Lake Baikal: an evocation.


At 25 million years of age, Lake Baikal is the oldest and, with its deepest point of more than one mile, the most voluminous freshwater lake in the world. Its often crystal-clear depths contain at least a fifth of all freshwater on the earth's surface. Yet in recent years it has been faced with enormous challenges.

In 1966, the Baykalsk Pulp and Paper Mill was built directly on the shoreline, bleaching paper with chlorine and discharging waste into Baikal. After 42 years of protests, the plant was closed in November 2008 and four months later, its owner announced the mill would never reopen. Other challenges arrived. The Russian state oil company Transneft planned a pipeline that would have come within a half mile of the lakeshore in a zone of substantial seismic activity. Finally, bowing to an unceasing campaign of protest, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered the route shifted 25 miles to the north.

For the past half century, one Russian, with the unlikely name of Valentin Rasputin, has watched over the fortunes of Lake Baikal--battled for its very survival, transcending regime changes, political turmoil, and financial pressures. One of his nation's greatest poets and writers, a political and literary lightning rod for generations, he has, for his efforts, garnered communism's Nobel Prize--the Order of Lenin--and managed to win respect and an enormous following in the decades since the fall and dismemberment of the Soviet state.

Much of his advocacy has been expressed in the lyrical prose and poetry, so evocative of the essence of Lake Baikal--the steam rising off its vast surface in the cold Siberian air--of the psychic import of this huge freshwater body to the spirit of the Russian people. The few such passages that have found their way to the West are a tribute to his longtime friend and translator, Gerald E. Mikkelson, chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Kansas. World Policy Journal is fortunate to publish an excerpt of one descriptive passage from "Lake Baikal Before My Eyes: An Essay."

The more time you spend at Lake Baikal, the more persistently you study it, ponder it, look for the answers to its riddles and for the lines it has written that, like a magic charm, would let you find and open its hidden "doors," then the more clearly you become convinced that you know it less and less. And that any attempt to plumb its depths, the many depths besides those of its waters, merely pushes...

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