Siberia by Train

Review: David Greene’s ‘Midnight in Siberia'

Snow ripples over sleepers between curving rails on the Trans-Siberian railroad, Oct. 28, 1978
Snow ripples over sleepers between curving rails on the Trans-Siberian railroad, Oct. 28, 1978 / AP
November 23, 2014

In Midnight in Siberia, National Public Radio host David Greene uses the Siberian Express as a literal and figurative vehicle to explore Russia’s heart. Travelling with his NPR companion and Russian interlocutor, Sergei, this book isn’t simply a travel book. Midnight in Siberia is a strong exploration of Russia’s troubled present, which takes seriously the complexities of the matters it addresses.

Consider the issue of alcoholism. Dining with the different families he meets, Greene takes pains to acquaint us with a defining Russia tradition: "It is bad luck to only have one shot." From the very start of this journey, we see the importance of alcohol to Russian society. Yet, though the epidemic of Russian alcoholism is well known, Greene helps us to understand that for Russians, alcohol is a cultural lubricant for free thought and basic comfort, and a psychological escape from life’s hardship.

These alcohol infused social interactions are the core of Greene’s book. In them we see the great contradiction of Russian society. On the outside, it’s gruff and openly hostile. In private, the Russian generosity of spirit seems to be quite extraordinary.

Throughout the book, Greene considers why Russians are willing to accept injustice in return for order—even a corrupt order. As he explains, "in the workplace [Russians] crave structure, predictability, and a pecking order. These touchstones offer comfort in a world that is otherwise chaotic and unpredictable."

But this inclination goes deeper than comfort. At one stop, Greene speaks to a couple who lost their hockey player son in a plane crash. Explaining his quiet tolerance for tragedy, the father says, "We’ve always needed revolutions and wars, because after each of those tragedies, we rise and are reborn again." He clarifies ‘’we probably don’t know how to live any other way."

Charting his course between impoverished industrial towns and anecdotes of obstinate absurdity—a restaurant’s refusal to serve butter with bread, and the complexity of dealing with transit officials, for two examples—Greene shows how Russians will accept a great deal before resorting to protest. Indeed, he notes, recent protests against President Putin are largely driven by the urban upper middle class. Accounting for the attitude of most Russians, Green explains that, "A foundation of communist ideology and Soviet power was keeping people convinced they had to accept their fate as it was—and, that, in the end, this would be better for everyone. But this philosophy remains in the DNA, passed from one generation to the next, including to a younger one that so far shows little sign of extinguishing it."

This philosophy, we’re encouraged to understand, is a key source of Putin’s continuing popularity. Regarded as a strong and predictable leader, Putin suits a national psyche always desperate for stability.

Greene isn’t shy about discussing the darker side of this order. He paints a damning picture of Russia’s justice system. His interview with a police officer who was framed, tortured, and paralyzed is particularly troubling, as is his account of rampant prosecutorial corruption and non-existent defendant rights.

For the author, this social failure speaks to Russia’s greater social divide between the new rich—for whom wealth buys anything (except political independence from Putin)—and everyone else. Echoing the narrative of Animal Farm, one interviewee explains, "a person is equal to another person. But there are people who are more equal."

Ever the optimist, however, Greene suggests that Russia might reform with time. Referencing a rural community accosted by organized crime and corrupt government officials, Greene notes that a publicity campaign successfully protected the community from abuse. Greene wonders "if these are the smaller battles that could someday begin to create cracks in the entrenched foundation of power in [Russia]."

The book does have some weaknesses. Greene occasionally struggles to restrain a slight liberal elitism. He complains, for example, that Russians don’t value South American wines, and is unable to hide his anti-gun derision whilst visiting the owners of the Kalashnikov rifle. Nor does he spend enough time questioning Russians on their foreign policy views.

Nevertheless, Midnight in Siberia is an accessible study of contemporary Russia. Willing to listen, learn and embrace Russian customs in pursuit of cultural exploration, Greene pulls back the curtain on a place few will ever visit. Doing so, he helps us to understand why Russia is as it is, and where it might be going.

Published under: Book reviews , Russia