My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I got into this whole Russia thing some months ago when I was investigating my family’s Croatian history. My interest grew from just the Croats to the Balkans and finally the entire Slavic realm.
Ultimately, I ended up in Russia. (Don’t we all?)*
(*well technically not true, but it was too cool not to say it and anyway, aren’t we in Cold War II anyway, so yeah… I’m saying it.)
So I started reading Russian history. I started learning Cyrillic and the Russian language (да!). I watched Sergei Eisenstein’s iconic 1944 epic Ivan the Terrible. I fell in love with the Russian rock band Lyube (listen to my fave Russian tunes here 🎶). I spazzed over the World Cup in Moscow (and rooted for Croatia, Russia, and England. GO VATRENI!). Also, I fell head over heels for Ivan Braginski (but really, how could you not?).
I poked in a lot of Russian books in my time under the Slavic spell. I fairly raided my library for good ones (that didn’t mention Putin by the title’s third word). I wanted to hear about Russia–not the politics (necessarily), not the government, not the intrigue, not the spying. Not Putin. I wanted Russia. Who are the people, what are they like? What is the nation looking for, where is it going? What is it about the Russian soul, about its love for pain and poetry?
I read portions of the incredibly fascinating Russia in Search of Itself, and then landed on David Greene’s Midnight in Siberia. This book had it all–the humanity of Russia, the vulnerability of Russia, the toughness and strength of Russia, the pensiveness and the laughter, the confusion and the nostalgia. But most importantly, it has the everyday and the ordinary, the machinations of life across a nation that has so much to give and yet so few ways to give it.
Greene travels across the Siberian expanse in search of that aforementioned Russian soul, and comes away with an experience that is not simplified, not glorified, not vilified. The people aren’t after Western-style democracy; the 1990s failed experiment put an end to that. They’re often nostalgic for Soviet times when education and health were more or less guarantees (even if the payoff was personal freedoms). They don’t like the uncertainty of their current lives; they are sometimes afraid, and often find themselves enduring, rather than living–as we in the US define living, anyhow, in our mostly quite privileged lives, privileged meaning you can start a business, abide by the rules, and expect the government to be predictably fair with you; you can go to medical school and not fear that you will be drafted for obligatory duty; you can get a train ticket without a maniacal hassle of unpredictable schedules, pricing, and seating.
In Russia, things are different. At times you realize their system–of justice, of finance, of politics–is so deeply flawed, and yet there’s a beauty in the endurance and doggedness of the people themselves, a people that has learned to live with change and troubles from the Siberian steppe to the ever-shifting and ever-distant governmental heads.
This book has made me fall in love with Russia, the place, and Russia, the people. I won’t quickly forget what one youth said, fresh from brutal service in the Russian army. He is tough, but crumbles into tears as he says, “Our government oppresses us… but we love it. Our country–we love it.” And then I come back to the tight group of elderly widows, the Buranovo Babushkas, who won runner-up in Eurovision 2012, and who each had a story of hardship, tenacity, and tragedy to tell: “You know we have our land, our soil, our dreams, our goals…. There was a time when we had to work. Right now? It’s time for us to sing.”
To me, that is Russia.
Я влюблен в тебя Россия влюблен––I’m in love with you, Russia, in love.