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...