Monday, January 20, 2014

Travels in Siberia

The five journeys described here took place over a period of 16 years, with a third of the book devoted to a 2001 road trip from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok. Bankrolled by a $22,000 advance from The New Yorker magazine, the author bought a van and hired a couple of tough and resourceful Russians as guides. It took them just over five weeks to complete the trip.

Of the other trips to Siberia, the first was to Ulan Ude and Lake Baikal in 1993 and the next in 1999 to Chukotka just across the Bering Strait from Alaska.

The third took place in the winter of 2005 when the core of the journey was by rail from Irkutsk to Ulan Ude via the Trans-Siberian, then by BAM from Severobaikalsk to Yakutsk.

The final visit was in 2009 to Novosibirsk and Akademgorodok.

When asked what kind of style he wrote in, the author's understated reply was "factual." This is true up to a point, for he writes in a quiet and easy-going manner with a multitude of closely-observed details, but the book is also leavened with humour and the author is not afraid to show himself in an unflattering light. He also weaves a vast amount of historical and literary information into the text, but so expertly that it's never dry or overwhelming.

The Road Trip

Before crossing the Urals they encountered a wedding party that was blocking traffic in both directions. They coughed up ten rubles for the newlyweds, refused the offer of vodka, and managed to cajole their way through. One of the guides, Volodya, observed that he had once been forced by a wedding party to drink for an entire afternoon, and had heard of others who had been detained for days.

They paid $200 to cross a roadless stretch in a private boxcar. Soon after they encountered a gauntlet of watermelon sellers, who after a while became so numerous that free watermelons were being thrust through the vehicle's windows.

Names of villages they passed through: Puddle, Free, Noisy, Smokes, Jellies, Luxury, Merry Cliff, Devil Bread, Unhappyville.


...the remarkable ability possessed by all Russians, even the sweetest and gentlest, to make their faces rock hard instantly...

"Some people here in Russia refer to the events of the last ten years as the Third World War," he explained. "They say that Russia lost the war, and you Americans won. And if you just look around you anywhere in Russia, except in the biggest cities, it's obvious that this country lost a war."

Russians have long been proud to claim that by absorbing the worst the Mongols could do they saved Western Europe, and maybe civilization, from destruction.

My attempt to join the Great Patriotic War conversation was met with silence. America lost four hundred thousand people in the war, a frightening number; but Russia’s dead numbered about twenty million. To many Russians, America’s participation in the war was that of a bystander who holds the combatants' coats and steps in at the end to finish off the loser.


The Russia word for Siberia is Sibir’ with the final syllable pronounced like a shiver: brrr.

The most popular American in Russia appears to be Sylvester Stallone, and the the most popular recent English-language writer is Farley Mowat. "Everyone there seems to know Ne Kri Volki."

Pushkin eating cherries out of a cap before fighting a duel.

The charming practice of Aeroflot to name its jetliners after writers.