Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia by David Greene
|Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia by David Greene|
|Category: Politics and Society|
|Reviewer: John Lloyd|
|Summary: File under politics and society rather than travel per se, for this book only uses the Trans-Siberian Railway as a stepping stone from person to person, opening out the country and its spirit in much more political, but equally interesting, ways.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 288||Date: February 2015|
|Publisher: Alma Books|
It's no mistake that the cover of my edition of this book is a photo where the Trans-Siberian Railway is horizontal in the frame. It's well known for going east-west, left to right across the map of the largest country by far in the world. 9,288 kilometres from Moscow to the eastern stretches of Russia, it could only be a long, thin line across the cover, as it is in our imagination of it as a form of transport and a travel destination in its own right. So when this book mentions it as the spine or backbone of Russia a couple of times, that's got to be of a prone Russia – one lying down, not upright or active. David Greene, a stalwart of northern American radio journalism, uses this book to see just how active or otherwise Russia and Russians are – and finds their lying down to be quite a definite verdict, as well as a slight indictment. It's no mistake either for this cover to have people in the frame alongside the train carriages, for the people met both riding and living alongside the tracks of the Railway are definitely the ribs of the piece.
Which does make this a bit less of a travel book that it might have been. You latch on to that early on, as the author goes into his initial experiences of Russia (namely, it's cold, and Moscow is less friendly for being such a big, self-centred city) garnered through being a reporter there, rather than presenting the sights. This is also manifested by the fact that the last few thousand miles are wrapped up in a minor key in the last few chapters, so if you want reportage of the train ride itself, perhaps look elsewhere. Instead, however, there is a lot of erudition, eloquent opinion and earthy politics to appeal to the interested reader.
Reading between the lines you get the feeling that while Greene didn't completely successfully learn Russian in the three years of his tenure, or forgot a lot before making this, his second A-B long haul trip on the train, he certainly learnt Russia, for to my mind he seemed spot on in analysing the land and its people. By meeting and defining many characters (every chapter here is named after a new person met along the way, and/or recalled from past excursions) Greene can pick apart the will of the nation, and with Ukraine being invaded, homosexuals being repressed and opposition leaders being shot in the very week of my reading this volume, that's only going to be a timely and worthwhile exercise.
He doesn't pretend to find a homogeneous population, but by casting a light on the townsfolk and city dwellers miles and miles from Moscow, he shows us what the huge country does for and to its folk. Here is a repressed aid organisation, being bullied into denying foreign involvement and living in a dingy, hard-to-identify office below ground. Here is an entrepreneur who can find a lot to say against Putin, but certainly no geographic connection to him and no real will to make any form of protest. Here is a city – and it's not alone – that seems to survive in Siberia purely because Stalin had the idea of spreading the wealth and industry of the empire way across the steppe, and that has little hope now of surviving without continuing its dated, polluting ways.
This Russia is one where the opinion from abroad is that Putin is being too much like Stalin, but the Russians themselves don't see the connect between the Soviet life and now, and on the whole find merit in actually looking back to the past experiences, as ones where things were safer and more civilised, and people and their wealth or lack thereof were on a much more level playing field. I couldn't help but notice how many of the middle-aged ladies met here have died red hair – a Soviet throwback, perhaps. What is clear is that hardly anybody looks back to Yeltsin and the ensuing ideas of democracy that many people, Putin included, think the country was just not set out for.
This however is a very democratic book, for the characters of the people we meet come out very easily, from the stony-eyed ex-military orphan with little gunning him on except civil pride, down to the widowed babushkas who sang for Russia at Eurovision. Don't get me wrong, there is the character of the travel as well – the third class carriages on the railway, with the open-plan compartments involving people sleeping on converted corridor tables, for instance. But this book is so important, compelling and of its moment when it comes to the politics of the land. Putin might be in power for 24 years in total, if he gets a second re-election as President. You could make the joke that murderers get less than that as sentence, but what it does mean is that with a huge population having to live under him – and there being no alternative around (certainly no hope of a Russian Spring-style activism) – the country that lays down at his feet is one we really should be interested in.
I must thank the publishers for my review copy.
Mafia State by Luke Harding won't have dated much over the four years since publication, as it still bites to see a correspondent (like Greene was) come up against the powers of the oligarchs and Russian political system.
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