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.