Midnight in Siberia by David Greene
Some books are just made for the particular reader, capturing a particular interest or love they have, or just speaking to them more strongly than others. Let’s face it, I’m known for my love of all things Russian, but not all books about the country or its people grab me. However, “Midnight in Siberia”, just published by Alma Books, could have been written with me in mind.
David Greene is a reporter forNPR in the USA, and has a history of spending time in Russia. Assigned there in 2009 as Moscow Bureau Chief for NPR News, this book was inspired by a return visit and his second trip on the Trans Siberian Express (the first having been taken in 2011 with his wife Rose). This time round, he travelled for the most part with a Russian NPR colleague, Sergei, and his intention seems to have been to get to the heart of the Russian people. The travels were featured in a series of broadcasts on NPR, and then David was persuaded to turn his experiences into a book.
Greene obviously feels a strong attachment to ordinary Russians, so much so that each of the chapters is named after the main character he encounters in it. It’s an unusual format, and made me think that perhaps there should have been less emphasis on the train journey in the blurb; because, truth be told, Greene’s interest is very much more in the people than in the landscape or the journey!
David and Sergei travel for the most part third class, crammed into small compartments and surviving on a diet of tea and instant noodles (made with the water in the carriages for tea-making!) As they journey on deeper into Russia they encounter a variety of people from different backgrounds, all seemingly struggling to get along in the modern Russia with its political corruption and extremes of rich and poor. David chases a meteorite; visits the factory of the inventor of the Kalashnikov rifle; bonds with Sergei’s family; and finally reaches Vladivostok, the end of the line, which feels rather like the edge of the world.
There’s a great tradition of travel writing about the journey to Siberia, from Chekhov through Eric Newby to more recent authors like Ian Frazier. I’ve read Chekhov’s “Sakhalin Island” and Newby’s “The Big Red Train”, both of which gave a strong sensation of travelling through the land and the landscape, encountering the vastness that is Siberia whilst meeting people along the way. A more recent read, “Journey into Russia” by Laurens van der Post, also took me into the depths of the Russian countryside.
However, if I’m honest, I got much less of a sense of travelling with this book; the journey Greene seems more keen to make is one into the Russian psyche. He seems to have a great need to understand them as a people, and it’s this aspect that informs the book most. Greene is coming from a western, very American viewpoint, and he often seems baffled by the Russians’ reaction to events. Throughout his narrative he repeatedly expresses surprise and frustration that they don’t rebel more, kick out their corrupt leaders and embrace democracy.
What a strange purgatory Russians live in. For so many years they could not travel freely and took a major risk if they wrote or said anything critical of the government or anyone well connected. There were severe limits on where people could work and who could own businesses or property. Today many of those restrictions are gone. Life is more free and open. And yet the fear remains. The risk remains. In a way, maybe clear limits of toleration are less fearsome that erratic limits of toleration. Uncertainty about being punished is more intimidating that certainty. You are always just left to wonder.
However, as the book goes on, he comes to recognise that the Russian people are very different to those in the west; they have a history of strong leadership, a patriarchal figure, whether the early Rus’ leaders. Ivan the Terrible or Stalin. As the book continues and Greene’s understanding of the Russians widens, he realises that Putin is only the latest in a succession of these figures and that nothing has really changed over centuries of Russian culture. There is a divide between the ruling classes and the general mass of the population, with the latter feeling powerless to take any action. The Russian people crave stability and the only thing they perceive which gives them this is a strong leader.
Nevertheless, the western world, with its extremes of poverty, its huge gulf between rich and poor, and its constant government surveillance, is not so different as the Russia which is portrayed here; a reality which Greene doesn’t always seem ready to grasp, with his slightly naive and old-fashioned belief in western democracy.
I felt that the end of the book was somewhat contracted, as the last leg of the journey was covered in one paragraph; it was as if Greene had become restricted by the structure he’d chosen for the book. As it was very much based on interviews with the people he’d come across on the journey, if he had none he felt he had nothing to say about the journey and the country. This was a shame in a way, because when he forgot his self-imposed restrictions and wrote about landscape he encountered, there were some beautiful images of places and people.
However, there was much to love in this book; the glimpses of travel on the train were evocative; the insight into the difference between Russian behaviour in public and private were fascinating; and the deep affection which developed between Greene and the various people he encountered was very moving. The book provided a wonderful snapshot of life in modern-day Russia – and I hope Greene gets to visit again to reconnect with a people he obviously loves!
(Review copy kindly provided by Alma, for which many thanks!)