Courtesy, but of course, of the incomparable Gavriil Batenkov:
This is the initial sight Baikal presents the viewer in summer: grey battleships girded in dense fog float in the deep blue distance; the water’s mirror-smooth surface in still times and its frightening black waves in storms, which deafen with their roar and seem poised to toss into the abyss the mossy cliffs that block their raging.
The lake is quiet—and the heart fills with some peculiar thrill at the sight of it. When one imagines how far it lies from our fatherland’s center point, when one grasps the complete lack of permanent settlement, the wildness of nature, marked only by the scattered shacks of fishermen, the sails of their boats white in the distance, one cannot help but think that beyond the waters, beyond the mountains’ high ridges, close by, begins the land that differs from all that we have known and seen, that diverges completely from our way of life and thought. All this feeds the soul’s pensiveness and evokes certain, inexpressible feelings.
Then the storm comes. The wind shrieks in the mountain precipices, the centuries-old trees on the peaks groan, the waves roar, and an involuntary horror grips the heart of the traveler in that terrible wasteland. The deeds of ages past stand before him, and he recalls the destructive hordes that poured from this place, terrifying and merciless, like the rebelling waves of their holy site. (Baikal is considered sacred among the heathens.)
Gloomy autumn doubles these horrors; the sight of nature dying, the battle of wave against wave, of ice striking ice makes one tremble and think on the destruction of the world. The sailor lets down his sails and seeks safe harbor from the raging winds. Thick fog covers the sun and the shore for long periods. And on a clear day on land nearby, impenetrable gloom may prevail on the lake. The waves’ roar increases the horror and the intolerable cold renders these places the true likeness of Tartarus, where no man dare step and which no eye can pierce, for beyond its gates lies the grave…
Streams and rivers, as if horrified to approach the abyss, hide beneath a crust of ice. Only the grand Angara dares pour into the lake and flows like time out of eternity. Yet even she, cloaked in fog’s gloom, speaks of her origins in the lands of horror and death.
But winter, a new monster from midnight realms, does not hesitate to apply its shackles. The battle drags on, but her victory is sure. She disbands the darkness, levels and thickens the waves, and Baikal once again appears harmless and tame, open to any, but on a grander scale. The bright days come. The surface of this vessel of the waters reflects, like smooth crystal, the sun’s rays. The wind, like some careful observer of cleanliness, sweeps the snow to the shore and with powerful whirlwinds carries it up the mountain valleys to the peaks, to clothe their dark garment in diamonds and emeralds.
From a letter to his friends, the Elagins
Irkutsk, March 1820