russia

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 Dispatch 14: The Nature of Faith in Ulan-Ude

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

At a time of polarization and division around the world, the Republic of Buryatia stands out as a place where people of diverse backgrounds live in harmony. Ulan-Ude, the tranquil and welcoming capital nestled among a ring of mountains, is not only the leading center of Buddhism in Russia, but a haven for those practicing Shamanism, the Russian Orthodox faith, and for Old Believers, who maintain the ancient rituals of the Orthodox church before reforms were implemented centuries ago. And each of these faiths places a high value on the land, air, and water.

The first thing almost everyone learns about Ulan-Ude is that it’s the home of a monumental sculpture of Lenin’s head, towering above the city’s main square. But there’s another colossal figure that has more significance these days -- the largest Buddha in Russia, perched blissfully above the devotees at Rinpoche Datsan in the hills on the outskirts of the city. Worshippers attend daily services that are alive with drums and chanting and afterwards ask for the blessing of its aging Lama. They can also follow a kilometer-long “Walk of Life” that pays tribute to all the animals of the Buddhist zodiac. (Gabriela is a tiger, and Mark is a bull.) On the morning of our visit, a snowstorm with savage winds cut right through our overly optimistic outerwear and obscured the view of the mountains around us. But a single purple crocus reminded us that Siberia’s next season will arrive eventually.

Back in the center of the city, at the only women’s monastery for Buddhists in Russia, a grinning Lama emphasized the interconnected nature of everything, including the natural world, and the cause and effect nature of our actions. If we throw garbage at Lake Baikal, it will be harmed. In her view, a growing number of birth defects can be traced to the damage people are doing to the environment.

At the Ivolginsky Buddhist Monastery, about 40 kilometers outside of Ulan-Ude, the Rector of the Buddhist University, Dimbril Bagsha Dashibaldanov, also stressed the importance of reverence for all living things -- and traced ecological problems to the human ego. The emotions that arise in the body as a result of egoism, such as anger and dislike and jealousy, are the root causes of environmental degradation, and to the extent we can eliminate these feelings and focus more on other people, such as our neighbors, we can better safeguard the natural world.

When asked about the urgency of responding to critical issues like climate change, Dashibaldanov favored “raising awareness” over anything prescriptive, emphasizing that people need to work on changing themselves instead of being told what to do. Can people change quickly enough? It’s not clear. But he raised the possibility that we need a “фишка” (pronounced “fishka”) -- Russian slang for a transformational idea -- to help improve ecological conditions. He pointed out that it took only a few years for smartphones to conquer the world, and something similar for the environment has the potential to jump-start real progress.

After meeting with the Rector, we strolled the grounds of the Monastery, which was opened in 1945 as the spiritual center of Buddhism in the Soviet Union. Among the many ornate and exceptional buildings on the grounds, one can enter a shrine that contains the body of Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov, a Buryat monk who died and was buried in the lotus position in 1927. According to his own instructions, his body was exhumed 30 years later, and shocked adherents were amazed to see that it was entirely intact with no signs of decomposition. Worried about how the Soviet Union would react, they reburied the Lama, and exhumed him again in 2002, when his body was once again found to be extraordinarily well-preserved. But more than that, many of his followers claim that he is actually alive, in a transcendent state of meditation or nirvana. A jovial monk near the door insisted that Itigilov’s body is warm, that he sweats under his armpits and needs to have his clothes changed, and that his face shows fatigue after long rituals. Visitors were invited to ask the monk for assistance, but cautioned to remember others before thinking of ourselves. We were careful to include Lake Baikal in our prayers.

Many Buryats in Russia are Buddhists, many embrace the ancient practice of Shamanism, and still others practice both. But all Buryat traditions are extremely close to the natural world. Marina Danginova, a practicing female Shaman, explained that nature is alive in the Buryat tradition. For example, Baikal is a living organism, and in winter, it goes to sleep rather than freezing. Marina worries a lot about damaging changes in the Baikal region in recent years, including extensive fires, the strong push to create businesses along the Lake’s shores, and the fluctuating level of water in the Lake. “We will not remain silent,” she insisted. But her most important worry is that, as Buryats slowly lose their language, they also lose their connection to nature.  

The next day, Marina met us at our Airbnb to conduct a ritual in support of our project. She started by lighting ceremonial Siberian herbs and letting the smoke and the scent permeate the entire apartment. She passed vodka, milk, cookies and candies above the burning herbs. Then she spilled vodka and milk at the window as she chanted in the Buryat language, and mixed these ingredients in a bowl. A cup of black tea made its way into the concoction. The sequence was repeated several times, each time with an empty cup thrown over her shoulder. At the end of the ritual, we were asked to carry the bowl of vodka, milk and tea outside, walk around a tree, and sprinkle the contents at the base. Similar Buryat rituals can also be used to ask for what is needed in the natural world, such as the rain needed by farmers.

It’s not surprising that Buryats commune closely with nature. They are the “original ecologists” who insist on taking only what they need from around them. But we were taken aback when we learned that Metropolitan Sergey Popkov, the youthful leader of Old Believers in Siberia, is an unabashed environmentalist.

Old Believers resisted reforms that were instituted by the Eastern Orthodox Church in the mid-1600’s, adhering closely to the ancient liturgy and rituals. As a result, they lost their civil rights and were persecuted and even executed. Some fled Russia, and small pockets exist in many places around the world, including the United States. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Old Believers can freely open churches in Russia, such as the one where Metropolitan Popkov leads his parishioners.

In good English and with no hesitation, the Metropolitan recited a litany of negative environmental changes he has witnessed in recent years, including climate change, an increase in forest fires, reduced groundwater, shallow rivers and streams, diminished fish populations in the Selenge and Ude Rivers, thick smog in the city, expanding problems with garbage, and the spread of non-native species, among others. He acknowledged that many problems, such as the practice of setting fire to woods so that it is then legal to log the wood, stem from a lack of good jobs, so he favors policies that will provide people with more economic security. In his view, climate change is accelerating environmental degradation, in part by driving people to cities, where the link to nature is more tenuous. Much like the Buddhists, he suggested that individuals start by improving their own practices as an important first step. Luckily, humankind’s connection to nature and to God is essentially the same, so it’s possible to enhance both simultaneously.

Following the Buryat ritual in our apartment, we quickly learned that the spirits favored us. There were two auspicious signs. First, liquid spilled on the window traveled straight down. Second, the cup landed face up each time it was thrown. Not only did the spirits welcome us, they had been waiting for us.

Playfully, it seems. After the ceremony, important items disappeared four times, then reappeared in places that had already been searched. The exact meaning of this mischief remains unclear.

But if the spirits were waiting for us, we were also waiting for them. In Ulan-Ude, almost everything felt spot-on. The team of women from Buryat State University who hosted us were among the kindest and most accomplished people we’ve met in Russia. Their students, who welcomed us in their classrooms and helped us navigate the city, were exceptional guides with outstanding English skills. The Director of the Fulbright Program in Russia, Joel Ericson, arrived in Ulan-Ude complete with a can-do spirit and a concrete vision of how to expand Fulbright’s focus on Baikal and safeguard its future.

Most of all, representatives of every faith greeted us with open arms in successive meetings, embracing diversity and focusing on a better future -- a future in which the health and well-being of the people is never separate from the health and well-being of all living things. The spirits don’t care if you are Orthodox, an Old Believer, a Buddhist, a follower of Shamanic traditions, or an atheist. In Buryatia, it is the nature of faith to safeguard the Earth. The spirits only want us to do the right thing.

In Ulan-Ude, monumental socialist realism meets pop cuisine in this inimitable Lenin head gingerbread.

In Ulan-Ude, monumental socialist realism meets pop cuisine in this inimitable Lenin head gingerbread.



Cyberian Dispatch 13: Can Peace Trails and Strawberries Save the Amphipods?

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

The expedition to collect amphipods at Bolshie Koty was led by Ksenia Vereshchagina and Anton Gurkov, scientists from the Biology Institute of Irkutsk State University.

What do peace trails, a strawberry festival and the future of Lake Baikal’s amphipods have in common? More than we thought, it turns out.

Several days ago, we embedded with scientists from the Biology Institute of Irkutsk State University on a one-day expedition to Bolshie Koty, where the Institute has a lab and monitoring station. The main goal of the trip was to capture much-needed amphipods for the Institute’s critical research on the health of the Lake.

In late March, the ice on Baikal was still thick and strong in most places, but driving a car in locations that aren’t regularly monitored is no longer guaranteed to be safe. So, after the one-hour marshrutka ride to Listvyanka, we hopped into one of the many hovercrafts now operating on the Lake. These crafts move easily between ice and water, offering safety that Uaziks (the Russian military vehicle favored on Baikal’s ice) simply can’t offer at this time of year.

A half hour of twisty-turny skimming over the surface later, we arrived in Bolshie Koty, which is accessible only by boat during the summer and ice during the winter. We were picked up at the shores and chauffeured deep into a nearby canyon, along a mountain stream tucked under a rapidly melting ice blanket. Here the scientists had earlier carved a deep rectangular hole in the meter-thick ice, revealing the rushing waters below. This stream is one of more than 330 that feed Baikal, but it is not the pure, virginal water that the scientists coveted. Instead, they were on a mission to find the tiny amphipod (crustacean) named “Gammarus lacustris” hiding below. G. lacustris is not native to Baikal, and experts fear that, as temperatures warm, G. lacustris may move from the rivers, ponds, and wetlands surrounding the Lake directly into its shallow waters, crowding out precious endemic organisms and causing dangerous shifts in its ecosystem.

First, a spear wielded by a young biologist shattered the delicate coating of ice that had formed since their most recent visit. Down went a net, capturing a generous helping of riverbed muck. The muck was deposited on the nearby ice, and several scientists knelt over it, spreading it and poking it with yellow plastic spoons. Several minutes later, a cry went up. A tiny amphipod was found and ceremoniously delivered to a ceramic bowl. Then, several pairs who were locked together in preparation for mating. The scientists found that perplexing since mating usually occurs in May. The process continued, with more and more goo lifted to the surface and meticulously inspected. When 20 amphipods were identified, they were cleaned, wrapped in labeled packets, and lowered into a cylindrical sample case filled with liquid nitrogen designed to keep them alive on their trip to downtown Irkutsk.

After a potluck lunch, we all rushed back to the Lake, this time to gather samples of the amphipods that inhabit the coastal zone. The scientists had arranged with a diver to plunge under the ice and scoop samples of amphipods from the bottom of the Lake. His formidable white mane and moustache revealed him to be in his sixties. Despite the sub-freezing temperatures, he gamely donned aging gear that left part of his face uncovered and disappeared with a sudden splatter unseen below the ice.

A half hour later, he emerged in an explosion of bubbles, bearing a cornucopia of wriggling Lake life. Dozens of organisms were immediately identifiable, from tiny darting crustaceans no bigger than a fingertip, to large, bright orange amphipods with lengthy tentacles and menacing armaments that stretch more than 4 inches long. These were also meticulously sorted, cleaned, labeled and deposited into the sample case in a process that took several chilly dives and multiple hours.

In a flash, the scientists were on the move again, thanking their diving companions, packing equipment and beginning their journey back to Irkutsk, where the amphipods will inform critical research about the impact of temperature changes on aquatic life. Research at Irkutsk State University confirms that most amphipods evolved to live at a specific depth and within a specific temperature range. The Central Siberian Plateau is one of the three areas experiencing the most rapid climate change, and summer surface water temperatures on Lake Baikal have increased by over 2 degrees Celsius over the past 60 years. As temperatures continue to rise, amphipods will be forced to migrate to unfamiliar depths. The result will be competition with other species, loss of population, and disruption of the entire food cycle.

Two days later, we were up early again and on the road to Baikalsk, a city that is best known as the site of a notorious paper mill that was the biggest industrial polluter of the Lake. The paper mill shut down in 2013, more for economic reasons than as a result of ongoing protests. Environmentalists were thankful when it shuttered, but its closure did not end the threat. More than 6 million tons of toxic sludge are stored in unsealed tanks that continue to leach into the groundwater, and they could be propelled directly into the Lake in the event of a mudslide or an earthquake.

The plant’s closure also created an economic crisis, since most residents relied on the mill for their livelihood. Importantly, environmentalists didn’t forget about these families. They established training programs and incentive grants for former workers to reinvent the economy based on sustainable ecotourism. For example, a program created by Elena Tvorogova challenged local residents to devise plans for profitable businesses that leave the Siberian taiga and Lake Baikal pristine and untouched. The School for Environmental Entrepreneurship has already held 14 session, with more than 600 participants, and it has led to the creation of 28 new startups and assistance for 22 ongoing businesses. Successful -- and sustainable -- new businesses include cycling services, yoga, teas from local herbs, handmade chocolates, wood ornaments derived from logging waste, and oils and butters from local plants.  

But the new economy in Baikalsk is wider than these innovative products and services. On the slopes overlooking the Lake, a sprawling resort has opened for skiing and snowboarding. And the city has initiated a well-known festival that celebrates the uniquely delicious strawberries that grow in the Baikalsk area. While many were skeptical it would succeed, the festival now draws significant numbers of hungry tourists each Spring.

And idealistic activists like Evgeny Rakityansky are busy building new tourist trails and bridges in the region with the help of Russian and international volunteers. Rakityansky speaks with glowing pride of the increased safety and improved respect for nature that new trails have created in nearby Sludyanka and Kultuk. But he is most animated when he describes his vision for overcoming differences between nations through shared, loving work in the taiga. His summer camps for trail construction have already drawn participants from more than 10 foreign nations including the United States. With two trails already close to completion, he is now planning a trail in Baikalsk, and he is initiating a reality show on YouTube that will unlock the “inner spiritual code” of the landscape.

Throughout the Baikal region, environmentalists have a vision of creating a future of ecotourism that brings more visitors to support local residents and minimizes their ecological impact. But an economy that goes beyond slogans to build genuine ecotourism is difficult to forge. One activist, Roman Mikhailov, defines authentic ecotourism as a low-impact form of tourism in which participants enter wild nature, leave no trace, learn from local people, and provide concrete benefits for the local community. However, the number of visitors is expanding much more rapidly than strategies for minimizing their impact. As many as two million visitors arrive at Baikal each year, and the New York Times named Olkhon Island to its list of the 52 most important places to visit in 2019. Tourists arrive in a region where most businesses haven’t ever heard about ecotourism, let alone implemented its principles.

Baikalsk, with its many initiatives around sustainable development, is in the forefront of efforts to jump-start ecotourism in the local economy. Elsewhere, in places as far-flung as Listvyanka, Buguldeyka, Bolshoe Goloustnoe, and other locations around the Lake, a new style of guest house offers home stays or lodgings for only a few tourists at a time, a welcome alternative to the large hotels that have proliferated in recent years.

These promising initiatives represent real progress. But to implement full-fledged ecotourism, attractions around the Lake need to do even more. Research shows that waste leaching from guest houses and homes is the main source of nutrients that create widespread blooms of algae around the Lake and choke endemic coastal organisms. It’s essential for tourist enterprises -- and the government -- to embrace rapid advances in sewage treatment, septic systems, composting toilets, and strict limits on discharges into the Lake. It will also be important to offer tourists some form of an ecological rating system, so they know which claims about ecotourism match actual practices.

Right now, peace trails and strawberries are leading the way toward a more sustainable future, but these valuable initiatives can’t keep pace with the increased burden on the Lake. If we hope to save Baikal’s precious amphipods -- and its singular ecosystem -- we must wriggle free of our current thinking and make a rapid leap forward on eco-tourism.

Baikalsk, the site of a shuttered paper mill that once was the largest source of industrial pollution in Lake Baikal, is trying to reinvent itself as a center of sustainable development and ecotourism. Environmentalists are in the forefront of efforts to train a new generation of socially conscious entrepreneurs.



Cyberian Dispatch 11: Expedition to the Rookery

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

In the middle of Lake Baikal is a remote archipelago called the Ushkanii Islands, including Big Ushkan Island, and three smaller islands, Tiny, Round and Long. These secluded and rugged isles are primarily known as the site of a rookery.

Can’t remember what a “rookery” is? Neither could we. Dictionary.com defines it as “a breeding place or colony of gregarious birds or animals, as penguins and seals.” The Ushkanii Islands are the mating spot of the world’s only entirely freshwater seal, or nerpa, the exceptionally cute mammal that is at the top of Baikal’s food chain.

A few days ago, we had the unique opportunity to embed with a group of scientists from the Baikal Museum. The Museum operates a number of live cameras that let you peer into Baikal’s depths, scan its shoreline, and most impressive of all, view the summer rookery of the nerpas. But one of their cameras on the Ushkanii Islands was disabled, and they planned an expedition to repair it.

Outfitted with ample warm clothes, sturdy boots, flashlights, sleeping bags, dry food, and high hopes, we climbed into a truck called “Bongo” at 7:00 am. After stopping for more provisions, our driver Alexander, the Deputy Director of the Museum, stayed in touch by walkie-talkie with another group of scientists, including Director Alexander Kupchinsky, driving a truck called “Patriot.” Gradually we made our way from Irkutsk to the southern end of the Lake and started up the eastern side, entering Buryatia. By nightfall, we had reached a very modest national park hostel in Ust-Barguzin. There, amidst celebrations and libations, we attempted to sleep in a common room, some on cots and some on the floor.

The next morning, we entered Zabaikalsky National Park on the territory of a peninsula known as the “Holy Nose.” Winding our way on dirt roads through the park, we eventually reached a set of signs with a variety of prominent warnings in Russian. Here the expedition would enter the open ice of Baikal and travel to the Ushkanii Islands.

It was only one week earlier when we first rode in a marshrutka (or minibus) on Baikal’s ice, on our way to Olkhon Island. It was quite fantastical at first because the mind can’t fully comprehend how ice safely supports an entire bus. But at Olkhon, the frozen road is marked and monitored by authorities. This time, we were sneezed out of the Holy Nose to navigate on our own.

Sometimes Google can find your car on Lake Baikal.

Sometimes Google can find your car on Lake Baikal.

Sometimes it can’t.

Sometimes it can’t.

And the ice is not without perils. This year, there are a startling number of large cracks, many stretching kilometers in erratic patterns. Some have refrozen and can be crossed easily with four wheel drive. But others are “live,” meaning they are still actively piling massive, bright blue ice boulders in front of passenger vehicles, or exposing dangerous open water into which truck wheels -- or an entire truck -- could plunge.

In fact, we quickly met several obstacles of piled ice that were insurmountable, and we were forced to drive many kilometers searching for a suitable location to pass. And then we came upon open water that emphatically blocked our way forward. We waited uncertainly, wondering if the mission might need to be abandoned. But the resourceful scientists were ready. They lay long wooden boards across the lapping waters and navigated the vehicles across an improvised bridge to the other side.

This maneuver enabled our arrival by evening to living quarters on Big Ushkan Island, hosted by Tatiana, a kind-hearted Russian women who lives year-round in this location. We warmed ourselves next to a traditional pechka (Russian stove) and feasted on simple but satisfying dishes.

In the morning, we left camp, driving a short distance in Bongo and Patriot to the base of a hill. We darted up the steep slopes, across the snow and through the forest to the peak, where the broken video camera was situated. Here, reticent Volodya quickly diagnosed the problem, and Anka, a spirited guide from the museum, descended to the trucks to retrieve a critical part.

In the meantime, we savored the delicate, precious quiet that is so rare in today’s world, with only a woodpecker and the gentle wind punctuating the silence. And we stood in awe, gazing from the heights at miraculous vistas. The unending expanse of ice, interrupted only by massive cracks. The majestic mountains of the Holy Nose, rising in perfect triangles that betray the story of their cataclysmic, seismic origins. The smaller Ushkanii Islands, their thick larch forests blurred by a nebulous fog. They are all incomparable to any other place we know.

Repairs were accomplished quickly, and after one more night at the camp, we found ourselves departing this Shangri-la -- and again searching for ways across Baikal’s serpentine crystal blockades. Tatiana attributed the large number of cracks to the sudden temperature change in February. In the beginning of the month, the Baikal region was still experiencing “moroz,” or the severe frost of -20 to -40 Celsius. But by the end of the month, temperatures had soared to between +5 and -15 Celsius.

Of course, no one event can be attributed specifically to climate change. Instead, it is the trends over time that establish scientific validity. But back in Irkutsk, Daria Bedulina, a scientist at Irkutsk State University’s Institute of Biology, wrote a telling post on Instagram. “The planet heats unevenly,” she wrote. “On average, since the beginning of the 20th century, the temperature on the Earth’s surface has increased by 1 degree, but in polar regions and in Siberia, this is happening two to three times faster.

“Ice is very important for our lake, and it is gradually going away,” she continued. In 50 years, the duration of the ice has reduced by 14 days. And this did not happen without any impact for cold-loving native species. Their numbers began to decline sharply, and they were replaced by heat-loving non-native species that are plentiful in other lakes.”

Sadly, we did not see any nerpas at the Ushkanii Islands. At this time of year, they are still hiding under the ice, and will emerge later in the season. You, too, will be able to view them on the newly repaired live web cam, located on the Baikal’s Museum’s website. (See especially the top two web cams on the left side of the screen.)

But nerpas, like other native species, rely heavily on the ice for their survival. It is under the ice that new pups are raised, and if pups don’t completely molt while the ice is still standing, they will become ill or suffer attacks from birds. Also, the nerpas eat fish that, in turn, feed on smaller native species that are negatively impacted by rapidly rising temperatures. It is an unfortunate fact that the entire ecosystem of Baikal is at risk if there are drastic changes in the ice cover.

Daria Bedulina’s post was immediately disputed by climate skeptics claiming that warming is cyclical and not a serious issue for the Lake. But she defended the findings of Russian and international scientists, and she called attention to simple steps we can all take to reduce negative outcomes.

As we crossed huge cracks in Lake Baikal’s ice, we worried about our own safety. But it is the safety of Lake Baikal that should be foremost in our minds. We must not let fissures in society turn us away from incontrovertible evidence. Nor can we let Baikal’s ecosystem be irreparably fractured.

A Buryat legend suggests that Lake Baikal was created after an epic earthquake when fire sprang out of the earth and local people chanted, “Bai, gal!,” or “Fire, stop!” in the Buryat language. Now, the Lake is threatened by a new type of fire -- temperatures that are rising more rapidly than scientists expected.

This time, an inferno did not erupt from the earth in a sudden convulsion. Instead, accumulating heat creeps and glides and insinuates itself under Baikal’s precious ice. But a cry of “Fire, stop!” is just as apt today as it was at the moment Baikal was born.

Blog__20.jpg












Cyberian Dispatch 8: A Blazing Welcome in a Frozen Baikal Village

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

The indigenous, traditionally semi-nomadic Buryat people of Eastern Siberia used to live separately from one another until the Soviet Union forced them into collectives where their language and customs were suppressed. Now, in post-Soviet times, many still live side by side with Russians in villages like Bugul’deyka, a tiny hamlet of traditional wooden homes on the Western shore of Lake Baikal. There, Buryat families endeavor simultaneously to preserve important customs and traditions from the past while entering the modern economy.

Thus we came to stay with the Boldakov family in one of the only Airbnb rentals available near Lake Baikal. Run from Italy by multilingual Ilja, a classical Spanish guitarist, the Boldakov family farm, named “Eastories,” welcomes visitors seeking an off-the-beaten-track encounter with the natural beauty of Lake Baikal, the surrounding hills, and the nearby Bugul’deyka River. A visitor might find the path to the outhouse blocked by cows on this working farm, then return to the house to post on social media. But more importantly, the hosts are focused on doing everything in their power to support responsible tourism that preserves the health of the Lake.

Fingering through the guest book, it was apparent that most visitors come in the summer, with a sprinkling in spring and fall. We came amply prepared for a bitter Siberian winter, wearing as many as six layers on our body, three layers of gloves and mittens, four layers of hats, Arctic boots, and balaclavas to protect our faces. But with temperatures plummeting to -40 Celsius (that’s the same in Fahrenheit!) in the night, and a howling wind relentlessly sweeping through the village and onto the Lake, our preparations were put to the test. We ventured out for at least several hours every day to the Lake, where fog steadily formed over the wind-driven waves and shaped icy sculptures on the banks. We climbed the monochromatic hills and struggled to operate our cameras with brittle, aching fingers until the final day, when we lost our courage and huddled inside, staring through glazed windows at spectacular cloud formations and listening in awe to the wailing blasts of attacking wind.

We survived, but we now know that the best preparations can fall a tiny bit short. Mark had his second experience with “frostnip,” a mild form of frostbite, and Gabriela’s eyes and toes throbbed in the relentless cold. So it was wonderful to return to the Boldakov homestead, where an inviting wooden banya restored full circulation and thawed shivering body parts.

It was also satisfying to sit in front of the traditional Russian “petchka,” or wood-burning stove, where Ilja’s Uncle Volodya, an extremely kind-hearted man with an infectious laugh, shared astonishing tales of the Buryat past and present. In our experience, many Russians began a reminiscence with the phrase, “In Soviet times,” and Volodya was no exception. Like many others, he divided his memories into two categories -- the repressive and cruel actions of Soviet authorities, together with the kinder, gentler economy and humane conditions for workers.

Under the Soviet Union, instruction in the Buryat language was forbidden in schools, and Buryats weren’t educated about their own culture and history. Worse still, their land was appropriated and their lives were threatened if they failed to conform to Soviet ideals. One of Volodya’s grandfathers was taken from his birthplace on Olkhon Island, charged with “pan-Mongolism” and summarily shot. He could have fled in advance, as others did, but he chose to stand his ground and suffer the consequences.

His other grandfather, who lived on the mainland, had his considerable property confiscated and was sent to a prison in the north. The grandfather’s sister, unwilling to tolerate these conditions, fled across the ice of Lake Baikal in the middle of the winter, leaving a one-year old behind because she didn’t dare risk his life in the cold. She escaped to China, then Japan, and she ended up in Australia. But her son who was left behind became a Communist, and when his mother’s letters arrived from abroad, he refused to open them, perhaps because of his beliefs, or perhaps because it could threaten his safety.

Many of these stories came out into the open only recently, because family members were deeply traumatized and didn’t want to talk about them. But recollections of intolerable injustices coexist with positive memories of a time when education was essentially free, there was a very strong forestry and fishing industry, salaries and pensions were high, and living conditions for workers were generous.

Following perestroika, the Buryat language was recognized again, and a revival of Buryat customs is taking place, but Volodya’s generation is considered expendable. Like elsewhere in Russia, the collective farm in Bugul’deyka lies in ruins. There is little investment in the village, jobs are scarce, many houses are crumbling, and electric poles are patched precariously instead of being replaced.

Moreover, Volodya insisted that environmental protections for Lake Baikal and its surroundings were stronger under the Soviet Union than they are now. Officials at the nearby national park aren’t focused on the most important tasks and fail to understand and work with local people, whose respect for the Earth is deeply ingrained in their history.

Despite concern over poor stewardship practices, Volodya has a lot of faith in Baikal’s future. “Baikal is a living, breathing organism,” he asserted. “It is always moving. This is where my ancestors came from, and I’m a little piece of the lake.” While he knows that certain locations are affected by pollution, including chemicals from factories and sewage from increasing tourism, he considers the Lake to be “self-cleaning” and has strong confidence that Bugul’deyka and most of the Lake remains unaffected by these problems.

One of Volodya’s biggest worries is that traditional Buryat customs and beliefs are slipping away, including purification and healing techniques such as pressure points that prevent illness. Following a concussion, modern doctors could find no way to treat his continued dizziness, and it was only a female Shaman who restored his health. And at the age of 16, he participated in a ritual in which his uncle killed a ram without spilling any blood, then lay all the ram’s organs on top of his own. After lying underneath, Volodya “became a human being again,” in his own words.

As the fire continued to roar in the background, Volodya performed some simple Buryat rituals. He burned sacred herbs that are reputed to cleanse and purify, walking to the corners of each room to spread their scent. Then he blessed us and our work in Siberia, sharing a shot glass of vodka with us. We each moved our feet in circles three times in opposite directions, then spilled a small amount of vodka onto the hearth, where it hissed and evaporated instantly. Fire is considered an incredible force, helping or destroying depending on how you treat it, and it must be respected. Here, in remote Siberia, we spent our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day huddling around the fire and respecting its warmth and its power.  

A Buryat legend says that Bugul’deyka was created when a member of a Buryat clan found a place where grass was wildly abundant and a bucket dipped in the river came out full of fish. Now, life in Bugul’deyka is much more difficult and uncertain, and local people struggle to find the right balance between the ancient and the modern, but faith in Baikal’s future still runs strong. This powerful belief is understandable in a people so deeply connected to the land, who embraced sustainable practices long before the term “ecology” was invented. But if we hope that modern stewards of the Lake and its surroundings will learn from Buryats and find ways to purify and heal the Lake, rather than destroying it in a mad rush to profit, we will all have to play a role.



 



Cyberian Dispatch 4: A Glimpse of Moscow

by Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cyberian Dispatch 3: A Sacred Island Reveals Itself

by Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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