Siberia: defining wilderness

Brave explorer

This immense region is shrouded in the mysteries of its taiga and forests, of its nomadic peoples and of the suffocating cloak of the Russian state

By Andrea Oschetti

Adventures in Words

Tent Life in Siberia, by George Kennan (1870)

The wilderness is an essential part of us, a necessary counterbalance to modern life. We are constantly at risk of losing it, in our rush to be ‘civilised’. We are constantly at risk of losing consciousness of who we are.

National parks satisfy our need for beauty; as John Muir puts it: “places to pray and to play, where nature heals and give strength to body and soul alike.” Parks are the little oasis of wilderness in the desert of our civilisation as Thoreau had it. God can be found more easily in parks than in the work of man, says Emerson.

To experience nature is to escape from the corruption of urban life, and to return to what we really are. In nature there is no need to be reminded that there is something larger than us, because we can see it. We can experience the intensity of time, the universe unfolding before our eyes.

But I believe our most intimate longing is for the great wild places, not planned and manicured recreational spaces with their tourist facilities and confined itineraries. We long for the trees of our primate ancestors and the savannahs where we learn to run. We long for the last frontiers: the Sahara, the Amazon, Antarctica, Alaska, Siberia.

Tent Life in Siberia

Our longing is so intense, yet unconscious, that we tend to romanticise wildness. The harsh reality does not fit our sentimentalised view that everything in nature is good and in harmony. Instead, hostility and chaos are the common denominator; a place often more closely attuned to angst than idyll for many of its inhabitants. Similarly, the roughness and austerity of life in native settlements at the frontier had little correlation with our modern-day belief in the purity of their lives.

What is man’s place in the natural world? It is defined in terms of the ability to survive, the power to endure, the belief in one’s thoughts, the freedom to act and to be, the simplicity of place.

Such are the thoughts of George Kennan during his explorations of the Siberian wilderness as an employee of the Russo-American Telegraph Company. It was the middle of the 19th-century and the company’s shareholders had the vision to connect the United States and Europe telegraphically, using lines running across the Bering Straits and through Siberia. In 1865 Kennan and three companions left San Francisco by boat for Petropavlovsky in Kamchatka and then marched northwest.

In his travel journal, Kennan describes unimaginable distances and infinite horizons, brushes with the wildlife, and his fight to survive his ultimately doomed mission. He describes the livelihood of the nomadic tribes he encountered: the Koraks, Kamchatdals, Chookchees, Yookaghirs, Chooances, Yakoots and Gakouts.

Kennan reminds us that the call of the wild is not a seduction that should cause us all to sell our belongings and move to Siberia to live out among nature. Few of us are ready for, or even envision such a drastic departure.

It is instead an opportunity to relearn things that we have lost – the ability to witness beauty for one, and self-reliance for another –  which will enhance the joy of living in our dear cities.

In Siberia, by Colin Thubron (1999)

Travels in Siberia, by Ian Frazier (2010)

With the proliferation of adventurists and weekend warriors, courtesy of the accessibility of the outdoors, comes an unprecedented exposure to adventure travel literature. Some of this is forced onto our Facebook newsfeed by ‘friends’. Other stories are published in magazines that have a stronger emphasis on finding advertisers than generating good editorial content.

The focus of many of these stories is on the ‘I’, an effort to cast an epic light on the writer’s achievements. We read about incline percentages and heartbeats per minute, yet our hero forgoes telling us about the landscape he traverses, save for an overdose of adjectives and superlatives.

The adventures that are a pleasure to read are those where the author sees an opportunity to give substance to his relationships with nature and cultural diversity. This becomes even more important than the achievement he sets out to accomplish, as the biographies of most legendary explorers show.

These welcomed narratives are built upon the perceptive traveller’s ability to read a place, the landscape, as if it was the stage of a theatre.

The landscapes that we admire are not just nature – as in the biology of wildlife or the geology of mountains – but a cultural space created by man through those social and economical activities that place us out there among it.

In SiberiaTravels in Siberia

Learning to see the landscape is about recognising the anthropic signs created by our relationship with nature. Two books that will help us to ‘see’ in our Siberian adventures are Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia and In Siberia by Colin Thubron.

Travels in Siberia is a personal travelogue informed by an understanding of its geography, its resources, its native peoples and its history. Reading it will populate the Taiga that stretches boundlessly in front of our eyes with Orthodox archpriests, trappers, tea caravans, German scientists, American prospectors, English nurses, and many prisoners and exiles.

With In Siberia Thubron uses his knowledge of Russia to develop an emotional understanding of the Siberian landscape which is intimate and not self-constructed by the author.

Sadness comes readily from the climate, the industrial Soviet cities, the environmental devastation, the extreme poverty and the labour camps. Optimism becomes possible by the encounters Thubron seeks out with a stationmaster, a mobster, a museum curator, a yak owner, a scientist.

Dersu the trapper,

by V.K. Arseniev (1923)Dersu the Trapper

Dersu was both a real person – a Nanai hunter – and the personification of the myth of the noble savage. Arseniev travelled in the Taiga of Eastern Siberia at the beginning of the 20th-century and Dersu was his guide. His skills and knowledge of the wilderness allowed Arseniev to survive blizzards, lack of food, wild animals and hostile natives.

The dichotomy of modern science versus primitive intuition reaches its climax when Arseniev persuades Dersu to leave the taiga and move in with him as his failing sight is hampering his ability to survive as a hunter. Life in the city does not match with the spirit of an animist and Dersu finally returns to his home in the Primorsky Krai.

The long walk,

by Sławomir Rawicz (1956)The Long Walk

Rawicz’s ‘long walk’ is either a true story, as he claims, or is invented as Peter Fleming, Eric Shipton and most recently the BBC, try to prove. But arguably both doing it and simply dreaming it are acts of radicalism; true adventures.

This book, ghostwritten based on conversations with Rawicz, a Polish army officer, tells the story of his arrest, interrogation, trial, and sentencing for espionage by the Soviets in 1939. He was then transported, alongside thousands of others, to Irkutsk in Siberia and walked to the Gulag Camp 303. He escaped from the Gulag together with six companions, using a blizzard to cover his tracks, and started an epic journey on foot of about 6,500 kilometres across Siberia, Mongolia, the Gobi Dessert, Tibet and into British India.