Lake Baikal, Siberia, 1989|
Lieda was to wonder later how her life would have turned out if the spectacular landscape of Baikal had not lured her back that February day for one last look. The morning was hazy. A pale sun shrouded in a lavender mist floated above puffy clouds, but was too weak to warm the frozen earth. Lieda Antonova lingered at the edge of the lake, reluctant to turn away from the crystal flowers she imagined in the lacy shapes formed by sprays of water frozen in midair. Boulders of ice--torosi the natives called them--crowded one upon another around her, hiding the crevasses from the unwary traveller.
Awed by the thunder of the ice cracking on the lake, Lieda had stared at it. The villagers simply shrugged and said: “The mighty Baikal is rioting today,” and went on about their chores. The natives however, had a healthy respect for the lake which they called the sacred sea. To call it a lake, they believed, would offend the mighty Baikal and bring vengeance on their heads. Well, Lieda knew from her research that it had certainly been an angry monster at times.
There was no wind that morning. The trees, weighted down by the hoar frost, were motionless. She felt dwarfed by the grandeur of the lake as she tried to imprint its landscape in her mind. She would have her photos, of course, but she needed a picture for her soul.
The granddaughter of Russian immigrants and a successful photo-journalist at thirty, Lieda had come to Siberia to research a book. She had not expected to fall under Baikal's spell, nor to be so moved by it.
The village of Listvyanka was on the shores of Baikal, thirty-five miles east of Irkutsk. She had studied photographs of the ice formations at the Limnological Institute, and then had taken pictures of them herself when the sky was clear and the ice was sun-jeweled.
Although her Russian was fluent, Lieda needed an interpreter to help her with unfamiliar technical terms and local history.
“What can you tell me about the tragedy that happened here in the winter of 1920?” she asked the local guide, Alexandra Duvenko.
“What tragedy?” The robust blond woman asked.
“You know, the crossing of Lake Baikal during the Ice March.”
“Never heard of it.”
Lieda put her notebook back in her briefcase and tried to snap it shut, but her fingers were trembling. “Are you telling me that your history books don't include that tragic event?”
Alexandra straightened her shoulders. “What's so tragic in crossing our lake? We do it all winter long. See?” She pointed to a well-trodden road cut out among the torosi connecting Listvyanka with the eastern shore.
“I'm talking about the people who were fleeing from the Bolsheviks,” Lieda said. “They had to cross the lake in a blizzard. Men, women, children with no proper clothing, hungry, exhausted, some on foot, many wounded. Your wind, the bargouzin as you call it, blew many off the road and hundreds died.”
The woman shrugged. “So? You can't put everything in history books. Our partisans had their share of heroes. Tragedy is--“
”Do any of the old people here remember it?”
“That was years ago. What can anyone--“
”Please, someone must still be alive who remembers. I need to talk to them.”
“A seventy-five year old? Maybe an eighty-year old? They were children. What could a child know?”
Reluctantly, Lieda concluded that the Soviets either knew nothing about the Ice March or had buried the memory. Further probing would be futile.
Today, after she had said goodbye to the guide, she felt drawn back to the lake. She had read somewhere that after a great tragedy takes place, a powerful residue of violence lingers in the atmosphere of the area for centuries. But the village seemed placid enough, whatever scars might be hidden under the snow.
Years before, when Lieda was still a teenager, her grandmother Lydia had traced the map of Siberia with her arthritic finger pointing to Krasnoyarsk where she was born and raised. Lieda had listened to her grandmother's stories of life in Siberia before the Revolution, imagined the family’s estate and the carefree life Lydia had described.
Nothing was ever mentioned about the Ice March or the epic crossing of Lake Baikal until after Lydia died, when Lieda's mother, Vickie, found an old diary among the dead woman's effects.
“Read it. Your grandmother suffered a great deal. She never spoke about it, but she wrote it down. She wanted someone to read it.”
And Lieda read. In tortured words pencilled on yellowed graph paper, her grandmother had put down the events leading up to it, and the terrifying crossing of Lake Baikal in February of 1920:
“Tomorrow we start across Baikal. There is not enough warm clothing for everyone, not even the children. I should have stayed in Krasnoyarsk. But how could I after all that horror? We are a motley group with no leader. General Kappel is dead. An inflammation of the lungs killed him. So the amputation of his frozen toes was for nothing. I can still hear the sound as they hit the bottom of the bucket after the surgeon had sawed them off. Yesterday we were told that Admiral Kolchak had been executed by a Bolshevik firing squad in Irkutsk. We have no one to guide us except our will to survive. Tomorrow will tell.”
Perhaps it had been the torment of that distant memory that kept Lydia from talking about it. Another person's soul is shrouded in darkness. Lydia used to sprinkle her speech with such Russian sayings, and Vickie had inherited that habit. Now Lieda had caught herself doing the same. Indeed. Her grandmother's soul had been shrouded in darkness.
When she had closed the diary, Lieda had picked up the picture of her grandmother that stood on her dresser in a silver frame. She ran her fingers over the glass, tracing a blond lock that had always dangled on Lydia's forehead, and swore: “I'll do a picture book about your life.” Lieda kissed the picture, “I promise that the world will know what happened in Siberia.”
Certain that there was a story in the diary, she had spent many hours in the archives of Stanford University's Hoover Institution, engrossed in the records left by some of the other participants of the Ice March who had scribbled their notes on bits of paper.
Studying the frayed pages of other diaries and re-reading Lydia's, it became clear to Lieda that she owed it to her grandmother not only to see the lake for herself, but to see it in winter, the better to understand her grandmother's personal tragedy. Never mind that Lieda's agent had contracted her to do several projects on entirely different subjects--especially, a follow-up to her very successful photo-essay book on mother and daughter artists. But Lieda wanted to do the Russian story and she stood her ground.
In Irkutsk and in Listvyanka, the research went smoothly and the staff couldn't do enough for her. It went so well, in fact, that Lieda almost felt at home. Only her memories of her parents uneasiness about her going to Siberia by herself, and David's anger interrupted her pleasure. David, her lover, was even more vocal than her parents.
She recalled the hurt in his clear gray eyes. He was always so thoughtful, but she explained that she needed to see the place with her own eyes. To photograph it. To feel it.
His usual control snapped. “Damn it, Lieda, you've always told me about your travels before. Why did you go ahead and make plans without telling me this time?” David put down his drink and leaned toward her.
Lieda gulped the rest of her martini. “David, darling, I know how you feel about Russia. I didn't want to argue about it.”
David stiffened. “I call this a discussion, not an argument. It's just that I don't understand what the hell you expect to find on the lake. It's been almost seventy years since--“
”I know. But I have to go.”
He had remained unconvinced and disapproving. During her flight to Moscow, she fretted, because for the first time in the three years since they had become lovers, they had parted unreconciled.
Here she was, though, thrilled to be standing on the very spot where Lydia may have stood sixty nine years ago. The village sloped toward the lake, its houses whipped by wind and time. The snow-laden roofs of the izbas seemed to huddle together, their nearly buried chimneys exhaling coils of smoke, while behind them, straight and tall, frosted cedars and firs climbed the hills in crowded asymmetry. As she photographed the panorama before her, Lieda hoped she would capture its surreal beauty: the fracturing ice, the soft whisper of the snow falling from the trees, the river Angara's muffled rush in the distance. Though many rivers flowed into the lake, the turbulent Angara was the only one that flowed out, its current too swift for the ice to bind it at its source.
A sharp blast of air made Lieda pull the collar of her down coat over her chin and push her fox hat lower on her forehead. Back of one of the izbas, frozen wash hung on the line, the sleeves of a shirt now waving stiffly in the gathering wind. She clicked the shutter. The haze had darkened erasing the lines of demarcation between sky and earth. Near the edge of the shore where she stood, a flat twister of snow swirled like a spinning top on a smooth patch of ice.
She squinted and stared into the viewfinder. Through the haze she could see that the track on the ice--usually a busy road--was empty of traffic this morning. She snapped a few pictures, then remembered her grandmother's words in the diary and closed her eyes.
“Women and children were crowded in horse-drawn sleighs,” she wrote, “men on horseback, men on foot were leaning into the wind, dropping to their knees and being helped by those behind them; the dark ribbon of people and horses was thinning out as one by one they were blown off the road to join the grotesque shapes of frozen bodies whitened by snow and scattered along our way like discarded statues. I saw a horse slip and fall, heard its crushed rider's shrieks fade as both glided into oblivion.
“Through the savage fury of the blizzard, I heard the moans and the screams of the wounded and the dying, the neighing of horses, the frantic pleas for help. I saw a giant of a man in a greatcoat lift a fallen child into an overcrowded sleigh over the angry shouts of those inside, while the dying mother, her face transfixed with happiness for her rescued son, succumbed to the wind and disappeared into torosi...”
When Lieda opened her eyes, her vision had narrowed into a space framed by uneven outlines of roiling gray fog, and in that space a scene from another time began to take shape. Blurred at first, it gradually came into focus and she saw an echelon of bedraggled soldiers stumbling forward.
Wet snow hit Lieda's face and she blinked. The scene from the past vanished.
“Get the axe!” a man's voice yelled.
For a few moments Lieda stood disoriented, confused, until the sharp, urgent cries brought her back to the present. With trembling, gloved hands, she lowered her camera.
“Chop at it, chop! Quick!” someone shouted. “Minutes count, bolvan, blockhead, move!”
Several men were hacking the ice, their swings high and frantic. But the ice had power all its own. The pieces flew away to reveal crystal rock beneath, and in a narrow fissure next to it, a piece of cloth. When Lieda moved closer, she saw a child wedged into the crevasse, head down.
“Don't chop too much or he'll fall deeper!” a man yelled. “Rope... Get the rope! Davai, davai! Hurry!”
A man scrambled ashore and ran to the nearest izba, his felt boots crunching the snow. Seconds later, he reappeared, puffs of vapor escaping from his mouth as he raced back and handed the rope to the man standing over the trapped child. Two men straddled the crevasse cautiously, kneeled down and tied the rope around the child's waist. After tugging it to make sure it was secure, they signalled to the others to pull. They pulled. Nothing happened. They ran to one side of the crevasse and tugged, then rushed around to the other, and pulled again. On the fourth or fifth try the child popped free of the wedged space and the men slipped and fell upon one another. Lieda was snapping pictures as fast as she could.
The men climbed up and lifted the boy out. Dozens of arms supported the limp body as they came ashore and placed him in a sled. Slinging her camera aside, Lieda ran after them.
“Stop the sled, stop it!” she cried and grabbed the nearest man's sleeve.
So surprised were the men by the shouts from a foreign woman, that they stopped. “Ti chevo, svikhnulas? Are you crazy? Get out of the way!”
She leaned over the boy and felt for his pulse. “He's not breathing. I know CPR.”
“Yes, yes! CPR! Resuscitation. Pustitye! Let me do it.” She pushed them aside and climbed on the sled.
“Hey, get her off the sled,” someone shouted, “The boy had been yelling for help, he's just passed out!”
She knelt beside the small boy who was about seven or eight years old. His clothes were covered with frost and bits of ice. Snow clung to his cap, and although the ear flaps were tied securely under his chin, the edges of the fur lining were frozen. His eyelashes were frosted, his lips blue.
Lieda checked for pulse. She shook her head, then opened his mouth, and covering it with her own, blew in two quick breaths. Then she placed one hand on top of the other and started rhythmic depressions on the child's chest. At the count of fifteen, she blew two more breaths into the boy's mouth.
Silent now, the men stood watching.
The razor air sliced Lieda's lungs with each deep intake of breath, but she carried on. A few seconds later the child coughed, then stirred, then whimpered.
“Urra!” the men shouted again, and the joyous echo bounced and lost itself in the torosi.
The boy opened his eyes, moaned, vomited, and tried to get up. Lieda smiled. “Take it easy, dyetka. You'll be fine.” She cradled him in her arms, wiped his mouth with tissues. Pushing icicles away from his forehead, she stroked his cheek with her gloved hand and blew her warm breath into his face.
The boy struggled in her arms, so she helped him sit up.
“Where's your mother?”
The child stared at her with glistening eyes, lips quivering.
“He has no mother,” one of the men said quietly. “His father--there he is now!”
Lieda saw a large man in a beaver hat and a greatcoat loping toward her.
The boy was shivering. Lieda put her arms around him and pressed him against her body. But the long-suppressed memory of what she had given up years ago, was too much and she abruptly stood aside as the man reached her.
“How often have I told you not to go out on the lake?” the man said. He hugged the child wildly.
“I was sledding. Right there, when--when--“ the boy buried his face in his father's chest and started to cry.
Lieda watched the giant hold his son in his arms. He touched the child's face with a mittened hand, and soothed him with a string of pet words she could not understand.
“Who pulled him out?” he asked.
Two men stepped forward. “We did, but she revived him.”
The man straightened. The face he turned to Lieda was as strong as the geography around them. Dark, intelligent eyes under thick brows focused on Lieda. He released his son and took a step toward her.
“I thank you from the depth of my soul,” he said bowing to her. For a second he hesitated. “My name is Maxim Trifonov.”
Lieda looked down at the large outstretched hand that a moment ago had caressed the child, then raised her eyes to his.
“I am Lydia Antonova. From America,” she said, putting her hand into his.
“The boy's clothes need changing. Come to my izba and have a cup of tea,” he offered in a firm baritone.
To refuse would be ne kulturno, uncivilized. In the few weeks she had spent in Russia, she had learned that every impolite word, every unfriendly gesture or act was termed as ne kulturno. Besides, she wanted to know all about Maxim Trifonov.
She nodded, withdrew her hand from the strong grasp of his and pulled her scarf up to her chin.
“Thank you,” she said, “I will come.”