Posts Tagged ‘Siberia’

Theodore Kröger: The Forgotten Village

October 18, 2015

51u3TCAJy4L._AA160_Well, this was astonishing, and unforgettable. A bestseller in the 1930s when first published, it’s not been reprinted in English for sixty years, but fortunately the French haven’t forgotten it.

Son of a German watchmaker, settled for many years in Tsarist Russia, the author of what’s described as an ‘autobiographical novel’ (interesting genre, that) attempts to flee to Germany at the start of the First World War, but is captured, condemned to death as a spy and then instead exiled to the wastes of northern Siberia.

Initially he suffers as a prisoner in horrendous conditions, but eventually, thanks to powerful connections in St Petersburg, his life in exile is made rather easier and he rises to prominence in a settlement in the middle of nowhere, becoming the bosom friend of the local police chief. Eventually, through his connnections and family fortune he succeeds in bringing some prosperity and development to the town, ameliorated the living conditions of the thousands of German POWs in the area, and marries a local Tartar girl.

The writer’s love of the place and its people develops and becomes clear, shining through the pages; it’s evident that though unbelievably harsh, Siberia is a beautiful place, in a space and time continuum of its very own. And he discovers a remote village, completely cut off from the ‘outside’ world, which he and his fellow-prisoners aid to become completely self-sufficient and to hide itself from the coming ravages of the Revolution…

There are moments of true horror in his story: a nearby village is stricken by the plague, and in order to stop it spreading, they massacre all its inhabitants and burn the village down. The Kerensky government orders the release of all common criminals: these begin to wreak havoc on the town, and are all eventually killed or driven away.

The writer explores some of the totally unknown areas of the country and he and his companions come across a ghost town, its inhabitants all long dead in their homes; then they discover a large settlement of savages who still hunt with bows and arrows, and manage (just) to escape with their lives.

The utter chaos after the October Revolution is appalling; whole swathes of the country are abandoned to cold and famine and the winter of 1917/18 is atrocious; very few of the several thousand townspeople come through alive…

Some of the story stretches credulity just a little, I think to myself as I read, but then I recall other accounts of Siberia a century ago that I’ve read, and other travellers’ tales, and I think, no, this could well all be true. If in the late 1970s a small settlement could be found, of people who had seen not another living soul for over forty years, then Kroger’s account could be true. It doesn’t read like a novel: there’s no plot, the narrative is linear, people come and go as the author moves around. It’s very powerful, and very moving.

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Dervla Murphy: Silverland

December 15, 2013

41cnQwDQlkL._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU02_AA160_My mother and I both enjoy travel writing, and often swap books we’ve read. She has been urging me for a long time to read some Dervla Murphy, and, seduced by the prospect of reading some more about Siberia (of which I never tire), I finally gave in.

Murphy is another solo female traveller, in the vein of Ella Maillart, of whom I’ve written before. Murphy is now rather older, and also a more recent traveller, so there is rather less unexplored territory to visit, but she does make real efforts to leave the beaten track, sometimes to her cost. She is genuinely interested in the places she visits and the people she encounters, and inclues plenty of background information to help the reader orient her/himself. She’s also very political, which is rather unusual in travel writers, at least those I’ve read. Nothing escapes her sharp, questioning mind, and she will digress for several pages on the political and social implications of something she has come across. Only very occasionally is this tiresome; usually it further enlightens her travels and writing.

She travels on slow trains – not the tourists’ Transsiberian railway, but the later BAM (Baikal-Amur Magistral, if you wanted to know), sections of which run parallel to, but further north than, the more well-known and older Transsib. She appreciates the beauty of much of Siberia, especially Lake Baikal, but she is also saddened by the waste and environmental degradation which has gone on for decades, under the Soviets to whom economic and industrial progress (?) was the most important thing, and even more so in the present, capitalist (?) times, where profit, and the fast buck are everything.

She can see the superficial attractiveness of the new, Western freedoms(?) to Russians whose lives were limited for so many years under state socialism, and she can see beyond this to the catastrophic effect this is having on the country and its peoples; it’s clearly a stage the country has to go through before its people may perhaps see that there are other things that are more important… the more one looks, the more one is conscious of the difference between freedom from and freedom to, and how we are all manipulated by capitalist and Western hegemony.

I wouldn’t want anyone to feel that she writes political polemic: she doesn’t, but she’s aware of the complexity of everything; she loves the places and the people and describes them sympathetically, and enables us to have a window onto places we can probably never visit, and lives that are very different from ours. A real traveller, then, and no tourist.

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