The Trans-Siberian Express covers half of what we think we know about Russian history. The other half is Catherine the Great and Imperial Russia and Dr. Zhivago, followed by Stalin and friends’ scary Communist Russia. And last, but never tell him least, there’s Putin and of course Pussy Riot and, oh yeah, that little scuffle in the Crimea/Ukraine. Russian history in a typical American nutshell. I’ll come back to all of that when we get to the part about St. Petersburg and Moscow.
What I’m calling the Siberian half of Russian history really does feel separate, doesn’t it? I’m taking a train that follows the path of the exiles, the banned, the criminalized, the outcasts sent to the wilds of Russia, to a place called Siberia, to atone for their sins or die trying. What we know of as Siberia takes up three-fourths of Russia which is itself the biggest country on earth; it takes up all of northern Asia or one-twelfth of all land on earth. In Ian Frazier’s thorough description you sense the awe he feels for this vast space. And this is where the bad Russians have always been sent. Before there was the train they went by wagon and on foot. Siberia has in fact served as Russia’s penal colony since Peter the Great but it wasn’t until 1916 that the Trans-Siberian Railroad came into being, hastening the journeys of the banned to their bitter destiny.
How to experience some of that history—through my real and mind’s eye as one—as the train traverses the taiga?
I believe in reading everything one can read about a place before going there. Of course I never do that. Not enough time, energy, focus, determination. But I do what I can—as we always say when we know we could have done better.
Here is what I have done along these lines of curiosity and covetousness (my desire to know everything about places without the requisite study!). In addition to a few fine Russian novels and even fewer, but also fine, Russian histories, I’ve read Midnight in Siberia by NPR’s David Greene and Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier. Both brilliant in their breadth and wisdom and good writing—Ian Frazier’s outstandingly so. Since it has been a few years since I read the latter I believe I should do so again. Starting today.
David Greene was actually on the trans-Siberian train; Ian Frazier was in various other vehicles. Frazier manages to include so many layers of information, from personal to historical to geographical to political—the master of a blended style I would sell my soul to emulate. If I reread the book maybe it will somehow meld in my genes with the sights and sounds of Siberia from my train journey and…voila…I will write like Frazier.
My trans-Siberian trip diverges from both authors’ in that my route eventually dips down into Mongolia and ends in Beijing while they go on to Vladivostok. So my next train dream is to take the Silk Route through the Stan countries one way and return by way of Vladivostok part-way west, go on into Kazakhstan and end in Georgia and Armenia.
Having some stories already in your head as you travel; then traveling; and finally perusing more tales of the places you’ve just been makes for a picture of more substantial breadth and even a modest depth then would have been the case just passing through. No, it’s not like spending a year or two or a lifetime but you may still feel like you’ve captured something essential about a place or places. I feel like this about our Great Plains. I keep piling on the road trips through and the books about that landscape until I can see mirages of Sioux warriors and Blackfoot encampments hovering just overhead as my two-lane highway heads straight for a horizon of ghostly wagon trains and yeehawing cowboys. Every broken cabin, windmill, corral another photo op. Love my mind’s eye and my camera’s too.
That’s how I want it to be on the Trans-Siberian Express.
I think I should read at least one great Russian novel on the way. Maybe start it on the train between Minsk and St. Petersburg and put it down when I disembark in Ulan Bator. WHICH ONE? ADVICE PLEASE. The greatest Russian novel that includes a huge Siberian presence. HELP.
Sorry this is a bit of a jumble of Siberian thoughts but I’m tired and wish to crawl into bed with Travels in Siberia—forsaking my regular Nordic detectives for the night.