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World's End

Author: Nikolai Gernet
Translation: Paul E. Richardson

Mar/Apr 2014
Page 52   ( 8 pages)

Summary: The North can bewitch you, as Nikolai Gernet is reminded when he visits one of Russia’s most remote and attractive outposts.


“Seryoga, how on earth did you get this thing here?”

My question evokes a smile from the driver of the beat-up old Niva. The SUV shakes and skids a bit in the sand as we drive along the central and, truth be told, only road through one of the northernmost settlements on the Yamal Peninsula.

“Yeah, my parents moved us here when I was young... They just wanted to earn enough to buy their own car. Then they changed their mind and stayed.”

The snow lies on the ground here from September to June. The rest of the year there is endless rain, wind and dense fog. But this is The North. It casts a spell on you.

It’s possible to get from the regional capital, Salekhard, to distant peninsular villages via regularly scheduled helicopter flights... if you are lucky with the weather and can wrangle a ticket.

I opt instead to travel by boat, and for the next 20 hours float down the Ob River, soaking in views of the deserted tundra. From time to time our ship is engulfed in a cloud of “milk” fog. We enter into something like an alternate reality: all sense of direction or movement is lost, only to be interrupted by the occasional sound of foghorns from boats passing nearby.

Fortuitously, I fall asleep and don’t have to keep listening to the patriotic diatribes of my neighbor, a former police offer.

His words acquire significance a few days later, however, when I find myself nearly 50 kilometers beyond the Polar Circle. Behind me, as far as I can see, is the tundra; before me – to the extent it is visible – is the limitless expanse of the Ob Gulf.

In a place like this, a person stops associating the landscape with this or that country, and begins to wonder if he is even on his home planet...

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