Authors: John Vaillant
Animal attacks are relatively common in the taiga, but they probably would be anywhere you had two species of bear, two species of big cat, and humans all vying in earnest for similar prey. In Amgu, a dicey, off-grid village on the coast, an alarming percentage of the male population carries evidence of mauling; even Trush has been attacked by a bear. However, such encounters are usually spontaneous, impulsive responses to immediate threats, competition, or surprise. Everything Trush was seeing now suggested something else. With each piece of evidence, new colors were being added to the spectrum of his understanding.
Tigers are ambush hunters, and this—the practice of stealth coupled with the element of surprise—is what has enabled this solitary predator to kill fast-moving, often dangerous game for eons, through major variations in climate and landscape. But this tiger, on this occasion, made no attempt whatsoever to conceal itself. Not finding what it sought at the wellhead or around the cabin, the tiger lay down in the open by the entrance road and waited—again. Seen together, all of these signs, and all of these behaviors, implied an alarming confidence and clarity of purpose. As Trush and his team pieced the evidence together, they came to understand that this tiger was not hunting for animals, or even for humans; he was hunting for Markov.
And menacingly the mighty vastness envelops me, reflected with terrible force in my depths.NIKOLAI GOGOL,
VLADIMIR MARKOV HAD A HISTORY WITH TIGERS, AND IT TOOK THE form not of a linear continuum but of a steadily tightening spiral. The first loose turns appeared to be accidents of history, but many Russians would call them twists of fate. Were one to try to identify the single most important influence on Markov’s destiny—besides Markov himself—it would probably be a toss-up between Mao Zedong and perestroika. Had there been no Cultural Revolution, and no pitched battle for control of China’s Communist Party, it is unlikely that Markov ever would have ventured past the Urals. Had perestroika not occurred, Markov and many others would not have found themselves desperate enough to do virtually anything—including hunt tigers—for money.
Vladimir Markov was born on February 14, 1951, at the extreme opposite end of Russia, on the shattered margin of a shell-shocked empire in which his parents were not so much citizens as survivors. They lived in Kaliningrad, the diminutive province wedged between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea that was formerly a German territory. Most of the capital city, Königsberg, and its strategic port were still in ruins after being heavily bombed by the British during the summer of 1944 and then shelled relentlessly by the Soviets during the winter and spring of 1945. After the war, Königsberg was renamed Kaliningrad. It became the base for the Soviet Baltic Fleet and, like Vladivostok, its Pacific counterpart, the city was declared off limits to outsiders.
This occurred at the same time that George Orwell’s 1984 was introducing Western readers to a terrifying new reality, one that resembled the nascent Kaliningrad more closely than Orwell could have imagined. As Kaliningrad crawled to its feet out of the rubble and ash of Königsberg, it did so in the Stalinist image of urban development and social control. Replacing medieval towers, parapets, and gargoyles were bleak and poorly built concrete apartment blocks enlivened only by statues and murals of Lenin’s goateed visage that oversaw one’s every move and bannered slogans that intruded on one’s private thoughts.
Lenin may have envisioned it, but Stalin mastered it: the ability to disorient and disconnect individuals and large populations, not just from their physical surroundings and core communities but, ultimately, from themselves. Kaliningrad was a case in point. After being flattened, purged, and renamed, both city and province were repopulated with ethnic Russians. Markov’s parents were part of this mass geopolitical revision and, in their case, it wasn’t a random assignment. Ilya Markov was a ship’s mechanic who, though seriously injured during the war, was needed for service in the Baltic Fleet. Markov’s mother had worked to support the war effort, too, and one can only imagine the Orwellian fever dream she now found herself in: raising a family under Stalin, often single-handed, in the ruins of a stolen medieval city that had been transformed into a military zone and then sealed off from the outside world.
The Great Patriotic War had scarcely concluded before the USSR began rebuilding and retooling for the Cold War. While Soviet engineers and scientists perfected the now ubiquitous AK-47 and tested the country’s first nuclear weapons, the general population reeled from the catastrophic synergy generated by six years of war and the seemingly endless nightmare of Stalin’s psychotic reign. During the two decades prior to Markov’s birth, the Soviet Union lost approximately 35 million citizens—more than one fifth of its population—to manufactured famines, political repression, genocide, and war. Millions more were imprisoned, exiled, or forced to relocate, en masse, across vast distances. With the possible exception of China under Mao Zedong, it is hard to imagine how the fabric of a country could have been more thoroughly shredded from within and without.
Almost as soon as Stalin died, in 1953, the untenable nature of the Soviet empire began to reveal itself to the outside world, and it wasn’t long before the fraternal solidarity that had existed between the Soviets and the Chinese since 1949 began to break down as well. The stresses began to tell in the late 1950s, after Mao accused Stalin’s more moderate successor, Nikita Khrushchev, of betraying Marx’s vision. China, then in the throes of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, was mimicking some of Lenin’s and Stalin’s most disastrous policies and programs with one result being that the country suffered the worst famine in its history—perhaps in all of history. Between 1958 and 1962, China strove to create an illusion of industrial progress by producing ton upon ton of useless low-grade steel, but it did so at the expense of basic food production. Not only did the massive project draw countless workers away from the fields, it claimed their tools as well: in a futile effort to reach unattainable production quotas, even shovels and plowshares were melted down. Hoping to save face and conceal the true costs of this Great Leap Forward, China continued to export grain (to Russia, among other countries) with the result that tens of millions of peasants starved to death.
In an effort to deflect the blame for this catastrophe, Mao chastised Khrushchev for recalling China’s Soviet advisors and for calling in the substantial debts China had incurred during the Korean War. In fact, China’s Communist Party was in the midst of a vicious power struggle, which Mao would win, but at enormous national cost. Many in the Kremlin, still recovering from thirty years of Stalin, saw a frighteningly familiar scenario developing with Mao’s own cult of personality, and this was one of several reasons the Soviets sought to distance themselves from their communist “little brother.” As relations deteriorated, the tension manifested itself along contested sections of their shared border, which, at the time, was 4,650 miles long. The scabs Mao chose to pick at were more than a century old, but they served his purpose well.
The wounds Mao sought to reopen had been inflicted during the nineteenth century when the future superpowers were grinding against each other like so many tectonic plates. The world as we know it was forming then, along fault lines of race, culture, and geography. By mid-century, though, China was in trouble: embroiled in the Opium Wars with France and England, it was further hobbled by a protracted internal rebellion that had left Manchuria effectively defenseless. Imperial Russia had already taken advantage of this window of weakness on its Pacific frontier by annexing all disputed lands north of the Amur River in 1858. Two years later, Czar Alexander II went a step further and coerced the Chinese into signing the Treaty of Peking, thereby adding another slice of Outer Manchuria—what is now Primorye and southern Khabarovsk Territory—to the Russian empire. In the mid-1960s, it seemed as if Mao might try to get them back.
While Chairman Mao was engineering his Great Leap Forward and vying for control of China’s Communist Party, he was also publicly criticizing the Treaty of Peking, even going so far as to demand reparations from Russia. By 1968 Sino-Soviet relations had sunk to a historic low, and one of the by-products was a new front in the Cold War. It yawned open in a surprising place: a small island in the middle of the Ussuri River, twenty miles due west of Yuri Trush’s hometown. The Russians call it Damansky Island and the Chinese call it Zhen Bao (Treasure Island); either way, this seasonally flooded smear of field and forest exhibits no obvious strategic value. Nonetheless, its ambiguous location met Mao’s criteria for a contentious and unifying reminder of past humiliations at the hands of a long-dead imperialist.
By the winter of 1968, the island and adjacent riverbank had become the site of increasingly violent skirmishes—brawls, really—between Chinese and Soviet border guards. “Each Siberian would be confronted by a cluster of Chinese servicemen armed with boat hooks, pickets and sticks with spiked heads,” wrote Lieutenant General (Ret.)2 Vitaly Bubenin, who was declared a Hero of the Soviet Union for his bravery during the climax of these confrontations. “We didn’t have body armor back then. My men were wearing thick winter sheepskin jackets. The fights occurred on a daily basis and … we realized that we wouldn’t last long using our bare hands. We got ourselves some bear spears and maces with metal heads similar to those used by epic warriors.… The weapons become hugely popular with all the border guards stationed around the area.”
Seen from a distance as they played out across the moonlit snow and through the leafless willows, these running battles would have borne a striking resemblance to the first confrontations between Cossacks and Manchus three hundred years earlier. Mao, it is now generally believed, was capitalizing on these historic rivalries in an effort to whip up some politically useful nationalistic fervor. However, he had chosen to do this with the world’s leading nuclear power: it was brinkmanship of a bold and frightening kind. On March 2, 1969, two weeks after Vladimir Markov reached draft age, the border guards’ strict no-shooting order was violated in the form of a carefully orchestrated ambush by the Chinese. In the ensuing gun battle, the first of its kind on a Russian border since the Second World War, thirty-one Russians were gunned down. Within days, thousands of Russian and Chinese troops, backed by artillery, were massed along the frozen Ussuri.
On March 15, three days before the United States began its four-year bombing campaign against Cambodia, there was a major battle at Damansky/Zhen Bao in which hundreds of Russian and Chinese soldiers died. Both nations, sobered by the potential for a full-blown war, withdrew to their respective sides. Mao ordered extensive tunnel networks to be dug on the Ussuri’s left bank, allegedly in preparation for a nuclear attack by Russia. Moscow, too, prepared for the worst, calling for a major troop buildup along the Ussuri and Amur rivers. Five thousand miles away, in Kaliningrad, Vladimir Markov received his draft notice. By the end of 1969, twenty-nine divisions of the Soviet army (nearly half a million soldiers) were massed along the border, and Private Markov was among them. For a seaman’s son from Baltic Russia, it would have been hard to imagine a more remote posting, or a less auspicious one.
Soviet Russia’s secrecy and paranoia are legendary to the point of caricature, but they were also real: information of all kinds was so strictly controlled that ordinary Russians were uninformed, or intentionally misinformed, about politically sensitive areas. The Far East contained many such zones, including important mines, gulags, and military bases. Because Primorye and southern Khabarovsk Territory were effectively sandwiched between China and the Pacific coast (which was deemed vulnerable to Japanese and American infiltration), security was particularly tight there. As a result, Markov was going from one forbidden zone to another; this was a place that he and many of his fellow draftees may not have even known existed. Despite nearly two decades of relative openness, this is apparently still the case, if for different reasons. When a literate young Muscovite, bound for a prestigious American music school, was asked about Primorye in July of 2008, he said he hadn’t heard of it. “Maybe it’s near Iran,” he guessed.3 To the more straightforward question, “Are there tigers in Russia?” he answered, “I think only in the circus.” For many Russian urbanites, “Russia” stops at the Urals, if not sooner. Beyond that is Siberia—a bad joke, and after that, well, who really cares?
In the minds of most Russians, the Far East lies over the edge of the known world and is, itself, a form of oblivion. For any European Russian, whether ordinary worker or privileged member of the nomenklatura,* a one-way ticket like Markov’s was tantamount to banishment. His was the same route undertaken by hundreds of thousands of exiles dating back to Czarist times. Some of the country’s most notorious prisons and labor camps were located there, including the dreaded and, for many years, unmentionable Sakhalin Island, a frigid and lonely sub-planet from which many never returned.
Regardless of what he knew beforehand, Markov’s nonstop train ride from the thickly settled shadowlands of the Iron Curtain to the vast and empty wilderness hugging Asia’s Pacific coast would have been radical and disorienting, not to mention interminable. The journey from Kaliningrad to Khabarovsk, the regional capital of the Far East, takes one a quarter of the way around the world. To get there in 1969 would have meant two to three weeks on the Trans-Siberian, the tracks unspooling into the future with agonizing slowness like a real-time progression of Eurasian conquest and collapse. Khabarovsk is situated at a strategic bend in the Amur River, less than ten miles from its confluence with the Ussuri and the Chinese frontier. One hundred and fifty miles to the south, just over the Primorye border, lies the Bikin valley and the site of Sobolonye, a village that did not exist when Markov first arrived in the region.