This is a fascinating story about the people who populate the taiga, an area in Siberia where cultural traditions have not changed for several centuries.  They are a happy, self-reliant people who live where there are no taxes, no bureaucracy, no phone or radios.  The men depicted come from the village of Bakhtia which has 300 residents, all of whom make their living mainly through fur trapping.  The village is on the Yenisei river, the largest river in Siberia.


Werner HerzogCredit: Wikimedia Commons

                                                              Walter Herzog - Wikimedia

Walter Herzog

Werner Herzog, the writer and director of this documentary, followed a trapper named Gennady for an entire year to give us the flavor of living in the taiga, a situation so foreign to our own pampered lived.  The taiga lies just below the treeless tundra.  Siberia is 1 ½ times the size of the United States.  It is an endless wilderness with no train lines coming in.  The only way to reach the taiga is by helicopter or boat, and only three months in the summer will enable a boat to get through.

Spring in the Taiga

When the geese are seen flying north, it is a sign of spring.  In the spring, the snow crust after a frost is thick, an ideal situation for bears and wolves to get around.  Gennady makes his own skis, and spring is the ideal time to cut the wood for this purpose.  The men have tradesman’s skills which have been used for centuries.  Special skis are needed for each season.  They must be made from straight-grained wood, then put in water to make them pliable.  Gennady passes his technique on to his son.


Siberian HuskyCredit: Wikimedia Commons

                                                          Siberian Husky - Wikimedia

The Trapper’s Hut

When the trapper goes out, he has a base hut for which he heads.  There are other huts, though, that must be maintained.  A hut can be completely covered by snow.  Provisions in the hut must be secured against bears.  Industry and perseverance are the qualities that make a good trapper.  They quickly recognize if another trapper is greedy and willing to make a few coins at any price. 

Gennady has access to 1500 kilometers in the taiga which are all his.  He first came out in 1970 when he was 20 years old.  He was flown in in August and came back out in February.  His partner didn’t have the strength to stay and decided to leave.  Genaddy was lucky to have a dog.  All trappers need a dog to accompany them into the wilderness.  He didn’t even have a radio.


Siberia in WinterCredit: Wikimedia Commons

                                                           Siberia in Winter - Wikimedia

They Build Their Own Canoes

Spring is also the time to build dugout canoes.  An expert boat builder knows how to hollow out just the precise amount of wood and no more.  He then widens the canoe and exposes the body to heat which makes the shape of the boat permanent.  A layer of tar follows, and the hunters head out to test their canoes with duck hunting.  Young pups are taken in the canoes for the first time.  It is also a good time for catching pike and other fish, which are then smoked for the season to come.  Much of the fish is food for the dogs.

Summer in the Taiga

When summer arrives, everything comes to life in abundance.  Swallows are seen.  The daylight lasts for twenty hours.  The gardening season starts.  Vegetables grow at an incredible rate because the days are so long.  They store potatoes and onions for the winter.  Big ships show up; some are even tourist cruisers.

Sable will be the main quarry of the trappists in the winter.  They help each other to build new cabins in the summer.  Moss and earth are the insulation.  Their self-reliance has taught them to make everything themselves.  They have already stockpiled logs in the spring and covered them to protect the logs from the weather.  Mosquitoes are a bother.  The men make their own insect repellent from tree bark; it becomes a tar which they spread on their face and arms.

Driftwood flows upstream which they gather for the winter.  They make money this way.  Most of the men have problems with alcohol.  They know it is their own fault.  There are no longer many young people in the village. 


SnowmobileCredit: Wikimedia Commons

                                                              Snowmobile - Wikimedia

Summer Slowly Comes to an End

When the chipmunks collect pine nuts, it is a sign that summer is coming to an end.  The people collect pine nuts also.  They know from the number of pine cones that are available whether it will be a good hunting season.  Cones are the food of the sable.

When the first rain starts, summer will soon be over and fall is beginning to arrive.  A strange visitor arrives in Bakhtia.  A politician has come to campaign for the votes of the citizens.  He brings sacks of wheat to his constituency and puts on a show for the people.  He bursts into song, but the people couldn’t care less.

Fall in the Taiga

Fall is beginning to arrive.  The fishing is good now.  The trappers go on the river at night.  They light a fire to attract the fish.  Storms from the north suddenly set in.  The clouds carry rain that falls for weeks.  Heavy rains are welcome because the men can now transport heavy gear in their boats on the way to the wilderness.  Bread is loaded last.  A half-loaf a day will do.  They then celebrate with vodka.

They must be able to navigate the river in high water.  Sometimes the tide is so strong that the motor in the boat cannot navigate.  They need to bring their supplies to the hut.  The bears are still around, posing a threat to the trapper’s provisions.  They are placed high in the trees.  The bears cause trouble; they know they can’t get at the food but they smash the traps anyway.  When the bears have gone off into hibernation, provisions can be stored within easy reach.  The river flows free at this time.  They try to catch as much pike as they can, mostly for their dogs.

                                                         Brown BearCredit: Wikimedia Commons

                                                             Brown Bear - Wikimedia

It is now late fall.  Another hut is ready.  Everything in its proper place.  The ice puts the boat in jeopardy.  Gennady pulls the boat out of the water with a home-made winch.

The enormity of solitude sets in.  Gennady’s only companion is his dog.  The dog works for him.  It is easy to become attached to the dog like a member of the family.  It is not easy to be a hunter without a dog.  Gennady explained that good dogs do not last long, maybe four or five years.  A bear killed his dog Smoky, which was very hard on him. 

Winter in the Taiga

Winter has arrived.  Back in the village, the people must be self-reliant.  They must make everything they need by hand.  They go ice fishing for pike or for whatever fish they can catch.  Fish are abundant to feed the dogs or to make fish soup. The temperature is at -50 degrees.  The days have grown short. 

At this time, Gennady branches out to hunt sable.  He can get l25 rubles for a good ermine.  It takes a day to travel to his traps.  He reaches them by nightfall and finds that a trap has attracted an animal.  It is a primitive but sophisticated mechanism.  It is also a humane method; it kills at once.

Gennady can still go ice fishing with success.  He gives his dog very little for breakfast, just enough to that his belly doesn’t hang on the ground.  The dog has his own shelter.  He does not come into the hut.

Snowmobiles are used in the taiga, but in this terrain they have their limits.  It is easier to get around on skis.  It is hard work in severe conditions, but the trapper gets to witness the beauty of space, cold, and silence.


Yenisei River, SiberiaCredit: Wikimedia Commons

                                                  Yenisei River, Siberia - Wikimedia

At the end of a hard day, Gennady came home to a hut which needed fixing.  He was too far from his main hut.  There was heavy snow on the roof.  He got a fire going inside the hut.  It then took him a whole day to find his way back to his base hut.  He brought several animals in from the traps.  It was the last day of December and the temperature was -30 below zero, unusually mild.  He will return to the village for New Year’s Eve, 150 kilometers away.  His dog never gets on the snowmobile, but covers the entire distance running behind.  At night, he is still running.  Finally, Bakhtia, the village, comes into view.  The dog is hungry since he hasn’t eaten in over a day. 

This is a happy return, for Gennady and all of them.  Christmas in Russia is January 6th.  The entire village participates.  Gennady’s stay will be short, however.  He will return to the taiga for the remaining months of winter.  This is the life he loves.

Siberia: A Cultural History (Landscapes of the Imagination)
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