I just nod, accepting Rose's point.
The shore of Baikal—the village of Listvyanka—is an hour's drive from Irkutsk. And
we arrive on a cold, sun-splashed weekend afternoon that could not be more welcoming.
There is a festival on the ice. Families are grilling fish, playing music, and frolicking. Kids
are running around ice sculptures and coming down ice slides. All over, people are selling
omul , a delicious local fish caught in the lake. You can buy the fish raw or smoked.
And then there are the nerpa . These pudgy freshwater seals—they look like fat black
torpedoes with whiskers and eyes on one end—are Baikal's mascot.
One attraction in Listvyanka is a “nerpinarium”—a Sea World for nerpas. Parents and
their kids are piling in for the show—along with me, Sergei, and Rose. In a large swim-
ming pool—ringed by tourists—nerpas are doing tricks. One paints. Another plays the sax-
ophone. They even do math (the trainer yells out “Three plus one!” and a nerpa claps its
flippers together four times.)
Afterward, like a family after a full day at Disney World, we sit for beer and kebabs,
grilled outside, and talk about the warm feelings. “This really is Russia at its best,” Rose
says. “All those cold days in Moscow, all the frustration, nobody smiling: it's so easy to
forget all that here. Look at these families, these cute kids all bundled up running around.
It's so sweet.”
“I know how short this trip was for you—and a shitload of flying. But it meant a lot to
have you here, to experience this place together one more time.”
“I'm glad I came—really. I always told you I didn't spend enough time out of Moscow
when I was here. It's like a different world.”
“You know what strikes me here?” she says. “I just look at these families here on the
lake—and it's damn warm here for February. It's just pure joy. I don't think anyone appre-
ciates a nice day like Russian do, honestly. I feel like they don't expect the day to be nice.
And when it's nice, they don't expect it to last. That what we're looking at out here in the
It's not all joy here on Baikal.
There have been fierce environmental debates about this lake. UNESCO has Baikal on
its World Heritage list, for its natural beauty and unique habitat. But across the lake from
where we are standing, in the village of Baikalsk an old paper mill is still operating, pouring
gallons of dirty chemicals into the pristine waters every day. Environmental groups pushed
for years to close down the plant—and it did close for a time—but Putin insisted on keep-
ing it open. At one point Putin visited Baikal for quite a stunt. He plunged into the depths
of the lake in a minisubmarine and said over the radio from underwater that everything
looked clear to him—“I could see with my own eyes . . . there is practically no pollution”
(as if pollution lurking in the water is visible to the naked eye).