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
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.
Read an Excerpt
The ice-fields are crossed for ever by a man in chains. In the farther distance, perhaps, a herd of reindeer drifts, or a hunter makes a shadow on the snow. But that is all. Siberia: it fills one twelfth of the land-mass of the whole Earth, yet this is all it leaves for certain in the mind. A bleak beauty, and an indelible fear.
The emptiness becomes obsessive. Until a few years ago only five towns, scattered along the Trans-Siberian Railway, were open to foreigners under supervision, while Siberia itself receded into rumour. Even now the white spaces induce fantasies and apprehension. There is a place where white cranes dance on the permafrost, where a great city floats lost among the ice-floes, where mammoths sleep under glaciers. And there are places (you could fear) where the terrors of the Gulag secretly continue, and the rocket silos are rebuilding....
Over the Urals the train-wheels putter pathetically, like old men running out of breath. The mountains look too shallow to form a frontier, let alone the divide between Europe and Asia: only a faint upheaval of pine-darkened slopes.
Beyond my window the palisades of conifer and birch part to disclose sleepy villages and little towns by weed-smeared pools. The summer railway banks are glazed with flowers. Beyond them the clearings shut on and off like lantern slides: wooden cottages and vegetable patches boxed in picket fences, and cattle asleep in the grass.
Dusk arrives suddenly, as if this were the frontier also between light and darkness. Siberia is only a few miles away. It sets up a tingle of alarm. I am sliding out of European Russia intosomewhere which seems less a country than a region in people's minds, and even at this last moment, everything ahead--the violences of geography and time--feels a little thinned, too cold or vast to be precisely real. It impends through the darkness as the ultimate, unearthly Abroad. The place from which you will not return.
I chose it against my will. I was subverted by the sudden falling open of a vast area of the forbidden world. The immensity of Siberia had shadowed all my Asian journeys. So the casual beginnings--the furtive glance in an atlas--began to nag and deepen, until the wilderness seemed less to be empty than overlooked, or scrawled with invisible ink. Insidiously, it began to infect me.
The Azeri merchant who shares my carriage never looks out of the window. Siberia is dull, he says, and poor. He trades clothes between Moscow and Omsk, and taps continually on a pocket calculator. 'I wouldn't stay long out there,' he says. 'Everything's falling to bits. I'd try China, if I were you. China's the coming place.' He is big and hirsute, thirty-something, and going to seed. After dozing, he checks his face in his shaving-mirror and groans, as if he had expected someone else.
Suddenly in our window there springs up the ghostly obelisk raised by Czar Alexander I nearly two centuries ago. It stands on a low bank, whitened by the glimmer of our train. Here, geographically, Siberia begins. On its near side the plinth proclaims 'Europe', on its far side 'Asia'. It flickers past us, and the darkness comes down again. And nothing, of course, changes. Because the boundary between Europe and Asia is only an imagined one. Physically the continents are undivided. Ancient geographers in the West (itself an artificial concept) perhaps decided one day that here was Europe--the known--and over there was somewhere else, Asia.
So I wait for the change which I know will not happen. In the dark the railway cuttings seem to plunge deeper, and the trees to rush up more vertiginously above them. A few suffocated stars appear. Occasionally the land breaks into valleys slung with faint lights, and once, from the restaurant-car, I see a horizon blanched with the refracted glow of an invisible city.
I don't sleep. The Azeri's snores thunder a yard from my head. Instead, as I scrutinise my maps, I feel alternate waves of exhilaration and unease, so that my eye always returns consolingly to where I am. From here--the mountains west of Yekaterinburg--Siberia stretches eastward more than six thousand miles, and my journey reaches after it, unravelling across seven time-zones and one third of the northern hemisphere. The carriage rocks and murmurs. For the last time, the future looks shapely and whole. It lives in the simplicity of maps. Anything may change it, I know--the collapse of transport, the intrusion of the police or harassment by mafia. But for the moment my eye bathes in the mountains enchaining the south for three thousand miles, then travels along three of the world's greatest rivers--the Ob, Yenisei, Lena--which pour down from the borders of Mongolia to the Arctic Ocean. Each of their basins is bigger than western Europe. Then comes Lake Baikal, deepest and oldest of all inland waters; the Amur river abutting China; the snow-fields of Kolyma, where the temperature drops to a meaningless -97 F ... These prodigies flow in seductive and dangerous procession to the Pacific--and suddenly the distances seem hopeless, and I wonder where I'll have to stop.
For this is Russia's Elsewhere. Long before Communism located the future in an urban paradise, Siberia was a rural waste into which were cast the bacilli infecting the state body: the criminal, the sectarian, the politically dissident. Yet paradoxically, over the centuries, it was seen as a haven of primitive innocence and salvation, and peasants located their Belovodye here, their Promised Land. So sometimes the censure of Siberian savagery would be reversed into applause for its freedom, and its inhabitants praised as pioneering supermen, uncontaminated by the rot in the bones of Europe. Now, as Moscow succumbs to the contagion of the West, Siberia becomes a pole of purity and authentic 'Russianness'. I heard rumours that it might secede from western Russia altogether, or fracture into independent provinces. What, I wondered, had replaced its shattered Communist faith?