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Lake Baikal

October 15 is Blog Action Day, an annual online event in which bloggers post around the world on a single topic to encourage global discussion. The following is an excerpt from Valentin's Rapsutin's work, in honor of this year's focus, water. Reposted from the Winter 2009-2010 issue.

By Valentin Rasputin

At 25 million years of age, Lake Baikal is the oldest and, with its deepest point of more than one mile, the most voluminous freshwater lake in the world. Its often crystal-clear depths contain at least a fifth of all freshwater on the earth’s surface. Yet in recent years it has been faced with enormous challenges.

In 1966, the Baykalsk Pulp and Paper Mill was built directly on the shoreline, bleaching paper with chlorine and discharging waste into Baikal. After 42 years of protests, the plant was closed in November 2008 and four months later, its owner announced the mill would never reopen. Other challenges arrived. The Russian state oil company Transneft planned a pipeline that would have come within a half mile of the lakeshore in a zone of substantial seismic activity. Finally, bowing to an unceasing campaign of protest, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered the route shifted 25 miles to the north.

For the past half century, one Russian, with the unlikely name of Valentin Rasputin, has watched over the fortunes of Lake Baikal—battled for its very survival, transcending regime changes, political turmoil, and financial pressures. One of his nation’s greatest poets and writers, a political and literary lightning rod for generations, he has, for his efforts, garnered communism’s Nobel Prize—the Order of Lenin—and managed to win respect and an enormous following in the decades since the fall and dismemberment of the Soviet state.

Much of his advocacy has been expressed in the lyrical prose and poetry, so evocative of the essence of Lake Baikal—the steam rising off its vast surface in the cold Siberian air—of the psychic import of this huge freshwater body to the spirit of the Russian people. The few such passages that have found their way to the West are a tribute to his longtime friend and translator, Gerald E. Mikkelson, chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Kansas. World Policy Journal is fortunate to publish an excerpt of one descriptive passage from “Lake Baikal Before My Eyes: An Essay.”

The more time you spend at Lake Baikal, the more persistently you study it, ponder it, look for the answers to its riddles and for the lines it has written that, like a magic charm, would let you find and open its hidden “doors,” then the more clearly you become convinced that you know it less and less. And that any attempt to plumb its depths, the many depths besides those of its waters, merely pushes its insolubility and boundlessness further away. Ultimately, it is possible to fathom its physical properties, its material qualities, everything in Baikal that can be measured and counted, but not its aesthetic mysteries and spiritual powers.

Or even its physical mysteries…. We know that its shoreline is two thousand kilometers long. But surprisingly, we find it easier to visualize the hundreds of thousands of kilometers of empty outer space from here to the moon than those two thousand kilometers of majestic, living beauty that can actually be covered on foot and viewed at leisure! Yet it is impossible to absorb those sights—they are too big, beautiful, and diverse for our feeble thoughts and feelings to grasp. Thus a span of normal earthly proportions arrayed in such glorious attire turns into one that must be taken on faith that is more fantastic than the astronomical distances to heavenly bodies….

Baikal offers us room to grow and develop, along with something to cultivate within ourselves and to treat with care. The miracle, the inexplicable magnificence of this treasure, is that we receive warmth and joy from it as if from a sun that never sets, that we feel a rush of childlike excitement and uplifting spirit. Yet Baikal can’t be described completely and precisely—no doubt about it! How can we discern the whisper of words in waves dissipating as they splash onshore, ringing blissfully like a profusion of tiny bells, and string those words together? How can we make out the echo of grace spreading across the golden patina of Baikal in winter when it is covered with ice, radiant from the glowing clouds that the setting sun has painted a soft crimson from below the horizon? And when we see the countlessness of the stars swimming in the dark violet water, jostling and clinging to one another— and there are many more in the water than overhead—how can we know where the depths and heights lie in the unhappy delusions of our destinies? We lack some special sense of touch and smell with which to read the signs generously scattered all around Baikal….

And in spite of yourself you feel reborn there, having hatched from an egg that enclosed our natural, native world and that we lost on entering a different world that pushed us even farther away, into a semicosmic virtuality. I’m looking for a desert island where I can escape from this ugly, artificial world. There has got to be such an island somewhere in Baikal. If it doesn’t exist today, isn’t it destined to rise, parting the waters, from the bottom of the sea like the magical city of Kitezh, formed from the immense layers of deposits millions of years old?

When you believe in that wonder as in something inevitable, as in hope, it is utterly blissful and poignant to peer into the far and nearby vistas of Baikal, trying to anticipate from which direction help will come. You must prepare yourself, of course, to be in the proper frame of mind for such eager anticipation, to free yourself from all unnecessary thoughts and feelings, to tighten your inner strings and strum them invitingly at a special pitch…. But this is not terribly difficult for a certain breed of people, to which I’d like to belong, who can easily take off from the earth and soar up in the clouds. And I’m ready to believe that more than once I’ve come close to seeing a miracle happen before my very eyes….

Baikal doesn’t exist independently within its autonomous boundaries, and it is not only the winds, sun, moon, and stars, obeying well-known laws, that set it in motion. No, a great many sensitive capillaries connect it to the whole huge world, visible and invisible, that is beyond our comprehension. For that reason we are better off remaining its rational sons and daughters. Baikal’s fatherly grace is so great that neither our bodies nor our spirits can ever be in need. So let’s not encroach upon what doesn’t belong to us. We must believe once and for all that Mother Earth will never hand over a sanctuary like Baikal to anyone, including us, to be desecrated.


Photo via flickr courtesy of C_Pichler.

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