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In Siberia

16 August 2019

In SiberiaIn Siberia by Colin Thubron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After reading The Lost Heart of Asia by the same author, I was looking forward to some new insights into Siberia, the eastern part of the Russian Federation, which is bigger than any country in the world apart from Russia itself. Thubron travelled across it from west to east, mainly by the Trans-Siberian Railway, and its northern branch, the Baikal-Amur Railway (BAM), with side trips to various other places by plane, bus and river boat.

In his travels he met and conversed with many different people, most of whom he had met by chance, and it is his reports of conversations with these people that helps to give one a sense of the place and what it is like, and what the people are like. In some places he invited himself to stay with such people, as he made no travel arrangements in advance. so the people he met and the places he stayed at were unpredictable. He visited Ykaterinburg, where the last Tsar and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks. The house where they were held immediately before their death, which he describes in some detail, had been demolished, lest it become a place of pilgrimage.

Colin Thubron wandered off the site into a nearby garden and down a track which led to a rubbish tip, where he shared supper and a sleeping place with a tramp who had camped there for the night. It is the comments and insights of such chance-met people that give the book its unique flavour. At another town not far away he searched for the home of Rasputin who had such an influence on the royal family. He met a man who looked like Rasputin and made the most of the resemblance. Was he related? Well, not certainly, but his great-grandmother was once a housemaid in the Rasputin household, and Rasputin was a notorious womaniser, so…

Thubron flies off to visit a remote mine inside the Arctic Circle, where most of the work was done by prisoners, political and criminal, and visits the ruins of the prison barracks where so many overworked and underfed prisoners died.

Further down the line he visited Novosibirsk, and the nearby town of Akademgorodok, which was built as the ultimate academic scientific research centre, with no expense spared, until the money ran out. It was literally fantastic. It was a bit like the home of the academics in Herman Hesse‘s The Glass Bead Game, But what it has become since the fall of Bolshevism is something that goes beyond the wildest fantasy dreamed up in Jonathan Swift‘s Laputa. Thubron interviews people who work there and somehow manages to keep a straight face as they tell him of their fanciful and crackpot theories.

Perhaps the most depressing part of the book is his description of a four-day boat trip down the polluted Yensei River. On the way back he persuades the captain of the boat to drop him off at a village where the only person in employment is the village doctor, and he, like many other civil servants, hasn’t been paid for months. In the economic collapse after the fall of Bolshevism the only thing left for the villagers to do was get drunk on their pensions, if they arrived.

One thing that I didn’t so much like about the book was the way that the author’s bias against Orthodox Christianity hardened into prejudice as the book went on. One of my reasons for reading the book was to get an idea of how the Orthodox Church was recovering from Bolshevik persecution, but though Thubron is is sympathetic towards Buddhists, and pagans, and even to some extent towards Old Believers and neopagans, he rarely has a good word to say about the Orthodox. In the Buddhist monastery they sang and prostrated themselves, but in the Orthodox one the singers were “crazed-looking youths” and the nuns were sobbing as though “something must be expurgated for ever”.

This bias nearly made me give it three stars on GoodReads rather than four, but this morning I heard Dr Gerhard Wolmarans of the University of Pretoria speaking about C.S. Lewis’s book on literary theory, An Experiment in Criticism, in which he writes about the difference between using a book and receiving a book. According to Wolmarans, Lewis maintained that when reading a book we need to take the author’s conceptions at least as seriously as we take out own, even if we disagree with them. So I thought about this a bit too. Yes, Colin Thubron seemed to have a pretty shallow conception of Orthodoxy, and to approach it with a lot of prejudice, but perhaps the Orthodox he encountered in his travels also had a fairly shallow conception, and did not communicate it to him very well.

I wondered if he had perhaps read the biography of St Innocent of Alaska and Moscow, who was a missionary among the Aleuts of Alaska and the Evenk people of Eastern Siberia, which might have given him a different picture of the relations between Orthodox and pagans in Alaska and Siberia — see St Innocent:Apostle to America, And to show the lasting effect of such things, a book like Nuvendaltin Quht’ana: the people of Nondalton, which shows how the influence of such Orthodox missions has lasted for two centuries or more.

In many ways In Siberia is a depressing book. The economic collapse, the pollution, the hopelessness of many, and the relics of Stalin’s Gulag and the mass murders that went with it don’t make for happy reading.

View all my reviews

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 16 August 2019 7:16 pm

    This review makes the book seem a bit grim, but it still looks like something I’d be interested in reading – and the last two books you mention (on Saint Innocent and the missions in Alaska) seem to be right up my alley.

    I’m very interested in the Evenki missions and culture you mention here. I’m currently reading Chi Zijian’s The Last Quarter of the Moon, which is a novel written from the perspective of an Evenki nomad situated between Soviet and Chinese cultures during the Pacific theatre of WWII. I’ve also got some of Sergei Shirokogoroff’s ethnographical treatments of the Evenki in relation to northern Chinese culture sitting on my shelf; hope to get to those someday soon.

    Thanks so much for this review and for the other recommendations!

    Matt (The Heavy Anglo Orthodox)

    • 17 August 2019 5:49 am

      It is pretty grim, especially the river trip and the visits to the relics of mines where prisoners worked, but still well worth the read.


  1. In Siberia — Khanya – Truth Troubles

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