Mid­night in Siberia

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - by David Greene, W.W. Nor­ton & Company, 320 pages — Grace La­batt

Po­etry. Pur­ga­tory. Fear. Chaos. Ap­a­thy. Nostal­gia.

Much as the snowy land­scape through which David Greene trav­els in Mid­night in Siberia is dot­ted with “lit­tle wooden homes,” such phrases pep­per his work, a mem­oir of five weeks spent aboard, and in the towns around, the 6,000-mile Trans-Siberian Rail­way.

Another is “friends,” although like much of what Greene writes about, what ini­tially seems ob­vi­ous or safely as­sumed, in fact means some­thing else en­tirely. “Friends” here are not pals but the “thug­gish strangers” who lurk in Greene’s pe­riph­eral vi­sion. They are one of many re­minders of the Krem­lin’s watchful eye.

NPR’s Moscow bureau chief for two and a half years, Greene ex­pe­ri­enced such at­ten­tion reg­u­larly. ( To­day he co- hosts NPR’s Morn­ing Edi­tion.) The at­ten­tion re­turned when he re­turned, head­ing back to Rus­sia in 2013 to “sat­isfy [his] cu­rios­ity and to an­swer en­dur­ing ques­tions” like “How can Rus­sians ac­cept the harsh re­al­ity they live in?” and “What is hold­ing peo­ple back? Is it fear? Fa­tigue? Fa­tal­ism? Pub­lic ap­a­thy? An in­no­cent but false belief in coun­try? A pa­ter­nal­is­tic faith that lead­ers are there to pro­tect you?” While none of th­ese is re­ally an­swer­able, Greene’s con­sid­er­a­tion of each brings him into con­tact with peo­ple who add hu­man­ity to the head­lines.

There are the Bu­ra­novo babushkas — the tiny el­derly women who rep­re­sented Rus­sia at the glitzy Euro­vi­sion mu­sic com­pe­ti­tion and who are us­ing any money they earn from their mu­sic to re­build their Ortho­dox church, which was de­stroyed dur­ing the Soviet regime.

There is Alexei, a for­mer traf­fic cop in Nizhny Nov­gorod who was ac­cused of rap­ing and mur­der­ing a woman. Un­der bru­tal tor­ture, he con­fessed and then, pan­icked, threw him­self from a three-story-high win­dow. Though the woman was found and all charges were dropped, Alexei is now un­able to walk. With­out money, he and his mother can­not af­ford a wheel­chair-ac­ces­si­ble apart­ment, and he must crawl down four flights of stairs to go out­side.

And there is the woman who de­liv­ers the book’s best line. After a me­te­orite soars over Chelyabinsk, she de­clares, “I think this was ac­tu­ally a mes­sage from God, [a] mes­sage that our com­mu­nity is nice and de­serves some at­ten­tion.”

A num­ber of the peo­ple and sit­u­a­tions Greene writes about will be fa­mil­iar to those who lis­tened to his 2011 and 2012 NPR re­ports from an ear­lier Trans-Siberian Rail­way trip, and this book main­tains the dy­namism of those ra­dio sto­ries. But the tran­si­tion of sim­i­lar con­tent from ra­dio to print is not en­tirely seam­less. Some el­e­ments that are ef­fec­tive when spo­ken do not hold up when read on the page. The au­thor’s re­al­iza­tions can come across as a bit ready-made, as when he dis­cov­ers that he was too quick to judge a loud tour guide and be­comes over­come by guilt and grat­i­tude. There are fre­quent rep­e­ti­tions ( of facts, mem­o­rable words, one quote); sound bites and clichés (“at the end of the day,” “Rus­sians are a dif­fer­ent breed,” “Rus­sia is just chock-full of char­ac­ters”); and both at once (“cul­ture and his­tory mat­ter,” “cul­ture mat­ters,” “[h]is­tory and cul­ture mat­ter”). It is ap­par­ent that the re­vi­sion process was rushed.

There are other ra­dio-rem­i­nis­cent el­e­ments that work well, how­ever. For ex­am­ple, Greene keeps things mov­ing swiftly — a pace ap­pro­pri­ate for a book pro­pelled by a train trip. And eas­ily di­gested facts are abun­dant: Beer was con­sid­ered a food un­til 2013, when it was clas­si­fied as an al­co­holic bev­er­age. Each year in Moscow, fall­ing ici­cles kill up to a dozen peo­ple. There is one AK-47, or it­er­a­tion thereof, for ev­ery 70 hu­mans on earth. ( The au­thor i nter­views Vik­tor Kalash­nikov, the son of Mikhail Kalash­nikov, the weapon’s in­ven­tor, and vis­its the Kalash­nikov mu­seum in Izhevsk, which has a shoot­ing range in its base­ment.)

And, more im­por­tant, Greene gives us con­cise, gras­pable analy­ses of what Rus­sia’s pol­i­tics are like for those who live there. Some “safe” and fair as­sump­tions to make would be that Rus­sians do not look back with any fond­ness at Joseph Stalin; that few wish to re­turn to Soviet rule; that most seek ul­ti­mate democ­racy; and that Putin has his crit­ics and op­po­nents.

That last as­sump­tion ap­pears to have legs — at least, if we base it on the opin­ions of Greene’s in­ter­vie­wees. But, as­ton­ish­ingly, words like nostal­gia of­ten ap­pear in the book along­side words like Stalin and Soviet. “[W]e need a per­son like Stalin,” says one woman, an ac­tivist. “So peo­ple don’t steal. So peo­ple aren’t cor­rupt.” Of two other in­ter­vie­wees, Greene writes, “They don’t see some su­pe­rior form of pol­i­tics [in the U.S. that] they wish Rus­sia had.” Their view is that, dur­ing the Soviet era, “the gov­ern­ment pro­vided some bedrock ser­vices and guar­an­tees for its cit­i­zens.” And while there were se­vere lim­i­ta­tions on per­sonal free­doms, to­day, Greene ob­serves, “un­cer­tainty about be­ing pun­ished is more in­tim­i­dat­ing than cer­tainty. You are al­ways just left to won­der.”

Un­cer­tainty may mo­ti­vate another as­pect of Rus­sian life that Greene ob­serves — peo­ple’s seem­ing in­dif­fer­ence when it comes to push­ing for change. Many Ukraini­ans now view the Orange Revo­lu­tion as a “failed ex­per­i­ment with democ­racy that de­liv­ered noth­ing.” Protests in Moscow in 2011 and 2012 did not gal­va­nize many beyond the city’s lim­its. The risks of dis­sent are great, the like­li­hood of progress slim. Hence, Rus­sians dwell in a “bizarre pur­ga­tory” over­seen by a dic­ta­to­rial ruler. In Siberia, that pur­ga­tory may be cold and hard, but the peo­ple are any­thing but.

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