Lost in the Taiga

The Siberian taiga in the Abakan district. Six members of the Lykov family lived in this remote wilderness for more than 40 years–utterly isolated and more than 150 miles from the nearest human settlement.

Best ofSiberian summers do not last long. The snows linger into May, and the cold weather returns again during September, freezing the taiga into a still life awesome in its desolation: endless miles of straggly pine and birch forests scattered with sleeping bears and hungry wolves; steep-sided mountains; white-water rivers that pour in torrents through the valleys; a hundred thousand icy bogs.

This forest is the last and greatest of Earth’s wildernesses. It stretches from the furthest tip of Russia’s arctic regions as far south as Mongolia, and east from the Urals to the Pacific: five million square miles of nothingness, with a population, outside a handful of towns, that amounts to only a few thousand people. When the warm days do arrive, though, the taiga blooms, and for a few short months it can seem almost welcoming. It is then that man can see most clearly into this hidden world–not on land, for the forest can swallow whole armies of explorers, but from the air. Siberia is the source of most of Russia’s oil and mineral resources, and, over the years, even its most distant parts have been overflown by prospectors and surveyors on their way to backwoods camps where the work of extracting wealth is carried on.

Karp Lykov and his daughter Agafia, wearing clothes donated by Soviet geologists not long after their family was rediscovered.

Thus it was in the remote south of the taiga in the summer of 1978. A helicopter sent to find a safe spot to land a party of geologists was skimming the treeline a hundred or so miles from the Mongolian border when it dropped into the thickly wooded valley of an unnamed tributary of the Abakan, a seething ribbon of water rushing through dangerous terrain. The valley walls were narrow, with sides that were close to vertical in places, and the trees swaying in the rotors’ downdraft were so thickly clustered that there was no chance of finding a spot to set the aircraft down. But, peering intently through his windscreen in search of a landing place, the pilot saw something that should not have been there.

It was a clearing, 6,000 feet up a mountainside, wedged between the pine and larch and scored with what looked like long, dark furrows. The baffled helicopter crew made several passes before reluctantly concluding that this was evidence of human habitation—a garden that, from the size and shape of the clearing, must have been there for a long time. It was an astounding discovery. The mountain was more than 150 miles from the nearest settlement, in a spot that had never been explored. The Soviet authorities had no records of anyone living in the district.

The Lykovs lived in this hand-built log cabin, lit by a single window “the size of a backpack pocket” and warmed by a smoky wood-fired stove.

The four scientists sent into the district to prospect for iron ore were told about the pilots’ sighting, and it perplexed and worried them. “It’s less dangerous,” the writer Vasily Peskov notes of this part of the taiga, “to run across a wild animal than a stranger,” and rather than wait at their own temporary base, 10 miles away, the scientists decided to investigate. Led by a geologist named Galina Pismenskaya, they “chose a fine day and put gifts in our packs for our prospective friends”—though, just to be sure, she recalled, “I did check the pistol that hung at my side.”

As the intruders scrambled up the mountain, heading for the spot pinpointed by their pilots, they began to come across signs of human activity: a rough path, a staff, a log laid across a stream, and finally a small shed filled with birch-bark containers of cut-up dried potatoes. Then, Pismenskaya said,

beside a stream there was a dwelling. Blackened by time and rain, the hut was piled up on all sides with taiga rubbish—bark, poles, planks. If it hadn’t been for a window the size of my backpack pocket, it would have been hard to believe that people lived there. But they did, no doubt about it…. Our arrival had been noticed, as we could see. The low door creaked, and the figure of a very old man emerged into the light of day, straight out of a fairy tale. Barefoot. Wearing a patched and repatched shirt made of sacking. He wore trousers of the same material, also in patches, and had an uncombed beard. His hair was disheveled. He looked frightened and was very attentive…. We had to say something, so I began: ‘Greetings, grandfather! We’ve come to visit!’ The old man did not reply immediately…. Finally, we heard a soft, uncertain voice: ‘Well, since you have traveled this far, you might as well come in.’

Continue reading

“My little soldier”

The funeral of James Idle in the village of Hullavington, on August 29, 1914.

Picture the British countryside and the chances are that you are picturing the unmatched beauty of the Cotswolds, in England’s green heart, west of London. Picture the Cotswolds, and you have in your mind’s eye a place like Hullavington: a handful of cottages, some thatched, but all clustered around a village green, a duck pond and a church. The latter will most likely be ancient, 600 or 700 years old, and its graveyard will be filled with generation after generation of villagers, the same family names carved on tombstones that echo down the centuries even as they weather into slabs of rock.

Visit the church at Hullavington, though, and your eye will soon be drawn to one century-old grave, placed against a bank of ivy and remarkable not merely for its pristine whiteness, but also for the identity of the young man buried there. James Idle, who died a couple of miles away late in August 1914, was a soldier who had no family or friends in the village; indeed, in all likelihood he’d never even been there when he was killed guarding a railway in the very first month of the First World War. But Idle’s funeral—held a few days later in the presence of a handful of men from his regiment and a gaggle of respectful villagers—inspired a remarkable response in one girl who witnessed it. Marjorie Dolman was only 9 years old when she watched the soldier being carried to his grave; she is probably among the village girls pictured in the contemporary postcard shown above. Yet something about the funeral touched her so deeply that, from then until almost the end of her life (and she died aged 99), she made it her unbidden duty to lay fresh flowers daily on Private Idle’s grave.
Continue reading

The Swedish Meteor: the blazing career and mysterious death of Charles XII

The mummified head of Charles XII, photographed at the time of his exhumation in 1917, and showing the exit wound–or was it?–left by the projectile that killed him during the siege of Fredrikshald in 1718.

Sweden has had her share of memorable monarchs. In the 16th and 17th centuries, it seemed that every other ruler crowned in Stockholm was astonishing in one way or another. Gustav Vasa, Gustavus Adolphus, Queen Christina, Charles XI–between them, to the surprise of generations of students who have presumed that the conjunction of the words “Swedish” and “imperialism” in their textbooks is some sort of typographical error, they turned the country into the greatest power in northern Europe. “I had no inkling,” the writer Gary Dean Peterson admits in his study of this period, “that the boots of Swedish soldiers once trod the streets of Moscow, that Swedish generals had conquered Prague and stood at the gates of Vienna. Only vaguely did I understand that a Swedish king had defeated the Holy Roman Emperor and held court on the Rhine, that a Swede had mounted the throne of Poland, then held at bay the Russian and Turk.” But they did and he had.

The Swedish monarchs of this period were fortunate. They ruled at a time when England, France and Germany were torn apart by wars between Catholics and Protestants, as the great Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth began its steep decline and before Muscovy had transformed itself into Russia and begun its drive to the west. Yet their empire endured into the 1720s, and even then it took two decades of constant war to destroy it—not to mention an overwhelming alliance of all of their enemies, led by the formidable Peter the Great. Continue reading

Walking to utopia

Asutralian convicts formed into a chain gang – a sketch made near Sydney in 1842.

Australian convicts formed into a chain gang – a sketch made near Sydney in 1842.

What is it that makes us human? The question is as old as man, and has had many answers. For quite a while, we were told that our uniqueness lay in using tools; today, some seek to define humanity in terms of an innate spirituality, or a creativity that cannot (yet) be aped by a computer. For the historian, however, another possible response suggests itself. That’s because our history can be defined, surprisingly helpfully, as the study of a struggle against fear and want—and where these conditions exist, it seems to me, there is always that most human of responses to them: hope.

The ancient Greeks knew it; that’s what the legend of Pandora’s box is all about. And Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians speaks of the enduring power of faith, hope and charity, a trio whose appearance in the skies over Malta during the darkest days of World War II is worthy of telling of some other day. But it is also possible to trace a history of hope. It emerges time and again as a response to the intolerable burdens of existence, beginning when (in Thomas Hobbes’s famous words) life in the “state of nature” before government was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” and running like a thread on through the ancient and medieval periods until the present day.

I want to look at one unusually enduring manifestation of this hope: the idea that somewhere far beyond the toil and pain of mere survival there lies an earthly paradise, which, if reached, will grant the traveler an easy life. This utopia is not to be confused with the political or economic Shangri-las that have also been believed to exist somewhere “out there” in a world that was not yet fully explored (the kingdom of Prester John, for instance–a Christian realm waiting to intervene in the war between crusaders and Muslims in the Middle East–or the golden city of El Dorado, concealing its treasure deep amidst South American jungle). It is a place that’s altogether earthier—the paradise of peasants, for whom heaven was simply not having to do physical labor all day, every day.
Continue reading

The worst job there has ever been

A tosher at work c. 1850 ,sieving raw sewage in one of the dank, dangerous and uncharted sewers beneath the streets of London. From Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor.

To live in any large city during the 19th century, at a time when the state provided little in the way of a safety net, was to witness poverty and want on a scale unimaginable in most Western countries today. In London, for example, the combination of low wages, appalling housing, a fast-rising population and miserable health care resulted in the sharp division of one city into two. An affluent minority of aristocrats and professionals lived comfortably in the good parts of town, cossetted by servants and conveyed about in carriages, while the great majority struggled desperately for existence in stinking slums where no gentleman or lady ever trod, and which most of the privileged had no idea even existed. It was a situation accurately and memorably skewered by Dickens, who in Oliver Twist introduced his horrified readers to Bill Sikes’s lair in the very real and noisome Jacob’s Island, and who has Mr. Podsnap, in Our Mutual Friend, insist: “I don’t want to know about it; I don’t choose to discuss it; I don’t admit it!”

Out of sight and all too often out of mind, the working people of the British capital nonetheless managed to conjure livings for themselves in extraordinary ways. Our guide to the enduring oddity of many mid-Victorian occupations is Henry Mayhew, whose monumental four-volume study of London Labour and the London Poor remains one of the classics of working-class history. Mayhew–whom we last met a year ago, describing the lives of London peddlers of this period–was a pioneering journalist-cum-sociologist who interviewed representatives of hundreds of eye-openingly odd trades, jotting down every detail of their lives in their own words to compile a vivid, panoramic overview of everyday life in the mid-Victorian city.

Among Mayhew’s more memorable meetings were encounters with the “bone grubber,” the “Hindoo tract seller,” an eight-year-old girl watercress-seller and the “pure finder,” whose surprisingly sought-after job was picking up dog mess and selling it to tanners, who then used it to cure leather. None of his subjects, though, aroused more fascination–or greater disgust–among his readers than the men who made it their living by forcing entry into London’s sewers at low tide and wandering through them, sometimes for miles, searching out and collecting the miscellaneous scraps washed down from the streets above: bones, fragments of rope, miscellaneous bits of metal, silver cutlery and–if they were lucky–coins dropped in the streets above and swept into the gutters.
Continue reading

Run out of town on an ass: how Queen Victoria (allegedly) struck Bolivia off the map

A Bolivian donkey of the 1850s. From Herndon and Gibbon, Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon (1854).

To be one of Queen Victoria’s ambassadors in the middle of the 19th century, when British power was at its height, was to be something close to a king—in parts of the world, close to a god. Backed by the full might of the Royal Navy, which ruled unchallenged over the Seven Seas, solitary Englishmen thousands of miles from home could lay down their version of the law to entire nations, and do so with the cool self-confidence that came from knowing that, with a word, they could set in motion perhaps the mightiest war machine that the world had ever seen. (“Tell these ugly bastards,” Captain William Packenham once instructed his quaking interpreter, having stalked, unarmed, into the midst of a village seething with Turkish brigands, “that I am not going to tolerate any more of their bestial habits.”)

Men of this caliber did not expect to be be treated lightly, much less ordered to pay their respects to a pair of naked buttocks belonging to the president of Bolivia’s new mistress. Yet that—according to a tradition that has persisted since at least the early 1870s, and is widely known in South America as the “Black Legend”—was the uncomfortable experience of a British plenipotentiary who encountered the Bolivian caudillo Mariano Melgarejo in 1867. Accounts of the event go on to relate that when the diplomat indignantly refused, he was seized, stripped naked, trussed with ropes and thrust onto a donkey, facing backward. Thus afforded a clear view of the animal’s posterior, Britain’s outraged ambassador was paraded three times around the main square of the capital before being expelled from the country.
Continue reading

Hitler and hot jazz

Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels makes a point. Still from 1930s German film footage.

Amid the collection of thugs, sycophants, stone-eyed killers and over-promoted incompetents who comprised the wartime leadership of Nazi Germany, Joseph Goebbels stood out. For one thing, he was genuinely intelligent—he had earned a doctorate in Romantic literature before becoming Hitler’s propaganda chief. For another, he understood that his ministry needed to do more than merely hammer home the messages of Hitler’s ideology.

Goebbels knew he needed to engage—with an increasingly war-weary German public, and with the Allied servicemen whose morale he sought to undermine. This clear-eyed determination to deal with reality, not fantasy, led him to some curious accommodations. None, however, were quite so strange as his attempts to harness the dangerous attractions of dance music to Hitler’s cause. It was an effort that led directly to the creation of that oxymoron in four-bar form: a Nazi-approved, state-sponsored hot jazz band known as Charlie and His Orchestra.

By the late 1930s, swing and jazz were by far the most popular music of the day, for dancing and for listening. But, originating as they did in the United States, with minimal contributions from Aryan musicians, the Nazis loathed them. The official party line was that these forms were entartete musik (“degenerate music”), and that their improvised breaks and pounding rhythms risked undermining German purity and discipline. In public speeches, the Nazis put it more harshly than that. Jazz, Goebbels insisted, was nothing but “jungle music.”

Throughout the war years, it was German policy to suppress the music, or at least tame it. This resulted in some remarkable decrees, among them the clauses of a ban promulgated by a Nazi gauleiter in Bohemia and recalled (faithfully, he assures us—“they had engraved themselves deeply on my mind”) by the Czech dissident Josef Skvorecky in the introduction to his novella The Bass Saxophone. They are worth quoting in full:
Continue reading