I traveled a little in Russia when it was still the Soviet Union, and was often struck by the messy, shambolic quality that towns and even cities had. You found that in the wilderness, as well, along with a sort of practical brutality that Russians have towards nature. That all struck me as very non-Western.
You don't get very many civic reminders of any kind there. You assume that there were lots of them during Soviet times. I have an example of a banner exhorting workers, saying We will catch up and overtake America. Here in the U.S. we have Don't be a litterbug, Smokey the Bear, This section of road is being cleaned up by the Delta Epslon fraternity. There's just none of that there. The civic sense is attenuated to the point where it doesn't exist.
I have an encounter with some poachers in the Russian far east, very nice people, as it turned out. But to suggest that "Gosh, you guys are ruining your salmon run here, it's not going to happen again next year"—they didn't think of that. They didn't care. That's not a western attitude.
A running theme through the book is just the trash. The trash is really something I had never seen, not like that. We can do trashy things but they really go to some extremes. At one point I thought, they probably don't care because trash gets covered with snow five months of the year. You throw it out and the next day you don't see it because it's buried under snow. That is really different. We have trash barrels and they pretty much don't.
A lot of the trash you saw was barrels.
They had just any old thing, yeah—barrels or industrial stuff, like broken fluorescent light tubes—you'd encounter trash that you just would never encounter here. Like a metal lathe. And way the hell out! Miles and miles from Omsk we stopped at this place and it was basically industrial waste that would be illegal to dump here—probably illegal to dump there. Not a strong civic sense.
Yet it's also a place where everybody is extremely street-smart. Something I decided after going there a bunch of times is that the horribleness of the country is in direct proportion to how street-smart the people are. As an example of a country where people aren't very street smart—take my home town of Hudson, Ohio. It's just kind of a nice, Midwestern town, basically a nice place in the sense that it was well-maintained and clean, not terribly unsafe, law-abiding. The people who came out of there, I for one, were incredibly not street-smart.
It isn't to say that Russia is an anarchy. Human connection is the way things work. It's like a patronage system. You know somebody and he knows somebody and he knows somebody and he knows the district governor, and it's okay. And that works to a certain extent. As to the way they see the land, honestly, they have so much more of it than we do that our old attitude of, well, there's always more is much more arguable.
You describe the polish that places like Novosibirsk have now, created by energy wealth. One sees all the Western brands there. Has that prosperity trickled down or trickled out to Siberia's many small, rural outlying communities?
For really rural places I think you're still seeing an emptying-out. I haven't been in really rural parts since 2005, but then the far-flung places were holding on, and not with anything like the maintenance you had during Soviet times. People would show me stuff—"Oh, this used to be such and such"—but it just looked beat-up.
Almost every place had one central heating facility with ducts that went all over the town, and those things are in horrible repair. They're shredding asbestos, installation is kind of balling off of them, and the houses are not maintained. The Soviets wanted these rural places to be maintained for military or industrial purposes, and they paid attention to them. The market has not been as kind.
Is there part of you that mourns something that has passed? An old Siberia you knew that is vanishing?
Well, you know, I loved Soviet stuff, as a style. The old, clunky, huge stuff. Something about it is just cool. And I'm sorry when I see a Maybach limousine as opposed to some Soviet-era UAZ microbus, built at a factory named for Lenin with much more metal than a VW bus. It was the idea that we were all doing something together, and now Russia is so every-man-for-himself.
As has been said about the Confederates—that they fought with a devotion worthy of a better cause—there were people who were devoted Communists who were incredibly idealistic and thought this was going to be great. And you still meet them. They say, "Yes, I came out here to build Baikal-Amur Magistral [Siberia's other cross-country railroad] because I believed..." To lose that—well good riddance if you get rid of the gulag in the process, but still, you lose something.
You spend a lot of the book writing about historical figures who went to Siberia, albeit not of their choosing, in most cases and about how they were changed by the experience. Your extensive travel there includes a 9,000-mile road trip. How has the experience changed you?
Russians don't complain, usually. I know from my goings and comings that you can hear an American across an airport. He's going, We were supposed to—How come our tickets are—You never hear that in Russia. The Russian will say, "What can you do?" They are stoic. They are expert at suffering. They know a lot about it, they know what it's like and how to do it.
You tell the wonderful story of the Archpriest Avvakum Petrovich—
Oh, I'm glad you mentioned that. If I had an epigraph for the book, it would be where his wife says, "How long, Archpriest, are these sufferings to continue?" And he says, "Markovna! Till our death." So she says, "Very well, Petrovich. Let us be getting on our way." There really is something great about the country, and it's connected to that. It's something we don't have. We don't suffer. We go, "Let's fix this." And we complain—and we whine. So I hope that I complain less—or at least, if I complain, that I understand that you really shouldn't.