Friday, August 17, 2012

On the Run in Siberia

The real title of this book should be "no good deed goes unpunished."

In 1993 Rane Willerslev, a young Danish anthropologist, his brother Uffe and a small group of other researchers are studying the Yukaghir people of Siberia. They also have a film crew with them. The Yukaghirs live in what was once the Russian Republic of Sakha. For generations they have lived off the land and the earnings from the sale of sable pelts. Under communism the government bought the pelts and then sold them on the open market, giving the Soviet Union much needed foreign currency and the Yukaghirs the food and goods (delivered by the local cooperatives) they need to survive. This all fell apart when the centralized communist government failed in the Soviet Union, leaving the hunters near destitute as the local cooperatives took almost 80% of the profits and didn't always deliver the supplies.

Rane and Uffe decided this situation was not a good one for the Yukaghirs and that the hunters could do better with their own cooperative selling on the international market. They set up the Danish-Yakaghir Fur Project after securing some start up money. The Danes and some local hunters start buying up the local pelts, shutting out the old local cooperative. This is where the trouble begins because the regional committee that had been selling the pelts and then pocketing the money doesn't really want to share.

Rane stays in Russia while Uffe goes back to Copenhagen to pick up the furs and sell them at the international fur market. Rane assumes the furs have been shipped as the Danish-Yukaghir Cooperative had secured all the proper permits from the central Russian government. Rane goes off to visit a friend. Ivan, a local who has been helping Rane, tells Rane that the police are coming to arrest him. Rane wants to stay and finish his field work, because there are always rumors about imminent arrests. When the rumors persist Rane and Ivan flee into the wilderness and a remote hunting cabin with enough provisions for several days, 5 dogs and 2 guns. Meanwhile another member of the cooperative has actually been arrested and all the furs confiscated. And a third man involved in the cooperative is assumed missing and drowned, but his body is never recovered. Rane spends months in the wilderness before he decides it's safe enough to come back.

This book was translated from Danish and the language is somewhat stilted. The book has a list of characters and what their relationship is to each other and the various fur cooperatives, a glossary of Russian terms, and an appendix with tips on surviving in Siberia. The book also veers off onto some interesting tangents: local folklore of the Yukaghirs, some psychology of the group as well as of the animals and the history of the Yukaghir people and the area they have lived in for centuries.

The story is fascinating. What made 2 idealistic young Danish men think they could actually circumvent an entrenched Russian business enterprise? Do they realize how lucky they are to be alive (Rane almost starves to death while on the run)? In the end Rane and Uffee learn some valuable lessons and we get to enjoy an excellent book.


  1. Hey, thanks for the favourable review. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I translated the book and so I'm disappointed you found the language stilted. Can you give me some examples? I'm ready to learn!

  2. Stilted was probably the wrong word in hindsight. I think translating into English would be a nightmare! The language would be better described as "formal" as opposed to amore casual writing style. It did not detract from the story at all. I actually just recommended this book to someone!

  3. Thanks, Liz. Thanks for recommending our book! I wouldn't have translated it if I hadn't thought it was one of a kind. Translating is a tricky business, because it offers choices and it can be difficult to know what the original writer might have said if he had been speaking the other language. I know Rane quite well, but I don't know whether my translation represents his own sometimes formal way of thinking, or whether I have added a shade more formality. I'd love to see a couple examples.


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