1. Through The Rapids On The Way To The Klondike-2 - 1
2. Jack London in my Life - 20
3. Jack London and the socialist idea - 51
1. Through The Rapids On The Way To The Klondike-2
Why II? Simply because there is an article with such a title, written by Jack London far back in 1897. It was the time when he fell under the spell of the Gold Rush and, like thousands of other gold-hunters, made his way to the Klondike. He didn"t know then that he was to become a great author, and he made notes on his journey just following his heart - not as a mere observer, but as an active participant. Later his notes proved the most valuable material for his Northland stories. From a literary point of view, the best of them, perhaps, are the Smoke Bellew tales.
I"d like to tell you how I traveled across Canada. It was not an ordinary tour, since I visited many places where Jack London had traveled. It had taken me 22 years to prepare myself for the journey. You"re probably surprised at my persistence? You will probably ask, why Jack London?
When did I first hear about Jack London? When did I become interested in his books? ... I remember the voice of Alexey Batalov who narrated White Fang on the radio. In my room I had a wall-size political map of the world - as a schoolboy I was keen on geography. I found Dawson and Klondike City on the map. I must say, however, that it is no use searching for Klondike City today, for it has ceased to exist.
One more thing. I was in the ninth grade. One day, having nothing to do, I took the 14th volume of London"s collected works and started reading Hearts of Three, right from the second chapter. And I couldn"t put it down till I had read it through. Even today, when you have a lot to compare with, I still say it"s more interesting than Indiana Jones and all that action-adventure stuff.
Jack London had an influence on the formative years of my life. When I was a graduate student, I became seriously engaged in boating. I ran the Losevo Rapids on the Vuoksa River, then I paddled all the stretches of the Kiviristi Rapids on the Okhta. When autumn came, I read Through the Rapids on the Way to Klondike. And that was even before the ink had dried on my Okhta expedition report! I"m sure travelers will understand me. It is only natural that I got all set to travel down the Yukon.
The further, the deeper. I started looking for an answer to the eternal question: What is the meaning of life? And another question, quite specific for the Soviet era: Why are things not what they are supposed to be according to the only true theory of historical process? I set to delving deep into Marxism. So deep that I actually predicted the beginning of Perestroika. I noted to myself that London had taken an interest in Marxism, too.
As I grew older, my interests changed, but what remained was my love for travel and Jack London. In time, I found myself much more fascinated by his philosophy rather than his adventure books. London - as well as Lermontov and many others - is far from being a "juvenile" author. From the perspective of my age I"ll say this: studying Lermontov at school is like teaching quantum physics in kindergarten.
Life and wanderlust tossed me around the country. I had seen a good deal. I had grown a bit older, balder, and calmer. But I was still consumed with the idea of visiting the Klondike.
More years passed by. The situation in the country and in the world changed. It became possible for me to go for a trip to Alaska. I was eager, among other things, to see with my own eyes and feel with my own hands and feet the places where my favorite author had traveled. After all, environment and reality have a certain effect on the development of human personality, to say the least. It is natural that the inhabitant of a remote mountain village would never make up a song like Spreads The Sea Wide, if only because he simply doesn"t know neither what a sea is nor how wide it can spread.
Finally, I was lucky enough to find time and money - and, most important, to make the acquaintance of Vladimir Ivanovich Lysenko. You have probably seen his name in the Guinness Book of World Records, and he is the author of such books as Around the World in an Automobile and Rafting from the Heights of the World. He is a real old hand, and he speaks English at that. I came up with an offer he understood and supported - and the ball started rolling.
May 28, 2003. Moscow
I hadn"t been to the capital for more than ten years. And now I had to fly there to get a Canadian visa. I found Vladimir Ivanovich waiting for me in Moscow. He took all the arrangements upon himself. Which was just as well, for he is widely experienced and could find me a place to stay. Moscow had changed very much in appearance. As to its essence, it remained the same - a big vanity fair. In the morning of May 29, we headed for the embassy. The center of Moscow, an old narrow street. A Canadian flag waving on one of the houses. Crisp was the morning air ...
They say that the most captious officials in the embassy are those having Russian citizenship. I happened to be questioned by a pleasant young man, a Canadian officer, who almost immediately asked me through the interpreter: "What guarantees are there that you will return to your country?" I shrugged. We both smiled - and, I believe, understood each other. What kind of guarantees can there be between two guys like us? Giving your word should be enough. By the way, I have often noticed that communication between people can take place somewhere at the subconscious level. You don"t even need to speak the same language, you don"t need to advance a set of arguments - just a look or a gesture could sometimes be enough.
All that day - first in the embassy, then in Shokoladnitsa Café on New Arbat Street, then on TV - I listened to the news: it was the 50th anniversary of the day the first man conquered Mount Everest. I understand it was just a coincidence, but at the time I interpreted it as a good sign.
July 10, 2003. The Earth
A "Boeing" takes me over the North Atlantic. I can see Greenland sailing by down below. There is a happy smile playing on my face, and as for my thoughts ... Well, this complex mixture of feelings can only be expressed by the words: "An idiot"s dream has come true!" For some people, flying across continents is rather routine, but I feel like a discoverer heading toward his long-cherished dream. Like Amundsen or Gagarin - or like Columbus, anyway. My colleagues, relatives or acquaintances simply wouldn"t understand me - at best, they would be very much surprised.
As long as I can remember, I have always I lived in the world of my thoughts, leading a specific, secret life. Sometimes I tried to share my ideas with others, but I never met anyone who could understand them. When I spoke my thoughts aloud, people gazed at me in bewilderment. They would have understood me much better had I bought a "cool" second-hand foreign car or a summer cottage. No way. To each his own. Gogol"s Akaky Akakyevich was happy to have a cloak, while Sir Hillary needed as much as Mount Everest.
A voice from within starts tempting me: What do you need it for? Go back home, there"s warmth and comfort, and plenty of food. You"ve lived with your dream for twenty years, and it can well stay with you till your dying day. But the voice is interrupted by different thoughts: What will you say up there when the time comes? You gave up when fortune finally smiled on you. I can compare myself with many great people. Schliemann was regarded as an old crank forever searching for his Troy. Thor Heyerdahl, sailing on his Kon-Tiki from the shores of Peru into the unknown, was all but unknown himself.
I recollect the events of the last few months and can"t help but smile. First, I found new words creeping timidly into my vocabulary: Yukon, visa, Lufthansa ... Then there was the flight to Moscow for a Canadian visa. A failure might occur any moment. I did it all on the quiet, so as not to frustrate the plans. And yet in my heart I was confident. This year I celebrate an anniversary, and I will make my dream come true. I guess all these years I have gone the wrong way - if I"ve been allowed to go at all. At the age of 50, I"m still riding high in the saddle, and everything will be okay.
I remember being advised to state a higher monthly income when filling out the forms, to omit some other details ... But I told myself that I"d had enough of this. I had been forced to lie all my life. The Klondike is too sacred for me, so let me realize my dream with clean hands.
Just two hours ago. Frankfurt. A long line at the check-in desk. People from all around the world. Finally my passport was in the hands of a pretty-looking lady behind the desk ... What happened next was like one of the poems of my famous namesake, Vladimir Mayakovsky:
as if he had burnt
It's my red passport
fall this bound
Into the hands
of his majesty.
Something lurched inside of me, and I felt my stomach coming up to my throat. With all the changes in the world, when the coasts of Turkey, Cyprus, Spain, etc. are strewn with the bodies of Russian tourists, the appearance of an ordinary Russian engineer, who had never been abroad before and suddenly, avoiding the usual phase of Bulgaria, Antalya, Greece, etc., came to visit Canada (not Montreal or Vancouver, but such a godforsaken place) was like a shock. We were taken aside. The personnel started fussing about. More people in uniform appeared. They jabbered to each other for quite a while. But they returned our documents in the long run and wished us a good journey. I hope the reader understands me. The thing is that I have always felt under Big Brother"s watchful eye. This peculiarity of mine must be a relic of the socialist period. Once, people whom I trusted implicitly and who were aware of my convictions, snitched on me to the appropriate quarters. Fortunately, Perestroika had already begun, and the authorities had no attention to spare for me, yet the incident left me with an uneasy aftertaste ... Ah well, never mind. I am already over Northern Canada - hail to my dream!
I call that day a 36-Hour Day. It"s not just a matter of time zones. Thousands of kilometers, two countries, a collage of faces, a number of situations I have never experienced before ... Enough for a lifetime.
July 11, 2003. White Pass. Canada.
Due to organizational and technical reasons, our expedition was arranged in such a way that Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon Territory, became our base station. We arrived there, and we would fly back home from there, too. We were going to take a number of trips to places associated with Jack London. We decided to begin with the White Pass.
Unfortunately, we did not have a chance to get to the Chilkoot. The route over this pass begins in the USA running through a national park; it is extremely well organized and strictly limited. In other words, it was not that easy to be allowed there, and we had no American visa at that.
Incidentally, the Chilkoot Pass, though the shortest way from the Pacific coast to the upper Yukon River, is not really convenient. Back in the years of the Gold Rush, it was already less popular than the White Pass located nearby - though a bit longer, the White Pass was practicable for horses. Later a narrow-gauge railroad was built over the White Pass.
We took a regular bus going from Whitehorse to Skagway and moved in the direction of the US-Canadian border. The scenery outside the bus windows changed like a kaleidoscope, with one landscape more beautiful than the other. The bus driver, who also was our tour guide, told us about the landmarks we passed on the way.
It seemed to me that there were no roadsides at all: the road was enclosed on both sides by ditches. Our bus rolled along at 50 miles per hour. This is the maximum permitted speed here. And the driver stuck to the rules. According to our Russian ideas, he could have driven at a much higher speed. I wondered why no one even tried to overtake us. Were there no other cars on the road? In fact, the reason was quite simple: all the automobiles moved like the cars of a train - same direction, same speed, same time of arrival. I remember one episode. It did happen that we were overtaken by a car. The car driver looked at our bus through the rearview mirror. Our driver, however, wagged his finger at the "road hog", yet not in a threatening manner but as if to say: "Naughty, naughty!" As my companion explained, the bus driver only had to say a few words into his radio, and police would have appeared out of nowhere.
We stopped at the village of Carcross. A few houses, a museum, and many articles in the open air, left from the times of the Gold Rush. Carcross used to be a road crossing, and even steamboats could come up this far when the water was high. Next stop was Fraser, a small settlement. A Canada Customs port of entry is located here, and it is also a railroad station, the first one in the Canadian territory. We waited for a train - a toy-like locomotive with passenger cars as if from the early 20th century. The railroad has a purely entertaining purpose and goes through breathtakingly beautiful places. Yet it would be no exaggeration to say that it used to be a lifeline.
The building of this narrow-gauge railroad is worthy of the pen of Nikolay Ostrovsky and as technically challenging as the famous Baikal-Amur Mainline - and, together with the Trans-Siberian Railroad and the railway in Kenya (the one where a lion ate a prince or some other bigwig), it was widely covered in the news at the turn of the 19th century.
We had been shown some documentaries of the early 1900"s. There was a train consisting of a few cars and three steam engines pushing through snowdrifts. The life of the whole province depended on the commodities transported by the railroad.
Many of our fellow travelers got on the train to admire the nature through the railcar windows, but we continued our trip in the bus.
We got off just about 100 meters from the US border. A lifted barrier ahead, signs saying "Welcome!" We wished we could get closer to take but one step into the USA territory, but we respected the law. Frankly speaking, I had ambivalent feelings about the situation. Twenty years ago, no one could even imagine anything of the kind. I am in a capital country, and right ahead is the United States, the sworn enemy of the Soviet Union! I remember the times when people tried in any way to escape from the socialist camp. There were so many defectors. So many were killed trying to get over the Berlin Wall ... And now it"s nothing for me to stay to live in the United States or Canada.
We were at the summit of the White Pass. Beyond the barrier, as we could see, the road gradually sloped downward. If you take a look at a physical map, you can see mountain ranges running along the western coast of North America. Here one land mass collided with another and folded it up - like a blunt-nosed barge pushing through the churning and seething water which spread apart in gradually diminishing waves. The waves now stand motionless, some of them topped with white horses that seem eager to tear loose. It"s because we humans count time in a different way then mountains do. And that"s where we were now, right on this mountains range. It was pretty warm up there, even hot.
We spotted an automobile parked at the scenic overlook point by the road and a group of people going down the slope.
From the overlook we could easily see the snow-covered peaks and a stream falling in cascades from somewhere up in the clouds. We decided to set off on a traverse in the direction of the Chilkoot Pass, as far as possible. We descended from the road, waded a small pool and started up the stream.
Dwarfed spruce, shrubs of some kind ... Everything flooded with sunlight and filled with the sound of brawling water. As we climbed higher, the vegetation flattened and then ceased altogether - there was nothing left but the stream, the rocks and fog clinging to the mountains. Scattered patches of snow appeared here and there. Before long we found ourselves facing an impassable mess of snow and stone, so there was no point in moving on. The stream was flowing out of a cloud of fog a little way up and ran gurgling downhill past our feet, only to disappear into the fog again, as if gushing down in a waterfall filling the air with spray. We felt like actors on stage in a spotlight, with fog all around us. I knew we had to double back down the stream, but I felt sort of afraid - I wished I could drop on my stomach not to lose my balance, crawl over to the imaginary edge and peep into the abyss. I looked at my companion and suddenly as if saw us two from the outside - a pair of odd guys wearing shorts, T-shirts and sneakers, with nothing but cameras in hands. The way we were equipped, we seemed absurd and ridiculous in such a place. It was like going out into open space without a spacesuit. And still, it was reality. In an hour or two we would see green grass again, we"d be back to civilization with its roads, cars, coffee and hotdogs.
I knew from experience that even in our situation it would take us no more than four hours to get cold, uncomfortable and scared. Even in summer time, traveling in such conditions is very difficult, especially with a load on your shoulders. First, you get hot with your backpack on. Then you get tired and start to freeze. Weariness and despair make you put on all the things you"ve got. You are lucky if you have a chance to hide in a tent and manage to fall asleep. After a while, however, the cold and hunger bring your back to your senses. You need to leave your shelter to face the cold and empty universe, so you put on your cold and damp clothes and get moving. Your consciousness dwindles to the point of nothing. Only the instinct of self-preservation lingers on. There is an old fellow with a scythe waiting beside you. Just give up, and it will be all over. Or try to have it out with him face to face. That"s when you"ll discover the meaning of life.
Let"s see how Jack London describes the climb up the Chilkoot Pass. This is what we read in Smoke Bellew about Kit:
"He and the sack of beans became a perambulating tragedy ... And this was one of those intensely masculine vacations, he meditated. Compared with it, the servitude to O"Hara was sweet.
Again and again he was nearly seduced by the thought of abandoning the sack of beans in the brush and of sneaking around the camp to the beach and catching a steamer for civilization.
But he didn't. Somewhere in him was the strain of the hard, and he repeated over and over to himself that what other men could do, he could ... The tears were tears of exhaustion and of disgust with self. If ever a man was a wreck, he was. ...But he lay for fifteen minutes before he could summon sufficient shreds of strength to release himself from the straps. Then he became deathly sick ..."
A few days later, however, we see quite another Kit.
"...Many were the occasions when he climbed with hands as well as feet. But when he reached the crest of the divide in the thick of a driving snow-squall, it was in the company of his Indians, and his secret pride was that he had come through with them and never squealed and never lagged."
I understand Jack. Once I led a group of students down the South Bug River. One day we had a particularly hard time of it - I spent hours getting our baidarkas out of the water, paddling, portaging the rapids. And I had to remain the leader all the time. Not that I became deathly sick in the end, but toward evening I was so exhausted that the next day I could hardly do anything. My body didn't belong to me.
On our way back, my companion and I met two girls. There was a jeep waiting for them by the road. We watched them flashing their pretty little legs as they strolled over the bare rocks. They stopped by the water"s edge. Squealing with delight, they splashed the crystal and icy water on their faces, then stretched sweetly (so say the least) against the background of the stern rocks, their bodies blown upon by the fresh wind. You could just photograph them for ads. In a couple of hours they would turn on the conditioner in their car, and in a day or two you could see their legs striding across the sand somewhere at the Cape of Good Hope or in Naples.
July 12, 2003. Whitehorse. Canada.
The next day was devoted to rest, and we had enough time to explore the city.
Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon Territory, over 22,000 people. Jack London wrote nothing about this city because it simply did not exist in his time. The foundation and development of the city were closely related to the Klondike Gold Rush.
At the turn of the 19th century, for delivering goods from the Pacific cost to Dawson, the center of gold mining, a narrow-gauge railroad was built from Skagway through the White Pass to the point where the rapids ended and steamboat shipping was possible. Here a settlement was founded, which, after the nearby White Horse rapids, was named Whitehorse.
Whitehorse is a clean city, an administrative and tourist center. There is an airport that can accommodate planes of any class from all around the world. Numerous museums, rental stores, travel agencies ... Even at the airport, which is quite distant from downtown, there is a museum of transportation, as well as so-called Beringia Center, a regional paleontology-oriented museum. There are many heritage places associated with the Gold Rush. And at the southern entrance to the city, in a beautiful place where the river bends, the SS Klondike is permanently moored.
It was in Whitehorse that I first saw a real golf course, a carting track, horse excursions, hydroplanes, and even things I had no idea about.
We settled in at the Robert Service Campground. A campground is a place for travelers to camp at. You leave your car in the parking lot and continue on foot. The territory of the campground is divided into many sites, each approximately 6 by 6 meters, where you can pitch a tent. Each campsite has a fire pit and a table with benches. In one building are bathrooms and washrooms with showers. In the other, the administration office and a coffee bar. Nearby is a telephone box allowing you to make a call to any part of the world. The campground is only a 15-minute walk from the city, going along a specially built paved road. The road is part of the Millennium Trail - a paved multi-recreational route running along both sides of the Yukon River. Whitehorse has recently celebrated its 100th anniversary.
I was on my way to a museum. Clean, quiet streets. A few pedestrians and even less cars. I reached an intersection and stopped at a red traffic light. Looked this way and that. Nothing. Nothing at all. Out of the corner of my eye, however, I noticed a couple of cyclists - they can often be seen in Whitehorse. Without waiting for a green light, I walked across the street. The traffic light was still red when I found that the cyclists had stopped before me to let me pass - despite the fact that the street was quite empty and pedaling around me would have been easy as pie. The cyclists were properly equipped: helmets, gloves, something on their feet and knees. Everything looked bright and unusual to me. Then suddenly I realized they were not ordinary cyclists but actually police officers on bicycles. They really were going to let me pass. Me, a jaywalker! I could feel a flashing red sign with the word "Busted" dancing across my face. Just what I needed! But the officers, smiling a little, waited until I had crossed the street. And then just pedaled on. As for me, I felt terribly ashamed. Ashamed of my miserable behavior. Of my country. Of the fact that in my country people are proud of violating the laws and getting away with that.
The Canadian police officers had looked at me with interest, as if I were not just a jaywalker but a barbarian unaware of how to hold a spoon.
That day we made friends with a tourist from Germany who traveled on a bicycle. He introduced us to another traveler, a biker from Holland. It so happened that we were invited for a fish meal. It was real fish, a local species, quite big and baked in foil. That evening we had another guest in our company, a Canadian guy. The fish turned out delicious, and we had an interesting conversation. Not a drop of alcohol was involved. I remembered from school a few phrases in German. Vladimir, my companion, could speak English. Our German friend had studied Russian at school. And the Canadian guy was chatting away in French.
With such an assortment of languages, we talked about all kinds of things. I don"t remember all the details, but we came to the conclusion that life is good and all men are brothers.
July 13, 2003. Upper Yukon River. Canada.
We paddle down the Yukon River in single-seat kayaks. We got afloat below Marsh Lake. It will take us a couple of hours to reach the Box Canyon - or Miles Canyon, as they call it today. Rhythmically, I dip my paddle into the water, getting used to this new type of boat. The same thoughts keep running through my head. Is it really me? Is it really the Yukon? Am I really going to see the Box soon? I know I will write about this journey when I get back home, but right now I just can"t believe it"s all true. Oh, let this moment last!
The river, its banks, the nature - everything looks much like Siberia. I would especially like to point out the riverbanks. At the multiple bends of the river, the banks are undercut, mostly revealing a sand-and-clay composition. The upper layer looks darker, almost like fertile soil, while closer to the water"s edge strips of gravel can be seen. The intermediate portion seems particularly suitable for bank swallows. The numerous entrances to their burrows stretch along the bank in a sinuous line following the course of the soil layers. The birds flitting by with high-pitched cries add variety to the scene.
There is another bend ahead, and I feel like stretching my neck to see what is waiting for us around the turn, when suddenly the river appears as if clad in the granite walls of an embankment - the canyon! No one knows what passions burnt in the heart of Mother Earth many millions of years ago, but today we see an area of long-hardened rock cut through by a stream of water. Right below the canyon, the rocks give way to the sand-and-clay banks again.
In its middle part, the canyon widens looking somewhat circular. At its narrowest point, it is spanned by a suspension footbridge. There is a specially built automobile road running from Whitehorse along the bank and up and down the hills, following the terrain. On one of the hilltops, there is a lookout point. It provides an incredible view of Miles Canyon. I was standing up there admiring the scenery when some foppish-looking Americans drove up; they started playing around with golf balls sending them right into the middle of the stream.
Jack London writes: "They came to the rapids; first, the Box Canyon, and, several miles below, the White Horse. The Box Canyon was adequately named. It was a box, a trap. Once in it, the only way out was through. On either side arose perpendicular walls of rock. The river narrowed to a fraction of its width and roared through this gloomy passage in a madness of motion that heaped the water in the center into a ridge fully eight feet higher than at the rocky sides. This ridge, in turn, was crested with stiff, upstanding waves that curled over yet remained each in its unvarying place. The Canyon was well feared, for it had collected its toll of dead from the passing goldrushers."
In other words, we have a torrential flow with waves standing about 2.5 meters high. The White Horse rapids were always deep enough. Besides, much depended on the water level. Jack London describes a late autumn. There was little water in the river. While at high water even steamboats could pass the rapids. So I allow myself to assume that a century ago the main difficulty in running the rapids was the fact that floating equipment in those years was completely unpractical.
In 1958, a hydroelectric dam was constructed on the Yukon below the White Horse rapids, which created a reservoir lake. Not only did it make the water rise above the rapids, but also tamed the stream rushing through the Box Canyon. What we see now is a marvelously beautiful canyon through which the river carries its waters with slow dignity.
We can judge of the White Horse rapids by the photographs or maps that have been preserved from those days, and also by Jack London"s descriptions.
"Several miles below they ran in to the bank, and all four walked down to look at the bad water. The river, which was a succession of rapids, was here deflected toward the right bank by a rocky reef.
The whole body of water, rushing crookedly into the narrow passage, accelerated its speed frightfully and was up-flung into huge waves, white and wrathful. This was the dread Mane of the White Horse, and here an even heavier toll of dead had been exacted. On one side of the Mane was a corkscrew curl-over and suck-under, and on the opposite side was the big whirlpool. To go through, the Mane itself must be ridden ...
It was the meat, the strong meat, and he knew, as never before, that it required strong men to eat such meat.
"You've sure got to keep the top of the ridge," Shorty shouted at him, the plug of tobacco lifting to his mouth, as the boat quickened in the quickening current and took the head of the rapids.
Kit nodded, swayed his strength and weight tentatively on the steering-gear, and headed the boat for the plunge.
Several minutes later, half-swamped and lying against the bank in the eddy below the White Horse, Shorty spat out a mouthful of tobacco juice and shook Kit's hand.
"Meat! Meat!" Shorty chanted. "We eat it raw! We eat it alive!"
I wonder what emotions Jack London"s words stir in the reader. I am experienced in running rapids. For me, every Jack"s word is a whole history and makes the most vivid episodes of my travels flash through my memory.
The exultation that swept over Shorty (read: London) is not merely an emotional outburst in an immediate situation.
Before he went to Alaska, Jack London regarded life as a struggle among people for a place in human society. All the best places are already occupied. Everyone tries to rub your nose in your origin or cut you down to size to hold his own position. In Alaska, it is all different - a struggle in an environment where everyone has an even chance. It depends on your own abilities how high you can rise ...
Even before I finished the previous highfalutin phrase, I remembered a commercial that can often be seen see on TV. In this commercial, a man of the kind usually referred to as "well-to-do" demands: "You better give me meat, meat". And then he is given ... a piece of what looks like canned meat. I don"t dislike that kind of men, but the only thing I know is that such meat is not real. Both literally and figuratively. And the "well-to-do" man is little more than a dead man.
A hundred years after the events described, we Jack London fans had no difficulty running the Box Canyon - and, paddling across the reservoir lake, we pulled in to the bank where a travel agent was waiting for us with a minibus.
Thus, this part of the river, once one of the hardest on the Yukon, is now a regular tourist attraction.
Middle of July, 2003. Yukon. Canada.
The trip from Carmacks to Dawson (415 kilometers) took us three days. The village of Carmacks, named after one of the first discoverers of gold in the Klondike, George Carmack, is located below Lake Labarge, where the highway crosses the Yukon.
We proceeded down the river across a sparsely populated area which hasn"t changed since the time of Jack London, not even since Adam and Eve. You can feast your eyes on the beauty of an undefiled northern nature. Now and again, the Yukon divides into branches, and we paddled from one bunch of islands to another. The current is swift, looking like the wake of a big ship going full steam ahead, with seething foam, eddies and mushroom waves. The whole mass of water is moving toward the ocean. I felt like a pilgrim in the holy land. Every island, every valley or brook or hill was associated in my mind with London"s characters.
Our first halt for the night was at Fort Selkirk, where the legendary Elam Harnish, alias Burning Daylight, once halted. A hundred years ago, violent passions ran high here, yet nowadays it is but a historic site, a museum. There are a few buildings of historic interest, as well as a camping area for travelers.
The site is supported by the Canadian government. There is a family living here and looking after the area. The next morning I watched them doing their routine cleaning, although there was not only no litter left after us, but hardly even any sign of us at all.
At Selkirk, we had met three Japanese kayakers. Although camping together, they paddled the river each on his own. Each had his own tent, a primus stove and a stock of provision.
Here we go again, paddling away all day long. What ticks me off most about it is that I have to balance on my butt all the time. It aches, itches and gets numb. I shift my posture periodically, but each time after a while I begin to feel I just can"t sit any longer.
The nature, however, is beautiful. Somewhat similar to that of South Yakutia, save that instead of bright-green larches there are firs and multiple aspens growing along the banks. The fir-trees look sort of wretched - not like their beautiful cousins lining the Kremlin wall or the giants of the Altai Mountains, but rather puny, as if shrunk from cold.
What really delights the eye is fireweed growing in abundance. Some slopes, especially fire sites, are carpeted with the bright flowers. From time to time, the breeze brings the specific smell.
The aspen is a tree favored by moose and beaver. We even met one of those cloven-hoofed giants - it was standing knee-deep in the water, chewing something with a thoughtful look, its eyes following a strange yellow thing that slid along the water"s surface waving its half-paddles half-wings.
And again we halted for the night with the Japanese guys, though now there were only two of them. The third one had chosen his own route and fallen behind.
My body is exhausted. Man, that was hard! My muscles could probably keep on paddling, but as for camp chores, I am of little help with those. I need some rest.
I glanced with respect at our fellow travelers. They had covered the same distance, and yet they looked quite all right. Each had set up his tent and got busy with his primus.
Sinking into sleep, I remembered London"s words: "He found it hard to believe that he had known any other life than this of the wild, and harder still was it for him to reconcile himself to the fact that he had once dabbled and dawdled in the Bohemian drift of city life. Alone, with no one to talk to, he thought much, and deeply, and simply. He was appalled by the wastage of his city years, by the cheapness, now, of the philosophies of the schools and books, of the clever cynicism of the studio and editorial room, of the cant of the business men in their clubs. They knew neither food, nor sleep, nor health; nor could they ever possibly know the sting of real appetite, the goodly ache of fatigue, nor the rush of mad strong blood that bit like wine through all one's body as work was done."
The last day trip. Although the longest, physically it seemed easier - I had become used to such daily exercises.
We had met many tourists during our three-day journey. Most of them traveled in kayaks, like we did, but some in canoes. A canoe is more suitable for calm water. There is more room for your belongings, and you feel more comfortable sitting in it.
I was amazed to see quite a number of solo travelers. On bicycles or motorcycles, in canoes. All from developed countries where you simply can"t feel alone due to traditions, circumstances, mobile communications, video surveillance cameras, social roles - a supersaturated solution of humanity.
Flying from Europe to Canada to see the world of the White Silence (which is actually green in summer), to face the vast expanses of wild lands, to give up your cell phone, to start on the trail of trials, or to simply try to be alone with yourself - you must admit, it is an experience that only some can enjoy.
Quite noticeable is the point where the White River throws itself into the Yukon - the water changes its color to a muddy white. This part of the country was the scene of the events described in one of the Smoke Bellew tales, The Race for Number Three. Somewhere here Smoke flew out onto the ice of the Yukon and urged his team on, heading for Dawson to record the claim that was worth a million dollars.
A few kilometers downstream, hardly seen among many islands, is the mouth of the Stewart River. It is at the Stewart"s mouth, not in Dawson, that Jack London spent the winter of 1897-98. Jack knew the land between the White and Stewart rivers perfectly well, and many of his characters did their deeds in these parts.
It was evening again. By my watch, anyway. In these latitudes, due to the white nights, you can"t guess at the time by the sun. It was about 10 P.M. local time. We paddled on, ready to see Dawson any minute. I laid down my paddle only for a moment and propped myself on my elbows to give rest to certain parts of my body. My companion just kept on paddling. Then we noticed near the bank a strange-looking boat equipped with some kind of contraption. We got closer and saw either a fisherman or a hydrologist. He told us Dawson was only one kilometer away. We couldn"t even believe it. With suddenly renewed energy, we drove our paddles into the water again. Before long, a settlement came into view, with a stream flowing on its right. My brain started working feverishly. Oh my God! Isn"t that the Klondike River! And the settlement on the bank is none other than Dawson. Dawson City! The clean waters of the Klondike wash the high flat on which Dawson is located and flow into the Yukon, gradually mingling with its muddy waters. A few more strokes of the paddle - and we came to rest near a dock where a beautiful catamaran was moored. It was like suddenly stepping out of pristine wilderness into civilization.
It was very late. We decided to stop in at the campground on the other bank and attend to our affairs in the morning.
We were so tired that we couldn"t enjoy the significant moment in full. Now that I"m back home, calm and comfortable, I can describe my feelings comparing them with the delight of all those who, after passing through the trials of the North, finally reached Dawson. At the moment, however, all that kept spinning in my mind was the trivial phrase: "I made it!"
Early 1900"s. Dawson City. Canada.
In the middle of the Gold Rush there were about 30,000 people living in Dawson City. At the mouth of the Klondike River was another settlement, Klondike City. The valley of the Klondike and its small feeders was swarming with gold-seekers. Many photographs that remain from those days give us a clear idea of the gold-mining boom that took place here. Trains had already begun to run between Skagway and Whitehorse, and steamboats would scarcely manage to unload in Dawson. The waters of the Klondike and multiple gold-rich creeks burst their banks and flowed through the chutes. Having served its purpose - separating gold from dirt - the stream of muddy water ran on to join the Yukon.
Who else could describe Dawson during the Gold Rush better than London?
"You know that big flat jest below the Klondike and under Moosehide Mountain? ...
He saw the feverish city of his dream - the gold metropolis of the North, perched above the Yukon on a high earth-bank and far-spreading across the flat. He saw the river steamers tied to the bank and lined against it three deep; he saw the sawmills working and the long dog-teams, with double sleds behind, freighting supplies to the diggings. And he saw, further, the gambling-houses, banks, stock-exchanges, and all the gear and chips and markers, the chances and opportunities, of a vastly bigger gambling game than any he had ever seen," - that is what Jack London writes in Burning Daylight.
Early 2000"s. Dawson City. Canada.
A ferry took us to the right bank of the Yukon. I recognized Moosehide Mountain with the big flat at its foot; I could see the mouth of the Klondike River. This really was Dawson, a tourist and historic city, a living museum.
Now that all gold has been extracted from the rivers and creeks, it"s tourism that shapes and preserves the city. The water in the Klondike is clear. There is no more gold hunting. The dumps are overgrown, the streams have returned to their former courses.
The famous Gold Dredge No. 4. In its time, it produced hundreds and hundreds tons of gold, bringing millions of dollars. Even today, it still proves profitable, satisfying the curiosity of numerous tourists. All that was left or abandoned by the gold-miners is now part of the local historic treasures. Even the very process of gold panning has become a tourist attraction. Carefully following all our instructor"s movements, we eventually washed out - with our own hands - a few specks of gold. We had them neatly packed, and now I proudly show them to all my friends.
There are no paved streets left in Dawson, but the city has remained with wooden boardwalks, casinos, cabarets, restaurants, museums, monuments, officers wearing traditional clothes of the early 1900"s, mounted police in red uniforms (much like a century ago, too), steamers permanently docked - all in a constant attempt to attract even more tourists.
In winter, the city has a rough time of it and becomes rather sleepy, covered in cold snow and the Northern Silence. For several recent years, however, there have been sled dog races held here. Once even a Russian traveler, Fyodor Konyukhov, took part in them. The contest is undoubtedly attractive to many tourists. The northern winter is quite lovely in February and March, when the sun is a feast for the eyes and the soul.
We were waiting for an excursion to the famous gold-bearing Bonanza Creek. The sun was scorching hot, and I hid in the agency office. A lady in the uniform of the early 1900"s offered me a glass of ice water and turned on the air conditioner. I made myself comfortable in an armchair, sipping my water, and looked around me. The office was furnished in an old-fashioned style. All the equipment was really a hundred years old. A table, a typewriter, a writing desk, a showcase counter. A coffee grinder, a pair of gold scales, cooking utensils, some other things. A hat rack standing beside me, with black derby hats on it. You can even buy one for 25 dollars. Suddenly I find myself realizing that this is no theater or cinema but a real, functioning office. The things surrounding me are no props, and the lady is no actress but a real office worker. I have found myself back in time. The computer on the table looks definitely out of place. It is we, humans, who are real and true. All the rest - abacuses, coffee grinders, or whatever might appear in the next hundred years - is transitory. And I look at the lady with a well-defined interest, just as men looked at women a hundred years ago and will continue to look at them a hundred years from now.
Heyerdahl was right saying: "People improve only equipment but in the process become no better themselves."
I visited the Jack London Museum three times. No words can describe what I felt. It"s not that I idolize London beyond all reason. I didn"t sink to my knees, and I wasn"t going to knock my forehead on the floor, bowing.
The guide gave us a lecture. We, tourists from Russia, and London fans on top of that, amazed and interested him. After all, we were the first Russians here in many years.
In the museum, among the photos on the walls, I felt like Jack London"s Star-Rover. (If you are not familiar with this book, just think of the film Back to the Future, which is quite similar.) I am transported a hundred years back in time. People look at me from the photographs. I am among them. I can physically feel their presence. I am aware of their fates, while they, posing for the photographer, are not.
It is not until three years later, right at the end of the century, that London will write about his dreams: "But the new century, ah! that would be a great time to be alive. The resources, the machines, the scientific skill would be made to serve mankind instead of enslaving it. The human brain would be educated in natural laws, taught to face the irrefragable fact instead of being anaesthetized by a religion for the weak and a morality for morons."
Yes, he will write about his dreams, but I already know none of them will come true. One hundred years won"t be enough for man to become educated in natural laws. The human mind will be unable to prevent the First and Second World Wars, and the beginning of the 21st century in America will be marked by a terrorist attack.
In his works, Jack, as an independent observer, unintentionally shows the forces that shape human society. Ancient Egyptians and Chinese, Socrates, Darwin and many others discovered the laws of human communication over and over again. But humans stubbornly try to live according to their own contrived laws. Pretty enough to give way to despair. Sometimes you just can"t help doubting that humans are intelligent at all.
Jack returned from Alaska full of creative ideas. Perhaps he still believed in socialistic principles theoretically, but in practice he was a realist. In his Northland stories, we meet many strong, brave and independent characters. Any of them can be described by the words referred to Elam Harnish: "He, who was one of the few that made the Law in that far land, who set the ethical pace, and by conduct gave the standard of right and wrong, was nevertheless above the Law. He was one of those rare and favored mortals who can do no wrong."
Jack returned home without a cent to his name. And yet he profited by the Gold Rush more than any prospector who staked a claim on Bonanza Creek.
Now let me describe the ferry. There is no bridge across the Yukon in Dawson. Its banks are linked by the ferry which takes you across free of charge. The ferry operates around the clock. There is a bulldozer at the ferry landing on each side. Yes, just a small bulldozer always ready for work. When necessary, the operator gets in it and "mends" the landing to prevent its erosion. The two bulldozers are only used for keeping the ferry crossing in working condition. You can see automobiles arriving now and again. All kinds of them. Mostly traveling folk. What amused me most was a van, about the size of a Russian PAZ bus, a real house on wheels. Moreover, there was a jeep as big as a Russian Niva towed behind, with a bicycle fastened to the front bumper. And, to cap it all, there was a canoe fastened to the top of the van. What else could you provide yourself with for recreational activities? I wouldn"t be surprised if they had an airplane, too, tucked away somewhere. But the most amazing thing was that the man sitting behind the wheel looked about 80 years old, and beside him was a frail old lady. That"s how the aged spend their best years. As for young people, they are few. And they drive ordinary cars.
There is a point to it, I thought to myself. All you need is a more or less decent road. Then you can get somewhere to the back of beyond in search for adventures, going through rain, wind or snow - no matter how tired or frozen you are, you can always get back to your van and close the door behind you to take a shower and sleep in a proper bed. That"s all very fine when you travel just for the sake of traveling. The most important thing for me, however, is to get from point A to point B. The route itself is just an inevitable part. Jack London didn't choose to go through obstacles just for the joy of it - it was the only way for him to get from the Pacific cost to the gold-bearing Klondike River.
July 25, 2003. Novosibirsk. Russia.
We made our connection in Anchorage. So I managed to visit the United States after all. As we went upstairs, I suddenly noticed a sign saying "duty-free shop". I didn"t realize at first what amazed me so much. Then it struck me that the sign was written it Russian. I had become so accustomed to English words that they alone were associated with certain meanings. And now it took me a while to recognize my native alphabet! It was written specially for passengers from Magadan (which is not far from Anchorage). But we had to fly in another direction, and our flight was to be pretty long. We walked around the terminal and photographed each other beside a stuffed grizzly bear.
And then we flew back to Moscow. North America disappeared under a thick blanket of clouds, and only the top of Mount McKinley remained visible for a long while, as if seeing us off. Farewell to the New World.
I returned home exactly 106 years after Jack London set out for Alaska. I could have used very nice phrases saying that I"ve finally done what I wanted, fulfilled my dreams, achieved my goal, seeing Alaska with my own eyes ... All this is true. We have entered the 21st century. It is no less interesting than the early 1900"s. What a pity you can only see the big picture from a distance.
I have been to the White Pass, run the White Horse rapids, paddled the Yukon River. I understand Jack when he says: "It was in the Klondike I found myself. There nobody talks. Everybody thinks. You get your true perspective." The last three weeks will certainly remain the greatest event in my life. In fact, my whole life was a preparation for this expedition. But what now? Is there nothing more to live for? Or is my life just beginning now that I"ve been to the Klondike? Three weeks is just a moment on the scale of a man"s experience - or is it that fleeting moment we call life? God grant that someone may remember about me on July 25, 2103. I have to do something to be remembered for. I hope it"s not too late.
2. Jack London in my Life
I wanted to begin my essay with the words from Martin Eden: "Life is, I think, a blunder and a shame"; I wanted to tell about my mediocre and wasted life, adding a quotation from Mikhail Lermontov for better effect: "Are there not many who begin life by aspiring to end it like Alexander the Great, or Lord Byron, and yet remain petty civil servants all their lives?" But then I thought to myself, "Who today can be impressed with or interested in a story of someone's wasted life?" Why, any person, be he a lowlife drunk or a prosperous businessman, a popular artist or the president of a nation, could tell something about his might-have-been plans.
You could find many quotations in which people of different historical epochs and different social statuses speak of their unfulfilled hopes. Why is it so? Why it is that sometimes disappointment in life can be stronger than the instinct of self-preservation?
There seem to be something in human relations - or in humans themselves - that keeps a human being from making his dreams or wishes come true. A disease of some kind that affects one's mind and sometime leads to a lethal outcome.
For some, like Martin Eden, life becomes unbearable at the height of their fame, and they commit suicide. Others seek escape in alcohol or drugs, thus destroying their own minds - the actual source of the disease - to keep them selves from unbearable psychic pain.
There was a time when reality would constantly reject me like a living organism rejects a foreign body, and I, too, would think now and again about making away with myself. I would lay the blame on the socialist system in which I lived, feeling superfluous. But the theme of the "superfluous man" has always existed - be that Jack London's Martin Eden or Chatsky from Alexander Griboyedov'sWoe From Wit. So the reason must lie elsewhere.
Each person has his own problems. And each one believes that only his problems are real, while those of other people are nothing important.
One thing I'm sure about myself is that I prefer to be a creator. Never have I been attracted to the idea of consuming or accumulating material goods. For example, I have never wanted to have a big car to grow bigger in my own eyes or in the eyes of other people. Instead, I've always wanted to create something fresh - something nobody ever knew or could conceive of.
But all my intentions were destroyed by the socialist system. The system that was unviable in it self and that butchered anything creative in its very womb.
My story might be only one of many. But it exists, so why not let it be known to the world? The whole history of mankind is made up of such little grains. My inspiration comes from London's words: "All things were related to all other things from the farthermost star in the wastes of space to the myriads of atoms in the grain of sand under one's foot."
Personally, I've found a solution. I'm not going destroy my body physically, nor will I poison my mind with chemicals. I will be studying the problem. I'll call myself a psychological corpse and dissect this corpse philosophically in the search for truth.
I have realized what happened to me: I am, in part, the outcome of mother nature's failed attempt to create a fair society based on socialist values, and of misunderstood essence of being, as a whole.
During my philosophical research, I found that the outlook of my favorite author, Jack London, was never static - it gradually changed throughout his life from the intuitive and emotional perception of socialism to its absolute renunciation, which was caused by his understanding of the nature of human behavior. His idea of a just society also changed. There is nothing amazing about it, and no one is to blame for it. Just like no one can be blamed for the fact that people used to believe for a long time that the Earth was flat. It was only with the appearance of new scientific knowledge that this opinion changed. The same with the idea of socialism - almost a century has been required, with millions of human lives sacrificed, to come to the conclusion that the socialist idea, no less attractive than the idea of a perpetual motion machine, is just as unrealizable because of the laws of nature.
To begin with, let me explain why I turn to the works of Lack London rather than great philosophers, psychologists or writers.
Socrates, Plato, Freud, Berdyaev, Hegel, Lenin, Einstein, Chekhov, Plekhanov, Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer ... Hearing these names, you feel like standing up to attention - what great minds, what a goldmine of knowledge and ideas and aspirations! I can almost feel physically that somewhere up there, in the dazzling heights of the human mind, is the truth, far too distant for me to reach.
But as I reflect, getting over shyness, on what all those distant classics actually did, I come to the conclusion that neither I nor all mankind really care about all the searches, struggles or vacillations of those "great minds", after all. What good are all their ideas if none of them could stop the First or Second World War? Nor could they prevent a single terrorist attack or stop the senseless slaughter of men by men.
It terrifies and despairs me that even after World War II, ever since the Nuremberg Trials were over, all sort of "leaders" have been appearing, again and again (like Pol Pot, for instance), whose crimes against humanity are no less terrible than those committed by the Nazis or communists in their countries. And these "leaders" seem to believe they act from good motives. What good are all the speculations and all the great theories, if even now in the 21st century some countries are still going to build socialism, and in the former Soviet Union you can see medieval hereditary princes reappearing here and there? And finally, of what worth is all the smooth-tongued oratory of Russian politicians and their associated devotees of democracy, when Russia is quickly moving toward a totalitarian dead-end, compared with which the stagnation of the Brezhnev years might appear a period of rampant development?
For example, Nikolas Berdyaev, a Russian philosopher, wrote: "I began this chapter at a terrible and agonizing moment for Europe: in June 1940. Whole worlds are crashing in ruins, and other worlds, unknown and unpredictable, are coming into being. Men are cast into outer darkness in which they are reduced to the semblance of broken puppets."
Perhaps someone does think highly of the profundity of Berdyaev's thought, but as for me, these words are evident enough to say that he was rather insufficient as a philosopher. Long before Berdyaev, another man wrote: "The more I read, the more sharply I realize that the world has always been in the throes of agony, that civilization has always been tottering on the brink". Or take Victor Yerofeyev, who has quite recently published a book pretentiously named The Russian Apocalypse.
No matter what all sorts of theorists say in their writings, life, with its twists and turns, keeps on running its natural course (so far poorly explored), and if something can crash, it's Mr. Berdyaev's own artificial world; it is not Russia that is threatened by an apocalypse but Mr. Yerofeyev himself. It's not true that men are cast into darkness, it's people like Berdyaev and Yerofeyev who turn out to be useless - a bunch of bankrupts with their own fancy ideas.
Take Alexander the Great or Charles the Great, Genghis Khan, Napoleon or other historical persons, whose names are associated with a reorganization of the world. Human history is all about destroying old worlds and creating new ones. When life gets turbulent, you can always see people trying to find an explanation of their useless existence. But most of their florid, pseudoscientific philosophical speculations crash against the rocks of reality. Such ideas usually exist as long as their authors live.
I think there's no point talking about such people or their ideas.
In Jack London's books, the most important thing to me is the author's philosophy, not the plot. London puts his philosophy in the form of fiction: his natural, realistic descriptions are intertwined in his writings with a line of philosophical judgments or conclusions. My idea of such a priority agrees with Jack London's own position. In John Barleycorn, he writes: "I had four preferences: first, music; second, poetry; third, the writing of philosophic, economic, and political essays; and, fourth, and last, and least, fiction writing."
Jack London's books were widely published in the Soviet Union, and I read a lot of them. I formed quite a definite opinion of London's writings - an opinion that depended neither on the official dogmas nor on the political situation in the country. Moreover, a dream had already been born and lay hidden deep in my heart, a dream to visit the Klondike, to run the Box Canyon, to see Jack London's homeland. And only then did I read what Soviet literary theorists thought of him. I did and I found myself perplexed.
London was an author quite well known in the Soviet Union. His popularity and uncompromising support coming from the Soviet propaganda were due to the fact that he had the reputation of being a proletarian author of America. In the Soviet Union, the official literary criticism had always followed Maxim Gorky's words: "Soon the time will come for the great masterpieces of proletarian literature. Jack London will be honored for giving a start to this new tradition", or those of Anatoly Lunacharsky1: "Some of his stories, especially his big novel "Iron Heel", are to be considered among the best works of the socialist literature". And all Soviet literary theorists would inevitably mention in their works the fact that Nadezhda Konstantinovna had read London's Love for Life for Vladimir Ilyich when he was ill. (Just in case someone doesn't remember: Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya was the wife of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the founder of the Soviet State.)
The Soviet literary critics regarded London's or any other writer's works from the positions set by the Communist Party. The Party had created certain standards, and all the literary criticism would come down to analyzing just how precisely an author's writings conformed to the standards. Virtually, you couldn't even hear the author's own opinion. All you could hear was someone's authoritative voice declaring indisputable principles.
No matter what research on London's life was pursued or what new biographical facts or documents were found, everything was regarded as just another confirmation of his Marxist views - or wasn't regarded at all.
Vil Bykov, the leading Soviet London scholar, made his career by presenting exclusively the proletarian aspect of London's writings. I believe it is no secret that Bykov's visit to Jack London's homeland in the United States in 1959 (the height of the Cold War) was only possible on condition that he would prove, according to the line of the Communist Party, that London really was a proletarian writer. And the "relevant authorities" had first scanned his genealogy back to the seventh generation in order to exclude the very possibility of genetic dissident traits.
The Nietzschean views of Jack London were a great opportunity for the Soviet London scholars to discuss his misconceptions or criticize him.
For example, this is what Alexey Zverev wrote about the change in London's outlook: "The spiritual upheaval he experienced at the end of his life path that was repaid by severe creative failures seemed inconceivable to many of London's contemporaries. But there was in fact nothing mysterious about it. It simply became clearly apparent that the revolutionary thinking typical for London and most of the other socialists of his time was yet immature."
I can't agree with such words. But I see no reason to enter into a dispute - simply because it's obvious today, due to the complete bankruptcy of the socialist ideas, whose thinking is in fact "immature ". As for the manner in which Mr. Zverev stated his opinion, it's a good illustration of the tone you'd better not use today if you don't want to put your foot in it tomorrow.
When I first came across Hearts of Three, I read it in one breath. To me, this novel is much more interesting than James Bond, Indiana Jones and all that action-adventure stuff, be that films or books. It was the first London's novel I read, and I regard it with awe. That's why, when I read Irving Stone: "He worked only on the movie story "Hearts of Three" for which entertainment nonsense the Cosmopolitan had offered him twenty-five thousand dollars," or Alexey Zverev: "After London's death, new books kept being published for a few years more - hastily and negligently written books, such as "Hearts of Three", I feel like crying out: "Are you holier than the Pope?" Why, Jack London himself estimated his novel like this: "I have certainly never done anything like it before; I am pretty certain never to do anything like it again. And I haven't the least bit of reticence in proclaiming my pride in having done it. And now, for the reader who likes action, I advise him to skip the rest of this brag and foreword, and plunge into the narrative, and tell me if it just doesn't read along."
The more London's Marxism contributed to his popularity in the Soviet Union, the more he suffered from Marxism in his native country, as Alexey Zverev points out: "The almost half-century-long downplaying of London was not least caused by his socialist aspirations displeasing the mainstream American literary criticism - the stunning pictures of class antagonisms that he had shown in "People of the Abyss", or the threatening prophecies filling his "Iron Heel".
In nowadays Russia, when struggle for money has been brought to the forefront, when all moral, ethical and philosophical principles are turned upside down, it's difficult to talk about London's works, because there is hardly anyone to talk to. The old London scholarship that was bound to Marxism is beneath criticism (to say the least), while the new one ... well, there is simply nothing of the sort.
If the Marxist standards are inappropriate, then what should we base on - from what position should we consider London's works now? So many heads, so many opinions ... And I thought I'd better offer my own opinion.
I cannot understand, nor do I want to, how the work of a writer can be discussed from the position of a teacher rebuking an unruly pupil without any possibility of appeal. What I'm going to do is just speak of Jack London's life and philosophy, comparing and paralleling some of the events of his life with those of mine. It is in London's books that I find confirmation of my own experience, thanks to which I don't give up on myself but regard my past life rather philosophically: "This is how mother nature wanted it."
I don't want my personal opinion and my view on London's works to be taken as a general Russian idea of Jack London. This is the opinion of an individual person. I can only hope that, at best, it might be concordant with what other people think. I'm an individualist by nature. If I have any thoughts, those are my thoughts - even if they appear similar to those of other people. I can agree with someone's opinion but I would never allow myself to assume the right to speak for all readers - or, as Victor Yerofeyev does, to take the liberty of speaking of all Russian women in the following manner: "A young woman in Russia lacks philosophical grounds for living her life. The market disorientates her with its temptations. She lives beyond her means. She lives better than she can afford." (Victor Yerofeyev, The Russian Apocalypse.)
What could serve as an epigraph to the further part of my essay is the words of the basic principle of Communism: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." Some might say these words sound out of place, but I believe they do reflect all the collisions of Jack London's Marxism and Nietzscheanism.
People nowadays have become used to the idea that they all differ from each other not only physically but also mentally. They put up with it, though somewhat theoretically, since no one is likely to admit that he's not as smart as others, and the worst offence you can commit is to doubt his intelligence.
I'm not going to prove that Jack London had outstanding intellectual abilities. Today, when London's worldwide significance is beyond doubt, let's just take it for granted - as if we were talking about the color of his eyes or the size of his shoes.
Now, following the narrative logic of my essay, I have to put in a few words about myself.
I was born in a family of Soviet officials in January 1953, even when Comrade Stalin was still alive. My grandfather and his multiple brothers and sisters had been involved in revolutionary activities and took part in the Russian revolutions of the early 1900's. My parents belonged to the generation raised in fear of repressions, in constant suspicion and in ecstasy over the grand achievements of the first five-year plans2, waiting for the happiness promised by the Communist Party to come. Their idols were Valery Chkalov3, Ivan Papanin4, the builders of the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station5, the fighters for the freedom of Spain, and other people and events that were to fill everyone with belief that the worldwide revolution was inevitably approaching. My father finished school in 1941. The date means a lot for any Russian reader. It was the year when the Great Patriotic War began, in which Russian people fought against the Nazis. After the war, there was living on the edge of poverty and struggling for survival, yet my father managed to start a family (including me) in hopes that his children would have a better life. He was a communist and believed in the "bright future" that was to come, but my mother always thought him an idealist.
From my early childhood I remember the red steamer I could see from a window of my kindergarten before taking my after-dinner nap. There was a phrase written on the steamer in white words, which said "Slava KPSS" ("Glory to the CPSU", i.e. the Communist Party of the Soviet Union). Grownups had read the phrase for me but they never explained what it stood for, so I kept wondering for a long time what it could possibly mean. The thing is that the word "Slava" not only means a glory, but it's also a human name. I started school when I was seven and a half, on September 1st, 1960. From that day on, going to school became my only occupation for 10 years. I can only add for variety that I changed school four times over the period, and after finishing the ninth grade, during the summer vacation, I worked as a bricklayer's assistance. I earned 130 rubles - quite a sum for those days. Besides, when I was fourteen, I got involved in rowing which became my hobby for about three years. It came in handy later on.
Ever since I was a small child, living in the country of victorious socialism, I never suffered from hunger or severe environment, unlike Jack London. While my Mom and Dad were accomplishing the task of creating the material and technical basis for Communism, I, just like all Soviet children, was being brought up to become a "new man".
Unlike London, I grew up in a big city. And yet, just like London, I can say: One of my earliest and strongest impressions was of the ignorance of other people. I was impressed not so much by people's ignorance as by the fact that many people simply didn't want to gain knowledge. There was a lot of literature around, both scientific and fictional. But as much as I was hungry for everything new, others couldn't care less about the same books (I didn't know then that love of learning could be explained with individual human personality). I liked reading, just like London did. Most of all I preferred historical and adventure books and all sorts of educational fiction, like Jules Verne, Ivan Yefremov, Dale Carnegie and others. These authors wrote in a manner similar to Jack London's - they all presented scientific knowledge in the form of fiction. No wonder I learnt geography mostly from Jules Verne's In Search of the Castaways rather than from schoolbooks. There were lots of popular scientific magazines at home, and reading an article once from one of them or from my big sister's textbook was enough for remembering all the dates, figures and the logic of the story. My childish mind eagerly absorbed any natural knowledge, as well as the "correct" ideas concerning social organization that were inculcated in me by grownups. Even as a boy, I was in a sort of awesome worship of the triumph of the human mind.
I remember very well the exultation swept over the nation in the spring of 1961, after Yuri Gagarin's flight into outer space. And in the autumn, when the "Program for building Communism" was adopted, my boyish mind would sooner have doubted that the sun would rise the next day than that Communism really would be the "bright future" of mankind built due to human intelligence. The ease with which I fell for the idea can be explained today with my mentality and ... my modest physical abilities. Even now I still believe in natural selection which in time will lead to a race of human beings with big heads, while the hands and body will become obsolete and shrivel to a size only large enough to allow one to press the buttons of various automatic machines or eat from tubes, just like astronauts did in the early Space Age.
At the age of nine life was acquainting Jack London with its rules - and it's the same age when life taught me my first lesson, too, which gave me cause to doubt the official interpretation of the reasons and motives behind human relations - the so-called communist relations that were based on Marx's ideas. For the first time there was a doubt creeping into my mind: I was no longer so sure about the purity of the ideals, I just felt there was something wrong about it. It all came when our class was about to join the Young Pioneers. The Young Pioneers was a juvenile organization whose purpose was to go on with the indoctrinational work usually started as early as elementary-school age. Joining the Young Pioneers was an obligatory ritual in the process of raising the "new man". You were required to pledge solemnly that you would struggle for the cause of the Communist Party, and when there came the words of the motto: "Young Pioneer, for the cause of the Communist Party, be ready!" you were supposed to raise your hand over your head and answer: "Always ready!" There were few who understood the meaning of the ritual resembling either the rites of savage tribes or a brainwashing lab, but you had been told that it just must be done this way and you must be like all the rest. So, when the whole class was to write the application our teacher was about to dictate, I refused. My motive was simple: I thought I didn't deserve to be a Pioneer. We had been told many times that only the best pupils could be allowed to join the Young Pioneers. No one cared about what I felt inside or what I thought of myself, but this extraordinary gesture caused much fuss. Today I understand how my parents felt at the time. It was lucky that the Khrushchev Thaw6 had already begun, so it didn't come to accusations of being anti-Soviet. I was scolded and intimidated and reclaimed - so I gave up in the end. But, unlike other schoolboys, I wore my Young Pioneer's red neckerchief (a Pioneer tie, as it was usually called) all the time till I entered the next age period of the Communist indoctrination and became a member of the Komsomol (Young Communist League). There is a nuance about it. For 10-year-old children, it was interesting to wear their red ties and feel belonging to something great and significant. But at the age of 12 or 13, when girls started showing interest in boys and the boys wanted to look more mature, the Pioneer tie was interpreted as an attribute of childhood, like a baby's pacifier. Now the signs of maturity were cigarettes and alcoholic drinks. So all these young fighters for the cause of the Communist Party tried to put their red ties away as soon as they were out the school doors. But for me, the Pioneer tie was the evidence of one's adherence to the Communist ideas, so I kept tying it around my neck each morning. I couldn't understand how it was possible that you had promised solemnly to wear your tie and yet didn't keep your promise, so I thought my classmates were not conscientious enough.
Another thing about my high-school period - especially in its beginning - is that I believed it was possible to reclaim man. "If only all people were good." It was merely a childish way of thinking. I was neither experienced nor scientifically educated at the time. Our teachers would tell us that all people were the same, and if you just educated them properly, there would come a paradise upon earth. And I believed them. And I never stopped wondering why there were still dunces and bullies appearing again and again among the pupils. Moreover, I felt remorse because I thought I wasn't conscientious enough, getting average grades from time to time when I didn't really want to learn something, so I was afraid they wouldn't take me to Communism because of that. It seemed that the roots of the negative phenomena still existing in socialism were well known to everyone - it was all because of the remnants of capitalism and wrong education. Even those who were "unconscientious" did know about that. And yet they wouldn't quit, say, drinking or smoking.
In the eighth grade - that is, when I was about 15 or 16 - we had an interesting subject called Social Science. Our teacher - the kind of woman with the "correct" attitude - would tell us students that people must eradicate all their "negative" traits: acquisitiveness, sycophancy, hypocrisy, deceitfulness, and so on. She would tell us that under communism all people would be "correct" and all would live happily. At the same time, I could see Young Pioneer, Komsomol or trade-union "leaders", who, by definition, were supposed to be the best of all, and yet they did resort to lies, hypocrisy or deception to make their way up the ladder. We were told it was not good to lust after a career or stand out against others, while life showed such things were unavoidable, for they were life itself. My attempts to ask our teacher about the nature of such a phenomenon would throw her into fits of anger and indignation. She would tell me that I knew nothing about anything, that I took too much on myself, and do on. As for my classmates, they would only chuckle and go listening to the "disintegrating" western music or drinking wine so "detrimental" to health. I couldn't help feeling caught up in some kind of elaborate practical joke. As if all were aware of certain rules of the game but kept mum and only laughed at you.
I was genuinely convinced that twist was part of the pernicious influence of the West, the Beatles played disintegrating music, and Vysotsky7 was a negative person. Unlike London, who could choose his own way up according to his talents, people of my generation had no choice. The very word "career" was something reprehensible. Everything was predetermined: kindergarten, high school, college, army, and then labor in your country's service.
You were supposed to believe that everything was great in the country; you had to deserve what the state gave you and be grateful. The most deserving would be noticed and taken upstairs; they would be awarded and held up as an example to others.
I finished high school at 17. In my character reference letter - a document accompanying each graduate - there were the following words: "... has always been an example to all due to his competence and attitude towards physical work." Yes, I could work. I liked working and I wanted to work much. Here I can proudly compare myself with Jack London, who wrote: "I was not afraid of work. I loved hard work".
I was pretty good at exact sciences, and I understood everything I was taught. But that was not what I was cut out for. I wanted to be a writer or an explorer. But the building of Communism required technical specialists, so I had to choose an aviation college.
Yet I was rather reluctant to enter it. I remember walking around in the park near the college, castigating myself for being so weak. A voice from within kept repeating, No, it's not what you want.No wonder I failed the exams.
And then my life rolled down the beaten path. After high school I worked as a mechanic in an auto repair shop, then I went into the army. After my service was over, I tried a technical college and, to my surprise, entered it with no trouble. I was even more surprised to find myself being a straight-A student, according to the results of the first term. I kept doing well until I graduated with all excellent grades. And I was most successful in such now-nonexistent disciplines as History of the CPSU, Political Economics and Scientific Communism. One of our lecturers even wondered why I had chosen a technical college rather than an arts college. Another one, who himself had graduated from the Kiev University, called me "another talented metallurgical engineer", obviously referring to Leonid Brezhnev who had once specialized in the same area. But my knowledge of the Marxist-Leninist theories was much deeper than required, so my name was never seen among those of the best graduating students of the college. Once I had told our faculty about my doubts regarding the correctness of Marxism, and the most perspicacious ideologists preferred not to run risks and go without mentioning my name among the best students.
The reality would constantly cut me down "to size", and by the age of twenty-seven I found that I'd lost interest in life. I could explain that. I had attended school for ten years - I did well and acquired a good grasp of moral guidelines about our lives being still far from perfect and the "bright future" being built for all people to make them happy. The ten years that followed had brought some "corrections" to the values inculcated in high school. By and by, I had turned into a man who didn't know how or why he should live. The world I lived in made it impossible to live the way I had been taught in school, but to live the way the world was pushing me to live - that I couldn't do, because of those well-learned school lessons.
I couldn't help feeling I was defective or something, like a leper to be isolated from normal people, like Dostoyevsky's idiot who always found himself out of place with his truth. When I acted as I had been taught to, people looked at me as if I were an odd bird unfamiliar with common rules. I had to live in a secret world of my own. Sometimes I did try to share my thoughts with a few friends of mine, but they wouldn't understand me. Or, at best, they would tell me to take it easy.
It was then that I started on a frantic pursuit of knowledge. I entered postgraduate engineering courses, but I spent all my spare time studying humanities.
While studying Marxism-Leninism, psychology, etc., I began to understand why I had come to a crisis. It was because, on the one hand, I tried to suppress all the "human weaknesses" stirring in me, for I was determined to work hard to provide a happy life for all people and for myself, too. On the other hand, however, it turned out that the concept of a "happy life" did include things known as "human weaknesses", which I had given up, like plenty of delicious food and wine, comfortable housing, career successes, relationships with women - in other words, all those sensual pleasures.
Living in the conditions of real socialism, I came to hate it, I just couldn't bear to see it anymore. So I escaped from reality into theory. I rose to the heights of the human mind and found the goldmine of human knowledge. Flabbergasted, I set to reflecting. What I understood made me feel delighted. Now the "developed socialism" appeared before me in all its naked simplicity. I realized that socialism was impossible by definition.
I started feeling disgusted with such life; I was both disgusted and desperate, for I could see no hope in the situation. And there was nothing I could do about it. My upbringing and my poverty wouldn't allow me to break away from the socialist system, nor would I seek oblivion in alcohol or drugs.
So it happened that I, a man born under socialism, in a functional family free from any prejudices of the past, brought up by the soviet system, turned into a convinced opponent of Marxism.
I put my thoughts together into a work I called "More Concerning the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State" (an answer to Friedrich Engels's Concerning the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State). But, having put my thoughts together, I could only bury them in the depths of my mind. It was 1981, ten years before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and I wouldn't even try to lay my thoughts open to public due to the instinct of self-preservation.