Sacred Waters: Reflections on Lake Baikal

by Lazarus Trubman

In nature, we are in touch with the creation of life and we participate in it, adding to nature our own innate sense of harmony.

“Sacred Sea,” “Sacred Lake,” “Sacred Water”—these names have been given to Lake Baikal since time immemorial by indigenous populations, by the Russians who came to these shores in the 17th century, and by foreign travelers in their admiration for its majestic and unearthly beauty.

I do not insist that there is nothing more beautiful than Lake 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 molds our character and determines our 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 Sea with Lake Baikal. We can only give our impressions of them. 

And yet nature has her favorites 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. There are other things that make Baikal glorious and sacred: its miraculous life-giving power and its primordial grandeur and untouchable might, which are subject neither to time nor transfiguration. Baikal belongs to the present, not to the distant past like so much else today.

I recall visiting a Siberian friend in 2012. He woke me early in the morning and offered a walk along the old road that skirts the lake by the shore. It was August, a time on Lake Baikal when the water is warm and the hills are a riot of colors; when the sun makes the snow 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 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 redcurrants, or blackcurrants, or honeysuckle. It was sunny, windless, warm, the air ringing. Baikal was clear and quiet, as if frozen. Its stones rested deep below the surface of the water, sparkling and opalescent. The mountain air was warm and slightly bitter with the tang of the ripening grasses.

Within two hours, I was completely overwhelmed by the violent beauty assailing me from every quarter as nature performed the rites of the summer festivities. I fell silent, not capable of wonder or amazement. 

My friend told me of an episode from his student years when he 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 meters below the surface. I listened to his story, but I did not react. He told me that on occasion one could see objects at forty meters below the surface of the water—exaggerating somewhat, I believe—but I paid no attention. Only then did he realize what had happened to me: if he had told me that one could see the date on a two-kopeck coin at a depth of two or three meters in Baikal, I would have been no more astonished than I was already.

It was a seal, I recall, that just about finished me. 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 my friend noticed it and pointed it to me, I gave a loud, wild yell and started whistling and waving to the seal as if it were a dog. The seal slipped into the water, while I, overwhelmed with amazement at the seal and at myself, lapsed into silence again.

I am recalling this episode, insignificant in itself, only to introduce a few lines from a long and rapturous letter which I sent to my friend soon after my 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, people of this planet, have Baikal! I rise in the morning and, bowing in your direction, to where Old Father Baikal is, I start moving mountains…

He understood me. His reply was long and beautiful. 

Greetings, Lazarus! It’s really great that you feel that way. I’ll get straight to the point, quite a few points actually. You saw only a tiny part of Baikal; you saw it on a wonderful summer’s day when everything around gives thanks to peace, and quiet, and the sun. You don’t 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 kilometers away.

You have 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 meters high. You have 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. 

You haven’t been to Peschanaya Bay, where there are more days of sunshine than at the famous southern health resorts and you haven’t bathed in Chivyrkuisky Bay, where the water in summer becomes nearly as warm as the Black Sea. You have 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. You haven’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.

You haven’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.

The 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 specious, 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.

All the good things to you, Lazarus.

Stay healthy and always be surprised,


Nature is of itself moral, only man can make it immoral. And how are we to know if it is not nature that keeps us within those bounds by which our moral condition is determined, and if it is 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 this 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 a hundredfold to nature what was put into us—kindness for kindness, favor for favor—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, marvel at its stately beauty, and breathe its precious air.

How good it is to have Baikal. 

You may also like

Leave a Comment

* By using this form you agree with the storage and handling of your data by this website.