Cyberian Dispatch 4: A Glimpse of Moscow

by Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

No city can be grasped in a few days, so our quick fling with Moscow is already a haze of veiled impressions on the fly. Gabriela had been once before -- but long ago, and the city has changed dramatically in the interim. Mark never.

The outstanding Fulbright office gathered us for a check-in with other scholars and students, many scattered across this immense nation, so there is no other opportunity to connect in person. They also arranged a bonus meeting with the US Ambassador, Jon Huntsman, a former Republican governor, who spoke quite reasonably about how to bring the Russian and American people together -- and about his efforts to engage with the Orthodox Church.

Then the city unfolded as a sumptuous, impromptu walking tour. The wide avenues and their grandiose buildings, often a misleading facade for comfortable neighborhoods with pedestrian walkways and community ponds. Zaryadye Park, Moscow’s answer to the High Line, replete with undulating rooftop gardens, delicate birch groves, and an overlook perched far above the Moskva River.

Red Square, a chaos of architectural styles. The fanciful church with precious relics. The looming walls of the Kremlin. The Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Prada stores directly facing Lenin’s tomb. The mausoleum, in maroon and black, guarded by stern-faced police who enforce silence and hats off. Lenin, glowing supernaturally in the darkness, with perfect facial hair. Outside, the graves of Stalin, Brezhnev, Andropov, all bedecked with red flowers. Also John Reed, the American who witnessed the revolution.

The exquisite art, from all eras. Ancient Egyptian death mask (Fayum) portraits, spectacularly rich icon paintings from rural Russia, modern art from around the world, official and unofficial Soviet-era art, contemporary gems. A survey exhibit of contemporary photography that would have been at home in the Whitney or MoMA. A sculpture garden in Gorky Park, abutting preserved statues of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, also in close proximity with a memorial to the victims of totalitarian regimes.

The world class veggie bistro. The restaurants that are innovating successfully, with prices to match the West. The metro, a tour de force of architecture, convenience, value and service (trains consistently arrive moments after the last one departs), sharply contrasting with our own capital city. The warm service, the embrace of America and Americans. The sense of safety, even in crowds.

Then rapidly back in the airplane for the same overnight flight that first brought us to Irkutsk. The dawn is accelerated as five time zones melt away, and the bracing Siberian air, blowing out of an endless forest, is a potent reminder that Moscow is more than 5000 kilometers away.

Cyberian Dispatch 3: A Sacred Island Reveals Itself

By Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

Olkhon Island, situated about midway in Lake Baikal’s long crescent, is more than 70 kilometers long and 15 kilometers wide. It has about 1500 permanent residents, most of them indigenous Buryat people, and the bulk of these live in the one small town, Khuzir. During the warmer months, a ferry transports cars and people back and forth to the mainland. When the lake is freezing or melting, the island is accessible only by air, but when it’s totally frozen, you can drive there across the meter-thick ice.

There are five Rules of Conduct for visitors. The first, in keeping with the ecological sensitivity of the indigenous Buryat people, reads, “Live in harmony with Mother Nature, protect her, because this is the Great Power, which allows existence of you and your descendants.”  

There is an abundance of Mother Nature to protect. Created by tectonic forces, the Island contains extremely disparate landscapes: taiga, steppe and desert. It has exceptional sand beaches that would be at home in the Caribbean if you replaced its pines with palms. Its dunes are constantly reshaped by emphatic winds, stripping tree roots into naked sculptures. Its perilous cliffs of limestone and marble are crowned with wooden totems adorned with thousands of ritualistic ribbons in the rainbow colors favored by Buryat shamans.

Black ravens, reputed to be spirits, called out to us in voices that could only be understood as human emotions. At the top of a cliff lay a small snake in waiting, somehow conveying the significance of the location. Not far away, at a picnic spot where hungry tourists ate fish soup and cheese sandwiches, a dazzlingly beauteous fox crept out of the woods, intensely locking its eyes on ours, then darted to the side and sunk its teeth into two sausages left by local guides. In the capes and bays surrounding the Island are the fish that provide sustenance for the local people -- and the unique species of sponges and amphipods that make Lake Baikal a precious Galapagos of the East.

Not all of the fauna are wild. “Beware of domesticated animals,” read the signs along many of the main roads, a reference to the many cows and horses that don’t hesitate to wander in front of moving vehicles. And for one day-long hike, we were adopted by a midnight-black dog with a delightful disposition who bounded ahead, leading us on the proper paths.

The roads are all of dirt, rutted, often filled with mud, and otherwise kicking up sensational amounts of dust with each passing vehicle. But the roads north of Khuzir are not roads at all but a series of deep crevices that are traversed exclusively by “Uaziki,” plural for a brand of military vehicle created under Stalin that continues to produce today. Each Uazik, the size of a very large minivan, is tightly packed with tourists -- mainly from China, Western Europe, and less so, Russia -- before shaking them up and down thousands of times and depositing them in the far reaches of the Island for a series of landscapes and selfies. They are then fed a quick lunch on the run and deposited back at their guest houses.

We resisted this type of excursion for several days, but finally relented since the Uaziki are the only means of encountering most of the island. Then, on the day of our tourist trip, a clammy fog permeated the entire island, obscuring almost all sights, and forcing visitors to snap photos of an obfuscated “nothing,” as one Chinese tourist put it.

Of course, the fog was ethereal, abstract and suggestive as well. Standing at the top of one of the northernmost cliffs, tourists cried out boorishly to each other in the emptiness, stripping the moment of its eloquence. But despite these violations of propriety, we could easily imagine the monumental boulders hangings over the cliffs, and we could hear the waves repetitively attacking the shore dozens of meters below. Then, in a mirage-like instant, the fog lifted, permitting a glimpse into the expanse of the Lake, the sublime mountain peaks on its far shores, and the twinkling sunlight on its surface, before filling again with an opaque gray-white.

Away from its most populated sites, the overwhelming allure of Olkhon Island is inescapable. Along the Western coast, we wandered for hours in contemplation before black ravens and a black dog led us to a stone labyrinth that pays homage to the ancestral people of the Island, whose rules for Proper Conduct can be read as a guide for life itself. “Just try to radiate love, joy, and gratitude, or be peaceful,” reads rule number four. “Remember -- in places of great natural forces everything that a person carries becomes stronger.” As we walked the labyrinth, trying to bring our thoughts into this very moment, Lake Baikal’s splendor and gravity was revealed.

Sacred? Undeniably. Endangered? Increasingly. In need of protection? Unquestionably.  

Cyberian Dispatch 2: Russia's Vast Galapagos

How to comprehend -- and then convey -- the enormity of Siberia and the incalculable volume of the world’s deepest and oldest lake? These are early problems for our project on Lake Baikal.

Russia is the world’s largest nation in terms of area, with more than 17 million square kilometers. But more than 77 percent of Russia is Siberia, still larger than any other nation on earth. In fact, Siberia alone is larger than all of the United States and Europe combined.

Lake Baikal is the deepest, and by volume of water, the largest lake in the world. All of the Great Lakes could be drained into Lake Baikal, and it contains more than 20 percent of all the freshwater in the world. It is also the oldest lake in the world, formed 25-30 million years ago.

Standing on the Western shore on the Great Baikal Trail, we can easily spot the sprays of snow on the peaks of the storybook mountain range on the Eastern side, in the Republic of Buryatia. Our eyes are rewarded by the endless dancing reflections of light on the Lake’s surface. But we cannot see 1,642 meters into its depths, to its murky bottom carved by a geological trauma. And we cannot see to the northern reaches of its crescent shape, beyond the villages that draw most of its tourists.

Around us are thousands of aspens and birch trees, decorated in gold, shivering in the emphatic wind, shedding leaves rapidly. But we cannot count the thousands of species of plants and animals that live in and around Lake Baikal, 60 percent of which are unique, causing it to be labelled “Russia’s Galapagos.”

On the shores, we can easily locate small sponges that have washed up on the pebbles and bleached white. But we cannot see the vast colonies of living sponges beneath the waves or the 350 different species of indigenous amphipods, crustaceans essential to the Lake’s health that find their home under rocks on its bottom.

Indeed, one of our most compelling findings thus far is that our lensed devices fail to do justice to the physical vastness of Siberia or Lake Baikal. Over and over, we remarked on and lamented this failure and worried about what it might mean for our project. But now we are mapping an alternate voyage. Instead of capsizing on the Lake’s biggest waves, we are drifting on its tender swells. We hope these modest crests will aptly communicate, not the enormity of Baikal’s size, but its immeasurable importance.

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?

A CLIMATE OF CHANGE

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.