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River of No Reprieve: Descending Siberia's Waterway of Exile, Death, and Destiny Paperback – September 13, 2007

4.0 out of 5 stars 23 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

[Signature]Reviewed by Tom BissellIn his fifth book, Tayler returns to the Siberian hinterlands of Russia, the country where he has lived for the past 11 years and of which he wrote in Siberian Dawn. This time, however, he struggles 2,400 miles up the Lena River in an inflatable raft with his guide (and bane) Vadim, an ill-tempered veteran of the Soviet-Afghan war. Tayler follows the likely route that the Cossacks"who embody "the best and worst" of the Russian spirit"took in the 16th century, when they annexed much of Siberia for Ivan the Terrible. It was a hard trip then; it is a hard trip now. Tayler, a freakish polyglot who speaks eight languages, is unique among contemporary travel writers. Despite his fondness for death-prowled lands, he rarely complains and never falls prey to self-aggrandizement. The Lena River, however, very nearly undoes him. After a pleasant spell, the temperature drops, bad weather rolls in and soon Tayler is gagging on clouds of mosquitoes and shooing wasplike horseflies"all of which is grippingly described. "In more than two decades of travel," he writes, "I had never... hit this nadir of gloom." Along the way, he and Vadim come ashore to find devastated villages, teenagers dancing away in surreal Arctic discotheques, Soviet irredentists flying the hammer and sickle, drunken Russians and aboriginal people, Baptist missionaries, Yakut shamans (one of whom has his own Web site) and, in what is perhaps the book's most moving interlude, some of the last of Siberia's Volga Germans. The many incidental pleasures of this harrowing if sometimes repetitive book are chiefly literary and sociological. Tayler is good at describing the summer Siberian sky ("a glowing canopy of lavender"), and his thoughts on Russian president Vladimir Putin, who is adored by the very people for whom he provides the least, offers the American reader some borscht for thought about the appeal of their own benighted leader. About halfway through, the book catches fire when Tayler's patience ruptures beneath Vadim's shower of abuse. Movingly, Tayler and Vadim neither become friends nor grow to "understand" each other.This is a book about survival, and Tayler's observations are as bracing, and sometimes shocking, as a lungful of Arctic air: "Had any other people on earth," he writes of the Russians, "done so much to destroy itself?" Tayler's Siberia is unremittingly depressing, and the book concludes with little hope for its people or its culture. As a sympathetic but clear-eyed portrait of an unhappy but beautiful land, River of No Reprieve will be a difficult book to surpass. (July 11)Tom Bissell is the author of Chasing the Sea and God Lives in St. Petersburg. His new book, The Father of All Things, will be published early next year.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

During the summer of 2004, Tayler traveled in a custom-built raft 2,400 miles down the Lena River in eastern Siberia from near Lake Baikal to Tiksi on the Arctic Ocean. The voyage took almost two months and was what Tayler called a partial re-creation of the Cossack journeys that delineated Russia's eastern borders and annexed Siberia to European Russia in the seventeenth century. The boat was constructed to carry enough fuel to get them to the city of Yakutsk, about halfway along the route. They were armed to protect themselves from "potentially desperate villagers and Siberian bears." At one point the temperature soared to 114 and gales battered their tents, marooning them on an island. Tayler, the author of five other books, has spent the last 13 years in Russia and is married to a Russian, and he is the Moscow correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly. Thanks to Tayler's keen powers of observation, readers will relish this trip of high adventure. George Cohen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (September 13, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618919848
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618919840
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #439,127 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Lynn Harnett VINE VOICE on September 21, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Burdened with a brutal history of Cossack conquest, labor camps, gulags, displaced people and rapacious resource plundering, and all but abandoned by the state that exploited it, Siberia is the perfect choice for a certain sort of travel writer to go and reflect on the state of the world.

Jeffrey Tayler ("Siberian Dawn," "Angry Wind"), a linguist who speaks Russian, Arabic, French, Greek and several other languages, writes about remote and difficult places - the Sahara, the Congo, Siberia. His previous trip to Siberia was in winter, when he traveled on the frozen Lena River by truck.

This time he goes in summer by inflatable raft down the same river, retracing some 2,400 miles of Cossack exploration, from Lake Baikal to Tiksi on the Arctic Ocean, 450 miles above the Arctic Circle. Tiksi is the sort of place where the deluxe hotel suite does not come with hot water in the "warm" months, the months of "rain and snow, not just snow."

The trip grew out of a desire to clear his head of city clamor and explore the lives of real Russians - the impoverished rural masses. Having lived in Russia for 11 years, made a life and married, Tayler, an American, finds himself despairing of the place. The collapse of communism seems only to have opened the doors to corruption and chaos. "I was seized by a desire to find out what had gone wrong? Had I really devoted my life to a doomed land?"

His guide is the misanthropic Vadim, a Muscovite and Afghan War veteran who drives a truck and spends every summer in the North. He would prefer his beloved Siberia without people and his disdain for Tayler's insistence on stopping at each down-at-heels village to talk with the inhabitants only grows with time.
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Thanks to a fellow Amazon reviewer, I was introduced to the works of Jeffrey Tayler, first reading his excellent account of a journey across the Sahel portion of Africa, through some of the world's poorest countries. Today a prudent person - yes, even Jeffrey Tayler - would not undertake that journey, due to the dangers involved from religious fundamentalists who are willing to see a "soft target" in the personage of a lone, foreign, inquisitive traveler. That account is suitably titled Angry Wind: Through Muslim Black Africa by Truck, Bus, Boat, and Camel. I checked Tayler's other works, and knew this would be the next. I was immediately reminded of Eric Sevareid, the TV news commentator's account of his canoe trip from Minneapolis to York Factory, Hudson Bay, in part, down "God's River," during the Great Depression, which is entitled Canoeing with the Cree. Severeid had just graduated from high school, 18 at the time; Tayler was (hopefully) at mid-life, 43.

The Lena River is in Siberia, with its headwaters near Lake Baikal, and it flows north, to the Arctic Ocean. Tayler travelled almost all of it, some 2,400 miles, from Ust Kut to Tiksi on the Laptev Sea, a portion of the Arctic Ocean. Naturally his journey was in the summer, or what passes for it in the Arctic region, and on occasions it was hot, with temperatures above 90 F. Though contacts, Tayler made arrangements for Vadim to be his guide. Vadim is the Russian equivalent of a "troubled-Vietnam-War-veteran," with his "Vietnam" being, of course, Afghanistan.
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Taylor offers a rare introspective of an American living in Russia who has enough passion of it's past and present to emerge himself on a 2000+ mile journey through the heart of Siberia via the Lena River. He does a good job of not only conjuring up a vivid visual of his experiences on the way, but also offers the reader a ton of history and social science to better understand the challenges (and atrocities) the people of Russia have endured. There are redundancies in his descriptions of rough weather on the river that feel a bit contrived at times, but the meat and potatoes of the story keeps the pages turning.
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When I ordered this book I was hoping for more nature and less politics. What I got seemed to be little more than a political diatribe written by a guy who was disappointed that he couldn't find as many people who hated Putin as he had hoped to find living in the dilapidated villages along the Lena.
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Many of us have been interested in Russia from the Cold WAr days, and I certainly have tried my best to learn the language, and I visited three times in a backpack/student-ish way in the 1980's. When I spotted this book in the library, the outdoorsman-feel of the cover turned me off, then I browsed through the pages and realized that Taylor was a great writer about people. It's a great book for anyone to read, who would like to know how the "real Russians" are, out in the countryside - and we're talking very far out, in Siberia, on collapsing former-collective farms, living on dribs and bits and puny pensions, hunting, fishing, small gardens, minimal electricity, police or medical service, paved roads, or telephone systems.

Taylor has a sharp eye also for the various ethnic types who've made their way up there: exiled Polish gentry from two centuries back, for example, have led to beautiful young women with "aristocratic" faces. Volga Germans, exiled by cattle car in 1941, still run their farms with an admirable efficiency and cleanliness, with animals penned in and no litter, as opposed to the semi-abandoned Russian farms on the opposite side of the Lena river. Yakuts and other natives, once nomads, now settled into small towns, are mixed with the locals. All seem to have a love of cigarettes and alcohol regardless of racial origin, which destroys the young people's health, teeth, skin and handsome features quickly; people tell him that at 22, they're "old"; teens are "the young". Professionals from the poor parts of former Soviet regime, e.g. Bishkek in Kurgistan, see opportunities, and move to Siberia for better wages, sending all possible saving home for their children's educations.
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