“Its Not That Simple”

May 7, 2013. Somewhere in Siberia — Day 3 of our transsiberian train ride and some insights about Russian history and character have begun to emerge…..or so I thought.

One “insight” — most Russians have fully embraced the entrepreneurial spirit of the new Russia. “Well, its not that simple,” explains Lara our guide for the Russian portion of the trip. Another — the government is investing in the cities along the railroad line and neglecting the small villages and towns in between. Lara corrects me; “its not that simple.” Yet another — the czars were brutal and hated by ordinary Russians before the October Revolution. Again, “its not that simple.”

Our guide in Yekaterinburg, where the executions occurred, echoes this ambiguity and complexity when I ask her if the image of the Romanovs, the dynasty of czars that ended with the brutal execution in 1918 of Nicholas II and his family, has been resurrected.

This train trip has been a ride through Russian history and culture, a story and cast of characters worthy of an HBO series.  And it’s not just about the past. In Russia history and character are very much present in the personalities and issues shaping its future. Trying to pin down what is happening and what people think is like shooting at a moving target. The average Russian’s attitudes about his/her past, present and future are still evolving.

We have only visited two cities so far, Kazan and Yekaterinburg, but if they are any indication, its not just Moscow and St. Petersburg that are thriving. Big modern highways, big shopping centers, big parks, big developments (“big” is big in Russia) dominate the landscape and skylines.

But it’s the people that have made the biggest impression. In Kazan we attended a concert at the Conservatory of Music performed by students ranging in age from 8-16 and were blown away by their virtuosity and passion. I wouldn’t be surprised to see one or more of them perform at Disney Hall in Los Angeles a few years from now.

And hearing the stories of our guide in Yekaterinburg about growing up in fear of American missiles raining down on her town gave me a picture of what the cold war looked like from the other side.

One comment about the train trip – its quite an international collection of passengers. There are about 150 divided up into three language groups – German, the biggest by far, English the second largest, and about a dozen French. We interact almost entirely with the English group which numbers almost 20 and includes couples from Italy, Australia, England, the Netherlands and the US, as well as a mother and daughter from Belgium and the US, a father and son from Peru, and a man from Portugal. I estimate that all except the Italians are in their 50s and older. It is an interesting and engaging group, and there is no shortage of lively conversation. I’ll have more to say about the train, accommodations, food, etc. in future posts.

(Notes – I won’t be adding photos to the posts until we get to a hotel with Wi-Fi in a couple of days. It will take too long to upload via my mobile hotspot and cost way too much. In any case, the trip so far is more cultural than scenic and the weather has been very Soviet – cold and grey – so the photos are interesting but not spectacular.

(For more info on trans Siberian travel check out www.transsiberian-travel.com. For more information about our trip see http://www.lernidee.de/en/transsiberian/trans-siberian-railway.html)