Frederick Kempe, Berlin bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, had been to Russia a dozen times before. But none of those visits would really prepare him for what he experienced on the 13th.
That most recent visit, a 2,000-mile river voyage through Siberia last year, proved to be five weeks of non-stop adventure and revelation that has produced a marvelous mixture of political and travel writing: "Siberian Odyssey: A Voyage Into the Russian Soul" (G.P. Putnam's Sons, hardcover, $24.95).
"Our luck was that Russia was opening up its most forbidden region and we would be among the first to take advantage," the author observes in his new book. "What we hadn't counted on was the timeliness of our visit. Our expedition would end three weeks before the August 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev would fail, ushering out the Communist Party and the Soviet Union itself. Hence, the trip became a freeze frame of a country in historic ferment, and of its rich frontier simultaneously changing and resisting change."
Mr. Kempe, who earlier wrote "Divorcing the Dictator: America's Bungled Affair with Noriega," took his Siberian cruise down the Tom and Ob rivers, beginning in the Altai Mountains near Mongolia and ending in the Arctic. His journey through this ancient Russian repository of dreams and nightmares often found him the first American setting foot in a place. Along the way, he encountered a previously off-limits city producing weapons-grade plutonium, a tribe of reindeer-herding tepee dwellers, a KGB agent duded up like Al Capone, a prison choir that sang "The Volga Boatman," and a Stalinist mass grave where he met the grown children of both the victims and the perpetrators.
"Nothing illustrated the historic moment more than our stop at Kolpashevo, two weeks into the trip, where the spring waters of the river had cut into the sandy banks and emptied one of Stalin's mass graves. Seventy-four years of lies were crumbling on the riverbank, and truths were tumbling out like the bodies."
Things heated up a bit after he reached the Ob rivers and started through the vast wetlands of the Siberian Northwest:
"Here a helicopter would almost flatten me and armies of mosquitoes would gnaw at my flesh. We'd visit a place of cannibalism and Russia's richest oil fields, where pipe leaks were emptying lakes of oil into the swamps."
As his journey took him deeper into the northwest wilderness, he would encounter native tribes who liked to attack his boat in search of vodka, and even go in search of the native witch doctor.
Also on this month's travel bookshelf:
"The Complete Book of London" by the Automobile Association of England's editors (Norton, hardcover, $32.95). As the lovely color illustrations might suggest, this August publication is really more than a walking-tour guide to London. It is also a coffee-table book and absorbing reading for the armchair traveler.