David Greene served as NPR’s Bureau Chief in Moscow from 2009 to 2011. For much of his stint he interacted with an elite minority of westernized, educated Russians. In Midnight in Siberia, however, Greene seeks a different Russia—the people living in the smaller cities and villages of the nation’s boundless expanses. Accompanied by his close friend and translator Sergei, Greene travels the fabled Trans-Siberian Railroad from Moscow to Vladivostok. He stops often to interview the people whose stories constitute the heart of his narrative and whose first names serve as chapter titles. Greene provides a map and photographs so that the reader can track his journey and meet his people secondhand.
Russians may appear expressionless and cold on the street. But, Greene emphasizes, in their homes they are among the warmest and most hospitable people on earth. As the book begins, Sergei’s Aunt Nina is nursing Greene’s hangover following an evening of feasting, vodka, and conversation. He believes that Russia’s most appropriate mascot would be a babushka like Aunt Nina—a tough, caring older woman, usually widowed. Over and over Greene hears the phrase: “Hardship and suffering forge the Russian character.” It comes from the singing Babushki of Buranovo, who lost husbands to alcoholism, diabetes, and freak accidents; from Liubov and Aleksey, who lost their son Nikita in the 2011 crash that claimed the lives of Yaroslavl’s hockey team; from a young man named Ivan, who was forced to serve in Chechnya even though he had lost both parents before he was eighteen.
Greene wants to know how people in the hinterlands are faring in the post-Soviet era and what their vision is for the future. Early on he cautions against superimposing American values on Russia. Russians seem at home with the assumption that life will be harsh, the state will provide few services, and officials are corrupt. A few have struggled against local abuses. Citizens of a small village in the Ural Mountains took up pitchforks and hunting rifles against a gang of criminals when the police failed to come to their aid. A gang member was killed, and only a widespread publicity campaign saved the villagers from prison. But they had no desire to translate their victory into a general struggle against injustice akin to the 2011 demonstrations in Moscow. Such struggles are mostly for the urban elite. This disengagement from larger issues frustrates Greene, who must remind himself not to apply American notions of democracy to the Russian situation. Russians fear that change will make things worse. They want greater stability and predictability in their lives. But they also wish to regain a sense of national purpose. For this reason, many look back to the Soviet era with nostalgia.
David Greene’s Midnight in Siberia is necessary and timely. American media sometimes offer a negative image of Russia, even speaking of a new Cold War. Greene reminds us that Russians are a warm-hearted, resilient people. They have their own values and traditions, which, he admits, he does not quite grasp. Reading Greene, one cannot help recalling the words of the poet Fyodor Tyutchev written 150 years ago: “One cannot understand Russia with the mind…one can only believe in Russia.”
"Midnight in Siberia" by David Greene is published by W.W Norton & Company.
Reviewer Linda Ivanits is a professor of Russian and Comparative Literature at Penn State University Park.