Book Review: Midnight in Siberia By David Greene

GreeneSummer is the time when I do (or at least have aspirations of doing) all the things I don’t have time for during the busy school year. So this summer I managed to read a book! and do a blogpost!

I had heard an interview with David Greene on the Diane Rehm show (here it is if you’d also like to listen), in which the author shared his stories and insights that he gathered as he traveled across Russia on the Trans-Siberian railway(in 3rd class, by the way!). The book is divided up into chapters named for a person he met in his journey, each story giving more and more insight on the Russian approach to the world. This book/podcast came at a time when tensions were escalating in Ukraine and Putin and Russians’ seemingly unconditional support of him was becoming more and more difficult for the West to understand. Midnight in Siberia, in David Greene’s own words, is “a journey and an adventure, a wild ride on one of the world’s epic train routes, 6,000 miles from Moscow to far East Asia, taking us into the heart of a country and into the lives of its people.”

The audience I think this book would be great for is anyone who 1) loves Russia and is looking for an easy read that will just warm their hearts and bring back fuzzy memories about why they love Russia. Or 2) Students or people who are slightly new to Russia and Russian culture, who have maybe visited briefly and want to learn more about the way Russians see the world, especially in order to make sense of the Russian approach to current political goings on.

David Greene is currently a host of Morning Edition. He lived in Moscow as NPR’s former Moscow bureau chief. He doesn’t necessarily know Russian and doesn’t consider himself a scholar on things Russian. Which is why his perspective and experience on Russia is one so many foreigners can relate to.

The audience that may find this book somewhat dull and redundant are those who already know a lot about Russian culture, who have read the likes of Orlando Figes, Tatiana Tolstaya, or other scholars, and are looking for something to richly broaden or deepen their understanding of Russian culture. This book is not necessarily a scholarly work. Although Greene does pull from literature and other scholars here and there, it’s by no means an in-depth scholarly analysis of Russian thought. It did have its insightful moments. For example, I enjoyed his synthesis of Mikhail Shishkin’s thoughts on the Russian mentality and how it was reflected even in Pushkin’s interactions. He quotes, “Pushkin saw that in Russia, the choice between dictatorship and democracy was beside the point: the only choice was between bloody chaos and ruthless order.” And indeed this very mentality and willingness to tolerate an authoritarian government is reflected in the mentality and opinions of many of the people Greene meets while traveling the rails.

I enjoyed this book. I love any read on Russia. I loved the format of this book, meaning, that he is just recounting the fascinating stories of the people that he meets as he travels across Siberia. He asks them to share their opinions on different matters and what’s fascinating is the somewhat consistent portrayal of the Russian character that begins to emerge. As he meets these people they all have tragedies, some small, some large, and yet as one of the men he meets explains it, “surviving tragedy is the way the soul of a Russian person is built.”

But the idea of Russians’ ability to suffer is not a new one, but it’s there. I too was dumb-founded and humbled by so many of the stories I heard about people who lost their entire life savings when the ruble crashed in the nineties. People who saw their grandma beaten up, almost to death, right in front of them. Another who was so poor his family ate nothing other than potatoes for a year straight. And yet they talk about these things so nonchalantly. There is no self pity or victimhood, if anything it gave them a sense of identity and strength.

So while the idea of Russian suffering is not some new idea proposed by the author, what David Greene did capture in this book is what many of you might have experienced(obviously if you’re reading a blog entitled “Russophilia) is that experience of being a foreigner in Russia and having moments that are so utterly baffling and irritating and yet, at the very same time your heart is swelling with love for the place. So I’ll share with you one of the moments from the book that had me grinning and violently nodding my head in agreement, because I had had so many moments just like it.

There’s nothing like a Russian babushka.

Russia can be so maddening. The day before, I listened to Alexei describe the horror of being tortured at a police station, then ignored after being fully exonerated, living his life without the use of his legs and with no one seeming to care but his sweet mother. This country’s system of justice–this country–is so deeply flawed. 

And then there are these poetic moments–a poetry that grabs you and touches your heart in ways I rarely experience at home, or in any other country.

I remember one day in Moscow that especially struck me. I waited for a city bus outside my office in the bitter cold. The bus arrived and creaked to a stop. The door opened, I boarded, and reached into my pocket for rubles to pay the driver. He was in an angry mood and kept speaking to me sternly in Russian. I used the little Russian I knew at the time–“Ne ponimayu [I don’t understand].” He was cold and mean and aggravated with my lack of Russian, or my being American, or both. I finally found the change, but he refused to give me a ticket, which you need to scan in order to pass through a turnstile and reach the seats. I was trapped there, with him, at the front of the bus. He pulled to the next stop and opened the door, fully expecting me to surrender and disembark. That’s when a voice came from the back of the bus. “Malchik!” (I had just been addressed as a “young boy.”) A large woman, bundled up in a maroon overcoat and maroon fur hat, was approaching me holding up a card with a bar code. I saw two other older women, babushkas, in their seats, also holding up cards. They were monthly bus passes. The first woman handed me her card. I scanned it at the turnstile and walked through as the driver grunted. The woman then yelled at the driver in Russian (I don’t know what she said, but I liked it.) Her generosity, and the generosity of the other women who were ready to lend me their passes, filled my eyes with tears. I returned the pass and held out the change from my pocket, but the woman refused to take it. “Nyet, sadeet-yuh [No, just sit down]!”

Did that bring back any fond memories for you? It did for me. And if you haven’t yet been lucky enough to go to Russia yet, just wait, once you do, you’ll have many warm memories just like it.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: Midnight in Siberia By David Greene

  1. Janey, your blog has been such an incredible accompaniment as I waited to go to Russia, as I was in Russia, and as I long for Russia now and anticipate my next return.

    It was so nice to know I am not alone in the conclusions I made and in being so impacted by the place. It is not just hype. Russia will capture your soul! *if* you open your heart, as you say so beautifully in one of your entries.

    Do you have a direct email by which we can be in contact? Would love to share more about my story and get some perspective from you.

    I am an American but based in London at the moment, I realize you teach Russian but be great to know how your experience of living life in America is shaped by your psychic ties to a place so far away!

  2. Berkley Williams July 7, 2016 — 4:03 pm

    Janey, Thank You for your words. The bus story reminds me of my own experiances in Russia and also Ukraine. I have been treated with such kind hospitality and sincereness. I deeply love Russia and Ukraine. I find the people very special. I feel the magic every time. I just feel good there. I do love my home country as well, USA. Berkley

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