The Lena river is the largest river of Northeast Siberia and is one of the three great rivers of Siberia along with the Ob and Yenisei. The name Lena come from the Even word ‘Elyu-Ene’ which means ‘big river. The main inflows of Lena are the Chaya, Vitim, Aldan, Kuta, Olyokma, Vilyuy, Kirenga, Chuya and Molodo rivers. The largest of them is the Aldan.
Lena River begins in the mountains east of Lake Baikal and empties into the Arctic Ocean 4,400 kilometers (2,734 miles) later. The ninth longest rivers in the world, it flows through taiga, bogs and tundra and some of the remotest and coldest parts of Siberia, where temperatures drop to -70 degrees F in the winter. The width of the river reaches 15 kilometers in the mid part of the river and 20-25 kilometers at its mouth. The Lena river’ delta (43,563 square kilometers in area) is recognized in the Guinness Book of Records as being third largest in the world after the Ganges-Brahmaputra and the Mekong deltas.
Jeffrey Tayler wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “From the Baikal Mountains more than 2,600 miles east of Moscow, the Lena flows through the taiga (mostly coniferous forest) of the Siberian Plateau into the boggy lowlands and tundra of the Sakha Republic to empty, 2,700 miles later, into the stormy Laptev Sea, within the Arctic Circle. A few hundred miles from the river’s mouth lies one of the world’s coldest inhabited places—Verkhoyansk, where temperatures have plunged to minus 96 degrees Fahrenheit...The Lena is the only major Russian waterway flowing unimpeded by dams or hydroelectric stations. Its waters are clean enough to drink untreated. Along its shores dwell brown bear and wolves, moose and caribou. It is Russia’s river wild “ [Source: Jeffrey Tayler, Smithsonian magazine, September 2005, “River of No Reprieve” is Tayler’s book on his Lena River trip]
The Lena is frozen up to eight months of the year river, sometimes becoming solid ice from top to bottom. In early May the river goes through an awesome transformation, changing from a frozen lake into a raging torrent in a matter of weeks. Water that was frozen all winter is unleashed. The plains flood and huge block of ice are carried in a currents that uproots trees and erodes the river banks. This torrent reaches its peak in June when 65 more times water enter the Arctic Ocean than in April.
Yakut people believe the Lena river is a daughter of a great udaganka Muus Kudulu (hostesses of the Arctic ocean) and the mother of the Sakha. In July the Yakut celebrate ‘Day of Lena River’. There are no dams on the Lena river in part because of the way the river freezes and thaws. On the banks of the Lena are the Lena Pillars, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, places with prehistoric rocks inscriptions and great area for hiking, rafting, fishing and other activities. In summer boats cruise along certain parts of the river. It is possible to go for a day trip, a journey of two or three days to the Lena Pillars or a trip of several weeks.
See Separate Article SAKHA REPUBLIC (YAKUTIA)
History of the Lena River
The Lena is a major transportation route in central Siberia. It was first explored in the 17th century by Cossack fur hunters, who built stockade towns and subdued local people such as the Yakuts and Evenks Jeffrey Tayler wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “In the 1550s, Czar Ivan the Terrible of Muscovy crushed Muslim Tatars west of the Urals, spurring Russian expansion into Asia. The Cossack leader Yermak Timofeevich defeated the ruler of Sibir (Siberia) in 1581, whereafter the Russians began to absorb lands farther east. Lured by rumors of forests abounding in priceless furs (mostly sable and ermine) along a great river, a Cossack named Panteley Pyanda first reached the Lena in the 1620s. The Cossacks, from the steppes south of Russia, raised revenues for the sovereign in the form of a levy in furs, which they imposed on the sparse indigenous peoples, the semi-nomadic Evenks and Yakuts. [Source: Jeffrey Tayler, Smithsonian magazine, September 2005]
“Opening up Siberia, the Cossacks hastened Russia’s transformation from a middle-sized European country into a Eurasian superpower covering one-sixth of the earth’s land surface. Siberia was eventually to yield resources far more precious than furs, including gold, diamonds, uranium and, most important nowadays, natural gas and oil. In Siberia lie the bulk of Russia’s 72 billion barrels of proven petroleum reserve (the seventh-largest on earth) and 27 percent of the world’s natural gas. Oil alone accounts for 45 percent of Russia’s export revenues, and finances 20 percent of its economy. Only Saudi Arabia pumps more crude.
“ In czarist and Soviet Russia, the Lena served as a watery highway into an icebound hell of forced labor and exile, shackles and grief. Vladimir Lenin (né Ulyanov) may have confected his nom de guerre from the river’s name, in honor of revolutionaries like Trotsky who did hard time along its remote shores. Yet the Bolshevik coup that Lenin led in 1917 ushered in the river’s most tragic era, when Joseph Stalin dispatched millions to hard labor and death in Siberia. Countless barges carried inmates from Ust-Kut—once the Soviet Union’s busiest inland port—to prison settlements on the river’s banks.”
Communism and Labor Camps Live on on the Lena
Jeffrey Tayler wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “ A trip down the Lena would be a very rare adventure as well as a novel approach to Russia’s ties to its gulag past. Since coming to power in 2000, and especially following his reelection last year, President Vladimir Putin has reinforced executive authority, reasserted Kremlin control over recalcitrant regions, strangled the press and selectively persecuted oligarchs. To this day, Russians are a predominantly rural, small-town people, and to understand how Putin has managed to reverse a democratic momentum dating from Gorbachev’s perestroika of the 1980s, it’s revealing to look not to Moscow and St. Petersburg, where a Western-oriented elite has pushed for liberal reform, but to the hinterland, where Putin enjoys his strongest support. [Source: Jeffrey Tayler, Smithsonian magazine, September 2005]
“A few days later, downriver in the village of Petropavlovsk, Leonid Kholin, a bespectacled collector of historical artifacts for local museums, expressed a different view. “Look, like everyone else, I cried in 1953 when Stalin died. Those who remember Stalin remember the order, the discipline. We hoped Putin might establish the same. But no. As things stand, we have no government, no real courts, nothing. We call our government for help and get no answer.” What about the bloody crimes dominating Stalin’s rule? “It’s better to serve in a battalion with discipline, right?” he said. “Look, we’re half-Asiatic, half-European. We need to maintain our traditions, and for that we need a strong leader. We need discipline.” From Kirensk to the Arctic I would hear Putin faulted, if at all, for not dealing harshly enough with his unruly populace.
“In a clearing on a spruce-covered mountainside, Vadim and I spotted a guard tower with a Soviet flag flying above it. Nearby, a 30-foot-high portrait of Lenin—painted in red and white in the stark style of socialist realism—glowered down at us from a two-story concrete barracks. Ayoung man with a shaved head, wearing a blue prison uniform, came running down the bank toward us, waving. He shook our hands and welcomed us to Zolotoy, a correctional labor settlement. Out from the barracks marched a line of ten inmates, tanned and healthy-looking. “Oh, roll call!” he exclaimed, and trotted off to join them. An officer in khaki emerged from a cabin, peered at us through binoculars and motioned to us to approach. He ran the camp, he said, and the inmates served their sentences logging in the forests. “They don’t look very dangerous,” I said. “Are they petty criminals?” “Oh, they all robbed someone or beat up people,” he said. “They’re here for a good reason.”
“Zolotoy, he said, had once been a logging settlement, but the saw mill had died with perestroika, and the remaining villagers, now mostly pensioners, lived in the derelict huts up on the bank. The inmates helped the villagers with chores. What about the Soviet flag? I asked. “Excuse me, but what’s wrong with the Soviet flag?” the officer said. “It’s always pleasant to see it. It reminds of how things were before all that crap with perestroika began and killed this village.” As we walked back to the boat, he talked disdainfully about political reforms, yet spoke of the beauty of being posted out in these wilds. He shook our hands and saw us off.”
Traveling on the Lena River by Boat
Traveling on the Lena River is possible in various a kinds of boats. There are hydrofoils that leave daily or every other day from Ust-Kut and head as far as Zhigalo, Vitim and Peleduy, which are about 12 hours away. The cost varies from US$25 to US$50. There are boats on the Lena that travel between Ust-Kut,Lensk and Yakutsk or just Lensk and Yakutsk.
One person posted on Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum in 2016: “Lenaturflot cruises go from Lensk to Yakutsk, not from Ust Kut, and take five days. From Ust Kut to Lensk there are lots of private boats and barges, mostly transporting goods and vehicles. You just have to turn up and convince one of the captains to take you. 5 days from Ust Kut to Lensk and another 5 days from Lensk to Yakutsk. There are also, apparently, about two direct boats a year from Ust Kut to Yakutsk, but timetables only become available very shortly before departure.”
According to arcticrussiatravel.com: “Ust Kut has a railway station. After that you are beyond the road network until you reach Yakutsk. Boats on the first section of this route from Ust-Kut to Lensk do not actually sell tickets. They depart regularly nut are mostly for goods and vehicles. However, if you speak Russian it is easy to convince captains to give you a space on board.Once at Lensk you change for a regular passenger boat to Yakutsk, for which we can buy tickets in advance. You will pass the magnificent Lena Pillars UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as many beautiful indigenous villages nestled amid the taiga forest on the river banks.
During July and August there is (or was) a paddlewheel steamship ferry that takes five days to travel the 2,000 kilometers (1,242 miles) from Ust'-Kut to Yakutsk, with stops in the major towns of Kirensky, with some charming colorful wooden houses, and Olekminsk. The price for the sleeping quarters vary from US$100 for a bed an 8-berth-cabin to US$106 for the a two-berth, 1st class cabin.
On traveling the mid part of the Lena River, Jeffrey Tayler wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “As we journeyed into the heat of Sakha’s larch-and-alder lowlands, the fish grew more plentiful—and so did horseflies almost an inch long, with bulbous eyes and a quarter-inchlong proboscis. From our departure around ten in the morning till we pitched camp at eight in the evening, flies circled us relentlessly. Their stab was painful. Worse still were the midges—clouds of tiny gnats. Slapping at them left our arms and faces streaked with blood. These biting insects have played their role in Siberia’s history, deterring escapees from the gulags. “In Old Russia,” Vadim said, “people were put to death by being tied to a tree, naked. The bugs would suck all the blood out of them.” [Source: Jeffrey Tayler, Smithsonian magazine, September 2005, “River of No Reprieve” is Tayler’s book on his Lena River trip]
“Sakha’s 700,000 rivers and streams and 708,000 lakes ensure no scarcity of breeding grounds for the pests. We chose our campsites carefully. The rare spot of grassy shore meant mosquitoes (of which I counted three varieties); the commoner pebbly banks, midges. Larch and birch forests sheltered an abundance of man-eaters, whereas pine groves, scented with tangy sap, seemed anathema to all manner of insects. I found the only sure way to escape bites was to stand in the acrid plume of campfire smoke, red-eyed and coughing; Vadim didn’t shave or bathe. “The Yakuts of the taiga don’t bathe,” he said. “Traditional peoples know that skin with clogged pores doesn’t attract bugs.”
“Once we passed Olekminsk and were nearing our trip’s halfway point, the Lena changed from a swift stream 400 or 500 yards wide into an island-studded watercourse five or six miles across, littered with shoals on which we ran aground. Rainstorms arose suddenly. For five long days I bailed as Vadim, wrapped grimly in his poncho, swung us left and right between angry foaming swells.
“The taiga shrank from majestic and dense to sparse and runty, prefiguring the desolating spread of tundra. Yard-high sand dunes appeared on the shore, lending parts of the riverscape a bizarre Saharan aspect. The soothing, bi-tonal ha-hoo! of the cuckoo bird all but vanished; the Siberian chipmunks dwindled in number, and so did the hawks that hunted them. If once a brown bear had come grunting to our camp at dawn to tear up an anthill, and a golden-furred Arctic fox, ears perked, had watched us pack our boat, now our only regular companions were the lonely Sabine gull or croaking raven or cheeping sandpiper. The constant light, at two in the morning as bright as an overcast winter noon, hindered sleep. Yet Vadim and I welcomed the changes. The sun no longer burned, and frequent cold snaps put the mosquitoes out of commission for hours at a stretch. We were sailing through Vadim’s North, and I found it mournfully enchanting.”
Traveling on the Lena River in 1959 Hungarian Paddlewheeler
Alfred Kueppers wrote in the Washington Post: “I spent five days and five nights aboard his vintage 1959 Hungarian paddle-wheel steamer, heading from the Lena River port of Ust-Kut north toward the Laptev Sea. Despite its years, the Krasnoyarsk still brings a touch of class to the Lena, where blue-collar barges and tugs carrying heating oil, timber and scrap dominate the river traffic. But the old steamer is no cruise ship; instead, it seems like an ark of the former Soviet Union, ferrying Georgians and Armenians from the Caucasus, an extended family of Uzbeks from Central Asia, Russians, Ukrainians and native Siberians, such as the Buryats and Yakuts. [Source: Alfred Kueppers, Washington Post, June 12, 2005]
“Though the amenities may be rather basic, the prices are, too. My first-class single berth cost $160 for the trip, including hot showers down the hall. The room came with a sink, a sofa that folded into a bed and a window with a riverside view. I had stocked up on food in Novosibirsk, where I took a marathon 38-hour train ride to Ust-Kut. But this precaution turned out to be unnecessary, since hearty Russian meals are available in the Krasnoyarsk's wood-paneled restaurant three times daily. For these isolated few, the Lena is a lifeline. There are no highways on the taiga, and few roads connect the individual settlements.
“From May to September, the Krasnoyarsk and a few other ships stock the towns with enough food and fuel to last the winter. After that, the river is impassable until December, when average temperatures drop beneath 13 degrees below zero and the river freezes into an ice road strong enough to support heavy trucks. The Krasnoyarsk begins each northward journey laden with 110-pound sacks of wheat, cases of vodka and drums of oil. Along the way, the crew barters its stockpile for the cold-resistant potatoes and onions that grow in the few feet of soil above the permafrost. Since taking the helm in 1979, the 55-year-old captain has made nine round trips a year between Ust-Kut and Yakutsk.
“On the second day of the voyage, he invites me up to the pilothouse above the passenger cabins. Inside, a crew of four jokes and listens to Louis Armstrong on the radio — one at the tiller, the others watching the river or reading the detailed chart that fills an oversize hard-bound book. Below us the Lena stretches out, a few small forested islands ahead of us, a barge approaching. Ignatievich taps my forearm and emphasizes that despite the relaxed atmosphere, navigating the Lena is no easy matter. "She's a complicated river, a wild river," he tells me, breathing in a fresh Marlboro. "She twists and turns, and every year we find new shallows. If you're not careful, you can get stuck."
“The towns along its banks lose their Slavic character as we approach the Sakha Republic, the semiautonomous Yakut territory six time zones from Moscow, but just one hour ahead of Tokyo. Instead of the gingerbread-style houses with sky-blue shutters found in the OAO Kreb shipping company's home town of Kirensk, the simple wooden cabins stand unadorned. Herds of horses, used by the formerly nomadic Yakuts for transport and food, graze near their settlements.
“The Krasnoyarsk's three or four daily stops are a highlight of the trip. I join my fellow passengers — about 150 in all — on deck to watch the tumult of arrivals, departures and goods changing hands. Most settlements have no port, so we drop anchor 50 yards offshore and wait for the rowboats, some equipped with outboard motors. Often, the entire village lines up to greet us on shore, standing in front of their Soviet-era jeeps as wolflike mixed-husky breeds tussle at the water's edge. Farmers groan under the weight of potatoes as they row toward the Krasnoyarsk and grimace as they return to shore, their boats laden with wheat. Finally, after 90 minutes, the foghorn sounds. We head back onto the open river.
“The sky is overcast, low clouds hanging just above the trees. The Krasnoyarsk sails at a steady 14 mph, straight into a cold wind. Already, in mid-September, you can feel winter crouching just over the next hill, ready to freeze the landscape for the next seven months. But then, the sun breaks through, and as it hits the fall leaves they light up like the stained-glass windows of a cathedral. The next day, we make it into Yakutsk, where a chaotic unloading scene again unfolds. I push my way through, stand above the Krasnoyarsk and stare out at the Lena: No wider than 500 yards in Ust-Kut, it is several miles across now. As I look out, I wish that I had time to travel for three more days, to cross the 71st parallel and sail all the way to the port of Tiksi on the Laptev Sea.”
Rafting Down the Lena River
Jeffrey Tayler wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “We shoved off under the weeping sky of a late June dawn, the frost-scarred concrete tenements of Ust-Kut looming, unlikely spectators for the start of an expedition down Russia’s most pristine major river. Here, at least, the LenaRiver, which flows northward into Siberia, resembled less a primordial waterway than the aqueous graveyard of Russian civilization. [Source: Jeffrey Tayler, Smithsonian magazine, September 2005]
“To travel from Ust-Kut, where my 2,300-mile journey began, is no simple thing. Moscow and the government of the SakhaRepublic (in Russian, Yakutia), a semiautonomous region within greater Siberia, have reimposed restrictions on foreigners’ access to much of the area. I sought help from the polar adventurer Dmitry Shparo, who wrestled permits for my journey from the Sakha authorities, the Federal Security Service (the successor to the KGB), the Border Guards, and the Foreign Ministry. Dmitry also found me a guide, a 37-year-old Muscovite named Vadim Alekseyev. Beefy, with a pig-iron grip and a piercing gaze, Vadim spends six months a year adventuring in the Russian far North, enduring of his own volition the foul meteorological stew of blizzard, ice, rain and wind that Stalin’s victims suffered as punishment.
“We would travel in a 17- by 5-foot inflatable raft built to Vadim’s specifications. Half of our 1,430-pound load would consist of fuel for its four-horsepower motor. Vadim carried a double-barreled shotgun, kept loaded. “You never know who or what might step out of the taiga uninvited,” he said.
“On the late June day we set out, the weather was balmy, in the low 70s. Cutting a V through panes of liquid pewter speckled with raindrops, we moved with the Lena into fogshrouded woods and hills. Soon we were gliding atop burbling currents dappled with the turquoise of the sky, the green of firs, and the rippling zebra serrations of birches. That evening, as I set up my tent on the riverbank, Vadim lit a fire and cooked a dinner of oats and canned meat, preceded by a clove of garlic as a prophylactic. I was spellbound by the beauty of the taiga—the largest contiguous forest on earth, a primeval preserve here dominated by Siberian fir and Erman’s birch and several species of spruce. Vadim wasn’t moved. “This isn’t the North yet,” he said dismissively.”
Ust-Kut(between Bratsk and Lake Baikal on the BAM railway, 961 kilometers north of Irkutsk) is a port on the Lena River with 45,000 people. Founded in 1631, it is a jumping off point for trips on the Lena River, There isn't much to see in the city itself other than a shipbuilding works, museum and mud baths.
Ust-Kut is in Irkutsk Oblast. Located on a western loop of the Lena River, the town spreads out for over 20 kilometers mi) along the left bank, near the point where the Kuta River joins the Lena from the west. Ust-Kut's economy is closely tied with it position as a transport hub, with the connection of road and rail transport with river traffic on the Lena. During the summer months, passenger ferries depart downriver from Ust-Kut to Yakutsk and Tiksi. There is a road bridge over the river in Ust-Kut. There are also shipyards and food production in the town.
Ust-Kut has several stations on the Baikal–Amur Mainline railway with the main station Lena near the river port in Osetrovo. At the small settlement of Yakurim a few kilometers further, the railway crosses the Lena via a 500-meter (1,600 ft) bridge, currently the last bridge across the river for its entire length. The town is served by the Ust-Kut Airport, nine kilometers northwest of the town center.
Ust-Kut was founded in 1631 by Siberian Cossack ataman Ivan Galkin, who built an ostrog (fort) there. The fort's military importance declined in the latter half of the 17th century buts its fortune rose when it became an important river port and trade center along the Lena. In the early 20th century Ust-Kut served as a destination for political exiles, most notably Leon Trotsky. In 1951, the railway from Tayshet reached Ust-Kut. The town thus became the first and only river port on the Lena served by a railway. Ust-Kut remained the end of the line until 1974, when construction of the BAM railway began and the town served as the headquarters of the construction of the western section of the BAM.
Kirensk (200 kilometers northeast, 300 kilometers down river from Ust-Kut) is a town in Irkutsk Oblast, located at the confluence of the Kirenga and Lena Rivers. It was founded by Cossacks as a winter settlement called Nikolsky pogost. Along with Ust-Kut, it was one of the two main portages between the Yenisei and Lena basins. In the 1970s, a dam was built across one mouth of the Kirenga to reduce flooding and ice jams. In 2001, there was a major flood.
Jeffrey Tayler wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “It was in 1683 that Cossacks founded Kirensk, about 180 miles downstream from Ust-Kut, as an ostrog, or stockaded town. When we arrived, five days out, the morning sun was showering glare over the town’s shacklike shops and low wooden houses, mostly green or blue hovels sinking crookedly into the earth. Vadim deposited me on an antique dock. White poplar seed puffs drifted through the hot air, adding a dreamy languor to the scene disturbed only by groupings of groggy beggars in the doorways, their faces swollen pink from alcohol. [Source: Jeffrey Tayler, Smithsonian magazine, September 2005]
“Ivan Pokhabov, a pallid, 27-year-old manager in a cash-register repair firm, and his technician, 22-year-old Pavel Ostrovsky, showed me the town (pop. 15,700). Our first stop was a site that made Kirensk briefly infamous in the last days of Soviet rule: the ruins of a two-story brick building. We entered and climbed carefully down a derelict staircase, into a basement strewn with spent beer and vodka bottles. The building had once been the Kirensk headquarters of the Stalin era’s secret police, predecessor of the KGB. In 1991, the corpses of more than 80 people were uncovered in the basement. They’d been executed around 1938 for alleged “counterrevolutionary” activity—a common accusation in the Terror. “I watched them bring the corpses out of the basement,” Ostrovsky said.
“Olga Kuleshova, director of the Kirensk Regional Museum, said one of her uncles, the head of a local collective farm who was denounced in an anonymous letter to the secret police, numbered among the exhumed. “The executed were our best minds, the light of our nation, the cultured people among us,” Kuleshova said. “There were rumors that others, who were never found, were put on barges and drowned. I had heard many such stories during 11 years in Russia, but I was becoming alarmed by the indifference that many displayed toward atrocities in Stalin’s day. To me, the befouled basement execution site showed what little importance people attached to the state-sponsored murders. Could anything like Soviet-era purges repeat themselves now? “Oh, all that could never happen again,” Ivan said. “We have our freedoms now. Everything is permitted.”“
Nyuya (95 kilometers from Lensk) is a rural town with 1,300 people in the Sakha Republic located on the left bank of the Lena River at its confluence with its tributary the Nyuya. It was a timber production center during the Soviet era. The timber company was privatised in 1992 but later went bankrupt. The village has a river port. Road access is only reliable in winter, when the frozen river allows a winter road to Lensk.
Jeffrey Tayler wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “Some 700 miles and three weeks out of Ust-Kut, with temperatures falling, we pulled up to Nyuya, a tidy village on a sandy bank. The villagers’ square jaws and long faces suggest something other than Slavic or aboriginal origins. Nyuya’s houses, when built in Siberian style (squat and of dark larch), sported windows of polished glass hung with bright yellow-and-green curtains. No trash littered the dirt lanes. In fact, Germans built most of Nyuya after the Stalin regime exiled them in 1941 from their homeland along the Volga, the German Autonomous Republic, an ethnic entity established during the early Soviet years. [Source: Jeffrey Tayler, Smithsonian magazine, September 2005, “River of No Reprieve” is Tayler’s book on his Lena River trip]
“I sipped tea in the kitchen of Sophia and Jakob Deisling, who were in their mid-70s. Their cheerful daughter Anna served tomatoes and cucumbers from their garden. Sophia recalled how, in 1941, Soviet troops loaded her and everyone else in her village in the Volga aboard cattle trains. Thus began a yearlong odyssey that took them through Kazakhstan to Ust-Kut and, by barge, up the Lena. The authorities conscripted her father and all the other young and middle-aged men into the Labor Army. Her mother fell ill, a brother died en route and a sister died of malnutrition. In September 1942, the barge deposited the survivors at Nyuya; they were given axes and ordered to cut the forest. “We were little girls and children and old people,” Sophia said. “How could we saw down trees! But they told us to meet the timber quota or they’d take away our rations—just 400 grams of bread a day!”
“Exiled Finns and Lithuanians soon joined them. They might all have perished had not a new director, named Kul, been assigned to oversee their labor; he had the men do the heaviest labor to ease the exiles’ plight, Sophia says. She expressed gratitude for Kul and the Sakha government, which compensates Stalin’s victims with free electricity, firewood and a pension. “May God grant peace to those who called us fascists!” she said, magnanimously, of her torturers.
“The German Autonomous Republic was not restored after World War II, and the exiles had to put heated sand in their boots or lose their feet to frostbite, Jakob told me. Still, he seemed to hold no grudges. “Who could we attack?” he said. “The bosses here were just following orders. We all worked together to fulfill the plan!” He paused. “I have preserved my Catholic faith. I pray that God forgive Lenin and Stalin. I know this: I can’t enter heaven with enmity in my heart. We must forgive those who harm us.” As the Russian national anthem came on the radio, his eyes filled with tears.
“To part with all notions of freedom, hope, control over one’s destiny—that is nullifying. After returning from such encounters, I tried to share my incredulity with Vadim. He answered with venom. Russians were a “herd” that could “only be ruled by force,” he would say, and Stalin had largely got it right. “I’m more worried about how we’re killing off our wildlife than about how people suffer,” he told me. “As long as the government doesn’t bother me, I really don’t care.”
Lensk (1,100 kilometers from Ust-Kut and 840 kilometers west of Yakutsk) is a town with 25,000 people located on the left bank of the Lena River, at the southern edge of the Lena Plateau. From here there are regular passenger boats to Yakutsk, for which we can buy tickets in advance. Between Lensk and Yakutsk is the astounding Lena Pillars, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well as many beautiful indigenous villages nestled amid the taiga forest on the river banks.
Lensk is connected with Mirny by road and has scheduled air connections with Mirny, Yakutsk, and Irkutsk from the Lensk Airport. It is a major port of the Lena and processing area for the regional diamond industry. Other industries include construction and timber. There is a large-panel housing factory.
The original settlement was founded as Mukhtuya in 1663 by Russian fur traders, on the site of an older Evenk settlement known as Mukhtuy. The name of the original settlement was derived from an Evenk term meaning "great water". During the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was a place of political exile. It experienced a period of rapid growth during the 20th century as a result of the discovery and development of diamond deposits in the Vilyuy River basin. As the closest significant settlement to the major kimberlite excavations at the Mir Mine and the establishment of the associated town of Mirny, In 1956, roads were built connecting Mukhtuya to the future Mirny and the port was established. In 1963, Mukhtuya was granted town and its name was changed to Lensk, after the river on which it is situated.
Lensk has a history museum and operates a branch of the Irkutsk Polytechnic Institute. A karst cave with a 25-meter waterfall and a karst lake is located seven kilometers southwest of the town. In May 2001, almost the entire town was flooded and a large number of buildings destroyed when floods caused by river ice blocking the river downstream, creating a dam. The town was largely rebuilt after the flooding.
The Lena Pillars (150 kilometers south of Yakutsk) are huge tower-like sandstone formations that appear along a 16 kilometers section of the Lena River. The park containing the pillars was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012. According to UNESCO: “Lena Pillars Nature Park is marked by spectacular rock pillars that reach a height of approximately 100 meters along the banks of the Lena River in the central part of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia). They were produced by the region’s extreme continental climate with an annual temperature range of almost 100 degrees Celsius (from –60°C in the winter to +40°C in the summer). The pillars form rocky buttresses isolated from each other by deep and steep gullies developed by frost shattering directed along intervening joints. Penetration of water from the surface has facilitated cryogenic processes (freeze-thaw action), which have widened gullies between pillars leading to their isolation. Fluvial processes are also critical to the pillars. The site also contains a wealth of Cambrian fossil remains of numerous species, some of them unique.
“Comprising a vast area of 1,387,000 hectares, the property of the Lena Pillars Nature Park occupies the right bank of the middle part of Lena River in the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) of the Russian Federation. The Lena Pillars Nature Park displays two features of significant international interest in relation to the Earth sciences. The large cryogenically modified pillars in the region are the most notable pillar landscape of their kind known, whilst the internationally renowned and important exposures of Cambrian rocks tell us key stories about our planet and the early evolution of life during the entire Cambrian Explosion, and the story of the emergence of the frozen ground karst phenomenon.
“The Lena Pillars Nature Park displays two features of significant international interest in relation to the Earth sciences. The large cryogenically modified pillars in the region are the most notable pillar landscape of their kind known, whilst the internationally renowned and important exposures of Cambrian rocks provide a second and important supporting set of values.
“The celebrated pillars (up to c.200m in height) that line the banks of the Lena River are rocky buttresses isolated from each other by deep and steep gullies developed by frost shattering directed along intervening joints. The pillars form an outstanding discontinuous belt that extends back from the river’s edge along the incised valley sides of some rivers in a zone about 150 meters wide.
“The Lena Pillars Nature Park property contains among the most significant record of events related to the ' Cambrian explosion ' which was one of the pivotal points in the Earth’s life evolution. Due to platformal type of carbonate sedimentation within the tropical belt of the Cambrian Period, without subsequent meta-morphic and tectonic reworking, and magnificent impressive outcrops, the property preserves an exceptionally continuous, fully documented, and rich record of the diversification of skeletal animals and other biomineralised organisms from their first appearance until the first mass extinction event they suffered. The Lena Pillars include among the earliest and the largest, in both tem-poral and spatial senses, fossil metazoan reef of the Cambrian world. The Lena Pillars shows exceptional processes of the fine disintegra-tion of the rocks dominating the shaping of the carbonate pillar relief. These karst phenomena are enriched by thermo-karst processes developed in the area of a great permafrost thickness (up to 400-500 meters).”
Visitors can walk around pillars and climb them. Climbing is tough and dangerous unless you have proper equipment but the view from the top is breathtaking. The Lena Pillars Natural Park has set up several tourist trails with hikes takes 2–4 hours. Many species of rare animals and plants are found in the territory of the park. Remains of mammoths, bison and other prehistoric have also been found. Rafting is done on the Botuoma and Sinyaya Rivers, both tributaries of the Lena River. Trips last 3–5 days. The Lena Pillars can be reached by road, motorboats or large on-board ships such as the Demyan Bedny and Mikhail Svetlov.
Accommodation: There are no hotels in the park, but you can rent a small cottage in the village of Yelanka, on the other side of the river. On rafting trips, you will spend the night in pre-arranged tent camps or camp sites. Those traveling on cruise ships sleep on board.
Yakutsk (on the Lena River, 450 kilometers south of the Arctic Circle) is a foggy, smoggy, city built around some of the world's largest reserves of diamonds, gold and oil. The only large city in the world built on top of permafrost, it is flanked on one side by dock cranes and the banks of the Lena River and comprised mainly of nine-story apartment buildings and ancient log cabins sinking side by side into the permafrost. Building built on stilts bored 10 meters in the ground stand upright. Those on concrete foundations, which melts the permafrost, tilt and sag.
Yakutsk is the capital and largest city of Republic of Yakutia (Sakha), with about 311,000 people, almost a third of the republic’s population and half its urban population.. Yakutsk is very foggy in the winter. Fog normally doesn't exist in temperatures below freezing but Yakutsk is chocked by "human habitation fog" created by the exhalations or people, their homes, their buildings, their homes and their machines.
Yakutsk is one of the main ports on the Lena River and a major cultural and scientific center in the northeast of Russia. The city is located in the Tuymaada valley on the left bank of the Lena River.Within the city is Chochur Muran mountain. Yakutsk gets its supplies from Lena river barges in the summer and expensive tractor trains that crawl up the frozen river in the winter. Bennetton was the first Western-brand name shop to open up in Yakutsk.
See Separate Article SAKHA REPUBLIC (YAKUTIA)
North of Yakutsk on the Lena River
From Yakutsk the Lena enters the Central Yakutian Lowland and flows north until joined by its right-hand tributary the Aldan River and its most important left-hand tributary, the Vilyuy River. After that, it bends westward, flowing alongside the Kharaulakh Range, part of the Verkhoyansk Range.
Jeffrey Tayler wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “We sailed out of Yakutsk into merciless wilds. To the west spread the Central Yakutian Plain, an infinity of low, silver-green alders and sandy bog; along the eastern bank, the snow-dappled VerkhoyanskMountains reigned over scraggly taiga; above choppy waters to the north churned gunmetal clouds and whirling skeins of fog. The temperature dropped into the 30s, and a cold head wind raised the surf on a river now nine or ten miles across. Day after day, for ten hours at a stretch, we crashed through breakers that at times forced us ashore. When it seemed nothing could get worse, the clouds emptied their burdens of frigid rain. [Source: Jeffrey Tayler, Smithsonian magazine, September 2005]
“Vadim kept his cold blue eyes locked on the horizon. Landing, we would jump out and struggle to haul the boat ashore. Vadim would grab his bottle of red-pepper-flavored vodka and shove it into my benumbed hands. “Drink a drop, quick! To warm up!” I did, and it worked. We then would set up camp. Possibly trying to console me, Vadim said that this summer was freakishly cold. We had feasted on red and black currants before Yakutsk and expected to find them here, along with mushrooms, but there were none—grave omens. “It will be a hungry year,” Vadim pronounced. “Many animals will starve. There will be a lot of shatuny,” or bears that, having failed to eat enough to hibernate, wander the winter woods, at times attacking villagers.”
Above the Arctic Circle on the Lena River
After the Kharaulakh Range, the Lean River heads nearly due north to the Laptev Sea, a part of the Arctic Ocean, emptying through the the Lena Delta south-west of the New Siberian Islands. Jeffrey Tayler wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “Only a lone soaring black-headed Brent goose or occasional raven broke our sense of solitude. It was late July, and the larch’s tufty leaves were yellowing. On August 1, we crossed the Arctic Circle. Hours later we spotted Zhigansk—a crescent of gray, wind-battered shacks on a high curving bank. The next evening I found myself shockingly comfortable, sitting with Yuri Shamayev, the Yakut mayor of this village of 3,500 people, mostly Yakuts and Evenks. With high cheeks and intelligent eyes, Shamayev, dressed in loafers, a wool sweater and pressed chinos, looked like he might have been pledging a conservative fraternity in the United States. He lived in what from the outside looked like a condemnable concrete hovel, but inside it was warm and clean, with a refrigerator, a Japanese television and polished wood furniture. His wife made us cucumber and tomato salad seasoned with sour cream, and spread out sausage and salted fish for our delectation. We sipped beer, a luxury. [Source: Jeffrey Tayler, Smithsonian magazine, September 2005]
In the name of their sovereigns, armed Cossack bands had ruthlessly exploited the Sakha region, collecting the fur tax but also demanding “gifts” for themselves—as much as five times the number of furs the state required—or taking women hostage if their men couldn’t or wouldn’t pay. Russian merchants scoured the land for mammoth tusks; in 1821 alone, one merchant exported 20,000 tons. The Soviets forced the semi-nomadic peoples into settlements, which accustomed them to village life and undermined their survival skills. “Our mentality is Soviet,” Shamayev says. “Since we live in extreme conditions—just look at the black rings under people’s eyes here, which are scars from frostbite—we expect the state to help us and give us privileges. But there are too many incentives”—educational institutes, high technology, and the like, available through Moscow, for the SakhaRepublic to want out of Russia. “Our patriotism is left over from Soviet days, and keeps us together.”
I told him I had heard otherwise on previous trips to Sakha. “OK, ten years ago we wanted to separate, but not now. We’re a strategically vital region of Russia. We have too many diamonds, too much timber, coal, and even oil, for them to let us go.” He went on. “Even though we’re descended from Genghis Khan, we’re not a hotblooded mountain people like the Chechens, who love war. Besides, we’re too few to fight like the Chechens.”
“In our last three weeks on the Lena, we forced our way through storm after storm, heading north toward Tiksi. Now the taiga gave way entirely to tundra, carpeted in lichen and moss; stony mountains arose on both banks, overflown now and then by golden eagles. As we approached the delta, strong winds prompted us to stop at Tit-Ary, a nearly deserted village of gray shacks and wrecked fishing boats. I spotted crosses atop a sandy hillock, a monument to Finns and Lithuanians interred there—more of Stalin’s victims. A plaque at the base of the tallest cross read: “TORN BY VIOLENCE FROM THEIR NATIVE LAND, FALLEN, BUT NOT FORGOTTEN.” The wind had blown away the sand to expose the coffins. There was something telling in their exposure. Here and there across Russia, monuments have been erected to the crimes of the Soviet era, but they are ill-tended and appear insignificant besides the poverty and neglect of the hinterland.”
The Lena river’ delta cover 43,563 square kilometers is recognized in the Guinness Book of Records as being third largest in the world after the Ganges-Brahmaputra and the Mekong deltas. The delta that extends 100 kilometers into the Laptev Sea and is about 400 kilometers wide. The delta is frozen tundra for about seven months of the year, but in May the region is transformed into a lush wetland for a few months. Part of the area is protected as the Lena Delta Wildlife Reserve.
The Lena delta divides into a multitude of flat islands. The most important are (from west to east): Chychas Aryta, Petrushka, Sagastyr, Samakh Ary Diyete, Turkan Bel'keydere, Sasyllakh Ary, Kolkhoztakh Bel'keydere, Grigoriy Diyelyakh Bel'kee (Grigoriy Islands), Nerpa Uolun Aryta, Misha Bel'keydere, Atakhtay Bel'kedere, Arangastakh, Urdiuk Pastakh Bel'key, Agys Past' Aryta, Dallalakh Island, Otto Ary, Ullakhan Ary and Orto Ues Aryta. Turukannakh-Kumaga is a long and narrow island off the Lena delta's western shore. One of the Lena delta islands, Ostrov Amerika-Kuba-Aryta or Ostrov Kuba-Aryta, was named after the island of Cuba during Soviet times. It is on the northern edge of the delta.
Jeffrey Tayler wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “In the Lena’s delta alone live 36 species of fish, many of them Salmonidae, including the giant and elusive taimen, trout that reach six feet in length and can weigh more than 150 pounds. Vadim would catch, most of all, okun, lenok and succulent nelma, frying what we could eat the first day and smoking the rest in a blackened tin box he brought for that purpose. [Source: Jeffrey Tayler, Smithsonian magazine, September 2005]
“We would skirt the delta’s eastern banks, where mountains rose sheer and stony from the water’s edge, to enter the churning Laptev Sea. By then I had grown to admire Vadim. We had quarreled at times. But no matter how high the waves, he never slackened in spirit. He turned desolate riverbanks into comfortable campsites. Nikolai Nikitin, the prominent Russian historian, might have had him in mind when he described Siberia’s Cossack pioneers as “harsh, merciless, but always hardy, steadfast, and courageous, hesitating neither before the boundless Siberian expanses nor its inhospitable weather nor its thousand unknown but unavoidable dangers.” Vadim embodied the frontier spirit that allowed Russia to expand across 11 time zones and turned the country into a superpower (if now only a former one). Vadim told me he admired strength and strongmen most of all—whether good or evil—and had no faith in democracy taking hold in his country. His powerful presence reminded me that, ever since the Cossacks first ventured onto the Lena and made Siberia Russian, the rest of the world had had to take notice.”
Tiksi located where the Lena River emerges the Lena Delta on the Laptev Sea. Jeffrey Tayler wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “Seven weeks after departing Ust-Kut, with snowcapped black mountains to the south and a gray sea roiling to the north, we saw, on a ridge, the boxy concrete barracks of Tiksi’s military base. Afrigid rain began to fall. An hour later, we pulled up beneath a blue shack and a beached barge in Tiksi harbor. An army truck stood against the stormy sky, by the shack. We stepped onto the gravel shore and congratulated each other with a handshake. I felt strangely empty. Vadim disdained the comfort that Tiksi’s one hotel would offer and set up his tent onshore. I grabbed my pack and took out my permits, which the military in this closed settlement would surely want to see, and hiked up to the truck that would take me to Tiksi proper. [Source: Jeffrey Tayler, Smithsonian magazine, September 2005, “River of No Reprieve” is Tayler’s book on his Lena River trip]
“Like a vision from a gulag survivor’s nightmare, Tiksi’s wind-battered tenements and lopsided larch huts stood bleak and lonely under a bank of fog. Slogans painted in tenfoot red letters (GLORYTO LABOR! CHILDREN ARE OURFUTURE! BLOOM, MYBELOVED YAKUTIA!) covered the weatherworn facades of the hilly center, reminding me that this town of a few thousand souls, mostly Russian military and state functionaries, used to be a bustling Soviet port, as well as one of the USSR’s most secretive places. Tiksi’s population—about 12,000 in Soviet times—enjoyed high pay and privileges for tours of duty that included two months of polar night and 120 days of gale-force winds a year. Now most of the remaining 6,000 or so Tiksians seem stranded.
“I and my two hosts, Tamara (a manager at Tiksi’s port) and Olga (a sailor and cook), went to the settlement’s one bar restaurant, an unmarked yellow shack. “What the hell do you want?” shouted the doorwoman, a hefty troll with a bristly mop of peroxided hair. “Why didn’t you let us know in advance you were coming!” “Is that any way to treat customers?” replied Olga. “Why not just save your breath and slop manure on us instead!” “Yeah!” chimed in Tamara. “We don’t have to patronize your establishment!” “Then don’t!” The troll slammed the door.
“In fact, we had no choice, so we forced our way in, and mounted the stairs to a cavernous bar. The troll flicked on red, green and white Christmas lights strung around the walls. A glum aproned barwoman took our orders. Tamara and Olga spoke of their glorious Soviet past. “We felt like such pioneers out here! The state used to supply us with only the priciest delicacies!” said Tamara. “We knew only luxury! Our husbands used to fly to Moscow just to have a beer!”
“The bar filled with a somber crowd in jeans and black leather jackets: delicate Yakut women, pale and high cheekboned, and young men, Russians and Yakuts, mostly sloshed and stumbling. As I tucked into my steak and fries, the troll actually smiled. The Lena’s harsh wilderness receded from my consciousness, and I felt delivered. A week later, Vadim and I boarded a plane for the flight to Moscow, six time zones back. We flew over mountainous tundra, then a carpet of forest laced with silver rivers. It would take us nine hours to fly across Siberia—terrain the Cossacks had annexed to Russia over the course of a century. For good or ill, their exploit affects us still.”
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Federal Agency for Tourism of the Russian Federation (official Russia tourism website russiatourism.ru ), Russian government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.
Updated in September 2020