Posts Tagged ‘Siberia’

Farley Mowat: Sibir

November 13, 2022

     Along with my interest/obsession for deserts, another one is Siberia, so I’m always glad to come across another account of travels in that vast, lonely region. Farley Mowat, a Canadian traveller, naturalist/ecologist with a particular interest in the Arctic regions of the world, was there in the mid to late 1960s, and he portrays a relatively confident, progressive and open Soviet Union, which let visitors travel pretty widely as long as they were not perceived as having a hidden agenda. Although there are still tensions between Russian past and Soviet present, and those heady forward-looking days are now almost-forgotten history, it’s still a very interesting account.

You can understand the theories behind the notion of a planned economy, and how brilliant things might now be if it had actually worked as planned. Even half a century later I’m still learning about what the West was up to behind the scenes, to ensure that the only potential rival to capitalism was eventually brought to the point of collapse in 1989, and although I recognise the horrors of what went on in the Soviet Union, I need to remind myself of similar horrors perpetrated by the so-called ‘free’ nations, which have been tidily swept under various carpets, and I can also see how the lack of a potential alternative regularly in the public eye, as communism was during the days of the Cold War, has allowed the excesses of capitalist triumphalism to wreak so much havoc in the world since then…

Mowat shows a genuine desire to understand what motivates Soviet men, women and young people, and his exploration and analysis goes beyond the superficial. He is not naive about the darker sides of Soviet society and its history and is often careful to protect his sources. He describes immense progress and quite astonishing achievements since the Revolution in the remotest and most inaccessible regions of the country, and explains how even half a century ago Soviet scientists were aware of the ecological risks involved in the development of the tundra and permafrost zones. His particular interest in and knowledge of Arctic regions leads to an emphasis on what he calls the ‘small peoples’, ie the local ethnic minorities of which there are many, and to reasoned comparisons between what happens in the Soviet Union and his home territory, Canada.

He’s not afraid to be critical, to point out gaps in Soviet thinking and planning, to note inconsistencies in what he’s told, or to log the unanswered questions: he is an acute and enquiring observer. And he shows a genuine affection for many of those whom he met on his travels; they are equally open and friendly.

I feel very conflicted reading such accounts nowadays; so much time has now passed that collectively we are losing sight and memory of the good things the USSR managed to achieve, whilst constantly being reminded of the horrors; it’s not a balanced picture, and there are obvious reasons for that. The more I read accounts of travels like Mowat’s – and I’ve read quite a lot – the more I realise the inability of the West to understand what moves and motivates and matters to other countries that are so different. Then I reflect that the converse may also be true, and think that we may be doomed as a species and a planet because of this inability to be sufficiently open and understanding of what is different…

Sophy Roberts: The Lost Pianos of Siberia

February 29, 2020

81onguNJfRL._AC_UY218_ML3_    I don’t often get to the end of a book and find myself thinking, “What a lovely book!” But with this one, I did. And I’m quite particular in my choice of travel-writing nowadays, and tend to avoid ‘easy’ travel; you can’t call Siberia ‘easy’.

Sophy Roberts’ tale is a bizarre one, of tracking musical history, and more specifically pianos, in Siberia. So weird that the Russian authorities at times think she’s either a little cracked, or else using her quest as cover for something else – she could be a spy. I found the very idea that a piano could survive a nineteenth century journey to Siberia astonishing in itself (Roberts travels to places where there are still no roads today), before even coming to consider how it would fare long-term in the climate, with its extremes of temperature and humidity. And there was clearly a great demand for culture and music among the thousands of people exiled there, for various crimes under the Tsars.

What comes across most powerfully in the book is her developing love for the place and its people: she travels widely, meets a great variety of Siberians, not all of them musical, and is drawn in by the size and the diversity of the region, its vastness and its bleakness. I imagine – never having been there myself – that this must happen to most Westerners who travel there. Her fascination matches mine, and her atmospheric language creates vivid pictures; she describes very sensitively the sadnesses of so many of the people she met there, and who shared their stories with her.

In the end, what unifies the book is her rambling quest for a suitable piano for a gifted Mongolian pianist: it’s a cross between a detective story and a history of Russia and Siberia with a focus on the musical and cultural side of things, a bizarre but quite gripping idea, which eventually reaches a successful outcome.

Given my fussiness, I must mention that the book is very well-produced and illustrated, and supplied with helpful maps, a rarity nowadays, but which allowed me to dig out my well-worn Road Atlas of the USSR, and my large atlas of the Soviet Union in order to track her travels more closely. The bibliography is also extremely helpful. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I asked for this book as a birthday present, but I’m really glad I did.

Theodore Kröger: The Forgotten Village

October 18, 2015

51u3TCAJy4L._AA160_Well, this was astonishing, and unforgettable. A bestseller in the 1930s when first published, it’s not been reprinted in English for sixty years, but fortunately the French haven’t forgotten it.

Son of a German watchmaker, settled for many years in Tsarist Russia, the author of what’s described as an ‘autobiographical novel’ (interesting genre, that) attempts to flee to Germany at the start of the First World War, but is captured, condemned to death as a spy and then instead exiled to the wastes of northern Siberia.

Initially he suffers as a prisoner in horrendous conditions, but eventually, thanks to powerful connections in St Petersburg, his life in exile is made rather easier and he rises to prominence in a settlement in the middle of nowhere, becoming the bosom friend of the local police chief. Eventually, through his connnections and family fortune he succeeds in bringing some prosperity and development to the town, ameliorated the living conditions of the thousands of German POWs in the area, and marries a local Tartar girl.

The writer’s love of the place and its people develops and becomes clear, shining through the pages; it’s evident that though unbelievably harsh, Siberia is a beautiful place, in a space and time continuum of its very own. And he discovers a remote village, completely cut off from the ‘outside’ world, which he and his fellow-prisoners aid to become completely self-sufficient and to hide itself from the coming ravages of the Revolution…

There are moments of true horror in his story: a nearby village is stricken by the plague, and in order to stop it spreading, they massacre all its inhabitants and burn the village down. The Kerensky government orders the release of all common criminals: these begin to wreak havoc on the town, and are all eventually killed or driven away.

The writer explores some of the totally unknown areas of the country and he and his companions come across a ghost town, its inhabitants all long dead in their homes; then they discover a large settlement of savages who still hunt with bows and arrows, and manage (just) to escape with their lives.

The utter chaos after the October Revolution is appalling; whole swathes of the country are abandoned to cold and famine and the winter of 1917/18 is atrocious; very few of the several thousand townspeople come through alive…

Some of the story stretches credulity just a little, I think to myself as I read, but then I recall other accounts of Siberia a century ago that I’ve read, and other travellers’ tales, and I think, no, this could well all be true. If in the late 1970s a small settlement could be found, of people who had seen not another living soul for over forty years, then Kroger’s account could be true. It doesn’t read like a novel: there’s no plot, the narrative is linear, people come and go as the author moves around. It’s very powerful, and very moving.

Dervla Murphy: Silverland

December 15, 2013

41cnQwDQlkL._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU02_AA160_My mother and I both enjoy travel writing, and often swap books we’ve read. She has been urging me for a long time to read some Dervla Murphy, and, seduced by the prospect of reading some more about Siberia (of which I never tire), I finally gave in.

Murphy is another solo female traveller, in the vein of Ella Maillart, of whom I’ve written before. Murphy is now rather older, and also a more recent traveller, so there is rather less unexplored territory to visit, but she does make real efforts to leave the beaten track, sometimes to her cost. She is genuinely interested in the places she visits and the people she encounters, and inclues plenty of background information to help the reader orient her/himself. She’s also very political, which is rather unusual in travel writers, at least those I’ve read. Nothing escapes her sharp, questioning mind, and she will digress for several pages on the political and social implications of something she has come across. Only very occasionally is this tiresome; usually it further enlightens her travels and writing.

She travels on slow trains – not the tourists’ Transsiberian railway, but the later BAM (Baikal-Amur Magistral, if you wanted to know), sections of which run parallel to, but further north than, the more well-known and older Transsib. She appreciates the beauty of much of Siberia, especially Lake Baikal, but she is also saddened by the waste and environmental degradation which has gone on for decades, under the Soviets to whom economic and industrial progress (?) was the most important thing, and even more so in the present, capitalist (?) times, where profit, and the fast buck are everything.

She can see the superficial attractiveness of the new, Western freedoms(?) to Russians whose lives were limited for so many years under state socialism, and she can see beyond this to the catastrophic effect this is having on the country and its peoples; it’s clearly a stage the country has to go through before its people may perhaps see that there are other things that are more important… the more one looks, the more one is conscious of the difference between freedom from and freedom to, and how we are all manipulated by capitalist and Western hegemony.

I wouldn’t want anyone to feel that she writes political polemic: she doesn’t, but she’s aware of the complexity of everything; she loves the places and the people and describes them sympathetically, and enables us to have a window onto places we can probably never visit, and lives that are very different from ours. A real traveller, then, and no tourist.

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