Cyberian Dispatch 9: Playing Hide and Seek with the Angara

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

There are more than 330 rivers that flow into Lake Baikal, filling the cavernous Lake with one-fifth of the world’s fresh water. But there is only one mighty river that flows out: the Angara.

In Irkutsk, the largest city on the Angara, the River is half a block from our apartment, so we have almost daily encounters with its intensely different moods, striking range of colors, and its habit of hiding from local residents.

There is a longtime legend in Siberia that Angara was the exceptionally beautiful daughter of Old Man Baikal, and he was filled with love and admiration for her. But one day, while Baikal was sleeping, Angara slipped away to try and meet the young Yenisei. Grandfather Baikal was furious, and ripping a cliff from a nearby mountain, flung it at Angara, who was pinned at her throat. Angara begged her father to give her water, since she was parched, but her father refused, saying she was condemned to nothing but her own tears. And since that time, it is her tears that flow from Baikal to the Yenisei River, far to the north and west. Today, the cliff that Grandfather Baikal threw at Angara, called Shaman Rock, is visible at the Angara’s outlet from the Lake.

But the Angara itself is not always visible. Especially in winter, the warmer water flowing from Lake Baikal meets a shockingly cold Siberian air mass, and the result is tuman (туман), the Russian word for fog. In Irkutsk, it might start with a little steam rising off the river. A few hours later, the fishermen in the middle of the River are visible one minute and lost the next. Soon, the three main bridges fade away. The sun is faint, then fainter, then slips completely from view. And finally, there is nothing, only a wall of light gray that obscures everything but the wonderland of icy frosting deliciously decorating the trees along the banks. It is a fog to end all fogs, an ethereal display that lends the entire city an unearthly glamour.

It is also rich with human activity and sound. Near the statue of Tsar Alexander III at the foot of Karl Marx Street, Russian radio is broadcast from loudspeakers, often featuring English language pop songs or Christmas music. On Ostrov Konnyy (literally, Coney Island), near a towering ferris wheel, children gleefully exclaim as they sled from ice sculptures, ice skate, or play hockey. On the frozen shores, fisherman cut holes in the ice with enormous drill bits and wait for hours in the numbing cold to extract a meal. Listen carefully and you will hear lapping waves against the ice, the murmur of ducks foraging, and the sound of a muskrat surfacing and then diving. And most prominent of all, the reverberating announcements of departures from the main railway station, which echo across the invisible water, coupled with the rattling of invisible trains en route to remote destinations.

The alluring tuman is a signature feature of Irkutsk and the Angara, but unfortunately, beneath this exquisite veil some disturbing secrets are hiding. Each major city along the Angara, including Irkutsk, is a site where significant amounts of pollution enter the river, including industrial wastes that seriously threaten the river’s health. Also, the Angara has been dammed four times since the 1950s. The dams chop the river into pieces, blocking any navigation and impeding the transit of fish and other native species. And the creation of numerous reservoirs has radically altered the ecology of the waterway, harming endemic species and increasing the amounts of algae that deprive the River of oxygen.

One of the most important historical voices against dam-building and the diversion of rivers is the late Russian author Valentin Rasputin, who was born in Irkutsk Oblast. Rasputin’s views on this subject were heavily influenced by the fact that his own childhood village along the Angara was destroyed to create a massive hydroelectric plant. His 1979 novel Farewell to Matyora is focused on a fictional village that suffers a similar fate, and a later non-fiction work, Siberia, Siberia also dwells on this theme. Although some consider his work “anti-modern,” and his conservative politics were controversial, his influence on environmentalism in this region -- including the fight to save Lake Baikal -- looms large. (Those who are interested in a film treatment of his work can search for the 2008 Russian film, Live and Remember, in which the Angara plays a starring role.)

Dam-building continues to be an issue that is central to the future of the entire region. Among the threats to Lake Baikal’s health are proposals to build several dams on the Selenga River and its tributaries that flow from Mongolia to Lake Baikal. The plans threaten to disrupt the ecology of the Selenga River delta, the largest source of Baikal’s water and a major habitat for Baikal’s endemic species. They will also affect the water level, water quality, and ecosystem throughout the Lake. In 2017, activists achieved a small victory when the World Bank froze its support for the planned projects, but efforts by Mongolia to become energy independent, together with lavish Chinese financing, mean the fight is by no means over.

Here in Irkutsk, we play hide and seek with the Angara and its veil of tuman almost every day. We hide ourselves in its blanket of white, embracing the ghostly nothingness for as long as our arctic mittens and winter boots will permit. We take endless photos of its spare visual delights. But we also seek the truth about the environmental health of the Angara and of Lake Baikal. Irkutsk’s homegrown environmental leader, Valentin Rasputin, was one of the first to understand that there is “damming” evidence of harm. All those concerned about the future of our waterways must join together to respond.

Cyberian Dispatch 6: 114 Gigabytes of Ice

Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac

Most people who have never visited Siberia imagine it as a vast territory locked in permafrost. In fact, it was far from that when we arrived in September. We often walked about Irkutsk in shirtsleeves admiring the flowers and enjoying the warm breezes. Temps slowly diminished over time, but were still very tolerable into early November.

When we traveled to Buryatia last week, a remote area on the east side of Lake Baikal, we came prepared for the worst. New thermal boots, thick hats, extra layers, mittens the size of boxing gloves. But most of that was for nothing, since the weather was still cooperating. The temps were relatively balmy for this time of year, hovering between -10 Celsius in the night and +7 during the day (between 14 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit). We left the mittens at our guest house, shed layers, and even removed our coats during hikes.

But...it’s still Siberia, and that means the appearance of ice. Ice is now omnipresent along the coast of Baikal. Its small bays are crystalline. Its nearby wetlands are glazed. Memorable icicles dangle from shrubs, trees, and wiry debris. The undulating grasses of its tributaries are viewable through a transparent screen. And along its shores, the frozen spray forms a winter-long record of the Lake’s waves and the wakes of passing boats.

Unless you’ve been confined to the tropics, everyone is familiar with ice. You know its color, its texture, the threat to safety it can pose. But Baikal’s ice is distinctive, an experience unto itself. A natural artwork that manages to outdo any possible human exploit.

It’s clear, white, gray, black, sometimes in rainbow colors. It’s in crystals, patterns, outlines, layers. It grips plant life, bubbles, and rocks in an unyielding, graceful headlock.

What’s more, it’s already often thick enough to walk on. We hesitantly stepped onto the frozen shallows of wetlands, fearful of falling even a few inches. But locals, knowing its strength from experience, plunged without any qualm into the middle of deep pools.

In art school, learning video, Mark’s class had an assignment to use as many video filters as possible in one short film. The goal was to get it out of the students’ systems once and for all and get back to the basics of shooting.

Maybe that’s what our week in Buryatia was all about, at least in part. For a full week, we celebrated the unparalleled allure of frozen water. We photographed it morning, noon and eve. We have at least 114 gigabytes of Buryatia’s ice frozen on our hard drives.

Is it out of our system now? That is extremely unlikely.

Cyberian Dispatch 5: The Closest Place to Kiss the Lake

By Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac

If the goal is to get to Lake Baikal quickly, Listvyanka makes it easy. Sitting at the source of the Angara River, Baikal’s only outlet, Listvyanka is a mere one hour marshrutka (minibus) ride from Irkutsk. It also has a reputation as the most commercial and touristy of all lakeside destinations, drawing a surfeit of visitors twice a year. In the summer, the warm weather inspires swimming, boating, and hiking. In the winter, skiing draws the crowds.

In late autumn, though, tourists are more of an oddity. We were the only ones registered at the Gavan Baikala (Baikal Harbor) Hotel, and we selected a choice room with views through a deep canyon toward the immensity of the Lake in the distance.

One reason people are scarce in fall is the capricious weather. When we arrived, it was sunlit and undeniably warm. In the evening temperatures plummeted, and we woke to a delicate snow powdering the landscape. Throughout the next day, faint sun alternated with blasts of wind and drizzle. It was every season in one.

Despite catering to tourists, Listvyanka is a small town with cows wandering its dirt roads and traditional wooden houses packed in amongst Soviet-era apartment buildings. It also has a burgeoning collection of small luxury hotels -- some legal and some that likely are not. There is a buzz about excessive construction fueled by Chinese investors, who allegedly build structures under rules for family homes and then operate them as hotels. And there is outrage over “lectures” by Chinese guides who contend (indefensibly) that Lake Baikal is historically Chinese and only in Russian hands temporarily.

The problem with the building boom is that the town has very limited sewage treatment capacity, so when tourists inundate the area, excess sewage flows directly into the Lake. While an influx of easy money is hard to resist, it may culminate in an environmental catastrophe that chokes off tourism permanently. And scientists are already raising alarms about high levels of dangerous pollutants and the mass death of native sponge populations in the waters surrounding Listvyanka.

For the moment, this tourist mecca is a strange blend of visual and emotional experiences. The collapsing concrete esplanade attracts sightseers who bound out of cars with selfie sticks to make a permanent record of their rapture in front of the Lake. The wooden houses, wandering bovines, and roadside stands offering smoked omul (the most prevalent of Baikal’s fish) present a pastoral scene. The stuffed seals, omnipresent Coca-Cola signs, and men using bullhorns to tout boat trips expose a kitschy capitalism. The construction of faux-glamorous hotels suggests a luxury that is still mostly aspirational. And often there is a rough (but photogenic) edge to the scenery, with building materials strewn about, crumbling fences, and peeling paint.

All that is juxtaposed with the sublime experience of walking out of the village to the east, in the direction of Bolshie Koty (see our blog post from that location, here). At first, grim metal lockers mar the pebbled beach. A few steps away, a landslide has deposited a torrent of boulders on the banks. Then, an ascent along the cliffside offered an astonishing perspective on the Lake’s incomprehensible vastness. Despite a dense cloud cover, a slim opening in the sky in Buryatia created a luminous white line on the Lake’s surface, a divine presence that persisted implausibly. Did it mean the gods were pleased with our visit?

We’d like to think so, but ultimately, it’s difficult to be a visitor in Listvyanka. The town’s messages are mixed, and it is disturbing to think that in small ways, we contributed to the growing problems facing the Lake. We came to kiss Lake Baikal and tell others of its charms, but we were left to ruminate...was it a kiss goodbye?

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.

Mykolaiv Sketchbook: Roma Remembrance

By Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac

We were exceptionally honored and pleased to be welcomed yesterday on a bus by members of the Romani Bacht ensemble to travel more than 200 kilometers northwest of Mykolaiv to a site that is very important to Roma history and remembrance. We joined local Romas and their friends in commemorating a massacre of 5,000 Romas, many of them women and children, that occurred in World War II during German occupation of this territory. A wreath was laid, songs were sung, and poems were recited near the village of Krivoe Ozero (Crooked Lake) where  a monument marks this terrible event. After solemnly remembering this tragedy, local residents also embraced their heritage with a celebration in song and dance -- and a meal -- before the long ride back to Mykolaiv. By the time we returned, late in the evening, we felt we had made a lasting link to new friends -- and we certainly honor and respect their outstanding contributions to local culture and their history. We are sharing a small number of photos that document the proceedings, but we also made connections that will further our project on ethnic identity and the reasons why so many peoples of different backgrounds have been able to live together peacefully in Southern Ukraine.

Mykolaiv Sketchbook: Druzhba Festival

Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac

Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac

Following a whirlwind of activity in Kyiv, we took the night train to our new home in Southern Ukraine: Mykolaiv. Mykolaiv was named by its founder, Prince Grigory Potemkin, in honor of St. Nicholas, on whose day he won a significant military victory. The city is at the confluence of two major rivers, the Southern Bug and the Ingul. After they join, they flow to an estuary where they meet the Dnieper and then the Black Sea. For years, Mykolaiv was one of the most significant shipbuilding cities in the entire region, and because of its contributions to the military might of the Tsars and the Soviet Union, it was a closed, secret city. People from other parts of the Soviet Union were not permitted to visit the city, and if people from Mykolaiv wanted to visit relatives from other places, they needed to leave the city and meet them somewhere else. In the post-Soviet era, the three major shipbuilding centers in Mykolaiv are all closed, and the city is now open to all, though few tourists venture here.

Here in Mykolaiv, we are working closely with our affiliate institution, Petro Mohyla Black Sea National University, including the Dean of the Philology Department, Professor Oleksandr Pronkevych, a noted Cervantes scholar, and other faculty and students to create two projects. First, we are focusing on the reasons why people of so many ethnic backgrounds have been able to live together peacefully in Mykolayiv for many generations. Second, we are creating a documentary on the relationship of the people of Mykolaiv and the surrounding region to the water that is such an important part of their lives.

On the first full weekend we spent in Mykolayiv, a new friend alerted us to the planned Druzhba, or Friendship, Festival. We packed our cameras and started walking to the location to check it out. As we turned onto the main pedestrian street, formerly Sovietskaya and now Soborna Street, we were surprised to see a colorful parade of diverse nationalities marching together. We followed them to the Cultural Palace, where a program of dancing, singing, and ethnic food unfolded. Although the city is dominated by people of Ukrainian and Russian heritage, there are dozens of different ethnic groups living here, and many of them participated in the Festival. In our first sketchbook from Ukraine, here are some very colorful and proud moments from this demonstration of cultural friendship.