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Konstantin Paustovsky: Кара-Бугаз (The Black Gulf)

Though best-known for his six-volume autobiography Повестью о жизни (Story of a Life), Konstantin Paustovsky wrote many novels and stories. Though quite a few of the stories have been published in English, only two of his novels have been translated and both are long since out of print. This is one of them.

I have read novels with many odd heroes but this may be the oddest, as the hero is a gulf, the eponymous Black Gulf, called Kara-Bugaz in this book (which is a transliteration of the Russian title) and Garabogazköl by Wikipedia. As you can see from the Wikipedia article, it is in fact a lake or lagoon,just off the Caspian Sea and located in modern Turkmenistan, across the Caspian Sea from Baku. This site calls it one of the most forlorn places on Earth. It is also one of the saltiest bodies of water on the planet, saltier than the Dead Sea.

The novel deals with two closely related topics. The first is a history of modern man’s interaction with the lagoon. When I say modern man, I mean primarily Russian man and what the book called Turcoman man and we would call Turkmeni man. If I recall correctly, there are two women in the book, but they play very small roles. The second topic is man’s (Russian man’s) exploitation of the lagoon and region.

These two topics may seem very unpromising for a novel and, indeed, they are. However, Paustovsky is a novelist and not a biographer or encyclopedia writer. Accordingly, the men we meet in this novel are not described as though he is writing a history but but very much as we would expect from a novel. All have their characters, their quirks and their back-stories.

More particularly the lagoon and their region are often treated as though they were human or, at least, as though they were a malignant spirit, threatening, dangerous, malicious and, for the most part, barren.

The basic principle of the novel is following the stories of those that went there – the explorers, geologists, scientists, technicians, soldiers, chancers and so on. I assume that all of these people were real, though I have only been able to track down relatively few. One of the characters comments that Russian explorers are so common that they are generally soon forgotten.

My main English-language source for information on the actual characters is the wonderful Caspian Sea Encylopedia (warning: large pdf file). I must admit that I have spent quite some time perusing it, not least as I know nothing whatsoever about the Caspian. This novel is mentioned as is a novel by Alexandra Dumas. It is erroneously called From Petersburg to Astrakhan, when the correct French title is From Paris to Astrakhan and it has been translated into English as Adventures in Czarist Russia.

We start with Lieutenant Sherebtsov. You will find him the Caspian Encyclopedia under the entry Zherebtsov Ivan Matveevich. (The Russian transliteration in this book is somewhat archaic). He was by no means the first to discover the lagoon but the first to seriously explore it. He had been warned that the water from the Caspian rushes into the lagoon and was therefore very dangerous but, as he has a steamship, he overcomes this. He sent two letters, one of which is quoted but the other seems to have been lost. He notes various details, such as the salinity of the water, the lack of fresh water in the region and the red foam.

Despite the remoteness of this place, there is a Russian there. He is Gregory Karelin who turns out to be somewhat cantankerous and the pair argue about what is and is not there. Sherebtsov suggests damming the gulf as huge amounts of fish swimming from the Caspian to the lagoon are dying, Karelin suggests that the lagoon contains Glauber’s salt, a form of sodium sulphate, and damming the lake would destroy the formation of this salt.

We will meet Sherebtsov later, as it turns out that he appears in a story by Evseenko (presumably Yevseyenko in modern transliteration called) The Fatal Mistake, where he is an old man and becomes friends with a young boy from Moscow who has a silver tube in his throat. He tends Sherebtsov’s grave after he dies. We will meet the boy later as an adult.

Our next major meeting takes us to the Russian Civil War where Denikin’s White Russians have captured a group of Communists and take their prisoners from Petrovsk to Kara-Ada, leaving them without food or drink (neither of which is available to find). Many die but some do survive thanks to the boy with the silver tubed throat.

We now follow a succession of explorers and prospectors, often looking for the mineral wealth of the region. We learn not only about how they find the mineral wealth but how they deal with the problems of extraction and processing in a land without water or fuel. We meet Shatskii who says that he has psychic energy in underground deposits and that phosphorites are a compressed form of evil will, of the shadowy primeval brain and the wild beasts’ fury.

The Soviets, of course, get involved. However, while we learn about their explorations and exploitation of the land, we also meet Murad the Postman and we also meet the Soviet commissars who try to turn the locals away from their superstitions, such as spirits occupying the mountains which would take their revenge if anyone tampered with the mountains, where mineral deposits are to be found.

This is quite an unusual novel, as the menace of the area hovers over the entire book. The Soviets may allay the superstitions of the natives but they cannot control the weather, seismic activity or other natural phenomena. However, what makes this book are the host of colourful characters we meet who contributed to the exploration and development of this inhospitable land.

Publishing history

First published in 1932 by Молодая гвардия
First published in 1977 in English by Hyperion Press
Translated by Evgenia Schimanskaya.