I picked this book up randomly while browsing travel books at the library (it’s also cheap used on Amazon). It reminded me of Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia, which remains as one of the best travel books I’ve ever read, so I gave it a shot.
What I Liked
I liked the creative structure of the book. It was more of a current events book masquerading as a travel book. The journey on the Trans-Siberian railway was just a framework to visit & interview people throughout Siberia. I was skeptical as first, but it worked.
I liked the stories & the people that the author drew out. I could tell that he was (and remains) a professional journalist who knows how to search out & tell a good story. I felt like his stories were well-told and held up well.
I read it during the middle of the Ukraine War, but the book was written in 2014. I was amazed at how well it has held up. I felt like it could have been written in 2021. I think that speaks to the accuracy of his portrait of Russia as a nation with a deep history and deep culture that takes a long time to change.
The pacing and writing was engaging and fast-paced. It was a breeze to read and pick up and put down.
What I Didn’t Like
The scope of the book did not match the book’s ambitions. I felt like it has the same ambitions as Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia (541 pages) but spent like 150 pages on his portrait of Russia.
The author centered too much of the story on himself. I get that travel books require the author to tell their experience. But, at some points, the book moved in memoir direction
The author was open about his American biases and very self-aware about his perspective. But, wow, he comes across as another one of Graham Greene’s Quiet American / Alden Pyle types. Even though I share most all of his enthusiasm for American liberty / democracy / markets / individualism / idealism…it was a bit cringey to read at points.
Russia is a big, complex country with so much history. It is both extremely advanced (especially in the humanities, general literacy, and science) and extremely regressive (especially in economic & security affairs). The West goes back and forth between treating it like a developing country and a developed country when it’s neither. It’s juts different. It’s hard to overstate the impact of 90 years (3+ generations) of true authoritarian communism and the complete societal re-scrambling during the 1990s.
Siberia is beyond huge. There is no such thing as “visiting Siberia” – even the Trans-Siberian railway only provides a small snapshot. If planning a trip, you should focus on a single city / region.
For all the awful news that Russia generates, we shouldn’t forget that much of that awfulness is just a single man plus his elite supporters. The 100 million+ people of Russia are just as nuanced, complex, resilient, and amazing as the people of America – or any other country on Earth.
I wish the US had a true Trans-Continental railway. It’s a mode of transportation that has some kind of magic that I think we lost when we pushed our railroads out of business and put everyone in cars.
Never complain about cold weather. The Russians have been living well in extreme cold for thousands of years. Before buying the latest & greatest winter gear, do a bit of Internet research to see what the Russians do.