Authors: John Vaillant
For all these reasons, there is no creature in the taiga that is off limits to the tiger; it alone can mete out death at will. Amur tigers have been known to eat everything from salmon and ducks to adult brown bears. There are few wolves in Primorye, not because the environment doesn’t suit them, but because the tigers eat them, too. The Amur tiger, it could be said, takes a Stalinist approach to competition. It is also an extraordinarily versatile predator, able to survive in temperatures ranging from fifty below zero Fahrenheit to one hundred above, and to turn virtually any environment to its advantage. Though typically a forest dweller, Amur tigers may hunt on the beaches as well, using sea fog as a cover for stalking game, and driving animals into heavy surf before subduing them. One young male was observed subsisting exclusively on harbor seals, going so far as to stack their carcasses like logs for future use.
Unlike most cats, tigers are skilled, even avid, swimmers, and there are hunters and fishermen on the Bikin River who have had tigers crawl into their boats. Many encounters, including those observed by scientists and captured on video, seem lifted from myth or fiction. The occurrence, and subsequent recounting, of such incidents over dozens of millennia has embedded the tiger in our consciousness. The tiger has been a fellow traveler on our evolutionary journey and, in this sense, it is our peer. In Asia, there is no recess of human memory in which there has not—somewhere—lurked a tiger. As a result, this animal looms over the collective imagination of native and newcomer alike.
Within every major ecosystem nature has produced, she has evolved a singularly formidable predator to rule over it. In Primorye, the Amur tiger is the latest, most exquisitely lethal manifestation of this creative impulse. The indigenous peoples of Primorye—the Udeghe, Nanai, and Orochi—have always understood and acknowledged the tiger’s supremacy, and some clans claimed the tiger as a direct ancestor as much to placate it as to share its power. There appears to be no ritual of tiger killing here (as there is for bears), but there are many stories of tigers taking human wives—and husbands—and of tigers killing humans who dared to challenge them. The tiger, as indigenous peoples know it, is a consummate hunter and the undisputed lord of the taiga, possessing the ability to change shape or disappear at will. Shrines were erected in the tiger’s honor, and some of these remain; hunters would lay their weapons down and beg forgiveness if they crossed its path. The native population is now small and dilute, having suffered from the same imported diseases and depredations that wreaked havoc on their North American counterparts. Nonetheless, many veteran Russian hunters learned much of what they know about Primorye’s taiga from their Udeghe and Nanai counterparts, just as the famous Russian explorer and author Vladimir Arseniev did from Dersu Uzala, a Nanai hunter and trapper who enjoys a potent legacy here to this day.
Vladimir Arseniev was the son of an illegitimate former serf who did for Primorye what it took the combined efforts of Lewis and Clark and James Fenimore Cooper to do for the American West. Arseniev, who was born in St. Petersburg in 1872, volunteered for the czar’s army at eighteen and became a career military officer, bandit fighter, and ethnographer. Between 1900, when he was reassigned from Poland to the Far East, and his death in 1930, he led nine major expeditions during which he explored and mapped much of Primorye, in addition to the Commander Islands and the Kamchatka Peninsula. A subtext of these missions was to assess these regions’ vulnerability to Japanese attack. Throughout his life and travels, Arseniev took a keen interest in indigenous culture, and he kept careful records of the flora, fauna, and peoples he came across. In the process, he conceived a literary style that managed to blend hard science and high adventure with subtle characterization and disarming honesty.*
During his journeys, which lasted for months at a time, Arseniev encountered wild animals, Chinese bandits, typhoons, blizzards, hunger, and swarms of biting insects. He faced them all with a small retinue of Cossack soldiers and Siberian riflemen, guided by several different local hunters. It was the guides who kept him and his men alive and there was one in particular he grew to love—not as a father exactly, but as a wise and gentle protector. “Now I felt afraid of nothing,” wrote Arseniev in his perennial classic, Dersu the Trapper, “neither tigers nor brigands, nor deep snow or floods.7 Dersu was with me.”
Dersu Uzala was a solitary and elderly Nanai hunter whose family had been killed by smallpox and whose world was disintegrating before his steadily weakening eyes. Both Dersu and Arseniev understood that the primeval jungle through which they sojourned was in a state of rapid and irrevocable transformation. The Ussuri leg of the Trans-Siberian Railway had just gone through and with it came immigrants and industry on a scale that had never been seen in the region before. When Dersu’s aim began to waver, Arseniev took him home to live with his wife and daughter in Khabarovsk, the capital of the neighboring territory. But life in a box did not suit Dersu: “The prohibition on shooting within the town was an unpleasant surprise for him,” Arseniev wrote.8 Later, he was arrested for felling a tree in a local park. “He realized that in a town a man cannot live as he wishes, but as other people wish. Strangers surrounded him on every side and hampered him at every step.” It wasn’t long before Dersu returned to the forest, armed only with his increasingly unreliable rifle. Arseniev could not stop him, but he had a presentiment of dread.
Two weeks later, word got back to Arseniev that Dersu had been murdered in the snow while he slept, his pockets emptied, and his gun stolen. Arseniev traveled to the site and oversaw his burial there in the forest. A pair of tall Korean pines stood nearby, and Arseniev took note of these for future reference, but when he returned some years later to visit the grave of his old friend, it was as if they had never been. “My … landmarks had vanished.9 New roads had been made. There were quarry faces, dumps, embankments.… All around bore the signs of another life.”
“Arseniev,” wrote one biographer, “had the good sense not to live to be old.”10 By the time he died at age fifty-seven, there was a warrant out for his arrest and the remote imperial colony he had come to know more intimately than any man before or since had become a police state. Stalin had come to power, and the shadow he cast reached all the way to the Pacific; Arseniev was accused of spying for the Japanese, and his personal archives were ransacked. He died before he could be arrested, due to complications from a cold he caught on his final expedition. His widow, however, was punished in his stead: she was arrested and interrogated twice; in 1937, at the height of the purges that came to be known as the Great Terror, she was executed, also on suspicion of aiding the Japanese. According to the historian Amir Khisamutdinov, the total elapsed time from the beginning of her trial to her execution was sixteen minutes.11 The Arsenievs’ daughter, found guilty by association, spent the next fifteen years in prison camps, an ordeal from which she never fully recovered.
Somehow, the legacy of the trapper Dersu survived this scourge and the others that followed: there exists at least one photo of him and Arseniev together, and somewhere may survive a wax recording Arseniev made of Dersu’s voice. There is also the book and, more recently, a film: Akira Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala (1975), which has itself become a classic. Between the Bikin River and a peak called Tiger Mountain is a village that bears his name. The tiger was the most potent being in Dersu’s world, an object of fear and reverence; as a young man, he had been mauled by one. He called the tiger amba, a word that lives in the language to this day. It was believed in Dersu’s time that if you killed a tiger without just cause, you in turn would be killed. Likewise, if a tiger were to kill and eat a human, it would be hunted by its own kind. Both acts were considered taboo and, once these invisible boundaries had been crossed, it was all but impossible to cross back. There was an understanding in the forest then—an order. Judging from the following events, this order still exists in some places and it is not forgiving.
* The mixed (broad leaf and conifer) forests of Siberia are generally referred to as taiga. While the forests of Primorye differ in some very significant ways, they go by this name as well.
* Arseniev’s account of his adventures with Dersu Uzala reflects a tendency among many Russian writers to use facts not as inflexible units of information, but as malleable elements that may be arranged, elaborated on, or added to as the author sees fit. Evidence of this can be found throughout the country’s nonfiction and journalism. On a practical level, fact checking and the documentation of sources is pursued much less rigorously in Russia than in many Western countries. But there is a more serious problem and that is that the notions of “truth” and “fact” have been so aggressively stifled in Russia since czarist times that its effects have impacted the collective psyche of the country, including writers, who, if they told the truth, did so at considerable risk. As a result, many “factual” Russian narratives should probably be approached as memoirs: subjective interpretations of events that may not have occurred exactly as described. It is by no means unique to Russia, but the most egregious examples of this freewheeling approach to reportage are to be found in the State’s representation of itself, a tendency that transcends regime and political philosophy.
But we are what we are, and we might remember
Not to hate any person, for all are viciousROBINSON JEFFERS,
YURI TRUSH AND VLADIMIR MARKOV WERE BORN WITHIN A YEAR OF each other, both in European Russia, but they were drawn into this exotic sylvan netherworld by very different paths. That they would represent opposing points on the spectrum of possibility was as much a reflection of personality as it was an adaptation to opportunity. Trush, like Markov, was a relative latecomer to the Far East. He was born in 1950, and raised in a village outside the city of Nizhny Novgorod, about halfway between Moscow and the Ural Mountains. His maternal grandfather was a decorated major general who died in battle at the outset of the Second World War. His father, Anatoly, a senior lieutenant, survived the siege of Leningrad, which lasted two and a half years. Father and son hunted in the pine forests surrounding his village, and Yuri saw some things there that left deep impressions.
In the early 1960s, when Trush was about fourteen, he remembers going to the local tavern with his father. There were other hunters there, friends of his father, and they were discussing boar hunting. One man—half drunk—spoke loudly of the pregnant sow he’d shot out of season. It is a generally accepted rule among hunters that you don’t shoot pregnant animals, and a silence fell over the room. Then the voices rose again and overwhelmed the bragging man, who was taken outside and beaten severely.
In his early twenties, Trush had another formative experience, this time on the steppes of western Kazakhstan. His job at a gold mine there had ended, and he was briefly unemployed. An able hunter, Trush turned to his gun for sustenance. He answered a call to join in a market hunt for saiga, a bizarre-looking antelope with translucent corkscrew horns and a trunklike snout that looks like a throwback to the Pleistocene. In the 1970s, saiga roamed the steppes of Central Asia in herds of thousands. The plan was to kill the animals en masse and sell the meat and skin to the European market and the horns to China where they are believed by many to boost male potency. This was a government-sanctioned operation, and it took place at night. About a dozen armed men in trucks headed out shortly after dusk; they had powerful lights with them, and when a herd was located they turned them on. The animals froze in their tracks, mesmerized, and the men opened fire at uncountable pairs of glowing eyes. Dozens of antelope were killed on the spot, but many more escaped, mortally wounded. “We would go back out in daylight to collect the injured ones, but we couldn’t get them all,” Trush recalled. “You weren’t able to see it at night, but it was obvious during the day how much the animals suffered. It was a sea of blood.” He stuck with it for a few weeks, and then quit in disgust. Animals, he feels, should have a sporting chance; the field should be level between hunter and prey. “I can still see the blood, the heat and their suffering,” he said. “That’s why I didn’t last long there: it was too barbaric. And that’s why I’m so ruthless with the hunters now who hunt at night with the help of jack lights. I don’t consider that hunting; I think it is a massacre.”
Trush’s affinity for the land and its creatures stuck with him throughout the years he spent underground maintaining mine shaft elevators in Kazakhstan. During his off time he volunteered as a fishing inspector and this was where he discovered his true calling. “There would be situations with these poachers,” he explained. “Sometimes fights would ensue; shots would be fired. Escape and chase were possible. I like those things; I like being in confrontational situations.”
But they didn’t pay the bills, so when Russia invaded Afghanistan, Trush volunteered to go. When it began at the end of 1979, the Afghan War was seen by many Russian men as an opportunity not only to serve the cause of socialism, but to grasp the coattails of their fathers’ glory in the Great Patriotic War (World War II). Though he already held the rank of lieutenant, Trush was refused because of his age. Instead, he spent fifteen more years in the mines where he earned a reputation for diligence and integrity that caught the attention of his bosses. In spite of his eligibility, Trush never joined the Communist Party; he had no illusions about the corruption rampant within it.
In 1994, while working as a foreman at a coal mine in Primorye, Trush was approached by an acquaintance who worked in environmental protection. A new agency was being formed, and he thought that Trush, with his athleticism, pugnacity, and interest in hunting, might be a good candidate. Trush was intrigued and, in March of that year, he found himself in Vladivostok, standing before a short, barrel-chested man with a predilection for pipes and military finery; the man’s name was Vladimir Ivanovich Schetinin, and he was the deputy chairman of Primorye’s Ministry of Environmental Protection. Schetinin was in the process of creating something unprecedented in the history of Russian wildlife conservation.