Midnight in Siberia
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.