On nearly every reading list I have found on the topic of the Trans-Siberian Railway, one book leads the list: Colin Thubron’s In Siberia. A tale of his travels through the massive heart of the Russian country published in 2008, he tells of his discovery of the ‘post-soviet’ mentality, and his search for a new defining ideology.
Reviewers are right- Thubron is an expert at interweaving images, character descriptions and history. He describes the space and the vastness, and balances it with details (like hands or homely decorations) that give you a sense of the enormous scale of the area he traverses. He meets fascinating people from different walks of life, all with different stories and backgrounds, and different relationships with the demised communist state.
His conversations with young and old, disillusioned and hopeful made for a spectrum of opinions on the future of Russia, the possibility of strength regained and on memories of the past. As can be expected, the memories inform the vision of the future- those that lost their memory of the past have a very different hope for the future than those that ‘put away’ their memories ‘like the suit in the closet’, a different identity to be taken out again, dusted off, when needed.
Hunters, police men, academics, homeless, jobless, pensioners, priests, mothers- they all feature in Thubron’s narrative as he tries to ‘get to the heart’ of the new Russia. The further we read, the more we suspect that this diversity is exactly what ‘new Russia’ is- but he continues his search, adamantly and explicitly hoping for his subjects to speak of a positive turn in the country’s politics, chances for development, economic advancement, so on and so forth. It is this persistent searching without an explicit direction which makes the book frustrating. Why was Thubron so sure that the Soviet Ideology had to be replaced? Why did there have to be a specific thing to fill the void? Why, when he found a follower of religion or academic discipline, or something intangible, did he find this an unsatisfactory replacement? Did everyone have to believe the same thing?
While the time that Thubron takes to highlight each, hidden town he passes through, the plight of the people and the scars left on the earth is what makes this book so successful, the lack ‘search’ makes it difficult to continue exploring with him. There is no guiding concept, no path marked and no signposts along the way. We do not know where he will go next or why, and in a sense feel as lost as he must have been, with no plan, and no clear concept other than ‘discovering’.
In the end he manages to find, on a desolate hillside in the location of possibly the most horrendous war crimes of the Gulag, a symbol of hope. We step away almost overwhelmed. To the last, Siberia refused to be defined in one sentence, or confined within one person. His search for the new ideology was inconclusive. But even so, at the end of many chapters, we feel we have gained a glimpse. Scratched the surface. And perhaps that is the important thing- we have remembered that the characters here are as many and as varied as those in our own lives, with different ambitions, memories and hopes.
Sometimes it was a frustrating journey. But isn’t that life?