From “Siberia” to Siberia

Why Russia is not like Europe's "little countries"

Vivian Gornick
View from a train passing through the Republic of Buryatia, Russia.
Gornick's first trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway took her to Ulan Ude, the capital of the Buryat Republic. Photo by Patrick Schneider.

My brother is a world traveler: he has been to places I’ve never heard of in parts of the world I didn’t know existed. Often he invites me to join him, but though I listen with interest to the vivid reports on his return home, I’m never tempted to come along next time. When I am at leisure in the world – that is, touring, without purposeful occupation – I experience myself as a passive receiver of ready-made impressions. All too quickly, I begin to feel that I am standing still and that a painted panorama is unrolling before my eyes. The faculty of imaginative association seems to desert me, and the clichéd thoughts that fill my head make me feel tired: even sad and old.

Not so long ago, however, when my brother called to say that he was thinking of taking a trip and I, as always, asked where to, his reply produced a response that surprised us both.

“I’ll come,” I said.

“You will!” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “I will.”

The magic word had been ‘‘Siberia.’’ At the sound of it, a power of feeling, stirred by romantic images common to us all, instantly rose up in me: arctic wastes and political exile; blinding cold and unspeakable isolation; a vast geographic region synonymous with an idea the world holds of Russia’s passionate intemperateness and brutish extremity. George Steiner once wrote that it had been said that if Jesus Christ came back to earth it would surely be as a suffering Russian, as no other people had such a penchant for barbaric sin and equally barbaric redemption. It was “Siberia,” not Moscow, that I thought of when I read these words.

When my brother said “Siberia,” I heard the word without quotation marks around it... Suddenly, I wanted to know what it was like more than I wanted to stay home.

To all this let me add my personal associations to the word. I grew up in the 1950s in a working-class household devoted to international communism and the Soviet Union; in my childhood, Siberia meant revolutionary heroism under the czar. In my late teens, however, when I came to understand that Siberia meant Joseph Stalin not Nicholas, the word made flare in me that angry unhappiness that haunts all believers who lose the faith. Then, in the 1970s, after a conversion to feminism that forced on me firsthand knowledge of the difficulty of maintaining independent-mindedness in the face of growing dogmatism, I wrote a sympathetic oral history of the experience of American communists. After that, the painful quarrel with police state socialism that had eaten at me for so long began to lose its edge. Soon I thought no more about “Siberia.” Nevertheless, when the Soviet Union fell apart I became disoriented. It seemed that the environment had undergone a sea change, and I felt myself standing at the edge, instead of well inside, the known world. It was then that geologic layers of cultivated forgetfulness began to form themselves over the word “Russia.”

Now, when my brother said “Siberia,” I heard the word without quotation marks around it, and it dawned on me, “It’s a real place.” Suddenly, I wanted to know what it was like more than I wanted to stay home. Here the personal romance ends and the one interlaced with on-the-ground impressions begins. I ask the reader to bear in mind: “impressions” is the operative word.

The world we are speaking of begins in the west with the Ural Mountains, ends in the east with the Pacific Ocean, reaches north to the Arctic and south to the borders of Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and China. Like any continent, it is made up of plains (steppes), forests (taiga), and desert (tundra). Like no other continent, it covers over five and half million square miles (that’s two and a half times the size of the Continental United States). The distance between Moscow and Vladivostok, the great port city on the Pacific, is a grossly separating seven thousand miles. As Siberian irony has it, “God is high up in the sky and Moscow is far away.”

Siberia – the Tatar word for “sleeping land” – was first penetrated by Westerners more than four hundred years ago when a Cossack expedition was sent out by the czar to investigate the territory. Scattered throughout the vast land were more than thirty native tribes descended from the Turks and the Mongols, none of whom could resist the Russian invasion; but (as far as I know) there were no massacres, and today, a few million native Siberians – unlike North America’s native peoples – are thoroughly integrated into the dominant society.

After the Cossacks came trappers, traders, and explorers in the seventeenth century, and by the mid-eighteenth century colonization was complete. However, the remoteness from western Russia and the stunning harshness of the weather – six months of the year it’s 40 to 90 degrees below 0 all over Siberia – ensured that the land would remain “silent,” which it did until the Trans-Siberian Railroad began to be built in 1891. And even then. Throughout the twentieth century the region, except for those born and raised there, has remained primarily a place of refuge for social runaways, exile and confinement for political dissenters and criminals, and reckless exploitation of the mineral-rich land by the Soviet government. Hardly ever did “the wild East” become a country of promise for anyone looking to start life anew.

Those distances! You know about them in the abstract... but to experience those miles in the flesh is quite another thing.

None of which prepares you for how astonishingly beautiful a good deal of the continent is or, rather, let me say, the part of it that I experienced. At the top, in the north, is the Arctic; in the middle, the plains and forests covered with permafrost; and at the bottom, in the south, the Siberia that my brother and I took one long look at. We traveled for a month across three thousand miles of southeastern Siberia proper and the Russian Far East (one of Siberia’s four geographical regions), cutting a wide swath through country that borders on China and Mongolia, and almost all of it, in the month of June, was intensely, magically, unforgettably green. From the train, on a ferry, from a car, and on foot, the world looked like the American West – Montana, Wyoming, northern California – only two, three, four times as big: vast open landscapes of rolling fields and hill stretching to a far horizon; lovely valleys and mountain ranges; great stands of birch and pine; deep lakes, wide rivers, gleaming wetlands; huge, clear, highly colored skies; the whole of it looking as un-interfered with as North America must have looked a hundred and fifty years ago. We saw towns, villages, settlements as we traveled, but the landscape was so sweeping, so strong, so ever-present that often it seemed merely to tolerate, certainly not be subdued by, the human presence perched on it. Yet there was definitely a relationship between the two. We’d see a small village lying against a valley bottom or straggling up a hillside, the whole of it, barns and houses alike, made of wood with Russian decorative trim (either fresh or faded), all deeply settled into the earth, the wood everywhere a dark and aged brown, its vividness dramatizing the strong and tender green in which it was invariably embedded. Although these wooden villages did not civilize the landscape, they made of it one in which emptiness is transformed into warm, living space.

It was the distances that allowed such distinctions to get made, providing the time in which to think about what was passing, most often in the train window. Those distances! You know about them in the abstract – you’ve looked at the map, you’ve talked to Siberians in New York, they’ve told you repeatedly that what appears to be a few hundred miles will invariably turn out to be more than a thousand – but to experience those miles in the flesh is quite another thing. The train never travels more than fifty miles an hour (that means a good thirty-six hours to get from, say, New York to Pittsburgh). On the other hand, the roads are treacherous – broken, rutted, stony – which means you can’t make much better time by car. In short: everything takes forever. The slightest trip is almost always a day’s journey from wherever you are. Herein lies a significant clue to the famous Russian stoicism. Russians take “conditions” in a stride inconceivable in the impatient United States. For the tourist, though, as tiring as the train or car trip is, the tedium itself is useful: it forces you to live with the passing scene as you never would were it all speeding by.

The cities were the real surprise. God knows what I imagined they would look like, prison settlements I suppose. Instead, we found medium-sized towns (populations eighty thousand to six hundred thousand) of considerable charm and interest, many situated on great rivers, and all possessed of complicated histories reflected in a remarkable mixture of architecture that everywhere was made pleasing (in summer at least) by the intensity of that same brilliant green to be found in the countryside. Our trip took us from Irkutsk to Vladivostok, stopping along the way to spend time in Ulan Ude, Chita, Birobidzhan, and Kabarovsk. Looking out of a fourth- or fifth-floor hotel window, you almost invariably saw a low, level townscape made coherent by an immense number of thickly woven tree-lined streets and avenues dotted with houses and church towers poking up through the tender verdancy that, indeed, hid a multitude of sins, the major one being the haggard, broken-down shabbiness that lies everywhere to hand in Russia. Once down in the street, the mere idea of municipal coherence dissolves instantly.

The contrasts at eye-level are extreme and ever present. There will be a grand avenue, for instance, lined with nineteenth-century buildings, every one of them needing a paint or plaster job, but still, it’s an avenue. Then right behind the avenue, suddenly the pavement breaks up and you’re on a half-dirt road sprinkled with a slummy mix of the wooden houses marked by Russian decorative trim (in the city, these are one step above dereliction), weed-strewn lots, and the 1960s apartment blocks (“Khrushchev housing”) that seem to be falling to pieces before your very eyes. But keep walking and you’ll come out onto a street under construction in which are planted elegant glass and brick town houses meant for Russia’s post-Soviet nouveau riche. The endless repetition of accomplishment, breakdown, stasis, and renewed effort inscribed in these walks was, for me, dramatic and moving; in fact, the “housing question” in Siberia produced an inner disturbance that grew ever stronger as we traveled farther east.

Irkutsk, the capital of the region, is often called – half joking, full serious – the Paris of southeastern Siberia. Settled by the Cossacks some three hundred years ago, Irkutsk is one of a number of major cities in Siberia that, ironically, owe their charm to the earliest instance of nineteenth-century political dissent in Russia. It was here, to Irkutsk, for example, that many of the Decembrists, the most romantic of Russian revolutionaries, were sent in the 1820s. Young noblemen who, after the War of 1812, had been to Paris, become influenced by the Enlightenment, and returned home itching to achieve the modernizing reform of a constitutional monarchy, they led one of the most disastrously disorganized uprisings in anyone’s history. On 14 December 1825 they marched into the square in front of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg at the head of a few thousand men, demanding an audience with Nicholas I. To their amazement, the czar’s troops opened fire. More than three thousand men were arrested, five were hanged, and more than 120 were sent into Siberian exile. The event was electrifying, and its influence long-lasting. Alexander Herzen, the most brilliant of the aristocratic Russian socialists, was fourteen when the Decembrist Uprising took place; for him it was a formative event.

The monarchy was so undone by this challenge to power that it had the church declare the exiled noblemen dead, thereby allowing their “widows” to re-marry without the stigma of divorce. However, the wives of the Decembrists (among them some of the most prominent members of the Russian nobility) amazed Petersburg society by choosing to follow their husbands into exile, and nearly every one of them did. Irkutsk and Chita (some eight hundred miles to the east) were two of the major places of settlement, and it was here, in these crude outposts of the 1830s, that these elegant, educated, progressive-minded men and women chose to make their lives bearable by reproducing culture in the bleakness to which they now found themselves confined. Their homes became venues for concerts and theatricals that brought people together in informal gatherings. They entered town politics, raised money for schools and hospitals, helped lay out a spaciousness of streets and avenues, planted trees! Thus, by the end of the century Irkutsk, in particular, was a town of amenities, in possession of theaters and schools, concert halls and museums, a public library. When, in 1885, George Kennan stumbled periodically into town from the steppes where he was researching the prison system, he might very well have felt himself to be in the Paris of the East.

Kennan was an American curiosity. Born in Ohio in 1845, he had, at the end of the Civil War, joined a telegraph expedition in California that was setting out to link Europe and North America overland through Alaska and Siberia. The expedition failed, but Kennan stayed on in Siberia for more than two years, wandering among the native tribes near the coast of the Bering Sea. He had come to love these people – they were warm, open, honest – and he was amazed to see that their religion (Shamanism) had given them the courage and the stamina to “ward off fear in the face of that which was frightening.”

Everyone loved it, the Russians above all. What do hot water and electricity matter, they said. You are on Olkhon!

By a similar token, in 1865 the Russian administrators of the province whom Kennan met in Irkutsk – elegant, worldly, aristocratic – also enchanted him. Oh, by the way, he might say some evening at some countess’s soiree, what was this he had heard about a vast political prison system out here in Siberia? A lot of nonsense, replied the count. The only people in prison are common criminals. I see, nodded Kennan.

But after he had gone back to the United States, written his book about the Siberian tribes, become an ambitious and well-connected journalist, Kennan still kept hearing about the exiles, and twenty years later he returned to study the prison system. In 1885 he visited thirty Siberian prisons, met more than a hundred exiles, and got completely turned around politically. He wrote a letter to a friend headed ‘‘How I Became a Nihilist’’ in which he said,

You can hardly imagine what a strange impression it makes upon one to come into a wretched Kirghis yourt on a vast sandy steppe, to see there lying on a rough, wooden table Herbert Spencer’s “Principles of Psychology,” Balfour Stewart’s “Conservation of Energy,” Lainge’s “History of Materialism” – and to meet there a well-bred, cultivated, reasonable, loveable human being who does not differ materially from yourself, and with whom you have tastes, feelings, ambitions and opinions in common. . . . I went to Siberia regarding the political exiles as a lot of mentally unbalanced fanatics, bomb-throwing assassins . . . when I came away I kissed those same men goodbye with my arms around them and my eyes full of tears.

Kennan returned home a crusader and became nationally famous for the articles and books he wrote in passionate defense of the movement for Russian democratic freedom. He was still alive when the 1917 Revolution came; the Bolshevik takeover broke his heart.

During the Soviet period Irkutsk, I am told, felt gray and guarded, but on a warm evening in the summer of 2005 it is gay, lively, welcoming; restaurants, theaters, and shops are open late; hundreds of young people gather on the squares, strolling along the embankment of the mighty Angara, the only river to flow out of rather than into nearby Lake Baikal. The city is laid out so gracefully, its avenues and squares of European rather than Soviet dimension, that everyone walks and walks and walks (at least until eleven in the evening, when the light begins to fail), and we do, too.

The day we set out for Lake Baikal was a day of commemoration. “12 June 1994, Independence Day,” our guide, Svieta, told us. I was putting a bag in the trunk of the car and didn’t really absorb her words. Idly, I asked, “Independence from whom?” When I looked up, Svieta was staring at me. “The Soviets,” she said slowly. I felt something like a tiny electric shock, hearing these words. It hadn’t occurred to me that the Soviets would now be referred to as though they’d been an invading force.

Although one can get to the lake from Irkutsk in a couple of hours, we were heading for the island of Olkhon, which meant driving five hours before we’d reach the ferry – not that the trip would have taken five hours in Europe or the States. The road was decent for two of those hours, then it became a rutted dirt track. “Under construction,” we were told. Five years ago the whole road was “under construction”; this is progress. As we bounced along, our heads again and again nearly hitting the roof of the car, Svieta laughed sullenly, “In Russia we say, We have no roads, only directions.” Later, I was told that when Richard Nixon visited Russia, Leonid Brezhnev wanted to take him to the lake. The order was given to build a road (from Irkutsk, I think), and it was done in three days.

Once again, the snail’s pace at which we travel is a boon: around us a sea of northern California hills (a glorious gold-brown) with not a house, a barn, a person in sight (once in a while a herd of skinny cows). For hours at a time only the land, the sky, and the remarkable light. Peaceful and thrilling!

Once off the ferry – an old tub that had to be tinkered with for forty minutes before we could leave the slip – we drove another hour across the island. Now we were tired. The resort we were headed for (“Nikita’s Homestead”) was beautiful, Svieta assured us, we would love it, this would all be worth it. At last, we pulled into the village closest to our destination: a sea of mud. Sixteen hundred people lived here in a straggle of falling-down houses, with cows and dogs and chickens wandering freely in the mud. One look and I knew the situation was permanent: the animals were inured to the confusion.

Turned out, the village was a dress rehearsal. “Nikita’s Homestead,” also planted in a pile of sludge, was a Rube Goldberg construction: a vast, ramshackle, jerry-built compound of wooden buildings that reminds me strongly of the kind of camp communities old lefties (who couldn’t drive a straight nail) put up, in my childhood, in the countryside around New York. For a moment we stood staring.

“This is what the gulag must have looked like when they got out of the car,” my brother said calmly.

“No, no,” I demurred. “It’s only a sixties commune in Colorado.”

“Beautiful, no?” Svieta beamed at us. “The owner came here years ago ‘for his soul’ and stayed on to ‘make business.’ A good combination, yes?”

The tourists were mainly Russian, with a few Japanese and Germans, and us. The place was, indeed, a camp: no showers, hardly any hot water, chemical toilets, electricity only a few hours a day, and meals of the rudest sort. Everyone loved it, the Russians above all. What do hot water and electricity matter, they said. You are on Olkhon! In the middle of Baikal! The sentiment was unanswerable.

All over Siberia people describe the love they feel for Baikal as deep, special, mysterious – as though the lake were alive, a living creature – in the words of a famous folksong, “Glorious Sea, Sacred Baikal.” And indeed, imagine the Grand Canyon filled with water and you’ve got some sense of Baikal’s impact. The lake is one of the earth’s natural wonders. Fed by more than five hundred tributaries, it is the biggest reservoir of fresh water in the world: four hundred miles long, two miles deep, sixty miles wide in some places, with a shoreline that reaches fifteen hundred miles around. It also has twenty-six islands sitting in it, with more than a thousand animal and plant species on them. Natives (mainly those of the Buryat tribe) have inhabited Olkhon – the largest of the islands, forty-five miles long, nine wide – since the sixth or seventh century. For them, Baikal is the “blue heart of Siberia” and Olkhon the heart of Baikal. In the 1990s the shamans of the Buryat Republic confirmed the island as the sanctuary of the greatest significance in all Mongolia and Central Asia – the place that embodied the sacred motherland of the Buryat nation.

One day we took a trip across the island – two hours of bouncing up and down on roads that defy description – with a small bull of a man at the wheel who drove brilliantly through ruts a truck could disappear into. Again: a sweep of open landscape with not a sign of life, human or otherwise, anywhere. Then, suddenly, amid this visual silence, a jewel of a farm – all wood but brand-new – lying on a hillside. Stunned by the remoteness of its situation, I murmured idiotically, “Where do they shop?” Svieta shrugged. “In Irkutsk.” Irkutsk is an eight- to ten-hour drive from here.

Arrived once more at the lake, we stood on a rise looking across the water at the white cliffs on the other side. From here, Baikal looked like some immense internal waterway, England’s Channel or Alaska’s Inland Passage.

“How far across do you think it is?” asked Svieta slyly.

“Ten kilometers?” my brother ventured.

”Forty!” she replied triumphantly.

“Migod! The English Channel is only twenty-five.”

“Europe,” Svieta sneered quietly. “They are such little countries.”

Two days later, back in Irkutsk, we climbed onto a train on the Trans-Siberian Railway for the first time, headed for Ulan Ude, the capital of the Buryat Republic.

The train was a world unto itself. Once on it, all reality beyond its windows began to evaporate with a speed that took me by surprise each and every time. There were periods when I felt I’d been rocking along for three years and could not recall where I’d come from or where I was heading. When the trip was more than an overnight one, an odd, dreamy listlessness would begin to seep into my body. The food we’d brought with us began to taste like convalescent nourishment. Soon the small, shabby sleeping compartment that looks a hundred years old began to seem a combination sanctuary and prison cell. With exhausted-looking Russians sprawled in every compartment we passed on our way to the vileness they called a toilet – where you were in alarming trouble if you’d forgotten your toilet paper – we began to feel proprietary about our own compartment, especially when it turned out, every now and then, that we were alone in it. Very quickly, we’d begin to get anxious about the potential for invasion. The anxiety was in danger of turning aggressive – and then once it did.

One night when we did have the compartment to ourselves, the conductor yanked the door open – it must have been four in the morning – to announce that the two people standing behind him had tickets for the lower berths, which we were then occupying. We both sprang up and, as one, cried out, “No!” (in English, of course). “These are ours!” The conductor stood baffled, and the couple behind him – a man in his forties and a teen-aged girl – shrank back visibly. I could see they felt sprayed by the English. The conductor urged them to take the upper berths, he’d clear the matter up tomorrow.

What more did I need of contemporary Russia than Chita had given me: a social satire, a hypnotic church service, a memorial to political dissent.

In the morning, I felt terrible about our appalling rudeness and tried to make amends. The Russians (they were father and daughter) were reclining in their upper berths, looking down at us. The man smiled weakly at me as I apologized again and again, but the girl was a mask of pride and anger. She would neither look at me nor respond when I spoke to her. The conductor came in and told them that indeed the berths were ours, later in the day he’d find them the lower berths they needed (the father had a bad leg). Exhausted, I, too, lay in my berth. I had with me a large sack of raw peanuts, which I now opened. I ate some of the peanuts myself, then took out a handful and, still lying prone, stretched my arm up to the resentful girl above my head. Without a word, she reached down and scooped the peanuts out of my hand. I repeated this motion two or three times more. Each time I held the peanuts out silently, each time she took them from my hand silently. We never again spoke. The conductor soon found the man and the girl lower berths down the corridor. For the next two days we passed one another on the way to the toilet without so much as a nod of recognition.

Our guide in Ulan Ude was Zoya, a beautiful, stylish Buryat woman in her mid-fifties who headed up a department at the Agriculture Academy, taught English on the side, and led tourists like ourselves around town for two or three days at a time – all this just to put a lower-middle-class living together. An average salary in Ulan Ude, she told us, is a hundred dollars a month; no one could live on that. “Life is more interesting since the Soviet collapse,” Zoya said, with a bemused smile on her face. “Also,” she added softly, “much more difficult.”

At this moment we were passing the extraordinary head of V.I. Lenin that stands in the middle of the main square. Famous throughout the region, this Lenin head is, as the Lonely Planet guidebook puts it, “surreal.” It is all black and it is gigantic, a good ten feet high, and looks as though it’s been drilled into its pedestal. “Yes, yes,” Zoya laughed, “he is still with us. We like to keep him here. To remind us.”

Zoya has told me that a Russian friend of her father’s – that is, a Caucasian Russian – used to lament her narrow eyes when she was a child, because she was so smart and otherwise attractive. “When I was ten years old I told him, ‘I see the world through them, and that is enough.’” Now those same narrow eyes glittered mockingly as she said, “Moscow never understood Siberia. Plant corn, they said, when anyone could see the land was good for grazing, not for planting. Close your temples, they said [Buryats are Buddhists], when anyone could see the people could not live without them.” (And, in fact, although the churches were closed across the entire Soviet Union, Stalin allowed a Buddhist temple to be built thirty miles outside of town, in 1947, when many of Ulan Ude’s men had not yet returned from the war and morale was growing dangerously low; today, it is the largest Buddhist temple in Russia and is visited by people from all over the world.)

In Ulan Ude, for the first time, I learned that Russians identify the housing stock by regime name. There is Stalinist housing, Khrushchev housing, Brezhnev housing, Gorbachev housing. At one end of the scale (Stalinist), are the large, high-ceilinged apartments carved out of nineteenth-century buildings, those known as “aquariums for big fish”: only higher-ups in the party ever got these apartments. At the other end (Gorbachev) are the handsome glass-and-brick apartments and town houses now being bought by the very-well-to-do, whom most people think of as gangsters. It’s Khrushchev housing that dominates in every town – these vast apartment houses of the 1960s that sometimes extend a full block and often have only one entrance (“the Chinese Wall,” they are sometimes called). Each one looks like a slum: broken and discolored, pieces literally falling off the facade into the street; and the rooms are so small, goes the bitter joke, “We always wondered why the ceiling and floor don’t actually meet.” Here live teachers, shopkeepers, social workers; police, doctors, scientists; writers, students, secretaries. In time, it was the Khrushchev housing, more than anything else I saw in Siberia, that pressed on my heart and caused pain.

On the train to Chita we met three university students from Moscow who turned out to be television stars on a comedy show called The Club of the Witty Young Men. This program invites teams of contestants from all over the country to compete for a spot on the show; the students on the train were part of a team that had won three years’ running and become a favorite throughout Russia. Right now, it was summer vacation and they were touring the Russian Far East, giving their routines in a performance a city all the way to Vladivostok. The trip today, from Ulan Ude to Chita, was an eight-hour one, and throughout the eight hours shy young women kept extending a pen and a piece of paper to one or another of the students for an autograph.

Ashot was in philology, Andrew in medical school, Sangarjee in international relations. More to the point (their point), Ashot is an Armenian, Andrew a black from Kenya, Sangarjee a Kalmicki (a member of one of the native tribes). I asked Andrew if he was in Russia for his studies, and he told me no, he was now a Russian citizen. Ashot threw an arm around Andrew and said, “We are all Russian citizens.” Andrew and Sangarjee laughed knowingly. “You must understand,” Sangarjee leaned forward. “There are Russians, and there are Russian citizens.” I am a New York Jew, I wanted to tell them, I understand perfectly; but I didn’t.

The students were full of humor and smarts and an eager curiosity about us. My brother is (famously) an encyclopedic fund of information, and here in Siberia (as elsewhere) he often knew more about the country than did the people who live in it. On the train, he was able to discourse amiably on Siberia from its political history to its hydroelectric plants. The students repeatedly chorused at him, “You are a her-r-o!” Then, at one point, I had occasion to mention that I am a feminist. This made them wild. “Tell us! tell us! tell us! What is this American feminism? What is it all about?” I told them. As I spoke, they nodded madly at me. Then, Ashot shook his head sadly, and said, “I ag-r-r-ee 100 percent with everything you say. BUT.” Big smile, hands spread wide. “Nature is nature. You cannot deny this. How can you deny this? Impossible!”

Everyone (including my brother!) laughed uproariously. I was so dumbfounded that I joined in the laughter.

As we pulled into Chita, the students insisted that we come to the show that evening; they would leave tickets at the door for us. The guide who met us at the railroad station, a high-school English teacher named Olga, was a little disconcerted – the “program” called for a tour of the city that night – but of course she fell in with our wishes.

The show took place in a packed civic auditorium, almost everyone in the audience of high school or college age. There were two teams of performers from The Club of the Witty Young Men on stage: our friends from Moscow and a group from Perm that included a young woman who looked like Roseanne Barr and a rubber-legged boy-man who was a dead ringer for Seinfeld’s Kramer. The audience knew them all from television, and as each performer came on stage it erupted in noisy joy. Olga was a dignified woman in her early forties, but – she couldn’t help it! – she was soon as excited as any adolescent in the crowd.

The show was made up of comedy sketches and rock music (everyone on stage can sing and dance). The opening jokes were about Armenians, sex, and the mimicry of personalities currently in the news. As the crowd roared, Olga cried into my ear, “Now we, too, can be politically incorrect!” Here’s a sample – funny, of course, only in Russian – of what I think I heard Olga translating:

A phone call from Stalin to Hitler in his bunker. Stalin tells Hitler he’d better kill himself, otherwise, he’s coming to take him back to Russia, and suicide is infinitely the better choice.

A spoof on the greed of Ukraine’s Alexander Lukashenko: He is offered a plate of salted bread, the traditional Russian welcome of a guest; the guest is supposed to take one polite slice of the bread, but Lukashenko gobbles it all up.

Vladimir Putin has promised that in ten years Russian roads will look like German roads. This, the comic tells us, will be accomplished because Russian bulldozers will invade Germany, wrecking German roads. Then Russian roads will look like German roads.

A Q-and-A joke:

Q: What are rich people called in India?

A: Rajahs.

Q: Wrong! Americans!

Andrew sang a song about drugs, cold weather, and white faces called “The Story of My Life in Russia.” At the end, he called out, “You all know English?”

“Yes!” the crowd screamed back.

“Fuck you!” Andrew yelled.

The kids were beside themselves with happiness.

Later, we went backstage to congratulate our talented friends, take a picture with our arms around one another, and kiss them good-bye.

The next day was a religious holiday; the whole town was in church. We told Olga we’d like to go, too, and she took us to one the size of a cathedral – blue and cream colored, with golden onion domes reaching the sky. This church, Olga told us, was exploded by the Soviets, and in 1998, with money collected over seven years from private donations, it was rebuilt. “Exactly as it was,” she said, the triumph in her voice unmistakable. “And exactly where it was.” Again, that little electric shock that I experienced when I’d hear Russians speak as though the Soviets had been an invading enemy; as though I was listening to a Pole saying, “And we rebuilt Warsaw exactly as it was.”

We entered the church, and suddenly we were in the twelfth century. The inside was a dazzle of gorgeousness in marble and gold leaf and stained glass. The place was packed: hundreds of (mainly) babushka’d women of every age, standing upright (Russians don’t sit in church), singing the haunting Gregorian music while priests walked around shaking incense. When the patriarch (an old, old man with a long white beard) was carried out on a highly decorated litter chair, dressed in brilliant robes and the tall, peaked hat that always looks to me like a KKK hood, the entire congregation fell to its knees on the stone floor. At this moment, Olga assured us proudly, all over Russia people were in church, falling to their knees.

In the afternoon we took a long walk through town. Chita, like Irkutsk, was a major center of Decembrist exile, and so it is beautifully laid out around a huge main square that the Soviets enlarged to monumental size – two blocks wide, three blocks long – with the inevitable statue of Lenin in the center. But within the past ten years, the square had been re-designed, and now it is characterized by a lovely multi-colored ground, clever streetlights, pretty benches, and the surrounding government buildings painted in soft pastels. Behind the square, of course, the usual jumble of broken streets and wooden gingerbread houses were interspersed with Khrushchev housing and the shabby elegance of nineteenth-century mansions. Toward the end of the day, we entered an exquisite wooden church that was now a museum devoted to Decembrist memorabilia. Here we saw photographs, letters, musical instruments, furniture – all beautifully arranged and attended to.

What more did I need of contemporary Russia than Chita had given me: a social satire, a hypnotic church service, a memorial to political dissent.

We had told Olga that we were headed for Birobidzhan. In the midst of consulting tickets, discussing train schedules, and faxing the next guide, she suddenly asked why we were going there. For the first time since I’d been in Siberia I found myself announcing, by way of explanation, that I was Jewish. “We have always known about Birobidzhan,” I said brightly, “we’re curious to take a look.”

Something happened then that I had never actually seen happen before. A change came over Olga’s face. All in a moment, her body stiffened and her eyes became emptied of expression; another moment, and she was a mask of opacity. Obviously, she had been taken by sharp and, yes, I could see it, unpleasant surprise. It was as though I had somehow deceived her. Clearly, she had thought things were one way, and now she was being forced to see that they were quite another. She’d have to re-group and of course she would, but for the moment… It was the first but not the last time in Siberia that I would see this change come over the person to whom I was talking when I mentioned casually that I was Jewish. For someone like myself, who lives almost continuously inside the protective coloration of a New York–based life, this was a chilling occurrence.

Birobidzhan, when we got there, delivered a start of another sort or, rather, the same sort, only in reverse. In 1927 Stalin “encouraged” the Jews of Russia to settle here in the Far East, in what was then a swamp of remoteness that the government had announced as the Jewish Autonomous Republic. Thirty-five thousand Jews “obliged” and spent decades trying to build a city, only to be repeatedly undone by poverty, disease, and the cold. The town became famous among Jews around the globe for its bitter failure, for the thousands who died here, and for the anti-Semitism that continued to dog them even at what felt like the ends of the earth.

No sooner did we step off the train than I realized that, for me, Birodbizhan is an image in the mind arrested in time and space. This place I had really been expecting to look like a prison settlement. What we found, of course, was a leafy, provincial town looking much like many others we’d stopped at – here, too, a river, a Soviet square, a Lenin statue – with a few significant differences. Just outside the train station, instead of the usual World War II general or Soviet worker on a pedestal, stands a huge glittery menorah. A main drag is called Sholem Aleichem Ulitsa, and on the park-like island in the middle of it sits a statue of the famous Yiddish writer. Everywhere, one sees signs in Yiddish, and in the center of town a flourishing synagogue and Jewish community center, looking for all the world like the ones in American suburbs (as it turns out, both are supported by the American Joint Distribution Committee). Of the eighty thousand people who live in Birodbizhan, only 7 percent are Jewish. Yet I was told more than once, the town is “a little bit of Israel in Russia.” The self-congratulation inherent in these words made me as uneasy as did Olga’s change of expression. I could see that nothing about being Jewish in Russia was going to feel right to me on this trip.

Liudmila and her son, Vladimir, drove us from Birobidzhan to Kabarovsk (it took me a week to learn to say ‘‘Ka-BAR-ovsk’’ instead of ‘‘Ka-bar-OVSK”). Vladimir was a cowboy behind the wheel, and suddenly it dawned on me – I don’t know why I hadn’t registered this before – that every car we’d driven in was a second-hand Japanese automobile with the wheel on the right-hand side of the car. I saw Vladimir pulling out on this two-lane road – zooming out! – to pass and realized that if his mother wasn’t sitting beside him he wouldn’t know whether the road was clear. This was a dangerous state of affairs! “That’s what the government says,” Liudmila and Vladimir both sang out. “But what can we do? A Russian car is ten thousand dollars, this one costs two or three.”

Liudmila, a fifty-five-year-old blond with a face out of Dostoevsky, had lived in Kabarovsk her entire life. Her English was fluent, her intelligence high, her resilience – one felt it instantly – strong. “After perestroika,” she said once to me, “the men, they are all stressed, and depressed. They are lost.” “And the women?” I asked. “The women?” she repeated, and her eyes gleamed with a kind of humorous mischief even as her mouth tightened. “They are not lost.”

Kabarovsk is on the Amur, the seventh largest river in the world, and the body of water that soon becomes the border between China and Russia. Here we are closer to New York than to Moscow. The population is only six hundred thousand, but some innate hustle and bustle in the town makes it feel like the big city. The lure of good shopping brings in Westerners who believe they can get designer bargains here, even though Liudmila assured me no such thing is possible. On an island in the Amur, fifty kilometers from the city, she said, there is a Chinese factory that will put any label you want on the knock-offs they make. Shopkeepers from Kabarovsk buy them, and the rest is shopping history. “People are always buying an Armani suit for next to nothing,” Liudmilla laughed. “Believe me, you cannot get an Armani in Kabarovsk.” We were walking around town as she told us this, and everywhere one saw the presence of advertising. Cars, soft drinks, computers. My eyes fell on a gigantic billboard that showed a woman in a bathing suit holding a can of Coca-Cola. Liudmila followed my gaze. “Advertising was once all slogans. ‘Be at one with the party!’ Now it is all naked women.” She brought the fingers of one hand together and shook them in the air between us. “It came like a bomb!”

Liudmila insisted we come with her to her dacha. “Dacha” is, famously, the Russian euphemism for a country place; it can mean anything from a large and lovely house in the suburbs of Moscow to a garden plot with a shack on it twenty minutes from any town in Russia. Ten years ago, Liudmila and her husband bought a little house on a small piece of land not far from the city because for a time after perestroika they literally feared not being able to feed themselves. In the years since, they have built a homemade sauna on the place and developed real feeling for the fruits and vegetables they grow.

On a bright afternoon toward the end of our time in Kabarovsk we all met at a ferry slip on the Amur and took a thirty-minute ride across the river. The ferryman threw a plank onto the grassy embankment, and we walked across it, then down a dirt road for fifteen minutes, and we were at a community of plots, each about a quarter as long and as wide as a city block in New York. Liudmila’s plot was gardened to within an inch of its life. There was lettuce, squash, tomatoes, broccoli, corn, parsley, basil, mint – and all of it in dazzling good health. The place positively shone with a richness of green in many shades and plants of all sizes. Liudmila picked some mint, went into the house (actually a lean-to) to boil water, and afterward we ate bread and cheese and drank mint tea on a sun-drenched wooden seat, looking out over her landed wealth. Liudmila’s face smoothed out, her eyes lost their overpowering directness, her blond hair shone in the afternoon light. She leaned forward and hugged herself. “I love this place!” she said passionately. And I found myself thinking, she doesn’t mean this little bit of land, or the country at large, or even the city of her birth. She means her Russian-ness.

At last, we came to Vladivostok, the fabled port city on the Pacific, closed until 1992 to foreign travel and, like so much else connected with Siberia, possessed of a romantic suggestiveness that proved more evocative in its concreteness than it did in fantasy.

Vladivostok is the ultimate city on a hill overlooking a great and glorious bay, its physical setting more gorgeous than that of San Francisco, Seattle, Haifa, or Vancouver. The town curls around its own waters so that standing anywhere on high ground, in whatever direction one looks, one sees, tossed out to the horizon, the color and liveliness of human habitation mingling with the drama and excitement of forest, cliff, and cove. Everywhere, the waters spill out into what looks like bay upon bay upon bay, each giving way to the next until there, at last, is the shining Pacific.

Against all this natural magnificence, a Siberian city like many others. Here, too, a middle-sized population (seven hundred thousand) streets full of nineteenth-century buildings converted to government offices and museums, newly renovated churches, and the ubiquitous monument to the Great Patriotic War as well as the as-yet not re-named Square for the Defenders of Soviet Power in the Middle East. On the train coming into the city, we fell into conversation with a tall, thin woman with a distinctively Russian face: wan and lovely, or what the natives still call “soulful.” Masha was delighted to know us and eager that we love her hometown. She was also a colonel in the Vladivostok police force, and late one afternoon she showed up at our hotel in a police car, offering to take us up to her neighborhood, high in the hills, where we could experience the glory of the town as the lights begin to come on (in Vladivostok the rich live closer in; it’s the hard-scrabble working and lower middle classes that have the trek to work as well as the great views). When we got out of the car we were standing on a windy bluff overlooking the town, the lights beginning to wink everywhere and then, as the minutes passed and the sky started to darken, getting brighter and brighter. The cliffs beneath our feet dropped down to a stunningly beautiful cove that opened immediately out to the great sea just beyond. I stood there, with this fantastic beauty of the unending ocean and the brilliantly lit town spread out before me. Then I turned, and there, on the horizon behind me, stood rank upon rank upon rank of Krushchev housing. In that moment I felt keenly the inextricable mixture of beauty and pathos that is Siberian actuality.

Vivian Gornick is an essayist, memoirist, and literary critic. Her works include Fierce Attachments, The Odd Woman and the City, and Approaching Eye Level. A longtime contributor to The Village Voice, she is a former fellow at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University and the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. She lives in New York City.
Originally published:
December 1, 2021


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