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

Midnight in Siberia is journalist David Greene’s account of his 2013 trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow through Siberia to Vladivostok: a reprise, in fact, since he had done the trip once before when posted to Russia as bureau chief for America’s National Public Radio. Told as a travelogue, it consists largely of personal anecdotes and accounts of people met along the way.

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, David Greene (W. W. Norton & Company, October 2014)

The Ukraine crisis, which the trip pre-dates, has made the book timely: Midnight in Siberia can serve as an accessible introduction to the enigma that is Russia, and as an at least partial answer to the question as to how and why the Russian people reconcile themselves to their President Vladimir Putin.

Much will seem familiar: the travel mishaps, imperious guides, inconvenience, uncomfortable conditions, peculiar modes of transport, the once-in-a-lifetime views. But Greene has a talent for finding the story in the ordinary, for most of the people he writes about are—while quietly courageous or determined—quite ordinary: parents who lost their hockey-player son in an airplane accident, small-business owners, a university professor, a young veteran of the Russian draft.

The vet, Ivan, is perhaps the most interesting of these. Greene meets him in a village near—insofar as anything is “near” in Siberia—Chelyabinsk, where they went to chase the meteorite that had streaked across the sky in a fireball only a few days before. Ivan explains that the hardship of his military training “had made him ‘Russian’”. Ivan is not the urbanite who is the normal subject of Western media interviews

The trip is used as a skeleton on which to hang flashbacks and vignettes from Greene’s three years in Russia. These act to beef up the narrative, so the the book doesn’t rely entirely upon the somewhat serendipitous nature of train travel. We also meet the author’s feisty wife Rose, who apparently calls him by last name. Idiosyncrasy is fine, but not all of these anecdotes are entirely edifying: we are treated to restaurant signs reading “PECTOPAH” (which is just “RESTORAN” in Cyrillic), a flippantly embellished translation or two from Russian and some generalizations—surprising coming from a journalist—such as “Russians can’t imagine life without a boss, without hierarchy.”

Nevertheless, the book’s serious intellectual core is articulated at the end: “I can’t believe,” writes Greene,

 

looking back twenty years, that I saw Russia as a cold, oppressed, backward country, emerging from decades of terror and on the cusp of enjoying the wisdom of America’s way of life and system of government. If nothing else, I for one, now understand that Russians may well want—and get—something else.  

 

That everyone in the world aspires to be American is one of the more serious misapprehensions that Americans sometimes labor under, and it certainly held sway in the immediate post-Soviet period. More than one problem in the current relationship can be traced to this misunderstanding. It is a recurring theme in Greene’s interviews and accounts: the words “democracy”, “freedom” and “progress” may be the same, the meanings aren’t always.

Midnight in Siberia isn’t the only example of travel-writing about Russia, Siberia or the Railway, nor did I find it the best. Greene does however make a stab, and a good one, at trying to explain why and how Russians are “different” and why, in particular, it is misguided to project American perspectives onto a people whose experiences have been so divergent.

And Greene, in his evident affection for the Russian people, also makes it clear why those who spend any time at all in Russia can find it hard to ever entirely leave.


Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books. He worked extensively in Russia in the 1990s.