Travel, Russia; Continent: Asia, Europe

Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia by David Greene

  • This one would make a great travel companion: I could hear the rails clacking under my seat, right there in Starbucks
  • 318 pages (Acknowledgements begin page 295)

As with my last review, this book is not so much a history as an account of ways in which history matters in culture and in daily life. Perhaps following a book set in North Korea, a book about Siberia seems another bleak choice. However, author David Greene does not give us a bleak Russia. The colorful people he portraits as he travels Russia are living in Putin’s time, but Stalin’s name comes up, repeatedly, and attached to feelings that surprised me as a Westerner. The Decembrists are admired in Siberia, too, for they brought an education and a taste for culture into exile with them and shared them with the villagers there.

Greene discusses all sorts of things with the people he meets, even rather impolite subjects, like the stereotype of Russians men as vodka-loving drunks. He heads each chapter not with a train stop, but with a person’s name. Although he makes sure to describe his surroundings richly, the conversation he has at each stop is what gives you something to think about. He has many scheduled interviews, but much of his material comes from chance meetings, like the veterinarian looking for a little conversation in the hotel sauna. His interviews range from a tour guide who wouldn’t leave him alone (but turned out to be interesting) to a group of heroin addicts (apparently, one military objective in Afghanistan was to cut off the poppy), to a university professor. He interviews many more, ranging in ages and interests, and you wouldn’t skip any of their stories.

People

Who has done well since the Soviet Union fell? Who has suffered? What do Russians make of their current political system, and do they feel like they can or should change it? As you read, a few themes will strike you. One is that Russians are tough people, and that Greene had tremendous respect for them. For example, one man’s treatment at the hands of Russian police resulted in paralysis. As you read Greene’s account of his story and his present lifestyle, anger would be the natural response, but not so much pity. Alexei’s treatment has been unfair, certainly, but his impossible toughness stems pity because he doesn’t need or want it.

Russian people can be warm and giving to their own, in the safe environment of their own dining table. Each of the people Greene describes – even non-interviewees – made him feel exceedingly welcome if he visited their homes. However, generations have learned to mind their own business and not ask questions, even when something seems patently ridiculous. For example, at one train station, passengers file through metal detectors unattended by any security personnel. Plainly, no one is too interested in whatever they’re traveling with, but they know they’re supposed to pass through the metal detectors, so they do. No one cuts line, no one skips, and no one wonders aloud why they are bothering.

Government

Another important theme places a cultural no-mans’ land between Russians and their government, whatever its current format. The sheer enormity of the steppes made an urban ruling class largely irrelevant to the peasantry for centuries. Russian borders still enclose the largest area of any nation (surprise! It isn’t China) and seem impossible to manage in any real detail from a single capital. Adding to the figurative and literal distance between government and citizenry, speaking up has been unhealthy for Russians throughout the country’s existence. The court system is considered a law enforcement appendage of government rather than a means to protect citizens and preserve the law.

Patience

Perhaps most puzzling and hard to watch for Greene is the widespread sense that if Russians don’t like a rule or the treatment they get, that they should just wait it out. Not an idea Americans can easily get their heads around: we’re an impatient people who built a whole nation on telling King George to kiss off…and we’re still complaining. But Russians have had a different experience. Revolutions have come and gone. Power has often shifted suddenly. As one person not much older than me explained to the author, he was born in one Russia, went to school in another, and is living in a third one today. Russia’s Generation X has lived under Brezhnev, Gorbachev and Putin. Of the three of them, Gorby will be remembered the least fondly: Westerners loved the openmindedness he projected to their media, but from a Russian point of view, he couldn’t get his act together, and that’s why the Soviet Union fell apart. Their society values strong leadership in a way that not many Americans can relate to. Putin is a strong leader, whatever else one may think of him. Those who don’t like him seem inclined to just wait for whatever comes after him.

Direction

Ironically for a story set aboard a long rail system, the biggest theme in this book has to do with direction. Entrepreneur Andrei is running his mother’s enormous carpet business, which the new economy in Russia allowed to prosper. Innkeeper Nadezhda is supporting the two daughters she took with her when she divorced the husband who drank too much. Together with a host of young men and women and people whose careers are already over, they are waiting to see what is next for Russia. Historically, change has happened so abruptly and completely here that the future never shows itself clearly, and there are no Russian prophets. Economically, socially and politically…none of these fronts have an obvious path, and Russians wait for the future with a sense that it is coming soon but not here yet.

Certainly, one feels the cold – which I experienced gratefully on the few August afternoons required to polish off this treat – but Greene meets such vibrant, interesting people on the Trans-Siberian Railway that one cannot fail to see their colors.

Image Source: Pixabay.com, contributor Edward Pye.

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