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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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Heine, Hitler and the Lorelei;


The Lorelei Rock, located at the sharpest, most dangerous bend in the Rhine River, has for ages captured the imagination of those who have gazed upon it – albeit usually out of fear – blaming the alluring song of the “Rhine Maiden” for disasters which include a series of boats pushed by currents onto the rocks lining the river.

San Francisco’s emblematic counter-culture group, Jefferson Airplane/Starship, were to perform there once in the summer of 1978 at the open amphitheater behind the Lorelei. Then, disaster struck. Lead singer Grace Slick (Somebody to Love, White Rabbit ) refused to appear, maybe too sick, probably too drunk. The concert was cancelled and the gathered audience erupted in fury, throwing bottles, setting fire to the stage, and destroying all instruments and equipment. The curse of the Rhine Maiden had struck again and the group never recovered.

Certainly the huge rock, rising over 180m above the river, is an unmistakable landmark. The Rhine River bends to its narrowest point at the base of the Lorelei and, with a depth of 22m, that narrowness creates an unusually strong current that hides treacherously submerged rocks and sand banks.

Although protected by the “Warschau” warning light signals (operated from the river control headquarters at nearby Oberwesel) and the use of specialist river pilots, numerous incidents still happen. As recently as 2011, a barge carrying 2400 tons of sulphuric acid from Ludwigshafen to Antwerp, capsized blocking the river for days – causing major disruption along what is, in reality, the major aquatic highway of Europe and costing the German economy Millions in damages.

Since the early 19th century, blame for these strings of disasters have been laid on a female river spirit imagined by the writer Brentano and then woven into a dream tale by Germany’s then favorite Romantic poet Heinrich Heine who was fascinated by the Rhine and its ancient Niebelungen myths.

In 1824, Heine wrote the lines to his “Song of the Lorelei” with foreboding:

I wonder what it presages

I am so sad at heart

A legend of bygone ages

Haunts one and will not depart

Heine’s song was captured in his “Buch der Lieder”, which then became one of the most popular books ever published in Germany.  Some years later composer/songwriter Friedrich Silcher added music to Heine’s verse and a popular classic was born – intriguing artists and visitors ever since – not least of which because of the endless cruise ship playlists that feature the song as they pass the rock.

A brief list of the artists inspired by Heine include Franz Liszt (who wrote the song “Die Lorelei” in 1841), a propagandist painting by Oskar Kokoschka in 1941, and more recently a poem by Sylvia Plath (“Lorelei“, 1960) , who reflected on the Rhine Maiden’s actual silence as its most disturbing aspect. For most travelers, however, a bronze statue of the Rhine Maiden combing her long golden hair, created by Natascha Alexandrova (aka Princess Jusupov) placed on a jutting extension to St Goarshausen in 1983, is the most obvious reminder of the legend created by Brentano and Heine.

Heine lived in turbulent times. While studying at Bonn University, he joined the new Nationalist movement. In 1819 the students threw “unpatriotic” books and papers into a huge bonfire. He recoiled in horror, later portraying a character in his tragic play “Almansor” who, reacting to the burning of the Koran and the Inquisition during the Reconquest of Spain , by proclaiming  “where people burn books, in the end they burn people” .  This is now inscribed over the entrance to Yad Vashim Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, the US Holocaust Museum in D.C. and the Opernplatz, Berlin.

Despite converting to Protestantism (in 1825) as his “ticket” of admission to European culture, Heine still ended up getting thrown out of Germany by the Nationalists he was once a part of and exiled in Paris, albeit as a celebrity.

Analysing extremism on the Right he wrote that  “Thor will leap to life with his giant hammer and smash the Gothic cathedrals” (painting a picture of the legendary hero destroying the iconic images that were held up as the traditional basis of a German identity).

Later then, after meeting Karl Marx (an admirer of Heine’s at the time), he foresaw that  “the future belongs to the Communists. With fear and terror I imagine the time when those dark iconoclasts come to power”.

ImageHis words were prophetic, essentially predicting the rise of both Stalin and Hitler – with the result that, in 1933, as books were burnt once more nationwide in Nazi Germany, Heine’s books were included amongst those of Einstein and Freud.

Adolf Hitler, like Heine was fascinated by the myths of the Rhine (although as interpreted by Richard Wagner) and often came to contemplate the river. He normally stayed at the picturesque Rheinhotel Dreesen at Bad Godesberg, sometimes on matters of state  (meeting Chamberlain which led to the Munich Peace Pact), sometimes to fantasize on his destiny. From this location, downstream from the Lorelei, he decreed that, although the song of the Lorelei could still be published, it had to be attributed to an “unknown  author”.

When Nazi-led armies reached Paris in 1941, German Radio reported  “on Montmartre, the grave of Heinrich Heine, the famous German Jewish poet, has been desecrated and demolished with no trace of the grave left”. Today the grave has been rebuilt, and monuments to Heine stand in both Paris and Berlin, as well as St Goarshausen by the Lorelei.

Hitler’s fascination with the Niebelung myths continued to his last days in the bunker in Berlin. Original manuscripts of Wagner’s Rienzi and Götterdammering stayed with him to his dying day. He ordered the Siegfried Funeral March, the death of the hero, to be played over the loudspeaker system during his last days in the Berlin bunker that served as his headquarters, and after their suicide,  the remains of Hitler and Eva Braun were burnt, like those of his hero Siegfried, on a funeral pyre.

So the granite rock at Km marker 555 is a major feature of any Rhine journey, with its still present dangers and ghosts, and its anchored dreams and ideas.

Dictators and extremists have always understood imagination as a threat to their society. In a period of instant communication but limited content, it is worth reflecting on Russian Nobel Prize writer Joseph Brodsky’s warning:

“There are greater crimes than burning books, one is not to read them ”


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