A Russia Frozen In Time


By Frederick Kempe

Putnam -- 317pp -- $24.95

Sure, I thought, opening Frederick Kempe's Siberian Odyssey: A Voyage into the Russian Soul. Here's an author who thinks he can travel through Siberia for just five weeks and, without even knowing the language, explain the secrets of the inscrutable Russians. What presumption. What arrogance.

But Kempe surprised me. The veteran Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent has written a first-rate travel book. Kempe takes the reader down the Ob River, through Stalin's old death camps, past nuclear-weapons facilities, into heavily polluted steel and oil towns, and out onto the tundra roamed by nomads. His conversations with Siberians come across as genuine, though they are filtered through an interpreter. And by the last leg of the journey, Kempe decides that the Russian soul is not so easy to understand.

Still, his travelogue is valuable for its lessons about reform in Russia. Yes, incredible changes have taken place. But at the same time, millions of Russians think, work, and live much as they have for decades. Values, prejudices, and fears built up over generations cannot be transformed overnight, no matter how much resentment had festered for the old regime and no matter how radical a reform the Kremlin now attempts. Even though Kempe traveled last summer, before the failed coup that led to the Soviet Union's ultimate collapse, his impressions remain valid.

There is Tomsk 7, the closed city where the innocuously named Siberian Chemical Combine produces plutonium for nuclear bombs. Never before had an American visited the town. As his hosts drove him quickly by the fence enclosing the facility, Kempe observed, "I was passing the epicenter of the evil empire, the radioactive core of the Red threat, the well from which Soviet bombs were made. In my memory, however, it remains only a gray blur."

Later, in public, a former plant worker hands Kempe documents detailing the disappearance of plutonium and the release of radioactive gases into the atmosphere. Only a few years ago, this would have landed Kempe a long prison term as a spy. Nothing happens to him, although a member of the expedition, Supreme Soviet member Yuri Kaznin, later confiscates the documents. Mistrust of Westerners does linger. "Why are you coming on this trip anyway?" Kaznin asks Kempe early on. "You write for only rich people who only want to exploit Siberia."

At Kolpashevo, a village on the Ob and former gulag where Stalin executed more than a half million "enemies of the people," Kempe talks to Anatoly Patokyin, a lifeguard on the river, who saw it lay bare a mass grave in May, 1979. "The corpses were so well-preserved after all those years in the frozen ground that those who had known the dead would have recognized their features.... I saw that in every head there was a hole, a bullet hole," he recalls.

In Shpalozavod, not far from the place where Stalin was exiled in 1912, Kempe visits an elderly couple sent there by the Soviet leader in the 1930s in a crackdown on kulaks, private farmers. The woman, 83-year-old Tatyana Ivanova, "wore fear as obviously as the gray scarf wrapped around her head," Kempe writes. Eyeing his notebook, she asks, "Maybe you want to take me to jail?" In another village, the granddaughter of a man executed by Stalin in 1937 remarks: "It has become a tradition of Soviet people to be afraid of each other.... You must be careful--even now."

Kempe's resigned Siberians assign their troubles to sudba, or fate. Confronted with the chaos of democracy and a market economy, some long for the predictability of the old system. "If we had Stalin now, everything would be O.K.... If the leadership of the country would impose a little more order we would all be better off," the curator of a museum honoring Stalin complains.

Vladimir Kotykov, who rose to head the steel factory where he first worked at age 16, confesses that he hates capitalism. He finds searching for customers humiliating. And Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Lazik, chief of Prison Colony No.5, on the Tom River, mourns the demise of the Communist Party. "It was in our blood from childhood that we wanted to be a communist," he says. "We were brought up with this ideology and now we ask why we can't put our thoughts into reality."

Such laments worry entrepreneurs. One reports that local bosses were combing his books to catch him in a crime. Says Kempe: "Communism was gone but its bureaucrats remained in place and wanted to destroy him." Such fears haven't changed since Kempe left. Just two months ago, a successful Siberian entrepreneur told me that security agents wanted to search his books. Entrepreneurs are terrified that state control could resume at any moment.

From the start of the trip in Kemerovo coal country to the last stop at the gulags of Vortuka, Kempe describes Siberian scenes with telling detail. He even notices cans of air freshener littered on the outskirts of Salekhard, a city of 25,000 in the north. Local youths use them to get high. But Kempe's descriptions of women can sometimes be off-putting. He several times describes them as "swooning" over members of the expedition. Whatever the charms of Kempe and his colleagues, Russian women--a tough lot--rarely swoon.

But this is only a small quibble about an altogether readable book. It teaches about Russia while it entertains. Read it on a hot day with a chilled vodka.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.