Monday, April 21, 2008

Reflections on Russia


I have returned home after an epic overland journey from Vladivostok to London. I rode 12 trains and 7 boats and made 69 short and long trips by bus, tram, mini-bus, metro, taxi and car. Six plane flights were needed to bridge the Pacific at the beginning of the trip and the Atlantic at the end. I wore through a new pair of shoes in 24 days overseas, and spent a day on a bicycle. I am now busily drafting a plan to offset the remainder of my carbon consumption!

My final days were spent in Scandinavia and Western Europe, visiting the impressive Labour Movement Archives and Library in Stockholm; exploring the semi-autonomous Christiana district of Copenhagen (which one resident describes as "Denmark's socialist heart"); and walking through London's historic centre to Highgate Cemetery and the grave of Karl Marx. It seemed a fitting end for a research trip devoted to the impulses and reactions to the Russian Revolution.

In Russia, I met the friendliest people aboard platzkart on the 9300-kilometre length of the Trans-Siberian Railway. These economy-class carriages, described by my Lonely Planet guide as "a 54-bed dormitory on wheels," are incubators of community. Copious amounts of food, drink and conversation flow between the passengers. Kind souls far outweigh the occasional hooligani, thieves who lurk aboard the trains and prey on unsuspecting travelers: I spent 16 days in Russia without losing a single kopek (the smallest unit of Russian currency).

I have fond memories of my new Russian friends: Leon, the gruff but kind civil servant from remote Anadir on the Bering Sea, who shared bread, smoked fish and dumplings as we chugged along the Manchurian border; Sergey, the Yakut archery champion who demonstrated his fine athletic form as our train rounded the spectacular frozen shores of Lake Baikal; Maria, an elderly woman who in her youth manufactured anti-Nazi landmines in a Novosibirsk armaments plant during the Great Patriotic War; Yolka and Antyom, the young anti-fascist punks travelling (like me) from Vladivostok to St Petersburg. In platzkart, I found a strong camaraderie that gave me a special insight into the warm Russian spirit.

On this Russian journey, I was humbled by the hospitality of the dozen Russian scholars I met – at local institutes of history, town squares, cafes, and private homes in Vladivostok, Irkutsk, Kemerovo, Omsk, Moscow, and St Petersburg. I had travelled to many foreign countries, but never before in a professional capacity as a historian. These generous colleagues contributed to my trip in essential ways, providing a unique perspective on Russia's turbulent past and its unwritten future.

In Vladivostok, Sergey Ivanov helped me retrace the story of Canadian occupation in 1918-1919 – visiting 14 Canadian war graves at Churkin Russian Naval Cemetery, rambling around the former Canadian barracks above Gornestai Bay, and envisioning Canada's lone engagement at the village of Shkotovo. At Kemerovo, I tasted my finest Russian meal in the home of Sergey Zviagin, specialist in the history of White Siberia, washed down with a healthy dose of vodka and friendship. In Omsk, I was treated to a walking tour by Vladimir Shuldyakov, learning about the anti-Bolshevik government of Admiral Alexandr Kolchak (supported during the Civil War by 55 Canadian and 1000 British troops); at the St Petersburg Institute of History, Boris Kolonitsii explained the mechanics of revolution in 1917.

The former Soviet Union is a land of contrasts. Archetypical Soviet icons dot most Russian cities – imposing statues of Lenin and grand "Karl Marxsa" Boulevards are juxtaposed against huge electronic billboards, which proclaim capitalism's belated arrival in Russia. Lavish onion-dome cathedrals (destroyed by the Bolsheviks) are now restored with government money, while symbols of Bolshevism remain everywhere. Moscow's Leningradsky Station leads to the rebranded city of St Petersburg. Vladmir Putin, Russia's foremost politician, is aligned with private telecommunications oligarchs, but he has strengthened public ownership of Russia's vast oil and gas reserves through state-owned energy giant Gazprom.

There are limits to democracy in post-Soviet Russia. In Plosheet Lenina (Lenin Square), in the centre of Novosibirsk, Russia's third largest city, I escaped a brush with the law after taking photos of a Green Party demonstration against urban sprawl in the forests around the city.

The past and future mingle uneasily in post-Soviet Russia. Ordinary people struggle to house and feed themselves in the shadow of billionaire oligarki, tycoons who grew rich off privatized state companies and now patronize Lamborghini, Ferrari, Rolls Royce and Bentley dealerships in posh Moscow. Housing costs have skyrocketed in many Russian cities, approaching Canadian prices while incomes lag far behind (a Vladivostok school teacher earns a salary of about $200 per month, less than the rent for a one-room flat). Some educated young people are reaping the benefits of the free market, occupying senior management positions in upstart capitalist firms and Russian branches of global companies. But an older generation is jaded and nostalgic for the past. These people, who were raised and educated in the Soviet Union, lambaste the oligarchs and long for the social security of a planned economy.

"Now the system is broken," a Russian man in his 50s tells me aboard the Trans-Siberian Railroad. A 20-something rebel describes the inequality in harsh terms: "My country is shit." But there are also many optimists.

"Russia can now stand on her feet," two Russian language student insist over beer in Vladivostok. They belong to Nashi ("Our's"), the pro-Putin youth movement that helped the United Russia party win a solid majority in December 2007 presidential elections. Appropriately, the Nashi flag is red and white, symbolizing Russia's Soviet past and hopes for a bright future.

The Russia that I experienced was a very beautiful, if conflicted, place – with an extraordinary diversity of culture and geography and the friendliest people in the world. Like the KGB agent who got me drunk on a train in the wilds of Siberia, Russia is an enigma. I hope to return there soon.


PS - Here are some photos that I've uploaded to the web...

Thursday, April 10, 2008

From the Baltic Sea


I write this from a ferry on the Baltic Sea -- the MS Victoria I, more of a cruise ship than a ferry, really, with a cabaret theatre, a casino, four restaurants, hundreds of sleeping cabins, a massage parlour and sauna, and free wireless internet. The transition to efficient Europe is nice after 16 days "roughing it" in Russia.

Since my last update, I spent a couple of glorious days in St Petersburg, Russia's imperial capital where the Neva River meets the Gulf of Finland. I toured the famous Hermitage art museum and also the fascinating Museum of Political History, in the building that served as Bolshevik party headquarters from March to August 1917.

At the St Petersburg Institute of History, I asked professor Boris I. Kolonitskii about the Russian revolutions of March and November 1917. I asked how Leon Trotsky, who had languished in a Nova Scotia jail in April 1917 and not set foot in Russia since 1906 -- could lead a military uprising and seize control of the Russian state:

"It's not a kind of conventional war, revolution. You don't have to be a military officer to have a military uprising. These men were professional revolutionaries. They had prepared for revolution their whole life long. They studied the French revolution. They studied Marx's writings on revolutions. They were much better trained for this particular situation than any army officers were.... The Bolsheviks had broad public support."

My last night in Russia, I partied at a unique art space called the Loft Projekt, sipping sweet red wine with the organizer Egor and a group of Russian artists.

From there, I caught an train to Helsinki, Finland. The sophisticated urban design and efficient tramway system alerted me to my presence in the European Union. It was sunny but cold -- requiring a winter jacket for the first time since Vladivostok. I visited a fortress on a nearby island and walked through the attractive downtown and pretty waterfront parks.

I caught a ferry across the gulf of Finland to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. I ventured through the winding cobblestone streets of the 1000-year-old city. At a bar called Woodstock, away from the tourist traps, I ordered a plate of sour cream, herring and potatoes, and struck up a conservation with a photographer named Alo. It was his 23rd birthday, I later learned, and we passed the evening drinking beer and discussing Estonian culture and politics. Tension between ethnic Estonians and ethnic Russians had escalated a year ago into a riot and the ransacking of large portions of the old town.

Today, I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at my guest house then ascended 258 stone steps, to the majestic spire of a cathedral overlooking Tallinn and the Baltic Sea. I explored the old town then met Alo and his friends Gerry and Jaan at a quaint cafe. We passed the afternoon chatting as they fixed a bug in my mini-laptop (Tallin is a high-tech capital of Europe, located on a fibre-optic trunk cable that has produced some of the world's cheapest internet rates, a proliferation of wifi "hotspots" in the town and countryside, and the web giant Skype).

I am now on this ferry to Stockholm. While sitting in a plush lounge, I met an Afghan student named Farzhad, who fled the Taliban two years ago and immigrated to Sweden. We discussed the Canadian occupation of his country. "I have worked with Coalition troops," Farzhad tells me, but expresses the belief that foreign intervention has complicated the situation. He points to the irony of American policy in the region. "The Americans helped the Talliban get into power [in the 1990s against the Mujahadeen]. Before that, they supported the Mujahadeen against the Soviets." "It's monkey business," Farzhad says.

My journey is nearing its end. Quite the trip!

Sunday, April 6, 2008

From Moscow

I've made it 9288 kilometres along the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Vladivostok to Moscow -- an exciting 9 days of train travel through 7 time zones in economy-class platzkart, with stops at Khabarovsk, Irkutsk, Kemerovo, Novosibirsk and Omsk.

It has been quite the journey, combining meetings with friendly Russian scholars on the history of the civil war with countless discussions with ordinary Russians aboard the trains and in the towns. Two nights ago, as the train approached the Ural Mountains -- which divide Europe and Asia and served as the major site of battle between the Red Army and White Russia in 1918-1919 -- I was drawn into a blurry night of vodka and conservation with a computer programmer from Etakerinburg.

Yesterday was more low key, as I napped and snacked on smoked fish, bread and tea with two young Russians and a elderly woman who had manufactured landmines in a Novosibirsk armaments plant during the Great Patriotic War (what we call World War Two).

Moscow is a bustling and attractive city -- with a population of over 10 million and a downtown centre rich in history. A man from the train named Alexander gave me a walking tour this morning, along the Moscow River and the pedestrian-friendly Arbat to the Kremlin, Red Square, and other sites. We took the city's famous metro to several ornate stations adorned with mosaic murals of Russia's revolutionary history and the country's working class. I will soon meet with a professor from the Institute of Far Eastern Studies, to glean information on Canada's invasion of Russia 90 year ago.

I am catching the overnight train to St Petersburg tonight, reaching tidewater after nearly 10,000 kilometres of rail travel and spending a few days in Russia's historic imperial capital -- where Bolshevism took root in 1917.

I will be in touch soon,


Thursday, April 3, 2008

From Siberia

Since my last update, I am have travelled halfway across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, riding platzkart (economy class, with ordinary Russians and many funny stories). Here is a summary of some of the highlights from my logbook. I look forward to sharing the rich detail the next time our paths cross...

Before leaving Vladivostok on March 28th, I was the guest lecturer at an English language school attached to Far Eastern State University, where my Russian friend Andrey is a student. I visited 14 Canadian war graves at Churkin Russian Naval Cementary, which stand alongside the tombs of British, American, Czecho-Slovak and Japanese troops who died in post-revolutionary Russia. I also visited the Canadian barracks at Gornestai Bay and took a boat past the Eggersheldt wharves where the Canadians landed. With my friendly interpreter Sergey Ivanov, I travelled to Shkotova, a town 50 kilometres north of Vladivostok on a key rail line connecting the city with its coal supply on the Suchan River. In April 1919, Bolshevik partisans had seized Shkotova, prompting a joint Canadian-Japanese-Italian manouvre to reclaim the town. Japanese General Kuizo Otani rewarded the Canadians with 101 bottles of whiskey and wine and 3 casks of saki.

From Vladivostok, I took the Trans-Siberian Railroad "up country," through the Ussuri Mountains to Khabarovsk, Victoria's sister city. I explored Karl Marksa Boulevard and the centre of this attractive and clean city, walking the promenade along the wide Amur River and visiting the Regional History Museum with its huge panoramic exhibit of the Red Army victory at Volochaevka. I was impressed by the well-maintained public spaces and rich architecture of this young community -- which, like British Columbia, is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.

I then embarked on a 2 1/2 day journey on the Trans-Siberian train, hugging the Manchurian and Mongolian borders toward Lake Baikal, the world's deepest lake. I experienced the essence of platzkart, the least expensive bearths, with open cabins and an eclectic culture of Russians and migrant Chinese workers sharing food and vodka through the vast Siberian taiga (fir forest). I was befriended by a kind civil servant in his 50s, Leon from remote Anadyr on the Bering Sea near Russia's northeasterly tip. "Perestroika was good," Leon told me, referring to Mikhael Gorbachev's reform agenda of the 1980s. "But [the] people said: don't touch old people system (pensions), don't touch medical system, don't touch young people system (education). But then they start charging for school text books. That was [the] biggest f**king mistake. Now the system is broken."

At the city of Irkutsk, I met with historians at the State University and others with expertise in the civil war in Siberia. I visited a monument to Admiral Alexander Kolchak, Supreme Governor of the anti-Bolshevik government at Omsk who took power in a November 1918 coup and enjoyed the support of Canada and its Allies. I also visited the jail where Kolchak was detained in early 1920 after the Red Army occupied Omsk and Irkutsk. I saw the small tributary of the Angara River where Kolchak was executed by firing squad, his body dumped in the frigid waters of the river.

Back on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, I spent another 24 hours in the platzkart, in the company of a young couple from the fishing town of Nahodka, near Vladivostok, who were moving to Pitar (St. Petersburg) in search of a better life. They belonged to the sub-culture that we would call "punk," with piercings, tattoos, and patches on their clothing of the "antifa" movement: the anti-fascist youth who challenge the power of Russia's ascendant Nazis, a distorted outgrowth of people questioning their post-Soviet economic woes.

Yesterday afternoon, I arrived at Marinsk, a town of 80,000 in central Siberia renowned for its vodka and kindred alcoholic spirits. A student of history, Alexsey, met me at the rail station and took me to dinner at his home with his wife Natalya and son Sasha. We had tasty (and simple) Russian fare -- kolbassa saugage, potato salad, rye bread, pickles, and meat dumplings. Alexsey poured me three shots of vodka followed by a sweet coffee. He gave me a bottle of local cognac, then drove me to nearby Kemerovo, capital of the district that bears the same name with an economic base in coal mining and chemical manufacturing.

In Kemerovo, I enjoyed a SECOND Russian feast in the trendy apartment of Sergey Zviagin, a specialist in the history of White Siberia during the civil war. Two young language students, Lena and Alexander, facilitated our wide-ranging discussion of Canadian and Russian politics, history and travel. Four vodka shots also helped, nourished by smoked salmon, pickled mushrooms and other delicacies that settled very well with my Slavic palette! I stayed the night at Sergey's flat, and in the morning joined Sergey and Lena on a walking tour of this surprisingly beautiful city. The vast public spaces are a testament to the best aspects of Soviet planning, a city designed for people (rather than cars in the North American mold). The main square was bounded by regional and municipal government offices, the former KGB building, and the regional trade union headquarters, devoid of traffic with a large statue of Lenin and an expansive and modern wooden playground for Kemerovo's children. My daughter Aviva would love it!

A short bus ride with a friendly graduate student in politics took me to Novosibirsk, Russia's third largest city. Here I have had a truly unique experience. In the main square, Ploshit Lenina (Lenin Square), I stumbled upon a petition table and political canvass against logging in the region, organized by the local branch of the Russian Zilnoyih Partiya (Green Party). I introduced myself to the organizers, shot a short video with my digital camera, and was promptly apprehended by four Russian police officers. They inspected my passport and detained me in a nearby hut. Their mood seemed to mellow after I presented a letter from Canada attesting to my academic credentials, and explaining the purpose of my visit to Russia. After 15 minutes, during which they ran my name and passport number through their headquarters, I was released. Most of the officers were kind enough, but their supervisor told me sternly: "Go home."

Not quite yet. Tonight I catch the Number 001 Russiya train (the flagship of Russia's public rail system) to Omsk, capital of White Siberia, to meet with the director of the local history museum. Fifty-five Canadians had travelled to Omsk in December 1918, to serve as headquarters staff for 1000 British troops in the city. Battle raged between Red and White Russian forces on the nearby front in the Ural Mountains. But most of the 4200 Canadians never left Vladivostok. Political debates back in Canada and divisions among the Allies sapped the resolve of Prime Minister Robert Borden. By June 1919, all the Canadians had returned home, as general strikes paralyzed cities from Victoria to Winnipeg to Amherst, Nova Scotia. But I digress.

My Siberian Expedition continues. Omsk, then Moscow, St Petersburg and home. I look forward to seeing you soon.