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?