Thoughts on ‘In Siberia’

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.

517sJreQneLHis 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?

4 thoughts on “Thoughts on ‘In Siberia’

    1. Hi Alex! Wow, what an interesting article…
      I’m not sure what made you relate the article with my review, but there were several things that I noted while reading it, as well as a few initial reactions.
      My initial response to reading that the language was intended to concisely represent our experiences and avoid ‘beating about the bush’, was that this defeated the point of language. It is the ellipses, the metaphors, the idioms that create cultural context, meaning, character, and distinguish ‘useful’ speech from the emotional and the beautiful. That said, the attempt to verbalise and communicate precisely what is felt and experienced is laudable, and might bring us all closer by allowing us to empathise more.
      Secondly, I agree that different languages lead you to think differently (I have this experience with English and German).
      And Thirdly, I can see that perhaps, in the context of post-communist Russia, a language which promises openness in personal feeling and introspection may be attractive. However, what I above interpreted as a way to get closer and find more empathy is here described as a political tool to segregate and control . The interest in this language as a method of control is clearly not a new one, and one that is used in a lot of dystopian fiction (just look at Orwell for example) but this can be done to different degrees with any language.
      As an explicit comment on the nationalists in Russia that want reunification? I think the group described is an outlying group. Indeed, it seems particularly strange to me as nationalism is generally accompanied by pride in the Russian language. I don’t think that they’d give that up easily for a ‘new intellectual élite capable of seeing through the tissue of lies to the underlying essence of things’. In fact, I think the average person would be very sceptical of someone claiming the utter clarity of their perception of reality.
      Thank you for drawing my attention to it, I’m sure I’ll be thinking about it for a while!
      If I can ask, what made you link the two pieces- and what did you think of the New Yorker article?
      x L


  1. Hi Lisa,
    Sorry for taking a while to reply. Thanks for your interesting insights; I’m afraid the link is a fairly tenuous one – since I know so little of Russia, the fact that both involve Russia and ideology was sufficient to make them adjacent for me.
    Of course, you must be right about most nationalists preferring Russian – I should have thought of that!
    As for what I thought about the New Yorker article – I guess what struck me the most was the horror poor Quijada must have felt when his perfectly innocent creation was taken up to be used in some kind of cult. But I also agree that Ithkuil is not very beautiful, not created, as Tolkien says in ‘A secret Vice’, to allow the ‘contemplation of the relation between sound and notion’ as ‘ a source pf pleasure. But this is subjective, maybe it would seem more so to somone native in a language which sounded more similar.
    I hope you are enjoying yourself in Moscow; it seems like a long time since Wood Lane…
    Best wishes,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed– how time flies! I was thinking last week that around this time last year we booked the tickets to La Boheme in the Royal Albert….Thanks so much for taking the time to see what I’m up to 🙂 I hope you are well!!

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s