After listening to David Greene’s Midnight in Siberia, I feel like Russia is a bit less inexplicable than Churchill’s riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Greene lived in Moscow for three years, working for NPR. Russia fascinates Greene. According to him Russians are a breed apart. While he worked on stories for NPR, Greene tried to understand Russians. In Midnight in Siberia, a travelogue of Greene’s farewell trip across Russia, the journalist delivers his thesis about what makes Russians so Russian.
The Trans-Siberian Railway, completed in 1916, is Greene’s frame for his story. He and Sergei, his translator from NPR, travel from Moscow to Vladivostock over a couple of weeks in the spring of 2013. They stop in cities and villages across Siberia to meet up with people Greene had previously interviewed for stories, catching up on what happened after the media spotlight moved on. They also make detours to meet up with the Buranovskyie Babushki and to ask people around Chelyabinsk about the meteor that landed that February. In addition to following up with past interviewees, Greene asks questions (mostly through Sergei) about what the average Russian thinks about Putin, life after the Soviet Union, and democracy.
Greene frequently quotes Mikhail Shishkin’s theory of there being two Russias. There’s urban Russia and there’s rural Russia. The Russia we in the West usually hear about is Moscow, the urban Russia. We rarely hear about the other. Midnight in Siberia takes place entirely inside the second Russia. In the second Russia, Greene finds people nostalgic about the Soviet Union. Many say that they think Stalin was a great leader (apart from the repressions, several add). Life in either of the Russias after 1991 has been incredibly unstable. Unemployment skyrocketed. Pay checks were dubious even for people who did have jobs. The government changed from an institution that (presumably) took care of people to something the people are incredibly wary of. (Skirmishes with police are a significant theme in Midnight in Siberia.) After more than 20 years of going it alone, many Russians have had enough with oligarchs and government lip service.
After a while, I did get a little irritated with Greene for his preoccupation with democracy. I daresay it’s my own dissatisfaction with American government, but I don’t think the West is a particularly good model for government at the moment. Greene seems to present democracy as the best system for any country, no matter what. Greene keeps asking Russians about democracy. What about democracy? For most Russians that Greene talks to, democracy is less important than being able to take care of themselves and their family. Besides, sticking one’s neck out in Putin’s Russia is risky. Speaking up for individual civil rights is a good way to have the bureaucracy turn on people. It amazes me the way that Russians just carry on. In spite of all the chaos, Russians are surviving. More than that, a few of them have hope that life will get better, as long as they are patient.
Note on the narration: Greene narrates his own book. He speaks quickly, almost like an old-style newspaper man à la His Girl Friday. What I really liked about listening to this book instead of reading it was that I learned how to pronounce so many Russian place names. Usually when I read books set in or about Russia, the Russian words are like girders on the rails of my train of thought. Having Greene read his book to me just carried me away to Siberia.