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In the mid-1980s, when Mark Taplin was a U.S. foreign service officer in Moscow, he had a gut-level curiosity about what was going on in the three-quarters of the country that was off-limits to foreigners like himselfand to any Soviet citizen who wasn’t a secret military officer or a prisoner doing hard time.
“Russia was never an easy country in which to travel,” Taplin writes in Open Lands: Travels Through Russia’s Once Forbidden Places. “Unlike Italy or France, it had few attractions which could compensate a traveler for the rigors of the journey: No sun-washed villages by the sea, few distinguished wine cellars. Neither the classical legacies of Athens or Rome, nor the glories of the Renaissance….Russia was indescribable roads, inhospitable taverns, inexpressible rudeness, and superstition.”
Yet it remained oddly alluring. The 40-year-old Arlington resident had been with the U.S. Information Agency since 1980, also serving in Mauritius, Haiti, and Brazil. Taplin’s first Soviet stint ran from 1984 to 1987; in 1993, he found himself awaiting orders while his wife, also a foreign service officer, was stationed in Moscow. But the orders never came, and Taplin went on unpaid leave and took advantage of the 1992 “Open Lands” treaty, which ensured free-range travel for Americans and
Over the course of 1993 and 1994, Taplin lit out for the country, becoming one of the first foreigners ever to travel to such little-known places as Velikiy Ustyug, Vorkuta, Arkhangelsk, Tuva, and Kamchatka. He endured middling-to-poor transportation, gun-slinging “entrepreneurs,” vodka by the gallon, and enough bizarre and enlightening experiences to, well, fill a book. The trip, he says, “surprised a lot of the people I met or those I’d known in Moscow. When I drove up to the White Sea on my own, it struck Russians as kind of kooky.”
Except in Kamchatka, where he wandered onto a still-secret facility, his hosts cooperated just fine. For his part, Taplin says that most of the time he copied his recollections onto index cards once out of sight of his conversational partners (assuming, of course, that he “was sober enough to put pen to paper”); he knew enough to stay away from a tape recorder: In a country that had been bugging its citizens for years, Taplin didn’t want to worry his sources any more than he needed to.
A recurring theme on Taplin’s journey was, of course, the gulag; his book is full of dark tales of death and hard survival. Yet Taplin was also impressed with how much life managed to survive.
“Every place I visited, and at every level of society, there
were people who had assiduously and quietly gone about preserving the history of their places, even in the darkest Stalinist period,” he says. “The fact that there was such a persistent drive to know what happened left me, after all these experiences, with more positive feelings about a dark and damaging episode.”