Riding the Trans-Siberian railway is one of those bucket-list experiences that always seems better on paper than in real-life. Why fly all the way to Russia only to sit in a cramped cabin for 8 days, with nothing to do but stare out a window?
David Greene’s new travelogue, Midnight in Siberia, provides a blueprint for how to make such a trip worth the time and money. The book recounts Greene’s trip across the world’s largest country, including his many stops along the way. Greene interviews a captivating variety of Russians and even chases down a meteorite. Ostensibly, the book is about completing one of the world’s most romantic journeys. In execution, the book paints a compelling portrait of what it’s like to live in contemporary Russia.
Before embarking on his trip, Greene worked for several years as NPR’s Moscow correspondent. He obviously studied for the position: he sprinkles his account with both literary and popular portrayals of the ancient winterland, providing a welcome historical context to his experience.
Greene’s narrative substantially benefits from his professional experience. He travels not by himself but with NPR’s fixer who both translates and arranges logistics. While the translation is handy, traveling in a formerly communist country is rife with obstacles. Sergei makes everything work, allowing Greene to zero in on his conversations with Russians.
Given his experience as a radio reporter, it’s no surprise Greene’s conversations with Russians are the strongest part of the book. The chapter on Ivan, a young man from Chelyabinsk, on the Western edge of Siberia, is quite moving. Ivan lost both his parents to cancer before he was eighteen, yet he still had to serve his compulsory year in the Russian army. He now rents a small house and makes money doing odd jobs. Despite his hardships, he is proud of his country and accepts his life.
Another conversation with a hotel owner named Nadezhada demonstrates how the stereotypical Russian drunk is tragically too true. Nadezhada raises two kids and runs a hotel on her own after she divorced her husband for drinking too much. Much of the chapter about Nadezhada recounts her efforts to navigate the remnants of Soviet bureaucracy. Despite her best attempts, she never knows if she actually meets her city’s building code.
While the book’s characters make it worth reading, two shortcomings hold it back from the pantheon of outstanding travel writing. Perhaps an obvious weakness, Greene tries too hard to paint the scene he’s used to recording with his microphone. Early in the narrative, he complains about having to interview a subject in a bland office environment:
I wanted to meet the official in a place with rich sound. (Yes, the stereotype is true. We in public radio do yearn for the sounds of street musicians, chirping birds, or church bells to spice up a scene.)
Unfortunately, his attempts to spice up his writing fall flat. Greene recounts a scene where he and some new acquaintances come together for a toast. From the dialogue we hear them say, “Cheers,” but he then elaborates that the glasses clinked. The book contains several passages where Greene would be better served to let his prose and dialogue tell the story instead of trying to add church bells.
Additionally, Greene is sadly zero-minded in his desire to answer the question, “Why Russia’s citizens aren’t demanding something better.” It is an interesting question no doubt, but Greene feels compelled to ask the question of nearly everyone he meets. Greene’s inability to understand how Russians accept their government remains a tension throughout the book.
Despite these drawbacks, the book is worth reading for its delicate sketches of Russians living far from Moscow. Other travel books better capture the natural environment and the train itself, but few accounts provide a better depiction of what it’s like to live in contemporary Russia.