Polina Dashkova is one of Russia’s most successful crime novelists, reaching more than 50 million fans across seven languages. Her latest novel, Madness Treads Lightly, was inspired by a trip to the forests of Siberia. Nexus Media asked Dashkova to share her perspective on her nation’s intense environmental changes. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did Siberia inspire you?
When I was fourteen, long before I began writing fiction, the words “madness treads lightly” formed a title in my mind. Far from my hometown of Moscow and my day-to-day life, Siberia was my setting of choice. Later in life, long after finally traveling there, I paired my new knowledge of the Siberian taiga (forest) with psychiatry, psychology, criminology — with serial murder cases.
I visited Siberia first in June, 1981 during the season of heat, white nights and mosquitos. The climate is hot in summer, with a frosty, snowy winter.
My earliest impression was the sharp contrast between the majesty of nature and the misery of human life. The endless taiga, mysterious and beautiful, with terrific wide rivers, existed in stark contrast to the miserable houses without water or sanitation, dirty streets and stores with empty shelves.
A guide in the taiga provided creative inspiration when he explained that encountering a bear in the summer presents no danger, while in winter this is another matter. If a bear hasn’t fattened up enough and wakes up hungry, he can get aggressive. We call a bear like that a shatun. If there aren’t any berries or fish available, the bear will eat anything that moves, including men, even in the summer when he has other options. A shatun becomes a man-eater and human flesh acts like a drug.
I had an opportunity in the taiga to stare into the faces of local prisoners, and I thought there were probably shatuns among them, prepared to gobble up everything that moved. But, not every shatun is doomed to be a man eater. In the evening, a short entry appeared in my notebook: “Human flesh is like a drug. Tobolsk. Prison. Young Communists.”
I wrote Madness Treads Lightly fifteen years after that trip using the shatun bear as an inspiration.
Is the environment a pressing concern to people in Siberia?
The main problem in Siberia is the extinction of native peoples, the Khanty and Mansi, with their unique lifestyle and ancient culture. The extinction of these peoples began in the first years of Soviet power when the Bolshevik government called shamans the representatives of the exploiting class and killed many of them, forcibly removing children from their parents and trying to transform the nomadic taiga peoples into something humble and faceless. It’s a real tragedy.
This beautiful area is now home to less than 50,000 indigenous people, and it is difficult for them to coexist with the oil companies. They are always searching for oil and many of the laws meant to protect the environment are not enforced.
Recently, The Guardian reported on conflicts in the Khanty-Mansi region, Russia’s “hydrocarbon heartland” that produces more than half of the country’s oil. They reference 2,538 oil pipeline accidents in 2014 and 4,668 hectares of land contaminated, in what they say equate to more than two “Deepwater Horizons of oil” every year.
The Guardian also reported that national legislation passed four years ago removed the protected status from lands where indigenous people hunt, fish and herd, meaning oil companies no longer need to get a state environmental impact assessment before drilling. This removes the possibility of grassroots activists helping organize public feedback.
After the U.S.S.R. and the despicable communist rotten monsters came crashing down, human life in the Siberian taiga has markedly improved, but it’s impossible to revive the original ways of life for the Khanty and Mansi.
What about elsewhere in Russia?
There are some groups who work hard to try to protect the environment and protest against the pollution of our water and air, but usually these are private initiatives. Our officials worry about two problems only: how to keep power and how to steal more power.
Many Russians believe construction projects in beautiful, remote geographical locations are meant mainly to greatly enrich Russian oligarchs. We Russians really don’t like corruption, but it is very hard for grassroots activists to get their message out in Russia. They just don’t have the resources they need to fight their battles.
Siberia inspired me with its fantastic beauty and a completely different sense of space and time. It is the kind of place where you feel so small, alone and vulnerable, and yet so powerful at the same time. You are able to discover something new inside yourself and able to overcome difficulties you could not have imagined overcoming before. I hope this boundless space of harsh and mysterious nature will last for centuries, in spite of the greed and complete irresponsibility of government officials and the indifference of most ordinary people.
This interview was conducted by Josh Chamot, who writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.