North to Narym: Just over 80 Years Ago, Joseph Stalin Was Exiled to Narym, on Siberia's Ob River. Recently, Jessica Jacobson Retraced His Steps, and Those of the Countless Thousands Whom Stalin Exiled There

Article excerpt

7:10 am.

In front of the Tomsk riverboat terminal, a dozen or so passengers shiver in a chilly July breeze. They look out onto a smooth, still Tom river and up at a quilted grey sky.

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At the captain's signal, the passengers file down the concrete steps, dragging their plaid, Chinese-made plastic bags. They are mostly village folk, dressed plainly, and they take their places in the old, orange-brown airline seats lining the small speedboat. The boat is known as "the rocket" and it takes passengers up the Tom river to where it intersects with the Ob, then continues north along the Ob, stopping in Narym along the way.

The Ob, one of the three great rivers of Siberia (the other two are the Lena and the Yenisey), begins at the headwaters of the Katun river, near Mongolia, and flows northwest through flat, low-lying land and into the Arctic Ocean. Its power and beauty do not betray its difficult past. Russian explorers plied its waters en route to conquering Siberia; thousands upon thousands of exiles (living and dead) floated down the current; industrialization brought still more darkness, as the river was pumped with an incalculable array of pollutants, from nuclear waste and DDT to human sewage.

The speedboat attendant, dressed in a frilly white apron, shouts out, "Pick up your bags! What if I need to wash the floor? People need to be able to walk freely!"

The engine explodes to a start. It rumbles beneath deck and the water protests when it is pushed to either side, sprays upward, then falls back, pattering like rain.

As the boat pulls out into the river, the water reflects the city along its banks--the dull, concrete buildings and ramparts, the wizened fishermen casting their rods, colorful mechanical cranes, the churning smokestacks of the chemical and nuclear plants.

A woman with bright orange lipstick and smart clothing--an employee of the Yukos oil company--is nothing like the companions Stalin had when he made this trip 82 years ago. Yet, most likely, she and many of the other passengers are taking this river trip thanks to Stalin--the architect of the Soviet Terror Machine that spit their relatives into exile along the Ob.

North of Tomsk, the Ob widens and grows more powerful. Wild, uninhabited land extends from both banks. Low brown crumbling cliffs, willow trees, untouched beaches, and freshly formed clouds repeat in endless patterns.

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In an area absent of civilization, the captain docks with another boat to refill his gas tank. As he pulls away and continues north, rainbows extend from the spray of the wake. Eagles soar above in escort.

An Unusual Destination

Then hours after departing Tomsk, the rocket docks at a grassy bank. Small fishing dinghies ferry passengers across the river to the island village of Narym. In one boat there are just four passengers: a young couple, their baby ... and a foreigner.

A foreign tourist is a rare occurrence in Narym. The locals express first surprise, then doubt. The boat driver led me to the Timber Industry Complex, a rickety wooden building situated along the river. Raisa, the 60-year-old weekend caretaker, provided a bed in the worker's dormitory, treated me to tea and introduced me to the village.

Thirty years ago, Raisa remarried after her first husband was killed. She moved to Narym with her new husband. He drinks and she's unhappy, but they can't move. "To get an apartment in Tomsk, we'd need big money," she said. "And we're already old."

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Raisa and I walked through the town. Aging wooden homes lined the gravel streets. Most had outhouses and no running water. It was easy to imagine Stalin strolling these same streets, taking in similar sights. In the village center, placards identified homes, indicating which was used as a cafeteria for the prisoners, which a library, and where famous exiles such as Stalin, Kuibyshev, and Yakovlev once resided. …