Our coupe on the Trans-Siberian. Owen Yager photo
I’m starting to write this post on the first morning of a train ride that will take us from Irkutsk, on the western shore of Lake Baikal, to Moscow. We got on this train some twelve hours ago; in total, we will be on this train for three days and eight hours.
We flew over this span before, on a redeye out of Moscow that carried us easily across this trans-continental nation. On that flight we were above the clouds the entire time, leaving Moscow on a drizzly evening and landing in Ulan-Ude, on Baikal’s eastern flank, in a bright morning. It was clear, when we landed at an airport with one baggage claim and a few rusted-out hulls of old Soviet propellor planes, that we had crossed some vast distance, but already this train is doing more to show me how broad that distance truly is.
Our train churns endlessly. This far north the sun, a little under a month off from the summer solstice, sets late and rises early, and I, with it in my face, woke up a few times early in the morning. Each time, before I went back to bed, I looked out of the window at an unbroken vista of trees and sky and grass.
The train stops every so often at a town, sometimes for only two minutes, sometimes for almost an hour. We move slowly as we approach these platforms and we, looking out, can see villages similar to those we became familiar with in Buryatiya. There are cows in some of them, or goats, and the cars that go by are battered by long years of hard work in a climate that does not want them there. Already, though, there are differences between these villages and the ones that we walked around in Buryatiya. Some of them are visible on the surface. The houses that huddle into hillsides outside of the train have greener yards, the result of the more fertile soil that lies hundreds of miles away from the harsh steppe on the Mongolian border. I don’t know enough yet, really, to write on this but we’ve spoken and read on the ethnic histories of Buryatia and Slavic Rus, and we’ve hinted at the ethnic diversity that exists across Russia and the former Soviet Union. Though we cannot see these from the windows of our train cars, a more visceral understanding of scale of the country that we’re traveling across lends a new understanding to the richness of ethnic difference and history that is here.
A purer understanding of the size of this place lends itself to the thoughts that I’ve developed, sometimes brashly, on a Russian national identity while I’ve been here, too. We spent eight weeks in Moscow and St. Petersburg, cities that I had always thought of as Russia’s cultural epicenters. Though I understood, at least on an intellectual level, that there was much, much more to Russia than those two cities, it was easy to forget that in trying to forge an understanding of this country.
In the last two weeks in Siberia, and in this train ride, I’m finding myself humbled by the realization that it is impossible to distill Russia into a summarize-able statement. I saw victory day ribbons flying in Ulan-Ude as well as in Petersburg that would point to a strong sense of nationally unified patriotism, and impassioned students protesting, in the face of riot-ready police, the renewal of Putin’s government the day before his inauguration in early May. Whether a taxi’s steering wheel will be on the car’s left or right is a coin flip in Irkutsk and a battered fire-fighting helicopter sits on a dirt air strip next to Ust-Barguzin, but Porsches are a dime-a-dozen in Moscow, a city with four full-size airports.
In reflecting on that difference, I’ve found myself chuckling at the idea of a Russian student studying in New York and Chicago, or New York and Los Angeles, and saying that he or she understood the United States. To pretend that Oklahoma, or Atlanta, or Utah’s endless red stone does not exist and contribute inextricably to whatever it is that is the United States’ national identity, its sense of self, is utter folly.
I’m coming to terms, on this train ride, that I won’t get to see a lot. I won’t understand Sochi, or Vladivostok, or Arkhangelsk. But, while I’m on this train, for the next two-point-something days, I can see a little more of it than I could from the air, and acquaint myself with this country a little better than I could if I hadn’t seen these few thousand miles.