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Authors: John Vaillant

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BOOK: The Tiger
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“Ivan is grown up now,” Andrei explained, “but to this day he has a nickname—the Czar. It was Markiz’s blessing.”

Some of Markov’s jokes were set-pieces and when he told them he would affect a Caucasus accent and the gender confusion that often goes with it, both of which are funny to many Russians in the same way that Southern accents combined with poor grammar are funny to many Americans. Stalin was from the Caucasus, so for Russians of a certain age this accent has a certain chilling significance.* Mocking it is one way for survivors of that era to siphon off some of the residual toxins. Included in Markov’s repertoire were queries to a fictitious call-in show on Armenian Radio. Armenian Radio is an imaginary station that emerged in the Russian consciousness during the 1950s and is known throughout the former Soviet Union. Broadcasting out of the southern Caucasus, it offers free advice on topics ranging from sex to socialist doctrine. The ground rules are simple and reflect the reality of many Russians: “Ask us whatever you want, we will answer whatever we want.”

One example goes like this:

This is Armenian Radio. Our listeners asked us:

“Is it all right to have sex in Red Square?”

We’re answering:

“Yes. But only if you want lots of advice.”

The Soviet regime was a popular target:

This is Armenian Radio. Our listeners asked us:

“Why is our government not in a hurry to land our men on the moon?”

We’re answering:

“What if they refuse to return?”

Markov was well disposed toward this brand of humor and, in his own small “listening area,” he functioned as a kind of pirate station, a one-man Sobolonye Radio.

It was due, in part, to his humor and good nature that Markov attracted the attention of the boss of the logging company, a man known to his hundreds of employees as Boris Ivanovich.* Given his combination of talents, Markov would have been good company on long trips through rough country, and this was why Boris Ivanovich hired him as his personal driver, making Markov one of very few people ever to chauffeur a limousine through tiger country. Under the circumstances, Boris had made an odd choice of vehicles: a Volga sedan. Volgas are considered luxury cars and, during Soviet times, they were usually associated with diplomats and high-ranking Party officials. Needless to say, they are a much more plausible sight on the broad boulevards of Moscow and St. Petersburg than in the backwoods of Primorye. It conjures an image that is both poignant and faintly bizarre: Markiz, the short and cheery jokester, dressed in a white shirt and trousers, conveying his well-connected communist boss in high style through the mud, dust, and snow of the Bikin valley. Given the available options, it is hard to imagine a safer occupation. It would have been hard to believe that Markov would earn the tragic distinction of being the only chauffeur in Russia—perhaps anywhere—ever to be eaten by a tiger.

Markov was also registered as a professional hunter with Alufchanski, just as Lev Khomenko had been. Markov, like most hunters and trappers in the region, focused on sable, a large member of the weasel family that is to Russian fur trappers what the beaver was to their North American counterparts (Sobolonye means, literally, “Sable Place”). Alufchanski purchased furs and wild meat from local hunters and trappers at centrally established rates, thereby creating a stable and secure national market that made it possible to earn an honest living from the forest. Until very recently, the fur industry was a mainstay of the Far Eastern economy and a key supplier to the world market. Like early accounts from the United States and Canada, most folktales, histories, travelogues, and biographies from Primorye address the fur trade in one way or another. Its central role offers a graphic illustration of Primorye’s quasi-colonial status as resource-rich and industry-poor: to this day, pelts gathered here are shipped 1,500 miles west to Irkutsk, Siberia, for processing, just as they were three hundred years ago. Irkutsk is located near Lake Baikal, which once marked the western boundary of the Amur tiger’s range. Until about a century ago, the provincial coat of arms featured a tiger bearing a sable in its jaws.

In addition to being a robust singer and life of the party, Markov liked to read, and Tamara Borisova remembers a number of his favorites, including Arseniev’s Dersu the Trapper, but there was one in particular that he couldn’t seem to get enough of. Based on a true story, the book was called The Headless Horseman: A Strange Tale of Texas. It was first published in 1866 by the best-selling Irish-American author Captain Mayne Reid, a journalist and adventurer who also fought in the Mexican-American War. Reid’s works have been largely forgotten by English readers, but they remained popular in Russia through the Brezhnev era. Theodore Roosevelt and Vladimir Arseniev were both fans, and so was Vladimir Nabokov, who, as a boy, particularly liked The Headless Horseman, going so far as to translate part of it into twelve-syllable alexandrine verses. Reid’s prose is thick, florid, and long-winded by today’s standards and, in Russian, his books run to five and six hundred pages. They combine Victorian romance with red-blooded action and have titles like No Quarter! and Tracked to Death. Another was called The Tiger-Hunter. Borisova couldn’t explain why The Headless Horseman captured her husband’s imagination, but she recalls him reading it at least three times. “Soon, you will know it by heart,” she told him.

The 1980s were good years for Markov: the work was steady and he led what some might call a balanced life. His wife adored him. But when he was off hunting and trapping in the taiga, she worried. Sometimes, he would be gone for weeks at a time. “He would come home and tell me he had seen tiger tracks,” Borisova recalled in her kitchen, next to a monolithic Russian stove made of crumbling concrete. “I would say, ‘You have to be more careful out there,’ and he would say, ‘Why should I be afraid of her? She should be afraid of me!’ ”

* After studying the files of Stalin’s political prisoners, historian Roy Medvedev concluded that 200,000 people were imprisoned for telling jokes.2

* When addressing or referring to elders and other respected persons in Russia, it is customary to use the patronymic without the last name, e.g., “Boris Ivanovich”—literally, “Boris son of Ivan.”


Confucius was passing by Mount Tai when he saw a distraught woman weeping by a grave. Resting his hands on the wooden bar at the front of his carriage, he listened to her wailing. Then, he sent a student to speak the following words: “A great misfortune must have befallen you, that you cry so bitterly.” She answered, “Indeed it is so. My husband and his father have both been killed by tigers, and now my son, too, has fallen prey to them.” Confucius asked, “Why do you remain here?” She answered, “No callous government rules here.” Confucius said, “Remember that, my students. Callous government is more ravenous than tigers.”“The Book of Rites”1

BY THE MID-1980S, THE SOVIET UNION HAD BEGUN TO UNRAVEL AS THE gross inefficiencies of central planning began manifesting themselves in painfully obvious ways. However, the country was far too unstable and encumbered by its own history to allow a gradual transition toward a market economy, or the democracy such a transition was supposed to bring about. Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempt to open the Soviet Union resembled Pandora’s attempt to open her box: there was simply no way to do it gradually. Once that lid was cracked, it blew off altogether. In Russia’s case, the walls fell down, too. As the Communist Bloc disintegrated, decades, generations—entire lifetimes—of frustration, discontent, stifled rage, and raw ambition came boiling out, never to be contained again. The vast majority of Russians were completely unprepared for the ensuing free-for-all.

But Armenian Radio kept up with the times:

Our listeners asked us:

“What is chaos?”

We’re answering:

“We do not comment on economic policy.”“What is ‘Russian business’?”

We’re answering:

“To steal a crate of vodka, sell it, and drink the money away.”

Many Russians blame Boris Yeltsin for “breaking everything,” but he had plenty of eager assistants. In an eerie parallel to the Bolshevik Revolution seventy years earlier, a wholesale looting of the country took place as the pendulum swung to the opposite extreme. Entire industries were commandeered and privatized, and vast territories were transformed into virtual fiefdoms. While there was a halfhearted attempt to include the public by issuing shares in these new private companies, most Russians had no idea what they were and sold them immediately, often for a pittance. On Yeltsin’s watch, the ignorance of many, combined with the cleverness of a few, allowed for the biggest, fastest, and most egregiously unjust reallocation of wealth and resources in the history of the world. It was klepto-capitalism on a monumental scale, but it wasn’t the first time. The Bolsheviks had done something similar under Lenin.

The scale of theft following the October Revolution of 1917 was equally grand for its time, but the motives and methods were even more ruthless. During the heady and violent period following the Revolution, there was a mass pillaging of privately held lands and property. Anyone who had employees or a surplus—of anything—was branded an “enemy of the people.” Thievery, vandalism, and murder were performed by the imported thugs who did much of Lenin’s heavy lifting, encouraged by self-serving Party slogans like “Rob the Robbers!”*2 Lenin may have preached Marx, but his methods were decidedly Machiavellian: “It is precisely now and only now,” he wrote, in a top secret memorandum to the Politburo during a severe famine in 1922,3

when in the starving regions people are eating human flesh, and hundreds if not thousands of corpses are littering the roads, that we can (and therefore must) carry out the confiscation of church valuables with the utmost savagery and merciless energy … so as to secure for ourselves a fund of several hundred million gold rubles.… We must teach these [clergy] a lesson right now, so that they will not dare even to think of any resistance for several decades.

Under both Lenin and Yeltsin, it was a small elite with close ties to the Kremlin who controlled these acquisitions and identified the beneficiaries. In part because of the abuses of power perpetrated during Soviet times, there is an enormous cynicism among contemporary Russian leadership that resounds like an echo from communism’s earliest days. Today, it manifests as capitalism in its most primitive and rapacious form. In the chaos following the privatization cum fire sale of the Soviet Union’s most valuable assets, one ambitious and well-connected young man named Roman Abramovich effectively acquired the vast Far Eastern autonomous region of Chukotka, along with its staggeringly lucrative oilfields. By the time he was thirty, Abramovich had become one of the richest men in the world, which he remains to this day (he resigned as governor in 2008). But he is only one example. In 2008, nineteen of the world’s one hundred richest people were Russians.4 This statistic is all the more remarkable when you consider that most major fortunes are either inherited or built systematically, over the course of a lifetime. Russia’s oligarchs, on the other hand, became multibillionaires virtually overnight, many while still in their thirties.

Throughout the early 1990s, state-owned companies collapsed and shriveled, one after another, like deflating balloons, and among them was the company that was Sobolonye’s sole reason for being. An elderly huntress and former tree faller who now goes by the name of Baba Liuda summed up her community’s rise and fall: “We came in 1979, and everything was new and beautiful; the roads were good; the loggers were taking trees out day and night. Life was good to us. Then, perestroika came and everything was ‘reorganized.’ Who needs Sobolonye now? Nobody does.”

The Middle Bikin National Forest Enterprise died a slower death than most, first pulling out of Sobolonye around 1992, and then out of its sister village, Yasenovie. By 1994, the operation had retreated to Verkhny Pereval, where it shut down altogether, leaving the residents of Sobolonye with two stark choices: they could abandon their homes and social network on the off chance they would find something better elsewhere (an unlikely prospect in mid-1990s Russia). Or they could stay and live off the land in defiance of a system of laws that seems strategically designed to punish the poor.

At this point, Markov was in his early forties; he had spent more than half his adult life in Sobolonye and he had made some good friends there. He had also made some serious commitments. Because of this, and because the forest offered him and his neighbors a measure of security that nothing else in Russia could match, he decided to stay, along with about 250 others. What emerged over the next fifteen years was a kind of feral community, left largely to its own devices. In this sense, Sobolonye offers a foretaste of a postindustrial world.

By 1997, the village of Sobolonye, then only twenty-five years old, was already falling into ruin. Though still inhabited, it had the feel of a ghost town, a place where the boom had busted and the life drained out, leaving the survivors to struggle on in a desolate, man-made limbo. By then, the rec center had burned down, along with a number of houses, including Markov’s. The family moved to another house, but very little had survived the fire. As if in response to the prevailing spirit of decay, the two-story brick building that housed the diesel generator began crumbling in on itself. And yet the generator continued to rumble away inside, like a stubborn heart in the dying body of the village. Danila Zaitsev and a few others, including Markov, took shifts, sleeping next to it in a decrepit trailer, nursing it along.

Sobolonye has, like Chernobyl, become a kind of accidental monument to a Russian catastrophe, only nobody outside the Bikin valley has ever heard of it. Though it was hailed as a positive development in the West, few Westerners fully grasp the toll perestroika took and continues to take on the country. Among Russians, it has since earned the ignominious nickname “Katastroika.” Proof of this abounds in Sobolonye, a place where civilization as most of us understand it has effectively collapsed. The status quo of dysfunction here was summed up by the local postman, who traveled his hairy, backcountry route in a government van decorated with tassels, fringe, and an inverted American flag. After stopping in at Sobolonye’s administrative offices one winter day in 2007, he returned to his vehicle shaking his head. “There’s no government here,” he said.5 “It’s anarchy!”

BOOK: The Tiger
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