Wednesday, 20 April 2011

The Museum at the End of the World: Encounters in the Russian Far East

"The Museum at the End of the World: Encounters in the Russian Far East" is a difficult book to categorise. It is not ethnography, yet the authors are self-identified ethnographers and the descriptions and prose are clearly in an ethnographic style. It is not a history of museums and museum expeditions in far-eastern Russia, but it includes some wonderful historical anecdotes on the American Museum of Natural History’s (AMNH) Jesup Expedition, conducted at the turn of the twentieth century. It is not a survey of museums in the Russian Far East, but it does provide valuable descriptions of regional museums located in Providenia, Anadyr, Magadan, Khabarovsk, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Esso, and Palana. It is an academic anthropological travel book, and this contradiction between the scholarly and popular genres produces both the strengths and weaknesses of the work.

Alexia Bloch was a junior anthropologist, having then just finished her dissertation based on extensive fieldwork in central Siberia. She was working at the AMNH as a postdoctoral fellow when the trip was made in 1998. Laurel Kendall is a senior anthropologist, curator of the Asian section in the AMNH anthropology department, with decades of experience in Korea and some work in China and Vietnam, as well. The "Museum at the End of the World" is titled ironically, and the authors do a good job at highlighting the cosmopolitan histories and present realities of even the small towns in the Russian Far East—nearly every town they visit has a foreign anthropologist in residence, and there are burgeoning relationships with Alaska and other parts of the US, Canada, China, Japan, and Korea, especially in trade. On the other hand, the authors’ own troubles securing air tickets and making flights highlight the drastic contraction in post-Soviet transport infrastructure and the lessened mobility of local Siberians with the reduction of subsidies from the centre. Bloch and Kendall visit regional museums (roughly in the order listed above), bringing CD-ROMs of the Siberian Jesup collection and copies of a recent catalogue of the Drawing Shadows to Stone photographic exhibit of Jesup photographs (from both sides of the Pacific but emphasising the Siberian collections) for museums and libraries. The book is an account of their journey, punctuated with excerpts from letters or early articles describing the travels and adventures undergone by Vladimir Bogoras, Vladimir Jochelson, and Berthold Laufer as they investigated Chukotka, northern Kamchatka, and the Amur River area, respectively, in 1900-1902. Reading about Laufer’s visa problems due to his being a German Jew and the Tsar’s secret instructions to local authorities to thwart and monitor Jochelson at every step, due to his history as a revolutionary exile, puts Bloch’s and Kendall’s visa worries and air ticket snafus in perspective. While it may not seem so to contemporary travellers in the Russian Far East, political and infrastructural conditions for travel and research have vastly improved over the course of the twentieth century.

Regional museums in the Soviet Union were often a “grass-roots” affair, especially in the smaller towns, and they reflect the idiosyncratic curiosities, as well as the particular intellectual and material resources of the communities that they represent. The authors were treated to thorough (if sometimes tedious) tours of all the exhibits in each museum, and I enjoyed the descriptions, although I would have liked a few more pictures of the displays. One of the main goals of Bloch and Kendall’s trip was to build relationships between the AMNH and local museums, and just as importantly, to connect with local indigenous communities to provide them with information about the AMNH collections and lay the groundwork for possible future projects connecting New York better with the Russian Far East. As they recount, these two objectives cannot always be pursued simultaneously. Many of the museums, especially the larger ones in cities like Magadan, Khabarovsk, and Petropavlovsk are managed by non-native “newcomers” and their priorities do not always put indigenous people and their interests first. However, we also learn that the category “newcomer” does not always reflect an individual’s social ties or political heart. For example, the director of the museum in Palana was a Koryak man, but he was so indifferent to Bloch and Kendall’s visit that he went on vacation the month they were supposed to arrive and left it to his deputy, the “newcomer” Tatiana Volkova, to receive the Americans.

In writing this book, the authors have produced clear, accessible prose without the jargon and few of the preoccupations that define anthropology. It is, however, a scholarly work published by a university press, so all sources are properly referenced and the bibliography covers all the important sources on the history of the Jesup expedition and the anthropology of the region. Peculiar Russian/Soviet habits and institutions are explained, and the authors are acutely aware of the social and political ramifications of their presence in, and representations of, the Russian Far East. It is a solid work and the authors are to be commended for that. The authors are especially to be commended for the fact that - what could have been a dry and overly anthropological work - is actually a highly engaging account that gives the reader a real sense of the Russian Far East; albeit from the perspective of an interested outsider.

And so, after just over 5 months of literary travel in this massive country; I take my leave of Russia. The next leg of my journey is Mongolia (also commonly referred to as Outer Mongolia; Inner Mongolia now being a province within China). This is one country that I have always been fascinated with from afar, and I am really looking forward to my trip there. One aspect of this country which has always intrigued me is its conflicting reputation as both an unknown wilderness (typified in its vast expanse of Gobi Desert and native nomadic culture) and a former stronghold of the Soviet Union, as seen in the concrete edifices of its capital city, Ulaanbataar. As such, and because of my fascination with this country, I am allocating two books to Mongolia which hopefully capture, between them, these dual aspects. The first of these "Dateline Mongolia" is located mainly in the capital of Ulaanbaatar (with frequent excursions much further afield in the country), and details three years spent in the country by American immigrant Michael Kohn during his stint as editor of the state newspaper, the Mongol Messenger.

Given the randomness of travel in this region of the world, I bite the bullet financially, and decide to go for the relative security of a scheduled flight from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky airport in the Far Eastern District to Ulaanbataar airport. This is a gruelling 21 hour 50 minute flight with Rossiya Airlines and then Aeroflot (stopping off briefly at Moscow), and costs an even more gruelling £1,518.70 for the one-way flight. However I arrive on time (at 6.10 in the morning) and reasonably refreshed, and ready to explore Mongolia...

Once Upon a Time in Siberia: A Journey Across Russia's Wild East (Russian Siberian Federal District)

In all his travel writing, Colin Thubron combines acute observation with a deep historical awareness. These characteristics are certainly in evidence for "In Siberia" his account of a trip from the western Urals through to theb Fareast of this massive country. It has to be said, however, that the tone of the book is sombre - hardly surprising in view of the terrible events that took place over many centuries in Siberia. Thubron describes it as Russia's Elsewhere. "Long before Communism located the future in an urban paradise, Siberia was a rural waste into which were cast the bacilli infecting the state body: the criminal, the sectarian, the politically dissident." One is reminded of how the British thought of Australia in the nineteenth century. And yet, paradoxically, Siberia was also seen as a haven of primitive innocence, almost an Arcadia.

Again and again in his journey, Thubron encounters regret at loss of faith. Many of the people he meets (he is evidently fluent in Russian) talk of the failure of Communism almost in religious terms. Some, though not all, have turned back to religion, sometimes in strange forms. Siberia was also the original home of shamanism; shamans were persecuted by the Communists and since its demise there has been an attempt to revive the ancient beliefs and traditions. Thubron attempts to find authentic shamans but there are hardly any left, and even those that still exist appear to have preserved only fragments of what once was.

The search for new forms of faith appears among scientists too, for whom the boundary between science and magic seems to be hazy. (Kirlian photography was a Russian invention.) Near Novosibirsk Thubron visits the grandly named Institute of Clinical and Expermental Medicine. Here he is shown an apparatus for measuring the magnetic signature of patients. This was supposed to treat or at least diagnose epilepsy and cancer. Part of the equipment was not working owing to the failure of the electricity supply but Thubron was persuaded to try a "hypomagnetic chamber" which was functioning and was intended to open up "psycho-physical recesses not normally explored", although there was the usual let-out clause: it all depends on the individual responsiveness. Thubron, it appeared, was not sufficiently sensitive: he felt nothing and failed to detect the dummy machine from the real one.

At the end of his journey, at the Yakutsk Academy of Sciences, Thubron meets Yuri Mochanov, an archaeologist who insists that he has discovered evidence that civilization began in Siberia and is two and a half million years old. Mochanov is puzzled and hurt by the refusal of Western archaeologists to take him seriously. And yet he does seem to have discovered something of interest: evidence of occupation of the Arctic edge at a much more remote period than had been previously known, some 300,000 years ago, but his isolation from mainstream science had fostered unsustainable beliefs in him.

Two of Thubron's Siberian journeys stand out particularly. In one, he takes a steamer north to the Arctic Circle on the River Yenisei, arriving finally at Dudinka, a nightmarish place inhabited by people who have lost all hope and seem to do little but drink and occasionally hunt the remains of the once-plentiful reindeer herds. And yet, when he leaves, they club together to give him a parting gift: a plastic bag full of omul salmon, which he is unable to use.

The final journey takes him to the Pacific, but here too the temperature is glacial. And he goes to visit the remains of the camps where the victims of Stalin's purges were sent. An unimaginable two million people were killed here, in conditions as appalling as those of the Nazi death camps. Thubron spares the reader little in his description of what occurred, though he does not speculate on why this terrible crime should be so comparatively little known in the West. Is it because it was not genocide (Stalin was impartial in his choice of victims), or because Stalin was our ally in the war?

Things are at least better now, Thubron tells his guide as they contemplate the site, though one senses a question in his statement. Yuri does not seem entirely convinced. "Those were religious times, in a way," he says. "People believed things." Again we find this longing for a faith. Thubron leaves us with the hope that such events could never happen again, but it is a hope rather than a certainty.

Few travel books these days lack photographs, but this is an exception. Thubron seems to have travelled pretty rough and it would have been difficult to carry a camera safely, but I suspect that he would not have wanted one in any case. His writing is certainly vivid enough to evoke a sense of place, but what interests him is not the surface of things but what lies underneath and in the past. For this, pictures would be an irrelevance and a distraction. © Anthony Campbell (2004)

From this bleak - yet strangely exotic - wilderness I do not need to travel far, for the next leg of my journey is still within Russia. It is, in fact, my final port of call in Russia: the Far Eastern Federal District. Indeed, such is the amorphous nature of the remote Russian Far East, I am already in this district, as Colin Thurbron's journey across Siberia ended in the port town of Magadan, the administrative center of Magadan Oblast which is located in the Far Eastern District. This is fortunate as - as the following account demonstrates - reliable travel to and from this remote district of Russia is virtually non-existent.

For my final trip within Russia I am travelling to a number of remote locations in the Russian Far East courtesy of the book "The Museum at the End of the World: Encounters in the Russian Far East." A little over a century ago the American Museum of Natural History launched its ambitious Jesup North Pacific Expedition to learn more about the peoples inhabiting the remote easternmost extension of Russia and the northwest coast of North America. In this book anthropologists Alexia Bloch and Laurel Kendall tell the story of their journey through this same part of the world in 1998, retracing the old expedition as they link the expedition legacy of artifacts, photographs, and archival material from the museum in New York to the present-day descendants of its subjects. Thus I set off of this journey from Provideniya, a small settlement situated on Komsomolskaya Bay, in the northeastern part of the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug.