For me, a ride on the Trans-Siberian Railway would be an interesting vacation, and one I’ve long wanted to take. For Russians in the past, Trans-Siberian trains carried people away from their homes into exile. But for millions of Russians today, the Trans-Siberian is simply a mode of transport—the most cost-effective way to get from Point A to Point B in an enormous country. Trains have lumbered across Russia’s expanse for over a century, a constant presence even as the country surrounding the tracks has fractured from political upheaval. The Trans-Siberian traces and also forms “the spine of Russia,” journalist David Greene writes: “As I traversed Russia in a train, I couldn’t help but feel I was traveling on the only concrete thing holding this nation together.”
That thought comes from Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey Into the Heart of Russia, Greene’s recently released account of an extended Trans-Siberian trip he took in 2013, after concluding a stint as NPR’s Moscow bureau chief and returning to the U.S. to cohost Morning Edition. Like former NPR Beijing correspondent Rob Gifford, author of China Road: A Journey Into the Future of a Rising Power, Greene uses a long trip as a framing device for his discussions of life and politics in today’s Russia. Midnight in Siberia really isn’t about the ride, though; Greene’s focus is on the stops he makes and the people he meets along the way. Each chapter centers on on one person’s story (his or her name serving as chapter title), and these accounts merge with Greene’s musings on how the past has shaped today’s Russians, and where the country might be headed in the future.
To those of us watching the country from the pages of the New York Times, of course, twenty-first century Russia “seems to stand for little besides wealth at the top, corruption, an uneven playing field, and the repression of civil rights,” so it’s unsurprising that Greene’s is not exactly an optimistic story, though he finds moments of humor. “Crazy shit just happens” in Russia, Greene writes, and he seems to enjoy absurdity (a required trait for anyone dealing with the remnants of a communist bureaucracy). But Greene meets people who have endured unimaginable difficulties: parents who lost their hockey-player son when his team’s plane crashed, in an incident some suggest Vladimir Putin orchestrated; a former police officer arrested on spurious charges who became paralyzed when he jumped from a police station window to avoid further questioning and torture. Several of Greene’s younger interviewees speak of belonging to a “lost generation”—not one from the years of Stalin or Brezhnev, but rather those who came of age under Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Having grown up in one country, they now face adulthood in another for which they were not prepared, and they have drifted.
Hearing these stories of hardship is difficult, and Greene struggles with the clash between his desire for Russians to embrace democracy and the indifference that many of them feel. Why, he wonders, won’t people fight harder for change when conditions in the country would seem to call for it? It’s a matter of security, he decides, summing up the choice that Russians face: “Stand for change that could be messy and unpredictable, or settle for and endorse a status quo that is unsavory but somehow safe?”
Most people choose the latter option, but Greene meets a few who are attempting to effect small changes in the system. He speaks with villagers who filed a lawsuit against a corrupt local government, and won. An innkeeper he encounters explains how she works to keep her business administratively beyond reproach so local authorities can’t come around and slap her with fines of obscure origin. Although these actions are limited, Greene realizes that they are far from unimportant: “It can be so tempting to look for the big battles in Russia—big elections, big rallies, an Arab Spring. And it can be deflating when you don’t see Russia rise up, when you see what looks like a citizenry that’s lazy or resigned. But maybe this is overlooking the smaller battles.” Westerners—Americans—always expect that things will change quickly, and in the manner we favor. But maybe we need to give Russia more time to work through the remnants of the Soviet era and the messiness of the post-1991 years, and perhaps that will take place mostly on an incremental, local level.
Greene certainly doesn’t know how things will turn out for Russia—to state the obvious, no one does—so the best he can do is chronicle what he sees in the country now. Midnight in Siberia offers a few dozen snapshots of life in the small cities and villages that the Trans-Siberian Railway trundles past. It makes for an interesting and informative book, and the train trip an effective framing device. “There’s nothing boring about riding the Trans-Siberian,” Greene writes; the epic journey is “hard yet poetic, perplexing yet entertaining.” I doubt anyone has ever said the same about Amtrak.