with its drawing rooms, kitchens, bathrooms, pianos, bedrooms and chapel, was a kind of castle on wheels, and it had two advantages over most castles: there were no stairs to climb, and it went all the way across Siberia.

Up to this point the scenery has been basically Russian, but once you cross the Ienissei the scene changes. The uniformed engineers were just beginning to regret Moscow, when the American 49ers were already exploring Arizona.

You expected to see Indians? Cowboys? Rustlers? Trappers? Gunfights? And romances.

While the Siberian gold rush never mustered as many prospectors as its Yukon equivalent, it did involve 15 nationalities, 2000 professions, and an unknown number of years in prison.

More remarkable is the fact that until 1927, ten years after the revolution, the Soviet government had no control over the Aldan district. There were gunmen on the roads, smugglers in the towns, and gold dust would change pockets whenever someone quick on the draw met someone quicker. In short, you had all the ingredients of a Western. In those days knives between the shoulder blades were more common than hammers and sickles on the shirtsleeves. As for women, they say there were none at all in the beginning, which is a sad thought, and that later there was only one… sounds even worse. But that woman was a Communist. And it was she, one Judith against 4000 bearded Holophernes, who saved the city.

Today under the watchful gazes of a few surviving Holophernes, the gold diggers have become workers like any others. But in memory of that woman who achieved the triumph of right over might, the gold in Aldan is guarded and handled only by members of her sex.

After countless doors, keys, armored plates and strong boxes, we were finally going to see the gold. We saw it. Here it is…

Disappointing isn’t it?

As I said before, there are two ways of finding gold: it’s like catching a thief, you can shadow him – in other words sink a mine shaft, or you can throw out a dragnet – in other words use a dredge.

But there are also the rugged individualists. They remind me of the old time cross country bicycle racers, before the sport became organized. You’d see them wandering around town at every halt with their bikes on their shoulders looking for a hotel or a repair shop. Similarly, but in their case deliberately, the last gold diggers shun organization and security. Their technique is the same as the dredge. They use the old California sluice gate, which deposits the gold in the bottom of a gutter. But the dredges bring up more gold than these men do in a year. If they became workers they’d earn more and live far better; but they want the gold.

The Yakut princesses were buried wearing solid gold rings set with tiny scraps of iron – a far more precious metal in those days. And when I jokingly asked a worker if he wasn’t tempted by the nuggets in his care he answered quite sincerely, “What for? I don’t need any false teeth.” These are two examples of the same healthy indifference before and after a short bout of fever. But the lone prospectors have never gotten over the fever. And perhaps they never will. Tolerated at times, outlawed at others, they live in the wake of the dredges like gleaners on the heels of harvesters. Sometimes they’re drafted for menial work, but most often they’re left to their own devices. They may well be the only Soviet citizens not to benefit from social security, pensions, and free medical care. There is no earthly reason for them to go on.

Do they have some higher motivation? I’m not so sure. There is scarcely more freedom in their individualism than there is gold in the mud they sift. However they’ve been handling them both for so long now that at times they forget which one they’re looking for. And perhaps in the last analysis they’re not prospecting for gold at all, but for mud.

As we sailed down the Lena again on our way back, we didn’t recognize her, the big lazy sister of a few months ago had now become this black girl studded with imitation jewels, shimmering with sunlight that was absent from the sky.

At nightfall, however, the Lena recovered her magic powers. We no longer thought of her merely as a waterway, a provider, a shepherdess for barges. She was Lena the healer, the enchantress, the cradle for monsters.

Kion Kiubei, the she devil exorcised by the popes and despised by active party members, has finally found her true expression on the stage. And the gods, devils, and heroes of Yakutsk, whose presence we sensed lurking behind everything that had thrilled us in Siberia, lived again before our eyes in Yakut opera, side by side with the towering shadow of Niurgun Bootor, the legendary hero who overcame the forces of nature to liberate mankind.

I am Tiuenia Mogol, the young warrior,
Iuriun Volan has captured my bride Tuyarima.
Her body lies in chains and the old miser of the ice flow
has her soul imprisoned in a leather purse.
Yet I will set her free. Neither the wolf, nor the otter,
neither the inquisitive fox nor the impartial bear,
nor the luminous spider spinning her web in the Northern sky
shall stop me. I will wave my spear at the constellations
and drive before me with my whip the towering snow.

The next morning, we came to the Lena boulders. The very spot where Niurgun Bootor fought the devil.

And suddenly a chanced landing  brought us face to face with a magic larch tree, on which the people hang ex-votos. Thus, only a few miles away from the economic planning office, and apparently not endangering in any way the construction of socialism, men offer up humble objects to an unknown god. In the light of this tree Yakut opera ceases to be mere folklore.

-- I am Kiuius, the other of Tuyarima.
My husband  is rich, and I have costly furs.
But Iuriun Volan has stolen my dearest fox.
And since thou hast gone from my side,
thy sharp teeth o fox, gnaw endlessly at my heart.

Oh thou beloved,
O thou sweet wise snow,
O beloved face,
O tree of mourning,
why were thou planted?

On the banks of the Lena, the heroes gather for the quest. Soruk Bollur, Aïyi Umsur, Aan Eskel, these knights with names like swords are the Lancelots and the Galahads of an adventure that will take them all the way to the pole. Lacking a compass, they have Niurgun Bootor’s symbolic arrow to guide them like a star.

Today the Yakuts have other stars to guide them.

When Sputnik added its imitation pearl to the Northern constellations, its coming had been expected since the dawn of time. All around us the Siberian earth swarms with beckoning signs, and we felt it was deeply symbolic that the first living creatures sent into space were Siberian dogs, the Laïkas. Switching from sleds to rockets is the Siberian way of keeping abreast of the times.

I am writing you this letter from a distant land. Her charred trees and empty wastelands are as dear to me as her rivers and flowers. Her name is Siberia.

She lies somewhere between the Middle Ages and the 21st century, between the earth and the moon, between humiliation and happiness.

After that, it’s straight ahead.