Sunday, December 25, 2016

True or Imaging or Both?

"Red Gas,” by Edward Topol (Eduard Vladimirovich Topolberg), 1985

This is a story of the last days of the USSR.  It is 1983.  The gerontological leadership of the Soviet CP is still in power.  However, Andropov is dying, Chernenko is waiting in the wings for his 6 month tour, while Gorbachev is up and coming.  A large gas project centered on the Yamal Pennisula just east of the Ural Mountains in Siberia is to be completed, sending gas to Europe and earning the USSR billions in ‘hard’ currency.

Nenets family in a 'choom' - similar to a teepee
The towns of Urengoi and Salekhard on the Ob River are central locations – the latter a place where Trotsky was exiled during Czarist times.  The story is based on perhaps actual news reports of a serious fire in the gas compressor station at Urengoi in January 1984 which delayed the opening of the pipeline.  Due to censorship, the exact cause of the fire is not known, so Topol has constructed a perhaps fictional story of indigenous resistance and sabotage around this news event. 

It is the story of the Nenets people who live on the Yamal, also insulting called ‘Samoyeds’ by ethnographers.  They live similarly to the Inuit people of Alaska and Canada – living as reindeer herders, hunters and trappers of valuable furs and fisherman in the rivers and ocean, in spite of efforts by the Soviets to make them agricultural workers.  It is a familiar story of the destruction of the natural environment – the animals, forests and rivers; the importation of alcoholism and money; the rape of women and girls - the contradiction between a Russified industrial or agricultural economy in ‘socialist’ clothing and a hunter/gatherer society that refuses to be assimilated. 

The lead character is a female Soviet police investigator who is part of a task-force trying to solve the mutilations and deaths of 3 prominent Russian scientists & engineers in the Yamal by 3 escaping prisoners from a labor camp.  According to Nenets legend, an 18th century liberator of the Nenets, Vauli Piettomin,  killed Russians and cut off their ears and penises, and this is what happened to these scientists too.  The story ultimately centers around the rape of two 12 year old Nenets girls.  A reader will figure out far quicker than the characters in the story who did what, though it is constructed as a ‘mystery.’ 

The best parts are the description of life in the bitter Arctic cold and that of the Nenets people themselves.   There are now around 40,000 Nenets still living on the Yamal.

Topol, born in Azerbaijan and the author of ‘Red Square,’ emigrated to the US in 1978.  Prior to that, he was a Soviet journalist who went frequently above the Arctic Circle, which gives the stories their reality.  The writer is anti-Soviet and anti-Russian, but he does paint a realistic picture of the sufferings of the Nenetsi.  Of note, in 2016 the warm weather in the Yamal exposed anthrax infected bodies from old prison camp burial grounds, which then infected locals and reindeer.  The past lives on.

And I bought it in Napier, New Zealand
Red Frog
December 25, 2016    

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