Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Siberia, Risk, and Mammoth Sperm

I’ve posted on the gulag but said nothing about the elephant in the room: Siberia. Siberia was the place that made the gulag archipelago possible. Ian Frazer’s New Yorker articles, Travels in Siberia, remind me of the topic. He took a trip across Siberia in an old car and wrote up the experience, which is odd only in that most people seem to invest their hopes in the trans-Siberian railway experience. Frazer’s article, and Bruce Lincoln’s book on the subject of Siberia, reminds you of the unique aspects of this place, which surely make Russia as unique a place as it is.

As Frazer points out, Siberia has now official borders. It stretches across 8 time zones, dwarfs America, holds untold natural resources, contains the largest forest in the world as well as a vast steppe, stretches from Mongolia to the Arctic, touches three seas, and contains some of the coldest locations on the planet, some cities reaching negative 90 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s also been the site of some important history, including Mongol invasions, journeys of exploration and colonial conquest, fur trapping, the exile of revolutionaries like Stalin and Lenin, Civil War conflict, industrial strikes, and notable trips by men like Chekhov (Sakhalin Island is technically part of Siberia) and George Kennan.

One part of Frazer’s treatment of Siberia that struck me as funny, but not necessarily relevant to his article, is that most Americans of my own generation were exposed to Russian through the military board game, Risk, which makes the extreme eastern portion of Siberia into a strategic gateway into Alaska and the American continent. More relevant, perhaps, is the author’s reminder that Russians, and to a lesser extent everybody in the West, uses the term Siberia as a metaphor for isolation and distance. To be in Siberia, is to be lost or, worse still, to be (borrowing a phrase from the book of the same title) in the geography of nowhere.
For me, the strangeness of Siberia is best captured by a book I read on the subject of the extinct woolly mammoth, of all things.

Tyrannosaurus Rex Skeleton To Be Auctioned Off In Las Vegas

Frazer’s article reminded me of the book. For as late as the 19Th century, so many woolly mammoths were found in the area that mammoth ivory was a major export. In fact, from time to time scientist discover frozen mammoth carcasses, as opposed to either fossils or bones. According to this book on the mammoths, some scientists hope to be able to use the DNA to revive the species and are even discussing the kind of habitat the resurrected mammoths will need to survive. (Presumably, the intent is to inpregnate a female elephant). Even without the science fiction involved in finding mammoth sperm to bring these creatures back to life, it appears that live mammoths were roaming the area when people were building the pyramids in Africa, or as late as 5000BC. Dwarf mammoth skeletons or fossils have been found on Siberian arctic islands for example; they shrunk, as all species tend to do, when a group of them became isolated on these islands and cut off from the mainland.

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