In the 1970’s, political prisoners Andrei Amalrik and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn exposed to the world the penal colony and charnel house functions of Soviet Siberia. Twenty years later, Kempe’s experiences there serve to reinforce these same images.
Illustrated with photographs from the five-week expedition, the book begins with a visit to a skeleton memorial where the meandering Ob river in 1979 suddenly unearthed one of Stalin’s countless killing fields. Toward the end, the reader takes an imaginary ride to nowhere on Death’s Road, an unfinished northern railroad built over the corpses of slave laborers and convicts. In between, Kempe doggedly pursues a story of Soviet nuclear malpractice in the former forbidden city of Tomsk 7, recounts tales of cannibalism on Death Island, and interviews Olga Petrovna Vereiskaya, “Stalin’s Assassin” (not really). The reader is voyaging deep within Russia’s primal heart of darkness.
Invariably Siberia’s infamous past grips the imagination of foreigners like a vice. But a territory richer in many resources and larger than the United States surely has more to offer than gore. Huge expanses of Siberia face a number of issues that resonate in the North American consciousness: preservation versus exploitation; the plight of indigenous peoples and species extinction; and centrifugal forces tugging at its unity.
For years these topics have been debated in the Soviet and Russian press. So too was the fierce battle over diverting part of the Ob-Irtysh flow to relieve drought-stricken Central Asia. More concerned with finding dead souls than living ones, SIBERIAN ODYSSEY skims the surface of such key issues or overlooks them entirely. A veteran reporter, Frederick Kempe did not exactly squander his rare opportunity to go where few Westerners have voluntarily been before, but then again he did not manage to make the most of it either.