The Chukchi lived here long before any person speaking Russian knew it: centuries before, one of a succession of peoples during the past several thousand years. They were nomads, and some Chukchi remain so, following domestic reindeer through their seasonal pastures. Alex is Chukchi, and his mother teaches Chukchi language in the regional capital. His father likes to go upriver in the autumn for days at a time to fish. He told us back at the boat how this valley would have been filled, in long-ago Augusts, with people spearing and netting salmon. Each family set up drying racks and filled them with a winter’s worth of fish, the pink strips of muscle tightening over alder-wood fires. Someone with sharp eyes might find the marks of those old camps where the bank sloughs away, under the wood of Kombinat and the concrete of Shakhtyorsky: a reindeer-horn fishhook, or a scrap of hide frozen before it rotted completely away.
Out on the bay we see the fishermen who remain: a few boats pulling in their nets, and past them, beluga whales and spotted seals. The whales are with their infants, small gray bodies that dive and surface fin-to-fin with their pearly white mothers. Their breath steams into the rainy afternoon when they break water. Nearby, a seal comes up with a salmon in its teeth, a grin interrupted by torn pearlescent flesh.
In 1985, Shakhtyorsky’s citizens celebrated the October Revolution and went to work, got married and walked their children to school, had picnics on the tundra and painted a mural on the side of one of the apartment blocks. It said “1945-1985,” with garlands below to commemorate the Soviet victory in the Great Fatherland War. People grew tomatoes and cucumbers in pitch-roofed greenhouses and went fishing on Saturdays. Salaries were high, vacations to “the mainland” of the southern USSR subsidized and ample. The fish cannery now had automatic machines that could fill and solder eighty cans a minute. Workers broke twenty or thirty thousand salmon a season into tight pink curls brined in tin, their eggs sold by the kilo. The miners mined more coal, and more people came to Shakhtyorsky. A new apartment block, its pilings drilled into the permafrost, anticipated more. The town had grown, by then, to almost three thousand residents, an entire civilization of cement and military prowess and banners proclaiming socialist triumph solid around them.
Six years later, the Soviet future was history. The promise of conquering nature and death collapsed, taking with it miners’ salaries and the ships that had supplied Shakhtyorsky with flour and tea and sugar. Tens of thousands of people left this part of Siberia, leaving cars and apartments full of furniture. There was no reason to can salmon. No one finished the apartments. In 1998, the Shakhtyorsky electric plant went silent. The town was officially abandoned.
Standing in Shakhtyorsky two decades after its closure, trying to get a sense of the place that was, I feel both like I am standing in the Soviet past and a version of the future, in two times at once. In 1985, Shakhtyorsky floated in its pool of heat and light above the tectonic power of the sub-Arctic ice, seemingly invulnerable. Nothing about that moment is very different from the concrete and coal that I too take, in my daily habits, as permanent. Who here in the Eighties would have imagined streets empty just a decade later, growing eerie as permafrost splits asphalt roads?
The animating vision in Shakhtyorsky was different, of course, than the ideal of market growth that runs through every stock market report and GDP figure in the West today. But the promise I was raised with—the promise of those market reports—is not so different than the promise in Time, Forward! It is one where the future grows materially better, year over year, inevitably. The eschatology—the theory of human destiny—put forth by capitalism, does not include this landscape, with its monuments to a world ended mid-breath. But then neither did that of socialism. The prickly feeling up and down my arms is, perhaps, my sense of having come hard up against an entropy that can only ever be forestalled. It is the sensation of imagining my own future in sedimentary terms, as a thing becomes the past underfoot.
We walk back down toward the main street. I have never seen such fireweed: the color is so bright and fills so much of the ruin it makes my breath catch. The end of Soviet time gave this plant an ideal habitat; it is a colonizer of disturbance, taking root where some kind of history—erosion, flood, fire, a bulldozer—exposes raw ground. With the fireweed come seedy grasses and cottonweed, feeding lemmings and the ground squirrels that chatter warnings at us from under empty oil drums and piled boards. Ravens and kites shelter in the upper stories of empty apartments. The mud along the side of the road is covered in red-fox tracks, here for the good hunting, and perhaps to den in a basement. The calls of sandhill cranes float down the slopes to the east; they likely have a nest there, above the old fishermen’s’ houses, and are telling us to keep our distance from their next generation.
Back down at the boat, Alex’s father has returned from his own wander. He has been all across the surface of old Shakhtyorsky, he says, looking. And finding—he brandishes the remnants of an extendable television antenna. The metal, he explains, is soft but hard to come by, and very useful. We scramble back down the muddy bank to the boat. Alex pushes us off into the bay, brown from shoreline eroding during the rain. But the clouds have passed, now, and the mosquitoes have come out, so we are in a hurry to find a breeze. The rotor of the outboard bites into the water as we swing away from the land, and Alex’s father sets a course toward the main channel.
In our wake, spotted seals pounce for fish. Behind us, Shakhtyorsky is monumentally present but fading: into the gray evening, into the distance, into a moment it was not built to countenance. Everything that rises here falls in time. The cold land holds the bones, be they calcium or concrete, for a decade or a century, slowly pressing them into strata. Out of those layers scrabbles some new being—human, sometimes, or not—able to thrive on the reclamation of recent disaster. My last glimpse, as the river takes us, is of rich hills covered by a mute tide of green and wild blooming, urgently alive.
Photo credit: Sébastien Tixier, from the series 9288
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This essay appears in issue 18 of The Point.
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