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In Siberia, a startling examination of contemporary Siberia, is a departure from the existing body of literature that references or discusses Siberia. Written by a British travel writer who is older than the average Russian male and objectified for his Westernness, In Siberia is also an exploration of how people try to reconcile their past with their hopes for the future against the backdrop of a turbulent political landscape, and a stagnant economic one. Thubron weaves his tale of his journey across Siberia around relevant history and background, as well as fascinating encounters with Siberia's inhabitants, to produce a stunning portrait of a land that defies characterization.
Thubron writes that he set out across Siberia "to find a core to Siberia, where there seemed none; or at least for a moment to witness its passage through the wreckage of Communism -- to glimpse that old, unappeasable desire to believe, as it fractured into confused channels, flowed under other names. Because I could not imagine a Russia without faith."
Thubron did find an amazing amount of faith among the abject poverty, barren land, and desperation of Siberia -- faith that the proud history of Russia will usher in another era of Russian dominance, faith in the promise of a better life in the future, spiritual faith, faith in science and math. He also found that Siberia's transition from Soviet wasteland to free state has been especially painful. Although capitalism and democracy promise freedom, Thubron finds that the current inhabitants of Siberia are fighting a difficult battle to see just what good can come of the newest "ism" that has been thrust upon them.
One of the greatest ironies of contemporary Siberia is depicted in a conversation Thubron has with the captain of an oil tanker who picks up Thubron in one of Siberia's most desolate and suffering regions, Dudinka. His hopes of a better life in the post-Soviet era have been dashed by the Former Soviet Union's bleak economic situation. "(The captain) wanted to retire to a dacha, he said -- but his pensions was too small. 'What pension? Bread and water!' Once he slurred he had operated on secret service with the Soviet navy in Algeria and Syria: he couldn't have spoken of it before because of the KGB. He couldn't speak of it now because of the vodka," Thubron writes. In this small exchange, Thubron precisely exacts how many Russians and Siberians are still horribly oppressed. But still, among a different oppression than under communism, Thubron finds a jarring honesty and faith within Siberia that he shares with his readers brilliantly.
Thubron concludes that this faith has inspired a notion that somehow, some way, Siberia will survive, as it always has. "The mystique of a chaste, self-reliant Siberia rises again. Siberia is more Russian than Russia is, people say, as if it were a quintessential Russia, or the imagined country which Russia would like to be," Thubron writes.
Thubron's eloquent, insightful observations of this distant and troubled land are a bittersweet pleasure to read. In Siberia is a remarkable book to curl up with as the winter here draws near. The way in which Thubron deftly navigates the paradoxes of a land that bears a heavy history and of a people trying to find their way among the ruins of a bygone political system makes In Siberia a unique and astonishing work that casts a much discussed but rarely understood place in an intriguing light.
—Emily Burg is a freelancer living in New York.