Jeffrey Tayler: River of White Nights

June 14, 2015

9781861059499Tayler and a Russian adventurer set off in a small craft to travel the entire length of the Lena River – about 2,700 miles, ending in the Laptev Sea in the Arctic Ocean. No roads connect with the Lena River which is in the Sakha Republic (formerly Yakutia) in the Russian Federation. It’s clear, reading between the lines, that the two do not really get on that well together, each having an inflated opinion of himself, for different reasons.

It’s an interesting account of part of Russia that hasn’t, to my knowledge, been travelled or described in depth before; it’s completely isolated and one gets a clear sense of the vastness and beauty of the land, as well as its dangers.

A major difference becomes evident, as Tayler meets and talks with people, between the inhabitants of metropolitan Russia and those completely out in the sticks, as all the people in the small settlements along the river’s banks are. The countryside is emptying, feeling abandoned and even more cut off since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had at least tried to develop its outlying areas and create a sense of belonging to a nation, as well as providing links to and supplies from the centre. So, almost everyone Tayler meets is disillusioned with Putin, capitalism and the ‘reforms’, which have basically abandoned them; there is considerable nostalgia for the days of the Soviet Union and its strong leadership. At the same time, there is a cynical, almost fatalistic acceptance of their situation, certainly no urge or ability to try and change the situation.

It’s this nostalgia and fatalism that seems to drive Tayler crazy: as an American he is unable to understand their attitude, or accept it; he often seems angrier than the Russians are themselves, and feels that they should want revenge for what the Soviet Union inflicted on them in the past. Eventually, his over-simplistic responses become tiresome and annoying, even though his meetings and discussions with people are fascinating in themselves for the insights we gain into their lives.

One often hears talk about national archetypes – even stereotypes – and Tayler fits the individualist, go-getting American picture (though I’m sure I’m guilty of oversimplifying based on the evidence here). Similarly the Russians are all slotted into his picture of ‘the Russians don’t understand democracy, they love strong leaders &c &c’ and his picture of the Bolshevik experiment is too one-sided to take seriously. And his patronising concluding observations are very disappointing, from someone who is clearly a seasoned traveller and observer of peoples. The horrendous summer storms as they approach the Arctic Circle, with the river ten to twelve miles wide, are dramatic and scary, and we see the travellers working together to survive…

So, it’s a decent read if you can overlook the political undercurrents. Russia is not the United States, it’s more than twice the size; its settlement and development is completely different and not comparable; Russians outside the big cities have been completely by-passed by any of the supposed ‘benefits’ of the reforms; somewhere deeper down there is a recognition that, no matter how badly wrong everything went, the Soviet experiment did attempt, in some ways, to make society different, fairer, better… I would have expected Tayler at least to acknowledge this, even while he disagreed.

 

 

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