Cyberian Dispatch 20: A Swift Departure

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

Pacific swifts that spend the summer in Siberia migrated in August to their winter home in Australia and Indonesia.

Pacific swifts that spend the summer in Siberia migrated in August to their winter home in Australia and Indonesia.

The swifts lived in the roof above our apartment. They often woke us in a cacophony of sound at about 6:00 a.m. They swooped and cavorted and dive-bombed in the treetops just outside our windows. But the Siberian summer is warm, exquisite, and brief, like a sun-ripened fruit. And its time had already passed. As temperatures also swooped lower, we woke to find that the birds had vanished...already traveling an exceptional distance to winter in Australia or Indonesia. And it was time for us to take flight also, leaving behind a very unexpected and welcoming homeland in the Far East (see Cyberian Dispatch 19). 

As we left, the complications of climate change were at play around the globe. Unprecedented wildfires in Brazil and the Arctic captured headlines around the world and were a topic among heads of state. A major hurricane, rated among the most powerful in the North Atlantic of all time, decimated part of the Bahamas and raked the coastal United States and Canada. Alaska’s sea ice melted completely for the first time in history. Iceland’s Prime Minister officiated at a memorial for a lost glacier.

Unfortunately, Siberia and Lake Baikal are in the vanguard of these changes, with temperatures increasing two times faster than other parts of the globe. In our final weeks, multiple challenges punctuated the news, emphasizing Siberia’s leading role in climate change. Wildfires in Siberia, accelerated by high temperatures and extremely dry conditions, consumed an area larger than the nation of Belgium, sometimes sending thick blankets of smoke into Irkutsk and raising air quality alerts to the urgent level. Also, areas north of Irkutsk -- especially Tulun -- suffered severe floods in which dozens lost their lives, and Greenpeace Russia attributed the catastrophe to climate change. Scientists once again reported that Baikal’s precious small organisms are vulnerable to rising temperatures and will suffer, disrupting the Lake’s entire ecosystem, if water temperatures continue to rise.

Our parting weeks were filled with nostalgia for the mystery, power and enormity of Baikal, not just as a body of water, but as a living being, a space where spirits rule, a territory where the power of the natural world pervades all the human senses. We said goodbyes to the Angara River, Baikal’s only outlet and the site of exquisite encounters with winter “tuman” or fog (see Cyberian Dispatch 9). We traveled again to Olkhon Island, witnessed a very special ritual in which more than 40 shamans prayed for rain to extinguish wildfires, and paused to reflect in one of Baikal’s most sacred sites (see Cyberian Dispatch 3). 

If the spirits of Baikal had the only say, all would be well. Unfortunately, greed, folly, and indifference also hold sway. Our year in Siberia has given us ample understanding of the main threats facing the world’s most important lake: climate change and various forms of pollution that have already damaged shallow areas and now threaten the entire Lake. But the final weeks of our stay also revealed the extent of new, emerging hazards that threaten an exponential increase in harm. These new concerns have unique attributes that reinforce each other and have the potential to rapidly accelerate warming in a “feedback effect.” For example:

  • Melting Permafrost: Temperatures in Siberia are increasing twice as rapidly than other parts of the world. As a result, vast territories of previously frozen permafrost are melting, discharging enormous quantities of carbon dioxide and methane -- enough to result in “catastrophic” warming.

  • Spreading Forest Fires: According to prominent scientists, the growing number and intensity of forest fires is causing “dramatic loss of forested area,” further accelerating climate change. 

  • Excessive Logging: Widespread legal and illegal logging is also contributing to rapid deforestation that accelerates warming; and

  • Deteriorating Rivers: As temperatures increase, evaporation intensifies and the flow of the Lake’s tributaries is reduced. Dwindling water levels reduce pressure at the Lake’s bottom, releasing additional methane and harming sensitive species. 

Many of our most memorable moments at Baikal involved sound or music (see Cyberian Dispatch 10). Evgeny Masloboev, an Irkutsk-based experimental composer and musician, can elicit music out of almost anything, including coat hangars, plastic bags, or the leaves of plants. He favors improvisation, and before we left, he very memorably asked us to pull out our phones, hold them near each other, and create music from...a feedback effect. 

Scientists know that these emerging threats can quickly approach a tipping point that accelerates environmental degradation much more quickly than current climate modeling anticipates. Artists like Evgeny Masloboev sense it and intuitively find a way to express it. The natural landscape already signals distress: people choke on smoke from mega-fires and die when their homes are inundated by flash floods. But in Russia and around the world, many people are not fully aware of how serious the problem is, and policymakers are in denial, immobilized or unsure of how to act on a scale large enough to be consequential. 

The swifts departed suddenly one August day, darting into the sky because they knew the environment will soon not be hospitable. Following a small visa snafu, we also took flight to Central Europe on very short notice, uprooting ourselves from our Far Eastern homeland and finding a roost near the Danube River, another threatened body of water. 

Time is precious now. How can we speed the pace of change on ending the use of fossil fuels and embracing clean energy? How can we embrace the use of alternative energy sources -- ones that are in ample supply in Siberia and many other places around the globe? How can we turn the corner on simple changes like ending the use of phosphates in detergents or stopping the endless stream of bottles that clog our waterways? 

Our year long Fulbright experience proves that we can build alliances across cultures and among diverse stakeholders who share common values and goals. It was an exceptionally meaningful, moving and beautiful experience, and we are forever grateful to our warm, welcoming, and kind Russian hosts, who selflessly ensured the project’s success. 

But can those of good faith and good mind work together quickly enough to safeguard Baikal? Can we chart a new course as swiftly as the swifts?



Todd R. Forsgren

At first glance, these images might remind you of abstraction expressionist work by the likes of Jackson Pollock. However, these aren’t drips and splashes of paint made by an artist baring the depths of his soul. The patterns, forms, and colors are actually created by marine flora and fauna growing on research plates set out by scientists to monitor the vitality and health of the ocean’s reefs. So instead I think of them in relation to one of Pollock’s most famous quips, rather than his paintings: “I don’t paint nature. I am nature.” 

To the scientific community the data is clear. The world’s oceans are undergoing unprecedented changes in levels, temperatures, and acidity. Coral reefs are especially vulnerable to these impacts of climate change. If this continues, the reefs will all but disappear by the end of this century. This is especially tragic because reefs are among the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet and are vital breeding grounds to many species who range far beyond their boundaries.

A global coalition of scientists are working to understand the impact of climate change on reef ecology and develop management systems that could mitigate the consequences. Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures (A.R.M.S.) are one tool being used. Though the term sounds high tech, and many aspects of this research are, the structures themselves are remarkably simple: a stack of 9” x 9” PVC panels that get left in the ocean for months or even years. The structures become covered with corals, sponges, and other marine life. These images are photographs of ARMS plates taken by scientists just before the organisms are removed from the plates for molecular analysis. 

I consider these plates as analogous to photographic film (although the year plus an A.R.M.S. is “exposed” at sea is substantially longer than the typical photographic moment). Like a camera, A.R.M.S. allow us to see the world in a way we cannot directly observe. The new understanding being gained through this technique allows us to see a possible future of the oceans (one without coral reefs if we don’t change course). Reflecting on this, I recall a quote from Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida. Referring to a photograph of a prisoner bound for execution, Barthes wrote, "He is dead and he is going to die..."

Cyberian Dispatch 19: Why We're at Home in Siberia

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

Frigid and forbidding. Remote and desolate. Brutal and punitive. All can traditionally be synonyms for “Siberian.” But after almost a year, we venture to call it “home.”

Why are we at home in Siberia? Well, for one, it contains the most important lake in the world -- the incomparable Baikal, which continues to change and reveal itself every season and every day. And when you find yourself in one of Baikal’s “powerful spots,” where beauty is overwhelming and spirits hold sway, you can understand that it is a sort of home for all of us -- and one that we must respect and protect.

Gabriela was originally drawn to Baikal because her grandfather had traveled here, describing the Trans-Siberian railroad and Baikal’s crystal clear ice, and bringing her presents from the far East. So her inspiration always included a familial link. But it’s time for us to mention the many ways in which Siberia revealed a multitude of connections to our ancestors, making our stay here an authentic -- if very unexpected -- homecoming.

The Czechoslovak Connection

Gabriela was born in the former Czechoslovakia. One of the historical figures in Irkutsk is Yaroslav Hasek (or in Russian, Gashek), a Czech writer who came to Siberia as part of the Czechoslovak Legion that fought on the side of the White Army during the Russian Civil War. In fact, our apartment is on the street that is named after him, and he lived in a building across the street. Hasek managed to switch sides, joining the victorious Red Army, which is why the street is named for him. He stayed in this region for four years, writing extensively and even starting the first Buryat language magazine. 

But Hasek is only part of the astonishing story of the Czechoslovak Legion in Russia. At a time before Czechoslovakia became a nation, more than 100,000 fighters came thousands of kilometers from their diminutive homeland to help demonstrate to the allies that they should support Czechoslovak statehood. They fought skillfully, and at one point in the war managed to control most of Siberia, an area larger than the United States and Europe combined. 

It was at Lake Baikal that the Czechoslovak Legion fought the only naval battle in the history of their landlocked soon-to-be nation. And they won. After seizing several warships from the Red Army, on August 15, 1918, the Legion surprised Red forces at the port of Mysovaya in a heavy fog, sinking the gigantic icebreaker “Baikal,” shelling the train station, and destroying Red Army headquarters. 

Czechoslovak soldiers are also alleged by many to have stolen a massive cache of gold that was being protected by Admiral Kolchak, leader of the White Army. When the Red Army captured Russia’s gold reserves from retreating White forces, a significant portion of it was missing. Some believe the gold was smuggled out of Siberia to Czechoslovakia, while others believe it fell from rail cars into Lake Baikal and is still laying in its depths. More than 10 years ago, scientists and historians aboard small submarines carrying none other than Vladimir Putin claim to have located some of the gold deep under the Lake’s surface, but were unable to recover any of it.

In the summer of 1919, the first international soccer matches in the history of Siberia took place in the Baikal region. The matches were contested by the Czechoslovak Legion and representatives of the small cadre of U.S. forces that also fought during the Russian Civil War. During their time in Siberia, the Americans excelled at harassing women and behaving atrociously, while the Czechs and Slovaks put more energy into the games and emerged as victors. 

The Origins of the Hungarian People

Gabriela’s mother, Olga, is Hungarian. And Hungarians migrated long ago from Western Siberia. This is one reason their language, in the Finno-Ugric language group, is so different from neighboring countries and so difficult to master. Today, scholarship is widening the understanding of links between Hungarian and Siberian culture, including common elements in their folklore. But there’s no question that the Hungarian nation was born in Siberia.

The Surprising DNA Test

Just before leaving for Siberia, for somewhat murky reasons, Mark was interested to have a DNA test conducted. The results arrived about a month into our stay in the Baikal region. Generally, they were as expected -- he’s almost entirely of Eastern European Jewish origin, and his family lived in areas of Galicia that are now in Poland and Ukraine. But there was one surprise -- a finding that 0.1 percent of his origins are “Siberian.” And by Siberian, meaning East Asian, not Russian. At first, some family members bristled at this finding or dismissed it as likely erroneous. But shortly afterwards, another relative reported the same result, confirming the existence of a small amount of Siberian blood in his family.

The Paris of the East Reemerges

When the Tsars and the Communists were busy exiling people to Siberia, they placed a heavy emphasis on those who were educated and active. As a result, Irkutsk always had an outsized share of artists and intellectuals -- so much so that it was called “the Paris of the East” for its many talented artists and its diverse cultural offerings. Over time, some of that cultural advantage became institutionalized and ossified, but now Irkutsk is staging a youthful cultural renaissance, with alternative spaces, innovative events, contemporary ethnic art, micro-concerts in intimate settings, and experimental musicians who are willing to try almost everything. This emerging cultural scene also made Irkutsk feel like home -- and inspired us to include original music, composed entirely from data in scientific studies about Lake Baikal, in our project. (For more on this subject, please read Siberian Dispatch 10.)

Our Trusted Russian Friends

And finally, we are compelled to mention the local people who went out of their way to welcome us. They didn’t have to share resources, make connections, encourage us, or help us exhibit our work. But they did, and they played a critical role in the project’s success. These generous friends -- each of whom will be remembered very personally and with utmost appreciation -- emphatically made Irkutsk our home. And this in turn, provides strong validation for the Fulbright Program, built on the idea that war can be overcome by making connections between Americans and cultures all over the world. Our experience in Russia proves emphatically that, one-on-one, Russians and Americans can bond and build a future of trust and cooperation.

Unless we live to be more than 100, each year is more than 1 percent of our lives. So we’ve done something neither of us ever expected -- spent a significant percentage of our lives in Siberia. And when we leave this home, painfully soon, we will ache longingly both for Baikal and the people who love it.

How is Lake Baikal Threatened?

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

Especially in its depths, Lake Baikal is still relatively clean. But extensive research by Russian and international scientists shows that it is severely challenged by two pressing threats: rapid climate change that is disrupting its complex ecosystem, and pollution from ever-expanding tourism and development. Also of concern are specific development or regulatory proposals that could accelerate damage to the Lake. While several recent threats have been successfully thwarted, new ones are always emerging, and it is unclear whether activists can stop them all. 

A Rapidly Changing Climate

Scientists have ample evidence that the Baikal region is one of the most affected by climate change in the world. One study demonstrates that summer surface water temperatures increased 2.0 degrees Celsius between 1977 and 2003 (Izmesteva et. al. 2016). There is also strong evidence that winter ice cover has decreased in duration and thickness compared with a century ago (Shimaraev et. al. 2002). 

Changes in the transparency and yearly duration of ice as a result of warming have the potential to affect Baikal’s entire food chain. A recent study reveals that small native diatoms (or single-celled algae) that are critical to the food chain are already declining in the southern basin of the Lake (Roberts, et. al., 2018). These organisms provide much of the food for the tiny copepod, Epischura baikalensis, that filters Baikal’s water. Moreover, there is considerable data showing that Baikal’s magnificent amphipods (small crustaceans that are a food source for fish species) are susceptible to severe stress in warming conditions (Axenov-Gribanov et. al., 2016). At the top of the food chain, changes in the ice cover have the potential to harm the world’s only true freshwater seal by negatively impacting fertility and subjecting the young to predators. Moreover, changes in wind speed and direction have the potential to alter the process by which the Lake’s deep waters receive oxygen, with consequences for the entire ecosystem (Moore et. al., 2009).

Growing Levels of Pollution

Pollution is Baikal’s other great threat, creating a range of problems, especially in populated areas and those that draw the most tourists. A variety of pollution sources are already creating  negative impacts on sponges, snails, amphipods, and other Lake creatures.

Nutrient inputs are contributing to massive blooms of non-native algae in the coastal areas of the Lake. These blooms choke out endemic species and pose a risk to humans, wildlife, and livestock. There is also a growing epidemic of sickness and death of endemic Baikal sponges and a mass mortality of snails in some areas of the Lake. (Timoshkin et. al., 2016). 

Studies show that these problems result primarily from sewage and detergent waste that flows into the Lake from hotels, houses, and tourist destinations. Wastewater treatment in populated areas around the Lake is either lacking or outdated. Moreover, many small homes and businesses rely on unlined pits rather than lined septic tanks, allowing human waste to leach through the soil into the Lake. (Timoshkin et. al., 2018).

A variety of chemical pollutants are also entering the lake, including pesticides (Tsydenova, et. al. 2003) and PCBs (Mamontov, et. al., 2000). Some reach Baikal by air from nearby industrial facilities, but there are also significant discharges of petrochemicals from boats, and dangerous pollutants entered the water when rail cars were washed in Severobaikalsk. 

There are inadequate means of disposing of garbage in the Lake Baikal area, and accumulating solid waste is a growing problem in areas around the Lake. Also, tourists are responsible for erosion, damage to trails and campsites, and negative impacts on local flora and fauna. Some of this damage results from inappropriate transportation such as ATVs, which have been banned in some parks. 

Synergy Between Climate Change and Pollution

An unfortunate synergy between climate change and other anthropogenic changes poses special challenges the Lake’s future. For example, scientists believe that melting permafrost in the Baikal watershed is a possible source of increased phosphorus and nitrogen in Lake Baikal, contributing to algal blooms. Increased melting of permafrost from climate change may also increase the release of dangerous industrial pollutants such as PCBs into the Lake (Moore et. al., 2009). 

Forest fires have also increased in numbers and intensity in the areas surrounding the Lake. Most fires are caused by careless conduct or arson, but they are worsened by a warmer climate. The ash and soot from these fires is likely contributing to blooms of algae in the Lake. In general, a warming climate is likely to exacerbate threats from increased tourism and development, erosion, and other factors. 

Damaging Projects and Proposals

Environmentalists have successfully blocked some of the most damaging proposals to exploit Baikal or pollute its waters. In 2008, environmentalists convinced President Putin to re-route an oil pipeline originally planned to come dangerously close to Baikal’s shores. In 2013, one of the most dangerous polluters, the Baikalsk Paper Mill, closed its doors forever, but left behind huge pools of dangerous sludge that are leaking into the groundwater and in serious danger from flooding or earthquake.

A Chinese-owned water bottling plant was recently built on the southern shore of the Lake in Kultuk, in an important wetlands for migratory birds. After protests across the Baikal region and Russia, the plant was blocked from opening because its environmental impact had not been properly studied. 

Mongolia has proposed to build up to 8 hydroelectric dams on the Selenga River and its tributaries, the source of 50 percent of Lake Baikal’s surface water. Fortunately, these plans are currently on hold in light of concerns expressed by the World Bank and UNESCO, but Mongolia is intent on achieving more energy independence. There are also proposals to divert water from Baikal to China by way of a massive pipeline. If approved, these projects would lower water levels in the Lake, damage precious flora and fauna, and block migration routes. 

But the most important threats facing Baikal at the moment are regulatory ones. In 2018, the water protection zone for Lake Baikal was substantially reduced, allowing considerably more development to occur in protected areas. Now, under the guise of “modernizing” the rules about discharges into the Lake, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment is proposing that allowable releases of dangerous pollutants into the Lake can be increased by as much as 32 times the prior limits. Scientists at the local Limnological Institute and their allies have weighed in with ample evidence that the change would be catastrophic, but no final decision has been made. 

Further, some locals bitterly complain that rules about building new structures and boundaries of protected zones are unclear or conflict at different levels of government, so their efforts to create businesses or homes that benefit their families are endlessly blocked or mired in confusion. Rules to protect the Lake must be consistent, strong and fair.  

Mobilization Needed to Save Baikal

The combined threats of climate change, pollution, and proposals for harmful developments and regulatory changes not only threaten the health of the lake, but also represent serious risks to future economic activity and human health. A major mobilization is needed to save Lake Baikal, including urgent action by scientists, NGOs, government, and citizens. Here are some action steps that make eminent sense right now:

  • Regressive regulatory changes must be blocked and instead replaced with clear prohibitions against damaging discharges into the Lake. Also, policies regarding building in sensitive areas must be clarified so that they can be easily understood and implemented. 

  • Trash collection in the Baikal region must be dramatically improved, and major education campaigns should be initiated to reduce litter in coastal zones.

  • Strong steps should be taken to enhance eco-tourism opportunities, to provide support for businesses that adopt environmental principles, and to create standards that will help consumers validate their claims. A push toward eco-tourism should include expanded education about best practices for the use of the Lake and its surrounding trails and recreation areas.

  • The moratorium on dam building in Mongolia should be made permanent, preventing tragic harm to the Selenga River and Baikal.

  • Strong steps must be taken to prevent widespread illegal logging and forest fires, both of which are widespread. 

  • Action is required to prevent the worst effects of climate change by adopting worldwide policies to reduce carbon emissions and limit the rise in temperatures. Individuals can assist by limiting their energy use and pushing for rapid expansion of alternative energy sources such as solar and wind energy.

  • Additional study is urgently needed about anthropogenic changes in the Lake and the impact of climate change, including careful monitoring of coastal and deeper waters. It is essential that Russian and international researchers have ample resources to continue monitoring a wide variety of concerns. It is also urgent that scientific findings be communicated to policymakers and the public in a form that is easily understandable.

Right now we face critical tests of our commitment to preserve the world’s most important lake for future generations. It will be impossible to save Baikal overnight, but an alliance including scientists, environmentalists, artists, and concerned citizens can help make a real difference in safeguarding what Vladimir Rasputin called “the eternity and perfection” of the Sacred Sea. 

Why Care About Lake Baikal?

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

Why should people all over the world care about Lake Baikal? 

A lot of superlatives are attached to the crescent-shaped marvel in remote, southeastern Siberia. Oldest. Deepest. Largest by volume. The richest in endemic species. Among the clearest. But we propose a new one: most important.

Other lakes are larger in surface area, but Baikal surpasses them all in depth, with a lake floor, formed as a rift valley 25 to 30 million years ago, that’s 1642 meters (5387 feet) below the surface. All of that depth means that Baikal is deceivingly monstrous, containing more than 20 percent of the entire world’s supply of unfrozen fresh water. And unlike most deep lakes, Baikal is heavily oxygenated even near the bottom because the Lake’s water, which flows in from as many as 330 surrounding rivers, mixes thoroughly from top to bottom. 

Baikal’s enormous water supply supports thousands of plants and animals -- as many as 80 percent of them unique species living nowhere else in the world. This includes everything from the tiniest single-celled algae, to tiny organisms that filter the Lake’s water, to bright green sponges. It also includes spectacular crustaceans, unique fish species, and the world’s only true freshwater seal, or nerpa. There are more than 236 species of birds in the region, and the surrounding forests and dense taiga, much of it protected parkland, are home to bears, wolves, foxes, and dozens of other animals. 

But Baikal is not only special because of its size and its rich and diverse ecosystem. Its importance also stems from its cultural and spiritual significance. Baikal is called the “Sacred Sea” by native populations of Buryats and Evenks, who consider it a living being that must be afforded the utmost respect. These native peoples, practicing Shamanism and Buddhism or both, lived their lives in deep concert with the natural world long before the environmental movement developed in the West. And they carry out ceremonies to this day in tribute to the spirits that inhabit the Lake and its surroundings.

Whether they believe in these spirits or not, local residents and visitors respect them because they can feel Baikal’s special power, its majesty, and its ability to change from moment to moment. Its different winds are so powerful that they have their own distinct names. Its fog sweeps in and out in moments, obliterating and then revealing the landscape. Its waves can rise 4 meters during stormy conditions. Its small creatures, each one a masterpiece of creation, float and wriggle and dance hundreds of meters below the surface. Its ice forms endless patterns and textures that are miraculously complex -- and sounds of cracking that range from sublime to terrifying.  

These ineffable qualities are why Baikal is a cultural phenomenon for all of Russia and beyond. The classic ecologist and novelist Valentin Rasputin drew a connection between the “eternity and perfection” of the Sacred Sea and the vitality of rural village life. Contemporary Moscow-based composer Marina Shmotova is inspired by Baikal’s history and magnificence, and Irkutsk-based experimental musician Evgeny Masloboev creates unexpectedly beautiful music from its water and ice.

Baikal is exceptionally deep, both literally and figuratively. It is hard to imagine another waterway that inspires such reverence and awe from those who encounter it. 

It is, indeed, the Sacred Sea. And we must (re)learn how to treat it that way. 

Cyberian Disapatch 18: Rituals by the Riverbanks

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

As the summer days grow longer and warmer, Siberians of all ages are drawn to the water -- to cool off, relax, and sometimes, perform ancient rituals. And so we found ourselves repeatedly on the banks of the Irkut River, encountering age-old rituals with decidedly contemporary implications.

Among the many peoples who emigrated or were exiled to Siberia, Poles and Belorussians are very prominent. We sadly missed the Polish celebration of Ivana Kupala Night, a pagan fertility celebration associated with the summer solstice. But we were relieved to be invited to the Belorussian version, reputed to be more mysterious and even shocking.

When we arrived along the banks of the river in the suburbs of Irkutsk, women of all ages were already gathering wildflowers and making them into garlands. A huge pile of wood promised a massive bonfire, and elaborate picnics on blankets and in makeshift tents made it eminently clear that many participants would stay until dawn, despite the promised heavy rainfall.

As darkness fell, the rituals got underway. Women crowned with elaborate wreaths of wildflowers formed a massive circle from which men were excluded. As the bonfire was lit, their faces flushed with color, and riotous dancing ensued. Next came games in which men chased women and tried to capture them. As the night wore on, drizzle escalated into rain and rain intensified into a downpour that soaked completely through clothes and shoes. The bonfire leapt ever higher, scattering sparks in all directions, and everyone bathed in the water, light and heat. 

Traditionally, it is a night for couples to test their bravery and faith to each other by leaping over the roaring fire. It is a time for women to float their wreaths on the river, and for men to catch them, winning their affections. It is also a time when women enter the forest, followed by men, to seek flowering ferns -- and the possibility of a new relationship. (If a flowering fern is found, it is a truly magical event, since ferns are not flowering plants.) In short, Ivana Kupala is an ancient fertility rite -- connected closely to nature and the seasons. And as our Siberian Belorussians proved, it still resonates very strongly today.

There are two Russian language films we can recommend that touch on Ivana Kupala. For a psychedelic, Soviet-era take on this holiday, try Vechir na Ivana Kupala, created in 1968 by Ukrainian director Yuri Ilyenko. He based his film on a classic story by Nikolai Gogol (which may have also inspired Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain”). 

For more of a sense of what Ivana Kupala may have historically meant, there is a scene in Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece, Andrei Rublev, in which the painter monk Rublev stumbles upon this pagan ritual, complete with furtive nighttime coupling, in the year 1408. The scene suggests the manner in which pagan worshippers resisted Christianity for generations after it was imposed on Slavic lands from the 8th to the 13th century. For example, some icons of the Virgin Mary were disguised representations of “Damp Mother Earth,” a pagan deity adorned with distinctive six-petaled roses characteristic of pre-Christian faiths. Slavic folk religions, particularly as a synthesis of Russian Orthodox and pagan beliefs, persist to this day, and there is a revival of Slavic native faiths underway in Russia.

Only a few days later, we found ourselves at the spot where the Irkut empties into the mighty Angara -- a sacred spot for Buryats that is used by local shamans to perform their rituals. More than 15 shamans gathered for a very important task. Severe flooding had occurred in the northern part of Irkutsk Oblast, killing approximately 25 people and displacing thousands. The shamans gathered with the purpose of asking the gods to stop any more flooding and to safeguard local people from the rising waters.

During Ivana Kupala, faces flashed in the night with bright colors, vividly bringing the ritual to life. Here the shamans donned traditional vestments, also in dramatic colors, that help them enter into a trance state in which they can communicate directly with the gods, intervening on behalf of local residents. The shamans prepared offerings of tea, milk, vodka, cookies, and the meat of a sacrificial sheep. They lit special herbs and infused the area with their scent. Arrayed in a long line, they beat on ceremonial drums and chanted special prayers. And one by one, assisted by helpers, they entered into trances, hopping up and down and speaking in voices.  

The rituals of Ivana Kupala and those of the Buryat shamans are both closely linked to nature, to the seasons, to the natural rhythms of life. They also rely heavily on the forces of fire and water. 

When nature is in balance, fire and water help create fertility. The rain feeds wildflowers, couples leap over bonfires to underscore their bonds, and women’s garlands float in the current. But when nature is not in balance, the results are not the same. Right now, in northern Siberia (and other Arctic regions such as Greenland and Alaska), massive wildfires are raging unimpeded across the landscape, burning huge forests to the ground. In Southern Siberia, endless rainfall -- likely accentuated by excessive logging -- is posing a mortal threat, collapsing roads and bridges, and dumping raw sewage directly into Lake Baikal.

The traditional ecological knowledge of long-ago traditions, Slavic and Buryat, teach us to find peace with nature, feel its rhythms, and apply them to our lives. Buryat traditions in particular urge us to take only what is needed and to respect all living things around us as sacred and precious to future generations. 

The banks of the Irkut are a fine place for the “good humor mischiefs” of Ivana Kupala. But they are also a welcome spot to relearn the lessons of traditional culture and commit ourselves to basic principles that were never questioned in the past: to live in harmony with Damp Mother Earth and to preserve her fertile treasures for our children.


Ex. Ex. Colonies

Todd R. Forsgren

Last week I introduced my project Full Fathom Five, a look at the health of the world’s marine and aquatic environments through several chapters that each consider a different type of photographic “specimens.'' The week I’ll be sharing a chapter that I call Ex. Ex. Colonies, which features coral specimens from the Smithsonian’s Invertebrate Zoology Department’s collections.

The U.S. Navy’s U.S. South Seas Exploring Expedition (called the Ex. Ex. for short) was an ambitious four-year trip around the world from 1838-1842. It included six ships and the crew had a team of nine scientists and artists. The thousands of articles collected (from ethnographic artifacts to biological specimens) became the foundation of the Smithsonian Institution’s collections. 

Right around this time, in Great Britain, Anna Atkins was experimenting with a new photographic technology called cyanotype. Using ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, it makes blue images. Atkins made her images by laying algal specimens directly onto paper coated with these chemicals and then exposing them to sunlight. From these images, she created the first photographic book: Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843).

Among the specimens gathered during the Ex. Ex. were numerous stony corals, many of which were the first of their species described by science. But with the technology at the time, it would’ve been difficult to make meaningful cyanotypes of these corals, as the process requires the object to be relatively flat (and being somewhat translucent is also helpful). Neither of which applies to most stony corals. With today’s technology, this is no longer the case. I photographed particularly charismatic specimens in the Smithsonian Invertebrate Zoology coral collection (from the Ex. Ex. as well as later expeditions) and used these images to make this series of cyanotypes. 

This series is an imagined historic collision between the Ex. Ex. and Anna Atkins. I was driven to do so because such stony corals are in great peril due to the rise in the temperature and acidity of the oceans, which is driven by climate change. Coral reef bleaching events, where the living coral is abandoned by its symbiotic algae, result in corals with tissues so transparent all that can be seen is their white skeletons. They have become more frequent and of greater magnitude in recent years, greatly increasing coral mortality. I hope that my cyanotypes are an aesthetic and conceptual reflection on this: the blue and white prints are reminiscent of a reef full of the white coral skeletons… Within our lifetimes, it’s possible that all that will be left of stony corals are their skeletons, crumbling in the oceans or on museum shelves. 

Printing these images as cyanotypes also seems significant because it is a technique once used by architects to make blueprints. In many ways, stony corals are the “architecture of the oceans.” The reefs that they create are among the most biodiverse environments on the planet and are critical breeding and feeding grounds for many other marine creatures. Corals are the backbone of entire ocean ecosystems, even though they are invertebrates. If these reefs perish, many species will be without a home and the effects will resonate across the oceans. This will be felt by human societies around the globe. In economic terms, the value of reefs is immense. 

It’s not too late for the coral, although we’re at a critical moment when action is required to save them, and there is plenty that can be done. Historically, the Ex. Ex. and Atkins represent two crucial moments for the democratization and dispersion of information… The Ex. Ex. was a grand and ambitious voyage of discovery, while Atkins was a persistent individual seeking knowledge. This seems fitting, as both ambitious global coordination as well as thoughtful personal choices are crucially needed if we are to save the world’s coral reefs and oceans. 

My title for this series, Ex. Ex. Colonies, pays homage to the U.S. Exploring Expedition (although most of the coral I photographed were collected on later voyages). Colonies refers to most corals, which are colonial species, living together in groups. But my title is a word play as well. Ex. Ex. also refers to the removal of these species from the environment through human intervention (once by scientists collecting these specific corals and now at a global scale due to climate change). And colonies also references the problematic colonial history that is entwined with the history of museum collecting.

Full Fathom Five

Todd R. Forsgren

Over the next month or so I plan to introduce my latest project, Full Fathom Five, to you via the AKAblog. Full Fathom Five considers the problems that globalization and climate change are creating for our oceans, lakes, and seas in several chapters.

Each chapter considers a different “photographic specimen” in a way that explores both the environmental issues as well as critical ideas about the photographic medium. The title for this series references a poem in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The poem is about the death at sea of Ferdinand’s father. During Shakespeare’s time, anything sinking to a depth of five fathoms (30 feet) was considered completely lost. The poem’s imagery describes how the father’s body becomes a part of the reef that he lies in. Like Ferdinand’s father, our fate is tied to that of our environment: 

   Full fathom five thy father lies; 
   Of his bones are coral made; 
   Those are pearls that were his eyes; 
   Nothing of him that doth fade, 
   But doth suffer a sea-change 
   Into something rich and strange. 
   Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell: 
   Hark! now I hear them — Ding-dong, bell. 

The coming years will be an incredibly challenging time for the world’s water. While I don’t believe our oceans have sunk to such a depth that they’re completely lost, human culture most certainly needs a sea-change in order to prevent irrevocable changes to our seas.

To Walk the Line while (Re) Drawing It: Aesthetic-Political Transformation in Formerly Occupied East Ukraine

Jessica Zychowicz

Family Album of Donbas Miners, early 20th c

24 June — 2 July, 2019. IZOLATSIYA Platform for Cultural Initiatives, partnered with with CRCSEES at University of St Andrews, and Lviv Centre for Urban History, organized the first Donbas Studies Summer School in the cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. This year's school is the first of what will, hopefully, become a growing series of such schools on different themes, led by experts in different programs at U.S., Canadian, and European Universities.

"The Industrial Heart of Ukraine's Donbas Warmly Welcomes All Guests!"

IZOLATSIYA's new Donbas Studies Research Platform, managed by Dmitry Chepurnoy, is creating a hub of open, easily-accessible archival materials, lectures, and other resources about the region. This year's summer school engaged scholars Dr. Mykola Lomako, Dr. Iryna Sklokina, Jeffrey Murer, artist Stefhan Caddick, and local communities in the formerly occupied city of Lysychansk, and in Severodonetsk. The school aimed to engage "young researchers and artists with a particular focus on the cultural potential of the communities of monofunctional cities of the Donbas." According to the official announcement for the school: "The main themes are the (mono)town, the revitalisation of (post)industrial spaces, cultural and creative practices for building communities, cultural memory, cultural studies, the transformation of public spaces and sustainable urban ecosystems."

Preserved Butterflies and Insects in the Lysychansk Regional Museum

I was invited to participate in this year’s summer school as a friend of the activists organizing the school. The book I’ve been working on for many years includes many of the changes in Ukraine that are interwoven with the history of IZOLATSIYA's displacement from the city of Donetsk, and relocation to Kyiv at the outset of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Superfluous Women: Feminism, Art, and Revolution in 21st c. Ukraine (University of Toronto Press, July 2020).  My very close friend, Ph.D. candidate Katia Ruban (NYU, History), was volunteering at the summer school as a translator for the local guides from Lysychansk and Severodonetsk. 

Soviet display of coal and its chemical derivatives

I knew about how members of the local Ukrainian creative collective De Ne De had helped in recent years to restore museums in the region with assistance from USAID after the retreat of Russian forces in 2016. The Lysychansk Regional Museum is one such impacted site. Human Rights Estonian-based organization Boctok-SOS is also a supporter of cultural and social development in the region, and provided meeting and presentation space to this year's summer school. Participants included: international students, activists, and artists from Denmark, Germany, U.K., U.S., Poland, and Canada, among other countries.

Local Historian Dr. Mykola Lomako and guide Nikola Skuridin show 19th c. mining equipment

This year’s school was led by Dr. Victoria Sophie Donovan of St. Andrews University, whose research interests include Welsh miners in the Donbas in the late 19th-early 20th c. Lectures, workshops, and excursions given by local professors and community leaders emphasized comparative frameworks for exploring the socioeconomic impacts and cultural processes of de-industrialization in today’s Ukraine. Highlights included visiting the sites of the first coal and iron ore mines in the Donbas region, an extensive walking tour of the formerly occupied city of Lysychansk, and a guided tour of the Severodonetsk AZOT Chemical Factory. The name of this year's school, "The Plant Gave Me Everything" was chosen in collaboration by Dr. Donovan, Dmitry Chepurnoy, and St. Andrews graduate student Darya Tsymbalyuk. The title is a quote from the 2015 film, In the East, Directed by Piotr Armianovski: "The plant gave me everything: it gave me a flat, and a life, my kids are working, the lads, doing no worse than their father. So I have something to be proud of."

Monument to Red Army Soldiers of WWII in the center of the city of Lysychansk

The announcement for the school encouraged local, inclusive, creative approaches to research at the intersection of education, cultural preservation, history, and human rights outreach. Questions included: "What is a monotown; how does а city-forming enterprise affect the life of the community and its ideas of the past and future? Deindustrialization and conflict are the main challenges faced by the residents of the monofunctional cities in Donbas today. What is the role of cultural and artistic practices in defining and redefining cultural identity in this context?" Artist-musician Anton Lapov created an audio tour of six sites beginning from the central bus station in Severodonetsk.

"The New Lenins!" Local townspeople of Lysychansk relax near the pedestal to the removed statue of Lenin, Central Bus Station, Severodonetsk

The audiotour culminated in all of us forming a circle on the rooftop of the skeleton of a 12-story-tall Soviet data center that was planned in the 1980s, but was never finished. “You see that neighborhood over there,” one artist said to me as he pointed to one section of the city near an abandoned factory. “They call that area ‘Komsomolka,’ because many dorms are located there. But that area is also one of the poorest, and there is a big problem there and everywhere in this city with drug addiction. They get bored. They give up.” An important part of the critical work that art collectives do in Ukraine today is create spaces where people can debate the issues that are not voiced or are closed off from view in other public spaces. They also integrate and network with international human rights groups, scholars, and experts through the language(s) they explore in their artworks. The visual works circulating digitally in Ukraine are breaking new ground and pathways for moving profound ideas at the intersection of global and local.

Highway sign at the entrance to the city of Severodonetsk, with AZOT Chemical Factory smokestack

Lapov, who was displaced by the war from the city of Lugansk, is a founding member of the collective LKD: Lugansk Contemporary Diaspora, featuring other refugee-art-activists like himself. Lapon is currently also part of leading the third in a series of workshops aimed at strengthening institutional support for the realization of a Severodonetsk Contemporary Arts Center. There are also artist-activists working throughout the small towns surrounding Severodonetsk to bring new energy to East Ukraine, and to involve some of the most vulnerable populations impacted by the conflict.

"Lysychansk--The Cradle of Donbas," Lysychansk Regional Museum

There is newfound hope that all of these efforts will bring greater visibility to, and strengthen resilience, among the lives of everyday people in Ukraine’s Donbas today.

Lysychansk topographical map, Lysychansk Regional Museum

Shrapnel from the Russia-Ukraine conflict and Map, Lysychansk Regional Museum

Participants and others reflect upon the phenomenon of Soviet sculpture in the context of debates on Decommunization of public spaces, Lysychansk Regional Museum

Local guide Nikola Skuridin poses with "decommunized" statue of Soviet Marshal Kliment Voroshilov (1881-1969). Lysychansk Regional Museum.

Contemporary art installation re-imagining local architecture, by artist Sasha Dolgiy, Lysychansk Regional Museum

Graffiti mural by local art group LKD: Luhansk Contemporary Diaspora, Severodonetsk

Rooftop gathering of Donbas Studies Summer School participants on the Audiotour of Severodonetsk by Anton Lapov

Cyberian Dispatch 17: Warming Northern Baikal

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

At the far north of Lake Baikal, where few venture, an alliance of small tourism businesses created a slogan designed to lure more visitors: “Warm Northern Baikal.” It was a small stroke of genius, since the north is, at least in terms of temperature, noticeably colder than the south. While the ice melted long ago in the south, it’s still visible now at the northern tip of the Lake. And people are fond of joking, “We have two months of cold, and 10 months of real cold.”

The slogan works on several levels. First, it’s meant to convey that you will be welcomed warmly by the local populace, who bring a homey and personal approach to their dealings with visitors that’s different from what you will encounter in bigger cities. Second, the area is home to numerous hot springs that create oases of comfort, even when it’s -50 Celsius outside. And in July and August, the shallow edges of the Lake actually heat up, creating ideal conditions for swimming and kayaking.

But the inaction of the world to the reality of climate change is lending the slogan yet another, unintended meaning: despite its isolation and low population, northern Baikal has indisputable environmental problems associated with warming temperatures and pollution.

On the one hand, the region is eager to take the lead on turning Warm Northern Baikal into an exemplar of environmental protection, in part because they hope that will help draw more tourism. In Severobaikalsk, the largest northern city with a population of 25,000, activists hope that an emphasis on ecology will help the region stand out as a destination. They are cleaning up garbage and creating disposal stations for used plastic and batteries. The young mayor is fighting the abundant growth of spirogyra by seeking an end to the use of phosphates in detergents, a key factor in its spread in recent years.

Some innovative local residents also saved 17 hectares of land and prevented the mass development of houses by creating large plots for a small number of eco-friendly dwellings, many of which use composting toilets, water purification, solar energy, and recycled materials for insulation. The project was difficult to get approved, but the instigators hope their model will inspire others to join a new movement toward eco-friendly living.

And environmental activist Yevgeny Mariasov is leading an effort to expand the Great Baikal Trail, a network of paths that will eventually allow hikers to circumnavigate the entire Lake. The next step is creating a new, 24 kilometer section that will connect existing trails north and south of the city. His dream, along with other locals, is that the GBT will expand low-impact eco-tourism while safeguarding the Lake. The leadership of Buryatia approves of the plan and may devote funding.

At a city meeting on this subject, there were no dissenters, and work will begin this summer on the new section of the trail. But some residents complained that critical environmental topics are being overlooked. There is considerable new construction in Severobaikalsk, all connected to the city’s aging and inadequate wastewater treatment system, meaning much of the waste ends up in the Lake, contributing to the spirogyra outbreaks. One of the chief builders of Severobaikalsk vocally insisted that this is the most significant environmental threat, but it is receiving scant attention. And there was no mention of the role of the BAM, or the Baikal-Amursky Magistral Railway, in polluting the River Tyya, which flows directly into Baikal. A taxi driver told us that years ago, “only a lazy man couldn’t pull a fish out of the Tyya.” But now, he noted wistfully, there are no fish at all.

And the owner of a local guest house insisted he doesn’t need to see monitoring results to know that the water is warmer than before, contributing to the spread of spirogyra, which in recent years turned lush, sandy beaches (“We have your Thailand,” one local billboard reads) into carpets of odiferous, decaying sludge. Although scientists have warned that removal of the algae is important, there is not always enough money to do that, and it may take as much as 40 years for affected areas to recover.

Further north, in the small village of Nizhneangarsk, the local Evenk population also has warnings for the future of Baikal. Like Buryats, the native Evenk people lived nomadic lives of hunting and reindeer herding in extremely close concert with the natural world. But now, of 330 Evenks in the town, only 10 speak the native language. And with the language, the culture of respect for the natural world is also threatened. A small center for the preservation of Evenk culture struggles to teach the language to a new generation of young people, but it is a quixotic effort.

Artist Valery Kondakov, a longtime resident of Nizhneangarsk, whose father was Evenk, enumerates a long list of environmental problems facing the region: new construction of three-story apartment buildings that drain untreated wastewater into the Lake; reduced and diseased populations of omul fish in Baikal; and more frequent forest fires. But he saves his harshest words for the “barbaric cutting of trees only 100 meters from the Lake.” All around Baikal, trees are falling at an alarming rate, legally and illegally, with incalculable costs to the ecosystem. “This all happens fundamentally because of people’s indifference,” he laments.

Kondakov’s art responds to these modern problems through the lens of long-ago history. Hieroglyphs along the northern coast of Baikal prove that this region has been inhabited since at least the Stone Age, and Evenks have conducted holy rituals along its shores, on hills and in caves, for countless generations. Evoking the spirits of his ancestors, Kondakov carved a sculpture from a piece of a fallen “holy tree,” or one that was used as a sacred burial place for deceased Evenks in times gone by. He doesn’t usually paint or sculpt Baikal itself, since he’s more interested in the people who have lived and died by its shores. But one intricate sculpture, adorned with multiple time pieces, is meant to convey Baikal’s situation now, after generation upon generation of environmental equilibrium. In this piece, clocks are ticking for the Lake’s future...or worse still, have they stopped?

“Evenks have profound feelings for everything alive,” Kondakov notes. Everything has its own spirit, and everything is animate, including the fragment of a holy tree that has been transformed into an art object. As we stand with him, in the tiny village where few understand the import of his work, we recognize that the wood is not only alive, but it is speaking to us. Long-ago ancestors are speaking to us through the natural world, and the message is not comforting.

We end our trip in the far north village of Dzelinda, the location of one of the region’s hot springs. The natural spring is risky to patronize because of the prevalence of disease-carrying ticks and hungry bears, so we visit the man-made pools for a long and relaxing soak. There are three basins to choose from...lukewarm, warm, and scalding hot.

A man who drove more than 2000 kilometers from Novosibirsk bravely enters the hottest pool. He emerges smiling, but with beet red legs that were burnt by the intense heat. Then he urges his son, about 7 years old, to go in also. We cringe, hoping the small boy won’t be injured, but the father insists, “We didn’t drive all this way to avoid the hot water!”

We are reminded of the man, in the city meeting in Severobaikalsk, who insisted on enlisting young people in a patriotic effort to declare the city the cleanest around all of Baikal. It was a noble idea, but we looked around and noticed that very few young people were in attendance. We know that some, like Yevgeny Mariosov’s son Simon, have returned to the city to create innovative and eco-friendly businesses, like Simon’s coffeeshop, “Geography.” The future may indeed lie with this cadre of young people, willing to commit to the future of tiny, distant but environmentally critical locations around Baikal.

So far, Warm Northern Baikal has resisted construction of massive hotels and other outsized developments for large numbers of visitors, but it is said that the governor of this region is interested in allying with China to build a landing strip for jets, along with large hotels to accommodate a major new influx of tourists.

At the hot spring, the father pushed his son toward the scalding water, and the young boy looked at the father quizzically, as if to say, “Why would you want me to burn myself?” And he pulled away repeatedly, resisting his father’s entreaties.

In Warm Northern Baikal, environmental activists like Yevgeny Mariasov have pointed the region in the right direction, but the next generation will ultimately make the most important decisions.

At the Dzelinda hot spring, each pool represented a possible future. Who are the young people who will choose that future? And which pool will they choose?

Cyberian Dispatch 16: The Shaman and the Pendulum

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

In America, the first warm days and the first blushing buds bring the opening of the baseball season. And in Eastern Siberia, almost two months later, the same phenomena mean it’s time for the opening of the Shaman season.

Far from a game, the opening of the Shaman season is a solemn ceremony that marks the advent of a New Year, with all its opportunities to cast aside anything negative and embrace the future. And to ring in this new moment of rebirth, Shamans don’t gather in a stadium or a church or a Buddhist datsan. Instead, as the original “deep ecologists” who sense and respect the innate connections between humans and the natural world, they gather in the open air, rain (or snow) or shine.

In Irkutsk, we were privileged to be invited by our friend and practicing Shaman, Vitaly Baltaev, to witness and document this ceremony at the confluence of the Irkut and Angara Rivers, in a field along the riverbanks, where a section of the meadow had been carefully roped off, almost like a small playing field.

We had assumed that the ceremony would last an hour or two and that we’d have the rest of the day for other work. Instead, it played out over more than 6 hours as a group of about 10 Shamans from the area enacted a series of elaborate rituals calling on the great gods for help for the nation, for the community, and the for the people assembled, many of whom were Russian, not Buryat.

First, the Shamans spread out a series of gifts and food on altars, including a man’s shirt, leaf tea, vodka, candy, and cookies. The offering also included 9 different milk products, ranging from liquid milk to yogurt to butter to soft and hard cheese. The colorful and densely laden altars also featured candles dancing unsteadily in the breeze and smoldering native herbs.

Next, the Shamans invited the gods to descend, explaining the reasons for their prayers, including gratitude for good fortune in the past year, the chance to leave behind negative things, and the opportunity to enhance good actions in the New Year.

Then began a repeated process in which the Shamans entered an altered state of reality known as a trance. Wearing extremely vivid and elaborately decorated costumes that obscured their own faces, and aided by repetitive chanting and the powerful beats of their handmade drums, the Shamans suddenly rose from their stools, jumped repeatedly as if to shake off the envelope of their usual selves, and started speaking in guttural, whining and high-pitched voices that required interpretation from “helpers.” They often ran around the area that had been roped off as their helpers made haste to prevent them from falling or crashing into other people. Just as this process began, an enormous corona appeared around the sun, and the Shamans immediately noticed this and identified it as a positive sign.

After a series of prayers were completed, the Shamans “awakened” again through some pronounced hopping, and were seated back on a stool, exhausted and in need of recovery. This process was repeated several times for each Shaman, as they sought the solace and help of the gods. During the trances, local residents approached the Shamans while kneeling, receiving their direct intercession through a process of chanting and tapping on their bent backs with a multi-colored and fringed talisman.

After the trances concluded, there were still a series of additional prayers to be said, including prayers to help the gods ascend again and for the spirits of the vicinity in which the ceremony was held. And local people shared their own offerings, splashing vodka onto the grass and tossing cookies and candy in the same direction. Finally, the ceremony concluded with a sizeable bonfire fed with ribbons, tablecloths, and the fur of a sheep that had been slaughtered ceremoniously. The fire generated a thick, white smoke that changed direction with the wind, enveloping the territory.

As we made our way in the direction of the main road, a kind-hearted Russian couple, Ludmila and Yevgeny, offered us a lift. They have witnessed the opening of the Shaman season four years in a row and view it as proof that Russia embraces a wide variety of religious practices. In childhood, Ludmila’s family was not very religious, and she went to school in a place where there were 42 Buryats and she was the only Russian, so she feels a natural connection to Buryat culture.

But the most important thing drawing her to Shamanism was a serious illness she experienced for more than four years. Finally, when she had exhausted all traditional medical advice without any respite from the illness, she turned warily and distrustfully to a Shaman for advice. Her problem was quickly identified as a “Shaman illness,” or the illness that alerts an individual to the fact that he or she must practice as a Shaman. And as soon as a ritual was performed, the illness was gone and her life was transformed “as if I had just been born and the gates of heaven were open to me.” Ludmila’s is only one of many stories we have heard about a serious illness being solved with the assistance of a Shaman. For example, the celebrated Buryat artist, Dashi Namdakov, reports that he was freed from crushing childhood pain through a Shamanistic ritual.

When we first encountered Vitaly, a leading Shaman of the Irkutsk region, he was careful to recount the history of Soviet repression of Buryats, during which time practice of Shamanism was nearly impossible and had to be hidden. Now, in the post-Soviet period, he fears that some Shamans have become “Showmen,” more interested in publicity (or perhaps profit) than in the underlying meaning of their traditions. But he believes it’s all a matter of the pendulum swinging back and forth, and soon things will again be more balanced.

At the same time, Vitaly was one of the first to tell us that he believes Lake Baikal is incredibly strong, has the power to clean itself, and will withstand whatever humans do to it. Our research suggests that he’s correct -- Baikal is strong and it does have self-cleaning mechanisms. But as threats to the Lake mount -- including a recent proposal to relax regulations on the amount of contaminants that can be legally released into its waters -- we wonder if this view is overly optimistic. As evidence of serious pollution spreads in its shallow waters, and climate change makes creeping but real alterations in Baikal’s ecosystem, the impact of humans is more and more undeniable.

Ludmila also acknowledges that Shamans have a close connection to nature, but she is concerned that times are changing, and in cities like Irkutsk, that connection is increasingly lost by people who prioritize convenience more than a lasting connection to the environment. And people turn to Shamans -- or other religions -- only when they face problems in their lives instead of as part of a lasting commitment to natural principles.

As the ceremony for the opening of the Shaman season unfolded, we had the opportunity to keep our own fervent wishes for the new season in mind. We wished for strength for Vitaly, Ludmila and others who are making valiant efforts to preserve a culture that is endangered -- and one that places a strong emphasis on preservation of the natural world. To the extent that purity of belief will contribute to purity of water, land and air, we’re extremely enthusiastic. But we also hope and pray that humans never cause Baikal’s pendulum to swing so far in one direction that it can’t recover.

The Bridge on the Drina

Bill Crandall

During a road trip around Serbia some years ago, we stopped to see the Ottoman bridge in Visegrad, Bosnia. It was the subject of Serb author Ivo Andric’s novel The Bridge on the Drina, which depicts the life of the town over the five centuries of the bridge’s construction and existence. It has a small sitting area at the center, called the kapija, where teens, lovers, and friends would meet. And where they threw the bodies into the green water during the Bosnian war.

My first music album imagined the first people to leave Earth for another planet. When I started working on new material for the followup, human stories from back on a climate-changing world, I set one of the songs in the town as the waters begin to rise.


Great green river cuts through the town

On its way forward

The past rushed over, submerged

You know I can’t quite find you

My breath is still inside you

A kind of storm

Rise green tide, take over

Wash away our fears

Soon we’ll meet on the kapija

I know you can’t oblige me

Your kiss is still inside me

A kind of storm

And the wheels turn around

And the walls hold their ground

And the breeze feeds the fire

As fleets go to ground

In faraway sounds

The bridge keeps its head over water

Cyberian Dispatch 15: The Exchange Between Idealism and Fatalism in Bolshoye Goloustnoye

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

Bolshoye Goloustnoye is a bucolic hideaway nestled in a valley on Baikal’s western shore. Traditional wooden houses with precious decorative accents line hushed streets, stretching to the Lake, where a classic wooden church anchors the village. Sheep forage on the steep hills overhead, while cows and horses parade leisurely to a “goly ust,” or naked river mouth, to graze. Raptors conduct surveillance, crows agitate, and smaller birds compose melodious tributes to the wind and the water. The thumping bass of Russian rap from a passing car momentarily drowns their songs, but the whispers of the village rapidly restore calm.

Like their counterparts in many of the hamlets on Baikal’s shores, the people in Bolshoe Goloustnoe are a mix of Russians and Buryats. Following the closure of a Soviet-era lumber mill, they struggle with a dearth of jobs and a weak economic base. But their proximity to Irkutsk (a two-hour drive) means the village is a promising location for tourism (and the attendant ecological problems it can bring). That’s why environmentalists have long targeted Bolshoye Goloustnoye as a focal point of efforts to build an eco-friendly tourism industry that will provide jobs for local resident while preserving the health of Lake Baikal. And surprisingly, for a village of only 600 people, the strategy has repeatedly included international exchange that links this remote village to the outside world.

In her 2018 book, Saving the Sacred Sea, Kate Pride Brown details the efforts of Baikal Wave, a leading environmental organization during the time of post-Soviet tumult, to build support for a tourism industry with strong ecological principles. After failing to cultivate residents of Bolshoye Goloustnoye through direct outreach, Baikal Wave decided to sponsor webinars that promised villagers in Bolshoye Goloustnoye interactions with their counterparts at Lake Tahoe who had managed to build a strong tourism industry while protecting water quality. The link to Lake Tahoe made sense, since Tahoe and Baikal are both large lakes known for their clear water, in mountainous regions created by tectonic forces. They both have split jurisdictional control, with Tahoe divided between California and Nevada, and Baikal cleft between Irkutsk Oblast and the Republic of Buryatia.

The webinars had positive outcomes, but in unbalanced and unexpected ways. The difference in the level of development between Tahoe and Baikal was a daunting obstacle. When Americans explained during one video chat that a 400-room Embassy Suites hotel in Tahoe had purchased special laundry machines that use little energy and no soap, Russians were flummoxed. Many of their small homes and guest houses still lack running water, and even a normal washing machine is an unattainable luxury. Also, Americans were eager to offer lessons from their successes, but less enthusiastic to learn from their Russian counterparts (except perhaps how to cook cabbage).

As Russians became more skeptical of the American commitment to an authentic exchange, these contacts foundered and were eventually discontinued. However, the organizers noticed a startling development among the Russian participants. Previously, residents of Bolshoye Goloustnoye had “an almost ritualized avoidance of involvement,” and little or no sense that they could bring about real change. But afterwards, they shed their fatalism and pursued their own creative strategies for environmentally sound development.

Brown’s book also describes the work of the Tahoe-Baikal Institute (TBI), which facilitated youth exchange between the US and Russia for more than 20 years, and the ongoing work of Great Baikal Trail (GBT), an organization that uses international volunteers to build trails and advocates for the development of low-impact tourism that provides palpable benefits to local communities.

But international exchange is not always at the organizational level -- sometimes it is more homegrown. For example, when we first arrived in Irkutsk, one name kept coming up again and again. “You’re from America?” people asked. “Do you know Hank Birnbaum?”

Hank became somewhat of a Siberian legend in part because he lived in Bolshoye Goloustnoye for an extended period and managed to work as a park ranger in the Pribaikalsky National Park, on the shores of Lake Baikal. He became exceptionally knowledgeable about the natural environment of Baikal, and he created award-winning brochures and ecological trails that describe the history and the natural beauty of Bolshoye Goloustnoye. But most of all, he is also known for his abundant affection for local people -- and his efforts to prepare them for the economic and environmental changes that were coming.

These two brochures, one in Russian, and one in English, describe the history and natural landscape of Bolshoye Goloustnoye. They were created by Dora Alekseyeva Baxaeva and Faina and Mikhail Mangaskin. Hank Birnbaum also contributed to them during his time as a ranger in Pribaikalsky National Park. We extend a very warm thanks to Hank for his outstanding help with this blog post and for all of his committed work to preserve history, culture, and the natural environment around the world.

After learning about Hank, we connected with him on social media and met with him on Skype. We could feel the warm sense of appreciation he has for his friends in Russia and his deeply caring attitude toward Lake Baikal and its surroundings. When he asked us to act as ambassadors to his old friends and to bring them gifts, we embraced the opportunity.

In Hank’s time, Bolshoye Goloustnoye joined the electrical grid, and the road to Bolshoye Goloustnoye was fully paved, providing smooth sailing for travelers from Irkutsk. Now, sections of modern highway alternate with rutted dirt roads, perhaps a metaphor for the mixed feelings that local residents and ecologists have about providing access to the Lake without better environmental protections. Accompanied by our Russian friends Mikhail, Svetlana, and Liza, who also know Hank from his time here, we jerked and jolted over the final kilometers into the village, arriving as a May snowstorm glazed the first Spring flowers, подснежники, or Siberian snowdrops.

Siberian snowdrops, or подснежники, under a glaze of melting snow in Bolshoye Goloustnoye, May 2019.

Siberian snowdrops, or подснежники, under a glaze of melting snow in Bolshoye Goloustnoye, May 2019.

At the Bartosova household, we were quickly welcomed into the cozy kitchen and fed a wide variety of homemade foods, including mushrooms, nerpa (freshwater seal) fat, berry preserves, tea and other delicacies. Hank’s good friend Luba was not at home, but we were we were warmly received by Olga, in town from Irkutsk to help mend the roof, and Uliana, 86, indubitably the cutest babushka in all of Russia. They eagerly watched a video message from Hank and shared memories of his time in the village as we surreptitiously tried to capture portraits of them.

From there, Uliana drove with us to the nearby home of Aunt Gutya, an older woman who is a bit forgetful at this point. When she walked into the room, Aunt Gutya briefly mistook Mark for Hank and gave him a big kiss as others labored to explain that he was only a friend of Hank’s. But Aunt Gutya recovered gracefully, saying that she sends that kiss to her long lost friend. With tears in her eyes, she watched the video from Hank -- and then recorded her own reply.

We also visited the Mangaskin Family, a couple who are working with their son, Evgeny, to establish a small, eco-friendly tourist base at their family home. Faya, the mother, watched Hank’s video even as she cared for a sick grandchild, and she also recorded her own reply. In each household, we left special gifts of local honey and tea that we had purchased on Hank’s behalf.

Hank lived in Siberia for 15 years, much of that in Bolshoye Goloustnoye, but his connections to Russia didn’t disappear when he returned to the United States. He is now an educator, bilingual guide and historical specialist with Fort Ross Conservancy at Fort Ross State Historic Park in northern California. In that role, he also has the opportunity to build bonds across national borders. From 1812 to 1841, Fort Ross was the historical southern point of the activity of the Russian American Company, which built settlements in Alaska and California and traded in furs. With his experience in Siberia and his Russian language skills, Hank has uniquely strong qualifications to tell the little-known story of Russians who lived and worked in California and cooperated with Americans and natives in building commerce on the West Coast.

Fort Ross is also the inspiration for a bi-annual meeting, the Fort Ross Dialogue, a form of back-channel diplomacy that brings together high-level Russians and Americans in discussion of bilateral issues. As part of that effort, improved preservation of Fort Ross is discussed, as well as the creation of more exchange between the two nations. This summer’s meeting will be held in Vologda in Western Russia, and Hank will be in attendance.

One of the most meaningful collaborative efforts between the United States and Russia is at the scientific level. Russian scientists have maintained the longest environmental monitoring program in the world in the Baikal region, recording temperatures and other critical data at a site near Bolshie Koty since 1946. And they are in the vanguard of critical research assessing Baikal’s problems, including pollution and climate change (see Cyberian Dispatches 10, 12, and 13). For many years, American scientists have worked closely with their Russian counterparts, lending their support to these accomplishments. Their joint efforts have expanded our understanding of this unique ecosystem -- and established important similarities and differences between the American Great Lakes and Baikal.

At the same time, the Fulbright program is seeking a larger role in the Baikal region as a way of building trust and friendship between Russians and Americans. Fulbright is built on the idea that person-to-person contact is the best form of foreign diplomacy for the United States -- and a critical means of avoiding war. The Director of Fulbright Russia, Joel Ericson, recently traveled to Ulan-Ude and Irkutsk, bringing a message about the importance of cross-border cooperation and a vision of an expanded presence to support the preservation of Baikal (see Cyberian Dispatch 14).

As Fulbrighters, we are part of a long tradition of academic and cultural exchange -- especially valuable at this time of troubled relations between Russia and the United States. In Bolshoye Goloustnoye, we put that theory into practice, walking in the footsteps of Hank, an American pioneer in Siberia. We established relationships that go beyond the transactional, forming bonds that can last a lifetime. And the stronger those bonds, the better the chances of building a solid economic base for local residents without compromising the the health of the world’s most important lake.

In other words, our trip to Bolshoye Goloustnoye represented idealism in action. But as we settled back into our Irkutsk routine, troubling news arrived from our friend Mikhail. Forest fires, which burned huge areas around the Lake in 2015, are now ravaging the immediate surroundings of Bolshoe Goloustnoe, and a partial evacuation of the village has been ordered. The likely cause cited in the press: careless humans. As global partners dicker over the best strategies for saving Baikal, anthropogenic threats are multiplying. Bolshoye Goloustnoye, an unlikely testing ground for international exchange, must simultaneously grapple with today’s most pressing environmental dangers.

A major forest fire burning at the outskirts of Bolshoye Goloustnoye in May 2019.

A major forest fire burning at the outskirts of Bolshoye Goloustnoye in May 2019.

Old Pictures from Paradise

Todd Forsgren

I recently made a limited-edition artist book about that is a sustained consideration of what the first camera obscura images ever observed by prehistoric man might have looked like.  I call the series Old Pictures from Paradise. My paradise is a tropical rainforest. A jungle full of dazzling biodiversity and impenetrable biomass—thick foliage, tangled vines, gnarled tree trunks. All of this life evokes an Edenic, primordial world where early humans first roamed (though scientific evidence is more complex, and certainly other environments, such as savannas, were also vital in human evolution).

I found myself in just such a place on a recent trip to a Central American rainforest. After I finished making the pictures I’d come for, I had a few sheets of 4x5 film left, so I pulled out my pinhole camera and used the film to photograph the leaves and branches of the jungle. It was so dense that only a sliver of sky could be seen (in a typical rainforest canopy, less than 5% of the sun’s light makes it to the forest’s floor). In this dark damp space and with the tiny aperture, the exposures took fifteen minutes.

As the film exposed, I found my thoughts drifting to human origins, and I wondered about the very first time someone saw a photographic image. Photography began with the camera obscura, literally a “dark room” with a small hole on one wall which light passes through to create an image on the opposite wall. It was first described in writing about 2500 years ago, but this photographic phenomenon was certainly observed even earlier. A tiny hole in a prehistoric hut might have created an image similar to the one I was exposing. It must have seemed like magic.

My photographs were soft and lush, capturing the rainforest without taking away that elusive feeling I found so compelling. The pictures showed a landscape between known and unknown. I dreamed of traveling to jungles around the world to make a series of photographs like this. But as I showed the images to a few friends and colleagues, again and again another artist’s name came up—Thomas Struth. His series New Pictures from Paradise featured screens of green and tangled growth remarkably similar to my own compositions.

To make his photographs, Struth visited jungles around the world. Unlike my soft pinhole images, though, his are amazingly sharp and detailed (and printed at almost life-size). This scale and clarity, two hall- marks of the work of Struth’s cohort of photographers from the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, push the bounds of photography’s potential as an analytic tool. Yet Struth sites incredibly varied influences to make this series—from what he saw as the Maya relationship to the jungle and “Der Deutsche Wald” (The German Forest) to Japanese gardens and even his practice of Tai Chi—all while striving to make images that he has called ahistorical and with a non-hierarchical structure.“I wanted to make photographs in which everything was so complex and detailed that you could look at them forever and never see everything,” Struth claims.

Yet while I was standing in a gallery surrounded by his impeccable and monumental prints, I could only think of photography’s failure: all this clarity, and still just a mere shadow of the feeling one gets in an actual rainforest. Seeing the white walls beyond in combination with the
dry climate-controlled air of the gallery, I found the stillness of Struth’s images jolting. His odd blend of precise measurement and vague mysticism left me feeling befuddled. I was struck by how hard it is to find wilderness on a planet full of over seven billion humans (and interestingly, most of Struth’s images aren’t of pristine old growth forest, but secondary growth likely the result of human impact on the landscape).

Rather than ignore Struth’s remarkable series, I chose to use it for my own series. I re-photographed all thirty-six of his New Pictures from Paradise with a pinhole camera onto fast medium-format film (which calls attention to the photographic emulsion). This appropriation takes what Struth made so precise and monumental and reimagines it as intimate and mysterious. The blurring simplifies the forest’s complexity, yet this simplification makes the images even more inscrutable. Beyond Struth and the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, this technique of appropriation deliberately engages another critical photographic context of the last forty years: the Pictures Generation.

Photographers of the Pictures Generation, reflecting on a postmodern world saturated by mass media, are known for their use of appropriation to challenge notions of authorship and cultural tropes. For example, in her series After Walker Evans, Sherrie Levine re-photographed an iconic catalog of Evans’s work, and in so doing, presented a commentary on the commodification of the art object. Similarly, Richard Prince reclaimed the iconic landscapes of the American West from Marlboro cigarettes by appropriating their advertisements. My use of another artist’s work serves to blur my own authorship as I try to return these images to the unknown prehistoric human who first observed photography. My gesture is an attempt to “unclaim” paradise or “uncommodify” wilderness, while recognizing this as an impossibility.

This series is a reflection on the elusiveness of the unknown in today’s hyper-documented world. Certainly, my shift from sharp to soft photographs is not new. It has been playing out throughout the history of photography. This back-and-forth seems at odds with the preoccupation for innovation in the medium, whether through changes in technology or in the ways we think about photographic images (and evidenced by the cultural obsession with progress seen in the countless exhibitions and series that, like Struth’s, continue to claim “new” in their titles). Yet our use of the camera is also ever more nostalgic: a tool to express longing and desire as well as to create mementos of the past. It is within this tension that these images dwell. I am trying to conjure a mystery and magic that toggles between past and future while traversing the tightrope of both the analytic and expressive potential of the medium.