"Sacred sea", "sacred lake", "sacred water" - these names have been given to Lake Baikal since time immemorial by the indigenous population, by the Russians who came to these shores in the 17th century, and by foreign travellers in their admiration for its majestic and unearthly beauty.
We do not insist that there is nothing more beautiful than Baikal: each of us has a soft spot, an affection for his own part of the world; an Eskimo or Aleutian regards the tundra and the icy wilderness as the crowning glory of natural perfection. We absorb the scenery of our native land from our birth; it moulds our character and determines to a considerable extent our human essence. It is therefore not enough to say that it is dear to us, for we are part of it. There is no sense in comparing the icy stretches of Greenland with the sands of the Sahara, or the Siberian taiga with the steppes of Central Russia, or even the Caspian with Lake Baikal. We can only give our impressions of them. And yet Nature has her favourites that she polishes with special care at the time of creation and endows with special power. Baikal is indubitably one of these.
Let us not dwell now on its riches - that is a separate topic. There are other things that make Baikal glorious and sacred - its miraculous life-giving power, its primordial grandeur and untouchable might that is subject neither to time nor transfiguration and belongs to the present, not to the distant past like so much today.
I recall a visiting friend and myself going for a long walk along the old road that skirts the lake by the shore. It was August, the best and the most heavenly time on Lake Baikal, when the water is warm and the hills are a riot of colours, when the sun makes the newly fallen snow sparkle and glitter on the distant, bare crags of the Sayan Mountains, when Baikal has laid in a store of water from the melting glaciers and lies there replete and often calm, gathering strength for the autumn storms; when abundant fish play near the shore to the cries of seagulls, and when at every step along the road you see raspberry-bushes, or red currants, or black currants, or honeysuckle. It was a day of rare beauty - sunny, windless, warm, the air ringing, Baikal clear and quiet as if frozen, the stones, deep below the surface of the water, sparkling and opalescent, the road now enveloped in mountain air that was warm and slightly bitter with the tang of the ripening grasses, now bathed in the cool, sharp breath of the lake.
Within two hours, my friend was completely overwhelmed by the primitive and violent beauty assailing him from every quarter as nature performed the rites of the summer festivities. It was something that he had not only never been aware of, but had never even imagined in his wildest dreams.
My friend was soon so dumbfounded with a surfeit of impressions that he fell silent, not capable of wonder or amazement any more. I told him of an episode from my student years, when I first came to Baikal and, deceived by the transparency of the water, reached from the boat for a pebble on the bottom, which turned out to be four metres below. My friend listened to my story but did not react in any way. Somewhat piqued, I told him that on occasion one could see objects at forty metres below the surface of the water-exaggerating somewhat, I believe - but he paid no attention. Only then did I realize what had happened to him: if I had told him that one could see the date on a two-kopek coin at a depth of two or three hundred metres in Baikal, he would have been no more astonished than he was already.
It was a seal, I recall, that just about finished him. Seals rarely come close to the shore, and here was one, as if by previous arrangement, basking in the water quite close to us. When I noticed it and pointed it to my friend, he gave a loud, wild yell and started whistling and waving to the seal as if it were a dog. I need hardly say that the seal dived instantly, while my comrade, overwhelmed with amazement at the seal and at himself, lapsed into silence again, and a very long one this time.
I am recalling this episode. Insignificant in itself, only to introduce a few lines from a long and rapturous letter from my comrade which he sent me soon on his return home from Baikal. "I feel much stronger, but that is not the point, that has happened before. Now I feel a spirit rising in me that comes from there, from Baikal. I now feel that I can do much, and I seem able to distinguish between what I must do and what I mustn't. How good it is that we have Baikal! I rise in the morning and, bowing in your direction, to where Old Father Baikal is, I start moving mountains..." I can understand him.
Now this comrade of mine saw only a tiny part of Baikal; he saw it on a wonderful summer's day when everything around gives thanks to peace, and quiet, and the sun. He does not know that on a day exactly like this, when the sun is shining and the air is almost perfectly still, Baikal can rage for no apparent reason, as if the tumult came from within. You look at it, and you can't believe your eyes, the water rumbles and roars, and yet there is not a breath of wind; it is the swell of a storm raging many kilometres away.
That friend of mine has never encountered the sarma or the kultuk or the barguzin, those winds that come screaming down the river valleys in a matter of seconds at hurricane force and can do so much damage on Baikal, whipping up waves four to six metres high.
He has not seen northern Baikal. In all its harsh and primitive beauty, where you lose your sense of time and the measure of man's deeds, and only the light of eternity reigns generously and regally over the clear water. He hasn't been to Peschanaya Bay where there are more days of sunshine than at the famous southern health-resorts, and he hasn't bathed in Chivyrkuisky Bay, where the water in summer becomes nearly as warm as the Black Sea. He has not seen Baikal in winter, when the water moves as if it were alive under the transparent, wind-scoured ice as under a magnifying glass. He hasn't heard Baikal tear this ice apart in spring with a booming and a cracking, opening wide, bottomless ravines, only to close them up again, piling up the magnificent masses of blue floes on top of one another.
He hasn't been to fairy-land, where you can see a sailing boat coming towards you with all her canvas straining, or an exquisite medieval castle hanging in mid-air, or swans sailing along with their heads proudly held high - these are mirages on Baikal, a common phenomenon and the source of a great many legends and superstitions. We who live near Baikal cannot boast that we know it well either, for it is impossible to know and understand it completely, Baikal being what it is.
Even if you only stay here for a short while and see but a tiny bit of it, you can get the feel of Baikal, if not understand it fully. In cases like this, the feeling depends on you, on your ability or inability to absorb the spirit of the place.
That spirit of Baikal is something special, something that actually exists, something that makes you believe old legends and pause to wonder, with mystic misgivings, whether man is at liberty to do as he deems fit in certain places. One would have expected Baikal to overwhelm man with its grandeur and its immensity - everything about it is so big, so spacious, so free, and so baffling - yet, on the contrary, it ennobles man. Here you experience a rare sensation of uplift and spirituality, as if, within sight of eternity and perfection, you too have been touched by the mysterious influence of these magic concepts, you too are enveloped in the breath of the omnipotent presence, and a part of the magic secret of everything that exists has entered into you. You are marked and singled out simply because you are standing on this shore, breathing this air and drinking this water. Nowhere else will you feel so much at one with nature.
Returning from a stroll one day, Tolstoy wrote,
"Is it possible that the feeling of bitterness, vengefulness, the passion for destruction of one's own kind can survive in a man amid such entrancing scenery? Everything bad in the heart of man should, it seems, disappear in contact with nature - that direct expression of the beautiful and the good."
Nature is of itself moral, only man can make it immoral. And how are we to know if it is not probably nature that keeps us to a considerable degree within those more or less reasonable bounds by which our moral condition is determined, and is it not nature that fortifies our good sense and good conduct? Is it not nature that looks into our eyes night and day with prayer, hope and warning? And can it be that we still do not heed that call?
There was a time when an Evenk, before cutting down a silver birch on the shores of Baikal, would recite a long prayer of penitence, begging the tree's forgiveness for his need to destroy it. We are different now. That is why we find in ourselves that power to stay the soulless force threatening not just a birch-tree, as two or three hundred years ago, but Old Father Baikal himself, for we return an hundredfold to nature what was put into us - kindness for kindness, favour for favour - and so round the eternal cycle of our moral being.
The crowning glory and mystery of nature, Baikal was not created for production needs but for us to drink its water, its priceless and most important wealth, marvel at its stately beauty and breathe its precious air. First and for most, we need it ourselves.
We can hardly help repeating: how good it is to have Baikal! Regal and untamed, mighty, rich, majestic and beautiful in so many, many ways!