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In Siberia

by Colin Thubron

Buy the book: Colin Thubron. In Siberia

Release Date: 26 December, 2000

Edition: Paperback


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Buy the book: Colin Thubron. In Siberia

A Dark Journey through Russia's Wild East

An ex-political prisoner, an elderly shaman, a vodka-sodden drunk, a KGB agent turned Baptist preacher, a Rasputin lookalike, a lonely babushka - they are all part of the landscape of Siberia brought to life in Colin Thubron's latest masterpiece of travel writing. Siberia's not an easy assignment: covering one- third of the northern hemisphere, it has a haunted past and a harsh present, inevitable, Thubron implies, given Siberia's history as "a rural waste into which were cast the bacilli infecting the state body: the criminal, the sectarian, the politically dissident."

Speaking accented Russian in areas where Westerners were forbidden until only a few years ago, Thubron sometimes passes for a down-at-the-heels Estonian as he crosses Siberia, making forays north to desolate Arctic towns founded as Stalinist labor camps.

The people he meets stick in the memory, captured with the eye and ear of a novelist. (No surprise there: when not traveling, Thubron writes edgy, dark fiction.) In Rasputin's hometown of Pokrovskoe, Thubron meets Viktor, "a ghastly distillation" of the dark magician, a disturbing man shunned by other villagers. In the Arctic town of Vorkuta, where hundreds of thousands perished in labor camps during Stalin's reign, he finds an old woman watching dubbed Mexican soap operas. She is a faithful Communist, arrested in 1938 on a whispered denunciation and sent to the coal mines for a dozen years. Despite herself, and to Thubron's dismay, she still can't condemn the system that wasted her life. And then there are the babushkas in Omsk, celebrating the blessing of a pool of water near a new Orthodox monastery by plunging in with joyous abandon once the archbishop has moved on.

While new-found freedom and hope pop up in odd places, often linked with dormant religions slowly budding to life, darkness prevails in Thubron's account. Looking for traces of the Entsy people, once nomads in northern Siberia, he strands himself with them in the remote village of Potalovo. What he finds is alcoholism, poverty, and despair. Other native peoples, stripped of their cultures under the Soviets and left with the hollow shell of Communism, are equally adrift. And everywhere are reminders of the Gulag, signposts of man's extraordinary capacity for evil.

Though the darkness may be palpable, in the hands of a writer as skilled as Thubron, it's not depressing. He's the best travel writer working in English: a traveler, not a tourist, taking risks, uninterested in his own hardships. In Siberia is his best book yet.


Great subject matter but it's not a "pageturner"

'In Siberia' is about the author's trek from the Ural Mountains to Magadan in northeastern Siberia, using train, bus, truck, boat, and air. Colin Thubron is not the most engaging of travel writers. He isn't witty, he reveals little of himself, and he isn't good at building his travel narratives around a theme or 'hook.' Thubron's approach is more like that of a journalist - to document what happens to him, what he sees, and the people he encounters.

The low spots of the book are due to Thubron's habit of getting bogged down in pointless, over-long interviews. In one instance he spends too much space on a crank-physicist who claims that 'magnetic waves' can cure any disease, and later, on a fringe-archeologist who claims the first humans evolved in Siberia. A couple of pages on these eccentrics might be amusing, but Thubron doesn't know when to move on. Still, the book is of value because it documents an intriguing region at a turning point in history. He describes communities far away from roads and rail lines and, thanks to his fluent Russian, he interviews people there and describes how they see the world. Perhaps most important are his descriptions of the abandoned prison camps, some of which have never been viewed by westerners, and which are scheduled to be bulldozed. His accounts of what the Soviet government did in these camps will stick with the reader long after the book is finished.

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© FAB Russia, 2003-2005

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