Tag Archives: Dostoyevsky

On the Golden Eagle across Siberia (Part VI) – The Siberian Capital

photoOn board the Golden Eagle, our ubiquitous Train Manager, Tatiana, conducted almost daily Russian classes.They were both useful and highly entertaining. By the time of the Farewell Evening we were able to join in a vigorous rendering of “Kalinka maya” during our music-bar/lounge evening.

Dan, our Oxford Professor, was also tireless, presenting, explaining, enlightening. His series of lectures, complete with a freshly assembled final reading list, included numerous topics. Among those covered were the conquest of Siberia and the valuable fur trade which drove the Russians towards the Pacific. Other topics were Red Siberia that depended totally on the train as Lenin understood that “if the trains stop that will be the end for the Reds” and pre WWII Siberia, initially beaten by backwardness, yet only 10 years later ready to face Nazi Germany, in part due to the world ‘s largest steel plant at Magnetigorsk. Post-war, the enormous oil and gas discoveries are seen as a source of developing wealth. In turn, the exciting story of the backbone of Russia, the Trans-Siberian Railway, its evolution and importance for freight transportation, gave us understanding to what we could observe daily on the tracks, the roads even today not good enough for regular year-round travel.

photoA final lecture on Siberian exile up to Solzhenitsyn and the Soviet Gulag prison system, explained the tragedy of a region which swallowed 20 million people, even if, in the past for the peasants, Siberia stood for freedom from serfdom. Prisoners still exist and more recent high profile deportees included Mikhail Khodorovsky although his forced exile, currently in Switzerland has rendered him less relevant to Russians today.

Soon enough we reach Novosibirsk created around the Trans-Siberian Railway bridge over the river Ob. The city developed so fast that for a time it was spoken of as the Chicago of Siberia. Now with 1.5 million people, and the Siberian capital, it has one of the youngest populations in the world. These Siberians see themselves as the “purer essence of Russia” and remain warm and hospitable, quite open to outside influences, visitors and fashions (including some of the highest heels on ladies shoes that I have seen anywhere). This is now a wealthy region since the post-soviet privatisation of Sibneft and the largest oil refinery complex in Russia, run by Gazprom Neft. Oil and gas produce 70% of Siberia’s budget, replacing the former local military industries.

photoInevitably the focus of this city is Lenin Square. A solid statue represents Lenin as the Revolutionary Leader facing towards a distant horizon. He was characterised by Pasternak as one so focused as to be “narrow minded to the point of genius”. In the various provincial stations such as Belogorsk where we stop along our journey, Lenin is usually portrayed in full speech, arm upraised in emphasis as at the famous Finland Station arrival, to inspire the Bolshevik revolt. However at the mausoleum in Red Square, Moscow, the embalmed figure is closer to Pasternak’s observation that “…for decades after…the spirit of narrowness is worshipped as holy”.

On the square, we visit the Opera House. Larger than the Bolshoi in Moscow, it has a huge stage of 1,300 sq.mts. Sometimes referred to as the “Siberian Colosseum”, it was prepared to accommodate the rousing parades of the Stalin period when at times outside temperatures dropped below minus 40 centigrade. The company also produces a steady stream of excellent ballet dancers. Ballet school studies are free of charge.photo

Our final visit of the day is to the open air Railway Museum outside the city. The exhibits range from ultra streamlined snow ploughs to the barred compartments and cells of the former prisoner transport carriages. Returning to the city and the Golden Eagle, we pass the Akademgorodok, a former concentration of Soviet scientific brain power. Now financed privately by venture capital from Intel and Schlumberger it is nick-named the “Silicon Forest”.

Back on the train our maps show that Semipalatinsk is only a few hours south of Novosibirsk. There, the Soviet Atom Bomb program was developed involving over 450 nuclear tests and accompanying radioactive fallout. It was also the town where, after Omsk, Dostoyevsky was forced to complete his last years of exile, this time as a soldier. His years of hardship and reflection were followed by the great novels, most notably The Brothers Karamazov a book which contains the complex parable of Christ returning to earth but being confronted by The Great Inquisitor, seen as yet another window onto the Russian soul. The parable was a challenge for actors to present on stage but was rendered brilliantly by Sir John Gielgud (and worth looking at on You Tube) making Dostoyevsky relevant for all times.

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On the Golden Eagle across Siberia (Part V) – Twenty minutes at Omsk!

photo211So it is an early morning run! Off the train and round the station, up the stairs and along the platforms, in and out of security. The Omsk stop is a brief interlude on a journey through the dense swampy forests of the “taiga” and the many scattered settlements of wooden houses. We have travelled 1400 kms from Moscow. It took Dostoyevsky 25 days to cover the same distance by winter sleigh when transported from St.Petersburg.

Having been spared  execution for his utopian socialism, Dostoyevsky was sentenced to four years hard labour in one of the Omsk mining prison camps. These provided coal, silver, iron and gold for Imperial Russia. He later remembered “…in summer intolerable closeness; in winter unbelievable cold”. Although the production of minerals and the fur trade dominated, yet it is the image of the salt mines that became notorious. From these times a painting such as Ilya Repin’s famous Realist depiction of “The Volga Boatmen”(1870) gave a fearful picture of penal slavery. Upon return to St.Petersburg, Dostoyevsky went on to write The House of the Dead about life in the camps. Now, in Omsk, there is a commemorative Library/Museum of Literature named after him.

Another exile whose death sentence was commuted to hard labour, was the scientist, journalist, explorer Ferdynand Ossendowski. He described his stay in Russian prisons in a novel entitled “In Human Dust” which Lev Tolstoy claimed to be one of his favourite books. At Omsk, although considered a “left socialist,” he joined Kolchak’s “Whites” after 1917,then escaped to Mongolia. His epic survival adventures are recounted in his memoir “Beasts, Men and Gods” that some have described as being “…like Tolkien, but for real !” (it is available online as a free eBook, due to the efforts of the Gutenberg Project ). It also gives a great inside view of revolutionary period Siberia and inspired what Publishers Weekly called one of the world’s great adventure strips. Created by the Venetian Ugo Pratt,  “…possibly the greatest artist working in the comic world”, the hero Corto Maltese is modeled on Ossendowski, particularly in what is considered asIMG_1482Pratt’s masterpiece “Corto Maltese in Siberia“, a full length graphic film (see You Tube) that adds a different dimension to our Golden Eagle journey, while teasing that “an adult who enters the world of fables, cannot leave it”.

So Omsk, once the “wild, wild, East” with its pickpockets and prostitutes, is today transformed into a city of over a million people where Gazprom oil refineries are the largest employer. The Prof. and I try to get a glimpse of the city from around the train station, but the stop is only 20 minutes and we barely make it back before the scheduled departure. Our relieved train attendants grin upon seeing us, wag their fingers and refer to us as “hooligani!”.photo-3

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