Cyberian Dispatch 1: Exile Begins

by Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac

"You're going there willingly?"

That's been one of the most common responses when we tell people we're headed to Siberia. Yes, we chose to spend the next nine months in this place that is known primarily as a punishment and a place of exile.

The practice of sending people to the Far East began under the Tsars and continued under Communism. Somehow the authorities thought they could accomplish two things at once: punish people and use their labor to develop this vast and forbidding region. Common criminals, intellectuals and political insubordinates rubbed shoulders on the long trip East and after they arrived. And the political prisoners, some as notable as Dostoevsky, brought many elements of culture with them, causing Irkutsk, the city where we're now located, to eventually be nicknamed "the Paris of the East."

Stepping off the overnight flight from Moscow, we were hit by a brisk breeze and a certain something different about the air. Was it thicker, did it smell of the deep woods, did it have healing properties? Our new friend from the International Office of Irkutsk National Research Technological University, Assia, scoffed at this notion. "It's just the airport," she said, laughing. But we were convinced it was true.

Assia tried to reassure us that it was colder than a normal September. "It snowed yesterday," she reported, "but that's not normal for this time of year." We know that temperatures of minus 20 Fahrenheit are not too far in the future. But in the meantime, t-shirt weather is restored, with the first brilliant yellows rapidly emerging on the plentiful birch trees.

And the inviting weather made possible our first trip to Lake Baikal, the crescent-shaped "sacred jewel," the deepest lake in the world, containing one-fifth of earth's fresh water. We traveled on a boat from Irkutsk with Mikhail, who seems to know everything and everybody -- and has natural amphetamines coursing through his veins. As the boat made its way up the Angara River, the only river that drains from Lake Baikal, we caught sight of the mountains on the other side of the Lake, in Buryatia, the semi-autonomous land of the indigenous Buryat people. They appeared like a mystical wall, with ample snow already ladled onto the peaks, and no sign of human interference: not a ship, not a town, not a house.

The boat turned and chugged to Bolshoe Koty, or Large Cats, a miniscule village that is accessible only by water during the summer months (and by car once the Lake freezes solid in January). After disembarking, Mikhail sprinted at an inhuman pace up a hill to an overlook where the Lake spread out in front of us and the view of Buryatia was even more surreal, the peaks appearing blue and white through an other-worldly haze. The entire village was visible at our feet, including a laboratory in a miniature wooden house that pursues research on the impact of pollutants and warming temperatures on marine life. After descending again, we met the biologists who are methodically trying to understand how best to protect the lake's ecosystem. Their beakers and petri dishes contained samples of Lake water and small sponges gathered from the bottom, and they showed us photographs of indigenous organisms, essential food for the Lake's fish, that are increasingly threatened by chemical spills and unusually high temperatures.

According to Buryat legend, a great earthquake caused fire to spew from the earth. The people gathered and cried, "Bai, gal!," or "Fire, stop!" in the Buryat language. And when their prayers were answered and the fire ended, the chasm filled with water, creating Lake Baikal. The Buryat tradition is extremely respectful of nature and its balance. But now, a second fire, that of climate change, threatens this equilibrium. In fact, the region around Lake Baikal is one of the places on Earth most threatened by global warming. Our project will explore the connection between these ancient and contemporary "fires," and call attention to the importance of preserving the Lake's pristine waters.

On the way back to Irkutsk, a generous sunset was unveiled on the left banks of the Angara, glinting through the spray from the boat. Undoubtedly, exiles suffered and died in this region in ways we can never fully comprehend. But those who were able to set eyes upon Lake Baikal must have had some small consolation. Baikal is still a sacred jewel, one of the most unique and precious spots on the planet. Having seen it only once, we count ourselves among the lucky.

Tagged: siberia, cyberian dispatch, exile, irkutsk, climate change, lake baikal

A River in Retreat

Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac

It was not only the grape harvest in Chl’aba, Slovakia that was compromised by a scorching hot summer without rain (see our last post), but the nearby Danube River has dropped to its lowest levels since the early 1960s, according to local residents. 

The most obvious result is that vast expanses of pebbly beach have opened up on both sides of the river. And the drop in the water level is so precipitous that the larger cargo and cruise ships that move regularly in both directions on this major European thoroughfare have temporarily ceased their operations.

But the most tragic and upsetting result of the extended heat and drought is a major fish kill in the river and the pools along its banks. As with many other bodies of water across Europe, the prolonged extreme temperatures and lack of oxygen created a toxic mix that many of the Danube’s plentiful fish could not escape. Worse still, the water in the ponds that dot the river’s banks in Chl’aba slowly evaporated, leaving listless fish flopping in a trickle of fetid water, along with hundreds of carcasses for birds to pick apart.

The Danube is already stressed by extensive agricultural runoff, chemical discharges, pharmaceuticals, poor wastewater treatment, and extensive plastic and other solid waste (and its problems then become the problems of the Black Sea, into which it flows). All this is worsened by extremes of climate that have an immediate impact on water quality, fish and other wildlife.

Keeping the Danube healthy requires a cooperative effort of the nations through which it flows, including Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine. Its drainage basin extends into nine more countries. A recent European Union report strikes a hopeful note, citing advances in wastewater treatment and other pollution controls. But at this fragile moment in the European Union’s history, it is hard to know if environmental protection is top of mind for the governments that need to tackle this problem, or if they have the will to take collective responsibility.

For the moment, the Danube is a shadow of itself, a river in retreat, choking up its fish. Can we move beyond this moment, or is it just the beginning of something more atrocious?


Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac

Our back to back Fulbright grants took us in 2017-18 to Ukraine and will take us in 2018-19 to Eastern Siberia. While the projects are 5 time zones away from each other, they have much in common. Both are focused on water that has been dramatically affected by climate change.

In Ukraine, we told the story of the Southern Bug River, once the historic territory of Cossacks on the steppe, now reduced in flow so much that the nearby nuclear energy complex proposes to flood a national park to provide more cooling water to its parched Soviet-era reactors. The decision is now in the hands of the Verkhovna Rada, or Ukrainian Parliament, and activists hope to use the film, titled God’s River, to influence the outcome, which remains uncertain. (Stay tuned, the film will have its online debut in the near future.)

In Siberia, we’ll focus on Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest lake, which is revered by the indigenous Buryat people as sacred. In the Buryat origin myth for Lake Baikal, fire exploded from the earth and the people cried, “Bai, Gal,” or “Fire, Stop!” Their prayers were answered and the deepest lake on earth was formed. Our project will connect the fire of this ancient myth with the new fire that now threatens the lake: that of climate change. Lake Baikal, which contains a significant percentage of the world’s fresh water, is one of the places in the world that is most affected by global warming, and its long-term health is now at risk.

As we travel to Siberia, we are pausing for three weeks in the 800-person village of Chl’aba, Slovakia, where Gabriela’s mother lives and where Gabriela spent her childhood summers. This has been a frequent stopping off point for us in our travels, and it is the subject of our longest project to date -- more than a decade of work documenting her “Returns” to her family, the natural beauty of the land at the confluence of the Danube and Ipel Rivers, and the changes the village has seen in the post-Communist era.

The first thing we noticed about Chl’aba upon our latest return was how hot it was. Like a large swath of Europe, it was blasted with intense heat for weeks on end, with no rain. And the results were immediately apparent when we visited the family vineyard, where two-thirds of the grapes were withering, diseased, or gone. Nonetheless, the harvest went on one late August morning, when the weather had mercifully turned milder. With neighbors gathered to assist, the chatter among the natives (in Hungarian, as Chl’aba is a border village that is dominated by Hungarians) turned to the dates of harvests over time. They noted that the grape harvest used to take place in October, then shifted to September, but in recent years has occurred as early as late August.

As we move closer to Lake Baikal, we are experiencing a change of climate. The hot weather of the American and European summer gave way to the first hints of a cooler autumn, foreshadowing the brutal cold of the far East that will be a central feature of our lives in the coming year. And at the same time, our stop in Chl’aba was a forceful reminder that climate change is with us now, in all parts of the globe. The climate is changing, from Washington, to Europe, to the Far East. And unless we can alter the climate for change, our march toward an apocalyptic crisis will be a shorter one than any of us imagined.