Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


River of No Reprieve: Descending Siberia's Waterway of Exile, Death, and Destiny by Jeffrey Tayler








Click on title or picture to buy from amazon.com






Jeffrey Tayler’s new book, River of No Reprieve, tells the story of the 2,400 mile journey he took with a guide on a raft on the Lena River, re-creating the path the Cossacks followed in the 17th century that set Russia’s eastern border, and annexed Siberia for Ivan the Terrible. The people and places on this journey will keep readers engaged throughout. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 4, pp. 32-35:


Coaxed out of sleep by the mosquito’s whine, the horsefly’s buzz, or the plaintive ha-hoo! ha-hoo! of a cuckoo perched somewhere in the taiga high above us, I now found awakening in my tent a languor­ous transition from dreamland into a pristine world without the carks, cares, or accoutrements that often intruded on my life back home. I had with me no alarm clock, no computer, no access to e-mail (or mail of any sort, of course), no telephone, no bills to pay, no deadlines to meet. Even the shortwave radio I carried proved less useful than ex­pected, given that we were due north of China and heading for the Arctic; for the most part, the only news bulletins I could get were in Chinese. The civilized world lost its grip on me, and I lived accord­ing to the rhythms and exigencies of our voyage, immersing myself in the sounds and smells of the moment. So far, at least, far from vexing me with “wild villagers,” the Lena was granting me a peace that I had rarely known.

Our fourth dawn found us camped on an incurved bank beneath a soaring forested slope. The scent of pine needles drifted down on the breeze and permeated my first moments of wakefulness. My eyes opened to focus on the silhouettes of more newly hatched dragonflies drying their wings on the walls of my tent. I unzipped the door and stepped barefoot onto rounded crunching pebbles to observe the riv­er’s crystalline currents flowing over a white stony bed. The sun had not yet surmounted the sopki, but it beamed its rays from beneath the horizon, tinting pink the puffy clouds set against a firmament of blue céleste.

Vadim had gone fishing, so I was alone on the bank. I turned to face the firs behind me: how silent they were, how deep the hollows be­neath their majestic boughs! The noisy skylarks and magpies and crows of western Russia were nowhere to be seen. Several minutes passed be­fore I detected audible signs of life: the faint dwindling screech of a hawk, the throaty grunt-caw of a raven. Sleeping land, I thought, sleep­ing land.

Fifty yards upriver a stream burbled down the sopka into the Lena, a cottony mist clinging to its surface like some sort of vaporous fur. At its mouth Vadim was rowing our boat among bobbing bottle floats, re­trieving the fishing nets he had set the previous evening. Twenty min­utes later he was standing at my side, dumping his catch, still twitch­ing and gasping, onto the pebbles: okun’ (perch), footlong and golden green; and krasnoperka, a larger, greener fish resembling a walleye.

He set about cleaning them, ripping out the gills, slicing open and gutting the bellies, hacking off the heads. “The krasnoperka, with its tiny scales, will be good for smoking,” he said. “I’ll salt the okun’ and we can fry it for dinner.”

“How are you going to smoke fish out here?”

He pointed with his chin at what looked like a charred metal shoe-box with grass sticking out from beneath the lid. “In that. You’ll see. You’ll never have tasted better fish. It will be much better than that pre­fabricated crap Americans eat.”

“Not all Americans eat TV dinners. I don’t.”

America doesn’t have its own cuisine. Your national dish is ham­burgers. I just can’t understand how you can stand it. And why do peo­ple rave about Italian or French food?” He grabbed a flapping okun’ and severed its head. “Macaroni and snails!”

“Aren’t you being a little close-minded? Don’t you think you

“Westerners ought to look at how Russians eat and learn from us. What people has suffered the most in history? Russians! This means we’ve learned an awful lot, much more than peoples who live in lux­ury, like you all. So watch and learn.”

Apart from excoriating city dwellers, Vadim had talked little since Ust’-Kut. But if the tone of his few words grated, he was here express­ing stereotypical ideas about the West common enough in Russia. The morning was too beautiful for an argument. I dropped the subject and returned to my tent to pack.


A day later we were sailing past rounded bluffs of tawny limestone, five hundred feet high and striated diagonally with reddened rivu­lets what locals call shchoki (cheeks). In the West, where the peaks of the Rocky Mountains or the valleys of the Alps stand as examples of nature’s artistic flair, the shchoki might not really impress, but they excited Vadim to cries of wonder; after all, mountains are rare across most of Russia, and sopki here generally repose under a dense layer of taiga. Throughout the trip he would display a zealous appreciation for natural beauty equaled only by his contempt for mankind.

The cheeks didn’t last long, and eventually the taiga receded from the banks to leave clearings from which scattered trash and scrap metal announced the town of Kirensk, just around the bend at the conflu­ence of the Lena and the Kirenga, a river emptying out of the wilder­ness to the south. Wrecked barges and ruined boats soon littered the shores, but between them stretched beaches teeming with bathers. Mothers frolicked in the shallows with their children; grandmothers in plastic bathing caps and one-piece swimsuits sunbathed standing, as Russians often do, posed like Hellenic statues with flabby midriffs and varicose veins; shirtless men with bronzed arms and sallow chests sat around campfires, roasting kebabs on skewers, now and then rais­ing shot glasses for a toast and a gulp. Then a dirt road began parallel­ing the river, and along it putted 1930s—style motorcycles with sidecars, their leather-helmeted drivers bouncing up and down and swerving to avoid potholes. Finally, ahead, beneath more limestone bluffs, we spotted Kirensk, a colorful hodgepodge of slatted wooden houses in­terspersed with drooping poplars that formed a crown of foliage atop a hilly island in midriver. This was the old town; newer Soviet-era neighborhoods stood on the banks, marked with cranes and petrol barges.

Vadim grumbled.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I hate returning to civilization.”

“Civilization? Kirensk is pretty remote.”

“Well, there’ll be drunks and thieves here. After all, it’s a town. Where’re we going to camp?”

A good question. We steered around Kirensk and made for a low island a half-mile downriver, and pulled up to the shelter of a willow grove at its head. Beneath the trees, tufts of chartreuse grass sprouted on soggy ground sloping up toward a meadow. Vadim steered us into an inlet that led right to the grove. Just above the mud, on dry ground, we put up camp.

“A lot of islands on the Lena disappear under the springtime floods, but not this one,” he said. “I think it’ll do for now.”

Later I learned that this was Monastyrskiy Ostrov (Monastery Island) home only to a shepherd, a cowherd, and a few bedraggled animals enjoying cloistral solitude beneath the limestone cheeks.


Greedy for yasak, in 1628 the Cossack Vasily Bugor quit Yeniseysk and headed east into the taiga, leading a division often men. Down the rap­ids of the Indirma River to the Kut they sailed and portaged, emerg­ing with much relief, to be sure a year later onto the Lena’s tran­quil expanses. In 1630 they reached the Kirenga. Loaded down with furs collected on the way, Bugor returned to Yeniseysk, leaving four men on the midriver island to build a zimov’ye (an insulated, well-stocked shelter) in which to pass the winter. The next year the thirty­strong Cossack division of Petr Beketov arrived with orders to secure Muscovy’s hold on the Lena by expanding the zimov’ye into a pogost, a noun that now means “churchyard” but that once probably meant “gathering place for a region obliged to pay tribute to the tsar.” In Si­beria, the Russian quest for wealth went hand in hand with the spread of Orthodox Christianity, as did the search for gold and proselytizing in the conquest of the New World taking place on the other side of the planet at the same time. Beketov christened the pogost in honor of Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of Russia and the protector of travel­ers, and charged his men with collecting yasak from the Evenks, ani­mal herders roaming the surrounding taiga. (The pogost became Ki­rensk only in 1775.) On the whole, collection from the animist tribes went peaceably, and Cossacks married Evenk women, thereby acquir­ing knowledgeable guides who swore fealty to the tsar and helped in exploring Siberia.

Eventually Bugor returned to the Lena, but he and his men ended badly. Some years later, they sailed downriver to the ostrog of Yakutsk, fell out with its despotic Cossack administrator, and suffered impris­onment, but managed to escape. Once free, they turned renegade, plundering other Cossacks of yasak, boats, and provisions.


Vicarious armchair adventurers don’t have to deal with the weather Tayler and his guide encountered, and all the images have to come from the descriptions in the book. Tayler doesn’t skimp on describing what they see and feel. River of No Reprieve presents a description of places most readers will never see and a journey few would ever take. That special nature makes this book a special joy to read.


Steve Hopkins, October 25, 2006



Buy River of No Reprieve

@ amazon.com

Go To Hopkins & Company Homepage



Go to 2006 Book Shelf

Go to Executive Times Archives


Go to The Big Book Shelf: All Reviews





*    2006 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the November 2006 issue of Executive Times


URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/River of No Reprieve.htm


For Reprint Permission, Contact:

Hopkins & Company, LLC • 723 North Kenilworth AvenueOak Park, IL 60302
Phone: 708-466-4650 • Fax: 708-386-8687

E-mail: books@hopkinsandcompany.com