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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

False Dawn in Shadow of Soviet Past

The apparent intractability of Russia's economic and political problems only seems to spur Western visitors to write about the experiences, impressions and insights gained during their travels in Russia. Siberian Dawn is the most recent contribution to the genre, although Jeffrey Tayler's text is based on experiences from 1993. Despite that six-year gap, the book seems accurate and perceptive in the way it communicates the impressions gained during an 13,000 kilometer voyage from the Pacific to Poland.

Like many Westerners who had visited the Soviet Union when travel was still restricted, Tayler is consumed by a passion to break out of the protected, "foreigners-only" environment. He insists on traveling overland through some of the most difficult parts of the country and in the process discovers a bruising reality.

Readers of "Siberian Dawn" should be alerted at the outset to keep an atlas nearby. The book is structured around a journey across two continents, with frequent references to places never before visited by an American; yet there is not a map to be had.

The travel narrative begins in Magadan, a port on the Okhotsk Sea that formerly served as "capital" of the stalinist concentration camp empire in the Far East. Wanting to go westward to Yakutsk, center of the diamond-rich province of Yakutia, Tayler manages to finagle a ride in a heavy truck that can make the journey only over a seasonal winter road of ice. The descriptions of trucking over several hundred kilometers of almost impassable territory are gripping, and we are alerted to the ecological damage from abandoned mining camps and formerly secret installations whose state support has largely disappeared.

Tayler's vision of Yakutsk, like that of other Russo-Asian settlements, is surreal. The town "sat exposed on a plateau as if the earth were offering it as a sacrifice to the arctic sun waning above. Plots of land lay vacant everywhere, metal twistings rusted under ice, izby [wooden houses] grew crooked ... and heating pipes three feet in diameter, partly covered by ragged insulating fiber that looked like mange, crisscrossed above the ground at forehead banging height."

After Yakutsk, Tayler moves west by road and rail through the Far East and into Siberia proper. The stress of this journey and Tayler's refusal to take the easy route lead to darkly comic encounters in travelers' hell, worsened by the pervasive abuse of cheap vodka. Repeatedly he is confronted by people who have never seen an American, but whose ideas of America are firmly defined by the television serial "Santa Barbara." Despite decades of cultural exchange, one wonders if cliche-ridden "Santa Barbara" may yet prove the dominant image of American culture for most Russians.

Traveling via Chita to the western Siberian cities of Tomsk and Omsk and then on to the industrial behemoths of Chelyabinsk and Magnitogorsk in the Ural Mountains, Tayler provides further evidence of the ecological damage wrought by Soviet industrialization.

Everywhere, people are struggling to make do in a bewildering economic and moral environment. In the attractive Volga River city of Ulyanovsk, the birthplace of Vladimir Ulyanov, he bears witness to the absence of more than 30 historic churches, destroyed during a particularly virulent anti-religious campaign.

Throughout his account, Tayler makes it disturbingly clear that the Leninist legacy is far from over in Russia while also showing that the West has often provided a very uncertain moral and economic alternative. He concludes, however, with a prediction of hope for a humane evolution of Russian society. The epilogue is dated August 1998.

"Siberian Dawn," by Jeffrey Tayler. Hungry Mind Press. 301 pages. $27.