Along the Way: An Impression of the Trans-Siberian Route
I am reeling so much from the excitement of reading Tolstoy’s vast, marshal, epic that I can barely write. But as I tear my eyes away from the page and look out of the window beside me, I feel it would be a crime to let this vision slip past me undocumented. It is a view I have had often over the past weeks but perhaps failed to depict: the great beauty and phenomenon of the trans-Siberian railway crisscrossing Siberia’s unique landscape.
The train tracks outside are arrayed in their mechanical rows like ranks of wheat in a field. The steel girders – sitting low and rusty in the ground – appear to be bolted down into the dusty pebbles and rocks about them. Above these alternately blanched, and sun-red rocks are hefty pilons, perfectly cylindrical and rather squat, raising their arms out devoutly as if in prayer. They are iron-grey in colour, but for some reason their lower halves are painted a wonderful ceramic blue. This deep blue off-sets the cropped, dried grass which is springing (already dead it seems) from the ground, after the disappearance of the snow and the thaw that summer brings. Though this dry, course blanket of grass might seem desultory; it is in fact yet another valuable contributor to the subtle colour-palette of Siberia’s characteristic steppes and plains. Its gold and muted green emphasizes the matt blueness of the sky in which not a single cloud is visible. And between this and the grass is scrubland, emerging in patches of russet red, auburn, oak brown and a vernal green.
As well as pine and conifer, the eye is arrested by the thrust of the strident silver birch tree which despite its leaflessness, is Russia and Siberia’s most perennial symbol. The silver birch tree has no season. She is a child of winter but a friend of summer. In her consistent, pale beauty there is a sort of wan tenderness and good-will. In reverse-relief her white branches set-off the black, earthy mountains behind them, the low rolling hills, picket fences and wooden cabins with corrugated iron roofs. Though litter, burnt tree-stumps and marshland roll by me in peremptory clumps, the undeniable beauty of Russian nature outdoes even the worst that can be laid to the charge of her people. This countryside is a symphony of pale colours softened further by the blue mist issuing from the forests in the distance, and by the smoke of peat fires which dot our path. At this moment, the gentle evening light and warm twenty degree temperatures seem to be proclaiming the arrival of summer and delighting every solitary atom, rock and tree.
Email to Theodore. Pavlovsk; Russia. 03.09.11
I have just had dinner (as always, it seems in Russia, an eclectic affair), involving a plate of fried fish, potato-pancake mixture, fish soup, potatoes and a salad. My aunt is driving me a bit loopy tonight, she is overbearing, temperamental and (I think), rather depressed. Sometimes she is as sweet as can be, very generous and amenable and the next, well, frankly abusive, moody and near hysterical. My mum sometimes likes to characterise the Russian people as ‘passionate’ or ‘wild’ with the souls of ‘children’. I’m not sure what the Russian people would have to say about this, but I think that at least for Sveta, it stands. She can be a volcano of anger, a well of sadness or a sparkling fire of glee– there is (alas), little continuity between these states.
At the moment she is bereaving the loss of Vanya’s dancing partner. She hasn’t died, but she might as well have done; she is guilty of a far greater sin – ditching her son. I feel quite sorry for Vanya, he is really rather upset about the whole thing. (As far as I can gather, the meeting where all was announced took place with all the dance coaches and members of both families present.) He was publicly accused of not having enough ‘character’ or expression in his dance. They said they had created a robot: impeccable technique, zero charisma. It must be a hard thing to hear, for any lost and confused sixteen-year-old, especially with Sveta broadcasting the whole thing about so much. I should think the whole of Pavlovsk knows by now.
Vanya is quite an austere, reserved, quiet sort of boy. He is well behaved, but resentful in ways he can’t yet vocalize. I wish in a way that my brother were here to keep him company– although he’s enjoying my visit I think he has already had enough women in his life…
Life here is quiet and uncomplicated. At the moment there is a lot of snow, but it is also Spring and if you have ever listened to ‘April’ by Tchaikovsky (a piece I have always tried and failed to learn by heart), you will know what that entails. Drip, drop, dripping: everything is melting. Since I have been here I have watched the snow that once entirely submerged a car on the street near Sveta’s flat gradually recede – now almost the whole bonnet is visible. There is a lot of dirt and muck on the road and alarm about falling icicles and sheets of snow from roofs (deaths are reported each week), but apart from these hazards (and always walking in the middle of the roads to avoid them), the sky could not be bluer or the air more fresh.
I have been spending more time alone with my mother over the past week than I have for a very long time. Apart from one day, we have been getting on well. Today we visited a town called Gratchka with Ira, (a friend of my mother’s) and her daughter and grandson. It was a wonderfully cold, clear day and I enjoyed a trip to the former hunting residence of a bygone czar and the visit to two lovely onion-domed Russian churches. In one, a little holy woman with a scarf wrapped around her head approached us and gave us an impromptu tour of the church. She was very kind, showed me how to cross myself, and told me to ask St Nicholas, patron saint of travelers, for protection. I kissed his icon, though I banged my nose on the glass in the process.
I have learnt so much from this stay in Pavlovsk, with the ‘invisible’ side of the family. Slowly my mother’s character is beginning to make sense to me; her ways no longer seem alienating and strange. But she is so Russian, and Russia is still closer to China (I think) culturally, than to the rest of Europe. For example, one would never have a bath-house as an intrinsic part of English culture, we are all too body-shy and prudish, and we would not have confession in public during services, face- to-face with the priest.
It is amazing what is tolerated in Russia and what is not. A girl smoking is certainly not considered fitting, but a man drinking, even enough to kill himself is wistfully joked about as the Russian way. I cannot sum up all my struggles with the Russian mentality, or even approach the subject in anything like an orderly fashion. It is something that has been preoccupying me, eluding me and defeating me, my entire life. But one thing is for sure– there is a lot of hardness and honesty here, but there is also much real warmth. Friends are friends for good, and cycles of conflict and argument are accepted as a natural part of daily life. Fools are not suffered easily, and the women are in charge – a matriarchy epitomized by the sorority of the banya.
I will leave St Petersburg in three or four days and then I continue on to Moscow. After that, I will be saying goodbye to urban centers for what may be a rather long time as I head into the wilds of Siberia and the Altai mountains. Did you know you could fit the whole of Europe into just Eastern Siberia? That’s how vast the terrain I’m dealing with is. Gromne: the Russian word for huge.