A journey to Davsha, Russia's abandoned first nature reserve set up to protect its most valuable creature
This wild game of "football" between two sections of an English town has been staged every year for countless centuries
Join the New York Obscura Society for an Intergalactic Evening Discourse
all photographs by the author
On the northeast margin of Lake Baikal in Siberia, a scattering of log buildings fills the narrow strip between shore and mountain. Blue and turquoise window frames sport elaborate matching fretwork in true regional style, and on eaves and gables folk carvings of bearded men, bonneted peasant women, and strange, fanciful animals appear.
There is no one about, and shoulder high grass fills most of the yards and gardens. The vegetation casts the three dozen structures in a sea of pale yellow-green that waves in the breezes off the lake, while around the clearing the silent taiga forest stands guard. It is a place on the doorstep of decay. Its purpose would be opaque to the casual visitor, but there are no casual visitors here. In fall and spring, for nearly half the year, the place is inaccessible because of the thin and shifting ice. In winter, trucks can be driven a hundred miles on the surface, like the temporary railroad that once carried the Trans-Siberian across the frozen lake to the south. In summer, boats can gamble the crossing, but rarely do anymore.
This is Davsha — Давша — and it has been abandoned for almost a decade. Once, more than 200 people lived here: scientists, rangers, families, schoolteachers, radio operators, and huntsmen. In this land of extremes — of extreme solitude, and extreme weather — these people looked after the animals of the forest. In 1916, Czar Nicholas II was so worried that the sable was going extinct that he carved out a wilderness on the shores of Baikal, declared it forbidden to hunters, natives, and settlers, and built Davsha, a miniature village in the heart of the reserve for the rangers and biologists he sent to manage it.
The indigenous Evenks were moved out of the reserve and relocated north of the Tompa River, echoing similar moves of American Indians in the early days of the National Park System in the United States. This was the first zapovednik — or nature reserve — in Russia, and it lasted long after Nicholas’ execution and the fall of the Empire the following year. Throughout the Soviet era and into the Federation, it was a revered — and well-funded — post.
Why protect the sable? This small fur-bearing cousin to the marten and the weasel was the key to Siberian settlement for hundreds of years. Its priceless fur was the golden promise that drew the Cossacks over the Ural Mountains in the 1580s, and what spurred them to the Pacific in only 60 years. In contrast, it took the trappers, explorers, and settlers of the United States four times as long to go half the distance. As a result, this little black-furred creature — martes zibellina —was in steep decline by the start of the 20th century. Long before the idea of environmental protection took hold elsewhere, this landscape of mountain, taiga, and lake was set aside to shelter one of its smallest — and most valuable — denizens.
Today, the Barguzinskii Biosphere Reserve has no permanent residents. In 2005, its funding was cut, and the tenuous existence Davsha had maintained for almost 90 years was over. Almost overnight, the settlement was evacuated by boat, the population leaving many of their possessions in place.