Bay Proval is a shallow part of the Baikal that was formed because of the sinking of former Tsagansk steppe during the powerful earthquake at Lake Baikal in 1861 – 1862. It was a tragedy for the Buryat uluses such as Barsheevsky, Batogaevsky, Bakhaisky, Baltashevsky situated in this area. The waters that filled the lowland were named Bay Proval; at present it occupies about 191 square kilometers. It is interesting to notice that before the rise of water level when the Irkutsk hydropower station was put into operation Bay Proval was separated from the Baikal by an oblong island that was called Sakhalin because it reminded its Far East "brother" Sakhalin. Nowadays sailing from the bay to the open Baikal you are sure to meet the remnants of Sakhalin. They are very small, 10 – 15 cm in size and you have to push on a vessel with hands, taking shoes off and walking down to water.
The powerful earthquake preceding the formation of Bay Proval began on December 30, 1861 with a wavelike movement of the earth, which was felt in many places: Barguzin, Verkhneudinsk, Verkholensk, Selenginsk, Kyakhta, and partly in Irkutsk, Balagansk, and Nizhneudinsk. As specialists consider today it was more than 10-point earthquake. Its peak fell on the afternoon of January, 31 and lasted for about 40 seconds. The tragedy herald was subterranean thunder resembling the noise of boiling water in a big pot. The earthquake was so powerful that in many villages at different distances from the epicenter church bells rang by themselves; wooden houses were swaying, heavily cracking and creaking; water from some springs and wells spilled out a long distance.
What to say about the state of people in the epicenter of the event, when for example, in Selenginsk, 150 kilometers far from Lake Baikal, there was a big panic. The priest of Selenginsk organized a public prayer in the square, where icons were brought. “According to the worshipers’ faces it was clearly seen that everybody was frightened to death; women wept bitterly, and everyone expected something extraordinary. The strikes repeated one after another, and when people stood on their knees they felt three quite strong strikes; and in the eyes of the people the church first declined to the south and then began to vacillate”.
The centre of these tragic events was the so-called Tsaganskaya (in some books it is called Saganskaya) steppe. It was situated to the east of the delta of the Selenga and represented both steppe and marshy-wooded locality about 20 km long and 6 – 15 km wide; that is more than 200 square km. On its territory at that time there was a birch grove, 5 – 6 small lakes: Tsagan-Lake, Lake Glukhoy Sor, Lakes Matveyevskoye, Kisloye, Durnoye, as well as small swamps. M.N. Melkheev believes that the power absorbed Baykhor tract that was located at that place (207, p. 36). There was a number of Buryat uluses there: Bokhaisky, Barshereevsky, Baltashevsky, Batagaevsky, the ulus of Petrushka-shaman; and in the eastern part there were several winter huts – izbas for fishermen. On the border of steppe and forest zone, on low ridges there were several Russian villages: Oymur, Dubinino, Inkino. Witnesses said that before the earthquake a subterranean hollow rumble was heard, then the ice at the Baikal began to rise and crack, and the resulting wave (a "tsunami") rose high and collapsed on the beach. The result was that the nearest areas were flooded by the rising water even before the land settled. The situation was the same in several places. Five fishermen that were on the ice that time fishing saw the element destroying their hut; there was a woman inside. They had to sleep on the ice, and the next day they returned to the shore walking on the flooded places where the water had turned into ice. Besides this first victim of the elements there were two more victims: a Buryat man fell into the formed cleft when he was riding a horse along the shore, and a Buryat girl also fell into it. In some sources they speak about a greater number of victims. Thus the writer A. Zlobin in the mid of the 20th century wrote: "According to official reports, 1300 people, five thousand cattle, whole villages with all their yurtas and izbas were lost. The constructions were flooded and their ruins can still be seen at the bottom of Bay Proval"(138, p. 83). The casualty list is evidently exaggerated; the same concerns the book by A.B. Tivanenko (see 311, p. 106). Being a native of those places I think that the number of victims was not so big because of two factors. First, P.A. Kropotkin who visited those places soon after the earthquake did not mention mass casualties. Second, if it were as described the legends of the local villages (Oymur, Dubinino, Kudara) would tell us about it. Living there for many years I had never heard anything like it, except the story about the gap appearance.
The elements did a lot of harm to the Buryat uluses. The water pouring into the formed pits flooded the land very fast, so a lot of cattle were lost. The remarkable result of it was floating islands, pieces of land in the midst of marshy places. Because of the pouring water they thawed out from the soil and drifted around the bay like icebergs covered with grass, bushes, and even trees. People saved themselves either on such islands or ran away with animals to higher places. One or two days later in some places people could see cattle horns that stuck out from the ice. They stuck in a formerly swampy ground and were frozen in the standing position. Among other animals the seal suffered most of all. Most likely, that frightened by the earthquake, seals rushed into the rivers flowing into Lake Baikal, primarily into the Selenga. Quite a lot of them died in an unaccustomed habitat aggravated by the experienced stress. Thanks to the Baikal "tsunami" consisting of ice and water and the gradual land sinking across the whole Tsagansk steppe people suffered great losses. Uluses were flooded, houses, yurtas, many other constructions were lost. According to the statistics the property loss and emotional distress was inflicted to 227 non-Russian families, among them 658 men and 675 women. 141 houses, 313 yurtas, 168 barns, 66 various establishments, 224 sheds, 26 threshing barns and smithies were damaged, and the loss amounted to 25945 rubles; farmyards and other constructions damage was equal to 11505 rubles; agricultural implements – 5994 rubles; cattle loss was as follows: horses – 230, horned cattle – 2233, sheep and goats – 1823, all in all it amounted to 29363 rubles. The general damage as it is considered accounted for more than 164 thousand rubles.
It’s hard to imagine what psychological stress local people experienced during the earthquake and flood. After the first element blows many Buryat people started to escape to rooftops or under eaves. Deep in their hearts people hoped that the flood would recede; the property would be saved somehow, and the tragedy would gradually settle. But it lasted more than a day and confounded all expectations. People had to think of saving their lives. On January 2, 1862 the peasants from Russian villages went to help the Buryat people who hadremained at that area. The most sorrowful thing was that some people on rooftops were under such a great stress that they could hardly respond to the peasants. This water and icy captivity was especially distressing at nights. Deep night darkness caused not only sadness, but also sorrow. Emotional state was so awful that people fell ill with various nervous disorders caused by fright. First of all this affected pregnant women and people inclined to mental illnesses.
In general we can say that one way or another that tragedy affected negatively everyone who was touched by its “wing”.
As we have already mentioned, the habitants of Russian villages located next to the place of tragedy suffered less, because those villages were situated on uplands and so they were only partly damaged. According to the contemporary research in Russian villages a little more than 10 houses were destroyed, 80 wells buried; one horse, some bread, potato, hay and straw recourses were lost. But Russians also suffered a lot. Let us dwell on characteristic psychological evidences of a participant, A. Sibiryakov, of those events that he described in his book “Essay about Trans-Baikal Life”: “At that time I was in the village of Kudara. We were drinking tea and just having a chat. Suddenly we heard roar and rumble from a distance. It was terrible. I dropped a cup and ran out into the yard. Getting out I stroke my head against the door and straight away had to sit down. The izba was creaking, breaking, almost collapsing. I was afraid of being crushed and crawled away. And the church was also trembling. What happened next was belfry fall down. I waited for a while and everything abated. I entered the izba and saw men and women on their knees before icons. They were frightened; cups dropped down; a broken icon lamp was under the bench; my hat was soiled with lamp-oil. I grasped it and ran away out of the izba. You won’t believe what happened next. I came up to my horse: it was trembling like an aspen leaf. I whipped it and rode home fast. People said it was not so terrible there, but still they were all frightened. Here, brother, God forbid!”
And here is one more poetic memory about that experience that was introduced in the poem “Earthquake” by V. Mikheev, a poet from Irkutsk:
In early childhood experienced
I the earthquake hit:
As if somewhere in the neighborhood
There was an underground roughness;
It went on and faintly brewed
And it had a reason to hide:
First it was a quiet roar,
That became a painful blow.
The whole earth was shaken,
All the crosses fell from churches;
The earth tremors repeated
Tiresomely and obstinately,
Cracks appeared in the walls
The boy’s knees bent
With excitement, not with fear ...
There were other social and psychological consequences of the earthquake. As it is known in 1703 the Buryat delegation visited Peter I and complained on the Russian peasants who occupied their ancestral lands, in particular, Tsagansk steppe. The tsar’s command was firm: he ordered to free the Buryat ancestral lands and it was forbidden for Russians to live there. So after the tragedy Russian peasants said that it was not accidental that the tragedy occurred at that place: “Here it is the God’s penalty. These greedy brothers having a lot of land deprived us of it, and the God flooded it: “Let it not go to them“. After such gossips the Buryat people were afraid of the sufferers because as it was considered the Almighty had punished them; and local people were afraid of being punished themselves.
At the same time, the folk consciousness couldn’t help trying to “smooth” the tragedy and bring some poetry into it. It especially concerns the tragic deaths that, of course, shocked people. And as it becomes in such cases some of the events were depicted in folklore. K. Balkov speaks about a song narrating this fact. It is about a large Buryat steppe that suddenly split up and went under water; a nice swarthy girl who at that time was riding a horse with a long mane along the mountain path along the shore of the Baikal. The song tells us about the great love of the girl. And that love was strong and kind, it wasn’t lost in the waves together with the girl. Its sparks still flash out in the steppe, people don’t know where they come from and wonder; but those who are touched by them don’t want to speak about it. Only the youth, if they happen to be at the Baikal shore, can suddenly see a swarthy girl in the waves. Her eyes are not sad; they give hope and joy.
The Baikal earthquake aroused interest to the study of that natural phenomenon in Russia and gave way to the development of Russian Seismology. A.P. Orlov visited Bay Proval in 1869 and began studying earthquakes. Together with I.V. Mushketov he made up the first catalogue of earthquakes in Russia. It is A.P. Orlov who is considered to be the founder of seismology in Russia. Even now Lake Baikal contributes to the development of science about earthquakes. In particular, after a strong 8-point earthquake in the south-west of the Baikal in 2008 scientists suggested a new methodology for predicting earthquakes. According to the research the seismic impacts are preceded by decrease of water-helium concentration: before the impacts in 2008 it practically disappeared from the waters of the lake. Such predictions are very important because they help both technically and psychologically prepare for disasters.
Serious aftereffects of the Baikal earthquake let some scientists suggest an interesting ethnographic supposition. Such collisions could influence the process of migration. As long ago as XIX century the well-known scholar of Siberia N.V. Parshin expressed the opinion that the Yakut had left the territory near the Baikal because of a number of powerful earthquakes, that had been disturbing these territories for a long time. Thus in an olonkho (Yakut legend) we see following words:
“The middle country trembled
Like a quaking quagmire;
The sea waves shook up;
The Baikal waves raged;
On the opposite side of the valley
Fell down cliff peaks;
The whole valley burst into lightning flame”.
To make a conclusion of this brief excursion into the description of the Tsagansk tragedy, its practical and scientific implications, let me summarize the essence of
the lesson, that nature gave (and gives) people through such natural collisions (there is enough of them in the modern world as well).
First, it proves its elemental grandeur, unpredictability and estrangement from laws and necessities of the human world.
Second, it demonstrates to people that they depend upon its natural power; it is a futile attempt to surpass the nature and establish the Mankind higher predestination (mission) or their equality with the environment.
Third, it pushes people to realize the necessity of reverential attitude to the outside world, its flora and fauna; to understand the importance of filial care of the nature.
The “lessons” mentioned above are important for everyone who worries about everlasting existence of all living and non-living things in the immense space. Indeed, learning about natural and anthropogenic disasters, occurring now and then in the world, I think more and more often that the nature warns us about impermissibility of many actions in the single material and social environment. And we ought to heed these warnings.
Currently, on the bay shore there are such villages as Dulan, Oymur, and Dubinino. In Buryat Dulan means “warm”. It’s the territory that is located between the newly formed shore and mountain slopes in a small valley near Lake Baikal, where the Buryat who had escaped the earthquake described above found their shelter. The village is still inhabited mostly by Buryat people, though the population reduced considerably for the past 15 – 20 years.
Oymur is an Old Russian village that sprang up at the border of the taiga and the Sagansk steppe before the earthquake. In its name there are two roots of Buryat words with the general meaning of a “wood path”. One fine winter day in 1862 this taiga place turned into a coastal settlement near the Baikal as well as the nearby Russian village Dubinino due to elements.
The well-known Russian revolutionary Kropotkin, who a governor’s envoy then, recalled: “In Dubinino I went down to the shore of the backwater, i.e. to the bay of the Baikal formed after the earthquake”. He noted that peasants still recollect that earthquake in terror, “because the earth was trembling, wells were buried, houses were displaced, the sea ice was broken, and water gushed out flooding the Buryat uluses and cattle…The Buryat lost a lot of property. The Buryat people from Kudara were very rich, for example, they could have two sleeves of money in their fur coats. All this was lost”.
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