"Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia" (W.W. Norton), by David Greene
As the West nervously watches a newly aggressive Russia, many commentators are trying to figure out what Vladimir Putin is thinking. But "Midnight in Siberia" reminds us of another important question: What are the Russian people thinking?
David Greene took a 6,000-mile train journey from Moscow to Vladivostok to find out, and the result is a mesmerizing, confounding, comforting and thought-provoking book. Greene, NPR's former Moscow bureau chief, takes readers inside the homes and lives of everyday Russians, and he finds humor, despair, idealism and perseverance in abundance.
Greene visits the Buranovo Babushkas, a singing group of elderly women from a tiny village who represented Russia in the Eurovision music contest. He meets parents who lost a son when the plane carrying a beloved hockey team crashed, and one fan notes that surviving tragedy is "the way the soul of a Russian person is built." That's a common refrain throughout the book, and a reminder that it's unrealistic to expect a quick and calm transition to Western democracy in a country that's been through Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and the collapse of the Soviet Union in just the last 100 years.
But the other constant is Russian hospitality. Despite cultural differences and the lingering effects of the Cold War, Russians from all walks of life go out of their way to make Greene feel at home — literally. They invite him to their own kitchen tables and share homemade sausage, shots of vodka, trips to the sauna and meditations on their own country and the world. And Greene, like many visitors to Russia, is touched by their kindness even as he ponders the hard edges of life there.
Toward the end of the book Greene sums up what he has seen: "People are frustrated, angry and not satisfied with life. But that isn't driving all that many people into the streets with protest banners. For many the reaction is to turn inward, and protect the people around them — family."
Despite all of Russia's problems, Greene writes that the young people he met "love their country, love Russian traditions, and don't seem rushed to sort out the future." Many are frustrated with bureaucracy and corruption, but they are not clamoring for democracy even if they admire some things about Europe and America. That may not be the message some hope to hear, but Greene has written a valuable, timely book as the West searches for ways to co-exist with Russia.
Kevin Begos travelled extensively in Russia in the early 1990s. Follow him on Twitter: @kbegos.