by Tobias Thornes
Like a great, central artery, the Trans-Siberian Railway sweeps right across the vast expanse of Russia the giant. From Vladivostok in the East to Moscow in the West, through snowy plains and forested mountains, crossing countless streams with names unknown to travellers overwhelmed by so great a swiftly sweeping, vanishing array, it can transport you in less than a week from end to end.
Joining this aged network from its newest, northern limb on my slow cross-country journey across the ‘Second World’, I stopped some third of the way westwards in the sub-polar city of Irkutsk. That city, in itself, proved a place of little splendour, save for its exquisite gaily-coloured Orthodox churches still stamping a magical and distinctly Russian character upon a settlement rendered somewhat drab by Soviet-era changes. Here are ugly twentieth-century buildings – assaults against the art of architecture just as atrocious as any other turgid post-war tower-blocks in the West or in the East.
But what I’d really come for was every bit the gleaming gem of Russian natural beauty that I’d been promised it would be. Surrounded by mountains that predate the dinosaurs, atop a seven-kilometre-deep sediment-filled rift that stood the test of thirty million years, lies the largest, deepest, oldest body of fresh water on Earth: Lake Baikal, ‘Nature Lake’.
Its waters, also some of the world’s clearest, stretch down to a depth of over one and a half kilometres, teeming with life. Gazing in awe upon this glassy expanse, it was difficult to imagine such profound deeps, and the many unique and wonderful works of nature concealed therein. Arriving on an antique, picturesque railway that man had made, in a quainter era, to skirt this great mirror of enchanted adoration, I saw its timeless beauty from many angles – except of course from beneath the icy waves.
That I did not submerge my own body within those frigid waters was perhaps just as well: I discovered that the lake may be clear, but it isn’t always clean.Every year several thousand tonnes of liquid waste disgorge into the crystal waters from bulging boats and tourist resorts that dot the shoreline. And for nearly five decades a paper mill pumped in pollutants, threatening the age-old kaleidoscope of life for the sake of empty pages belched out in their blank, faceless reams.
Baikal’s very vastness almost made it vulnerable, not long ago, to the threat of an oilier ooze, as profit-pained prospectors sought the quickest path to lay a Russia-China pipeline, right through its sacred waters, carrying with it all the risk of potential leaks and spills. Fortunately, the government stepped in and diverted the pipe just days before its construction, and instead of a paper mill I was greeted by the Baikal Nature Reserve exhibit that has somewhat ironically replaced it. Maybe this special place will survive the murky footprint of recent modernity after all.
Yet if the future’s clean and green, Russia certainly hasn’t kept up with the times. The contribution of renewable energy to its electricity has been almost static for years, being mostly in the form of decades-old hydroelectric dams. Russia’s commitments under the Paris Climate Change Agreement somewhat craftily constitute a thirty per cent emissions cut by 2030 on the 1990 levels of the filthy USSR, which is actually a rise relative to today.
For Russia, fossil fuel is king, and she draws in huge sums selling billions of barrels of oil and voluminous quantities of gas west into Europe and now south, via a new body of pipelines, to a China hungry for energy and eager to abandon its even dirtier coal. There are reserves without reckoning lurking beneath Siberia, enough to cause climatic devastation if the world doesn’t change its habits and avert an impending apocalypse of its own invention. Russia’s whole ‘business model’ is based on the hope that it will not.
Nor is nuclear power such a promising prospect as it once was set to be. The Trans-Siberian took me on through the rugged Urals region, where Earth’s most aged mountains stretch to the sky in a barrier 2500 kilometres long from north to south. The region became, from the twentieth century, Russia’s poisoned industrial heart, as factories and people poured east to escape the spectre of German occupation in the Second World War.
The mountains are as safe a refuge as any, driving such a cleft that the climate on their Siberia-facing eastern slopes is noticeably different to that of their warmer western fringes. This was where, in the heady rush of wars both hot and cold, Russia sought to develop herself into the world’s nuclear superpower. The hideous remnants of a too-hasty dabbling in dangerous physics are still there, supposedly secret but impossible to hide.
The Urals are a place of dark forest and deep mines, beautiful on the surface but hiding ugly truths. My train didn’t run through the little town of Kyshtym, site of the world’s third worst nuclear disaster in September 1957. For a decade the research centre there had dumped unfiltered radioactive waste into the now hopelessly corrupted Techa River, a tirade of toxic sludge accumulating in a squalid soup in Karachay Lake.
When a waste tank was finally installed instead, little care was taken to keep it properly cool. The resulting explosion sent deadly soot settling for miles around. But few knew of the true extent of this hushed-up horror, and some nearby neighbourhoods – though dangerously radioactive – weren’t evacuated for over a year. It was not until 1976 that the USSR at last admitted to the rest of the world just why the security of the Kryshtym ‘nature reserve’ was so strictly enforced. The Techa River still retains thirty times the safe concentration of tritium.
But it wasn’t radiation poisoning that filled me with fear for the future as I descended from the Urals, which in many parts remain a wonderland of wildlife despite the industrial incursions. It’s worth remembering that many, many more people will die from the toxic fumes spat out by power-stations greedily guzzling Russia’s unspent reserves of coal than have died in all the world’s nuclear power disasters to date.
Air pollution remains the world’s biggest premature killer. And that’s without even counting the cost of the climate change catalysed by those carbon belching furnaces. If Russia wants lasting prosperity, and to preserve all this beauty for future generations, it’s rather the country’s barmy business model that’s going to have to change.