A True Story of
Vengence and Survival
Vaillant's brilliant non-fiction book is most impressive not so much in its prose --- which is serviceable rather than outstanding --- but in its intelligent melding of three elements that would ordinarily call for three separate writers. First, there is the central narrative, essentially a thriller/nature adventure. The Amur tiger of Siberia is the largest, most powerful of the big cats, the apex predator of the sub-arctic forest (or the taiga). Normally these animals avoid humans. Vaillant tells the riveting story of an exceptional Amur tiger which took to stalking and killing humans during the winter of 1997, and how two teams of game wardens armed with high-powered rifles tracked it and finally shot it to death. This is, as the Victorians used to say, one ripping good yarn. Interwoven with that tale is a meditation on the natural ecology of Siberia; and since this must include human ecology, the book also presents brief but insightful accounts of the history of Siberia, and of the nation of which Siberia is the most wild and remote part.
Tiger attacks were a legend in Siberia, but very few had occurred (as far as is known) in thousands of years. The aboriginal native people, the Udeghe and the Nanai, lived for millennia sharing the forest in a sort of wary peace with the Amur tigers, just as the Masai of east Africa have done with the lions of their territory. The way the Siberian natives lived in harmony with their surroundings was much admired by Vladimir Arseniev, the Russian explorer and naturalist of the early 20th century. Arseniev's guide in three great Siberian expeditions was the old Nanai trapper Дерсу Узала (Dersu Uzala), after whom Arseniev named one of his books, subsequently made into an elegiac film by Akira Kurosawa. The Siberian native Dersu Uzala and the naturalist Arseniev symbolize the old ways in which humans and tigers treated each other, so to speak, with respect.
But things changed in the 1990s. "According to Evgeny Suvarov, a journalist and author from Primorye [southeast Siberia] who has studied the subject exhaustively, the mid-1990s were bad years for tiger attacks. In 1996, at least five people were killed, and several more were seriously injured. Some of these attacks were provoked, but others clearly weren't. In his book Zapovednoye Primorye, Suvorov quotes the following verse by a game warden who had to face this uncertainty on a daily basis:
I've read a tiger's not dangerous,
They say the tiger won't attack
But one thing's not clear to me.
Has he read this too? Does he know?"
The book's central story naturally leads to an inquiry into animal consciousness, most particularly that of its main character. "In order to succeed, predators must actively --- and consciously --- contrive successful hunting scenarios by adapting to, and manipulating, random events within a constantly shifting environment. This, as any hunter or businessman knows, is hard to do.... Ivan Dunkai's son Vasily, a lifelong hunter who has shared his territory with tigers all his life, has come to a similar conclusion. "The tiger is a hunter, just the same as a man is a hunter. A hunter has to think about how to get his prey. It is different for boar and deer: if leaves or cones fall down from a tree, that's what they eat; there is no need to think. Tigers think."
The thinking of this particular tiger led it to conclude that humans could most easily be found when they went to and from their cabins and hunting shacks in or near the forest: "Tigers are quick studies and they are, in their way, analytical: there is no doubt that they can absorb and remember relevant data and learn from their experiences, accidental or otherwise. If they produce successful results, the tiger will seek to re-create those circumstances as closely as possible."
Humans, this tiger had discovered (or perhaps had always known) were as easy as dogs to locate and kill.... Now, a person stepping outside to split a few sticks of kindling might as well be ringing a dinner bell. As he proceeded systematically from dwelling to dwelling, the tiger was, in essence, running a trapline of human beings.
In one of the book's spookier episodes, the tiger breaks into a crude camping cabin in the taiga and seizes the mattress. Since the mattress would have been rich in human scent, one might expect the animal to just chew it, or shred it. But, instead, the tiger dragged the mattress outside and some distance away, spread it out at a spot commanding a good view of the cabin's approach, and lay down on it to await its prey. Its prey, evidently overheard by the tiger, was a young trapper named Andrei Pochepnya who was heading down the trail to the cabin about a mile away. In due course, Andrei arrived. When a team of game wardens discovers the site days later, they find the mattress, trampled snow marking the attack, only a little blood, and Andrei's rifle. But "...fifty yards into the snowy forest lay a heap of blood-blackened clothing in a circle of exposed earth. It looked more like a case of spontaneous combustion than an animal attack. There was nothing left but shredded cloth and empty boots. Nearby, a watch and crucifix lay undamaged on the ground. The remains of Pochepnya himself were so small and so few that they could have fit in a shirt pocket."
The game wardens track the tiger for weeks, after it has killed three humans, and finally come upon tracks so fresh that they are still warm. As they cross an open, snow-covered field, the animal appears unexpectedly out of nowhere --- perhaps in line with the belief of Dersu Uzala's people that tigers have the power to become invisible at will --- and makes a great leap at Yuri, the team leader. He only gets off one, insufficient shot before the tiger lands on him, but two of his companions are able to shoot the creature several times as it flies through the air, so it is in its death-throes when it lands on Yuri. Even so, one convulsive snap of its jaws would have finished him off, but it closes its jaws on his gun rather than on him, completely mangling it, and inflicts on him only some severe lacerations with its claws. When Yuri staggers dazedly to his feet alongside the dying tiger, he is as amazed as his companions to discover that he is still alive.
§ § §
Why did the mid-1990s, the period of Boris Yeltsin's government right after the Soviet Union's collapse, see a sharp increase in the number of tiger attacks on humans? Perhaps it is no coincidence that the same period saw an increase in human attacks on tigers. The Amur tiger is a protected species, in principle, but enforcement of hunting restrictions was erratic and poaching became commonplace because of changes in the region's human ecology.
First, the collapse of the Soviet Union ended many public jobs in road maintenence, power station maintenence, the operation of clinics, schools, and so on, while the economic collapse of the 90s also drastically reduced employment in lumbering, which was Siberia's main industry.
In Soviet times, there had at least been stable employment, and although the standard of living was not so good, it was secure. Now, rampant insecurity pushed many tayozhniks (those Siberian citizens familiar with the taiga) back to 19th century modes of work based on woodcraft: gathering natural products (pinecones, for example, had commercial value), beekeeping, fishing, trapping, and hunting.
At the same time, a pull was exerted by the gigantic economic market of China next door, with its insatiable demand for animal products. Smuggling tiger parts to China, in particular, although technically contraband, was fabulously profitable. As Vaillant puts it: "relatively speaking, the tigers' appetite for us pales before our appetite for them." A few of the Siberian tigers evidently responded in kind during the 1990s, as the book recounts.
Incidentally, Vaillant's account of the 1990s economic collapse makes a shrewd analogy which I had not considered before. "Many Russians blame Boris Yeltsin for 'breaking everything', but he had plenty of eager assistants. In an eerie parallel to the Bolshevik Revolution seventy years earlier, a wholesale looting of the country took place as the pendulum swung to the opposite extreme. Entire industries were commandeered and privatized, and vast territories were transformed into virtual fiefdoms."
On Yeltsin's watch, the ignorance of the many, combined with the cleverness of a few, allowed for the biggest, fastest, and most egregiously unjust reallocation of wealth and resources in the history of the world. It was klepto-capitalism on a monumental scale, but it wasn't the first time. The Bolsheviks had done something similar under Lenin.
"The scale of theft following the October Revolution of 1917 was equally grand for its time, but the motives and methods were even more ruthless. During the heady and violent period following the Revolution, there was a mass pillaging of privately held lands and property. Anyone who had employees or a surplus --- of anything --- was branded an "enemy of the people".
Thievery, vandalism, and murder were performed by the imported thugs who did much of Lenin's heavy lifting, encouraged by self-serving Party slogans like 'Rob the Robbers!' ...Under both Lenin and Yeltsin, it was a small elite with close ties to the Kremlin who controlled these acquisitions and identified the beneficiaries.
"In part because of the abuses of power perpetrated during Soviet times, there is an enormous cynicism among contemporary Russian leadership that resounds like an echo from communism's earliest days."
I used to think of the vast looting during Boris Yeltsin's administration as the ultimate disproof of Communist doctrine. After all, acolytes of the "Soviet Experiment" had always celebrated the legend of the New Soviet Man, that paragon of social-minded morality who, they told us, was being sculpted from ordinary human material under the wise leadership of the Communist Party. And then, in the early 1990s, the legendary New Soviet Man, meaning well-connected apparatchiks of the former communist managerial ruling class, stole everything that wasn't nailed to something else, and a good deal that was. Vaillant reminds us of the continuity with 1917: in the 1990s, the country's productive capacity was seized by robbers again, but without slogans.
Which mass looting, that of 1917 or that of the 1990s, was the worst one? This is a complex question, to which there is no unique answer on a single level. The looting of the 1990s was accomplished without violence, so it relates to 1917 as embezzlement relates to armed robbery. On the other hand, the 1917 armed robbery was accompanied by a flood of socialist verbiage, and so it gained the adherence of many (including in the west) who worship verbiage; and the verbiage also committed the regime to provide basic social goods, such as security of employment, and a foundation of cheap though lousy housing, transportation, medical care, education, and recreation.
In time, the worship of verbiage also led to the crazed theocracy which imprisoned or executed millions for doctrinal or wholly imaginary deviations. Arseniev himself, an independent spirit, died in 1930 with an arrest warrant for him by the Soviet authorities about to be served on him; his widow Margarita was swept up in 1934 and again 1937 by the Great Purge, and she was summarily executed in 1937 ...while Arseniev's daughter Natalya, guilty by association with her father, spent 15 years in the gulag. [Typically, for Russia, there is now a museum named after Arseniev in Vladivostok.]
For the wider ecology, and for the non-human population, the 1917 armed robbery was probably beneficial, at least for 70 years. Soviet official theology (and that of its western admirers) emphasized rapid economic development, but nothing could have been further from the truth while the USSR lasted. Although Marxist-Leninist doctrine called for the exploitation of nature, the system itself hindered this process: the inefficiency and stodginess of the command economy, combined with the universal terror, brought about a spectacularly slow pace of economic development --- as is obvious from a simple comparison of North and South Korea. This is precisely what kept Siberia mostly a frontier wilderness throughout Soviet times.
But times are changing. Vaillant draws a comparison of Siberia with neighboring China "as seen from a train window between the Russian frontier and Beijing. ...With the exception of a swathe of forest along the Chinese-Russian border, what used to be the shuhai --- Manchuria's ocean of trees --- has been largely stripped away. Every square yard of arable land appears to have been made useful with a vengeance --- scraped off, plowed up, altered in one way or another."
There is virtually nothing left in the way of animal or bird life. A magpie is an event. Every wild thing larger than a rat appears to have been eaten or poisoned. Stunted scrub oak still grows in russet waves on crags above the scoured plain, but down below, as far as the eye can see, spread the works of man.
Vaillant's book makes one wonder, and perhaps grieve, that the Russian side of the border may look like this in another generation.--- Jon Gallant