Midnight in Siberia - heart of drunkeness
So what is Russia like after Gorbachev, then Yeltsin and now Putin? Midnight in Siberia gets off to an odd start, as the author arrives to work in Russia, as a journalist, not having learnt the Cyrillic alphabet. Even the word PECTOPAH bemused him. Bad start but he a curious guy and with the help of his companion/translator Sergei, takes the fabled Tran-Siberian train, stopping off to interview the people that live in the remotest part of the world. Remember that Russia is BIG - by far the biggest country in the world. Siberia alone is 1.5 times the size of the US.
On a steady stream of vodka, tea and flowers, he interviews an oddball selection of Russians. The alcohol consumption is outrageous, as bad as I remember, when strangers would simply send a full bottle of vodka to your table and expect one in return. This is a country where 60% of men smoke and each person consumes four gallons of pure alcohol a year with half the population classed as obese.
As he attempts to shatter the ice-cold, rude, unsmiling face of public Russia to reveal the warmer, private lives of people. Leaving behind the status-hungry, greedy managers of Moscow, who’d rather order the most expensive than the best wine, he’s soon in a friendlier but complex world that craves for stability. Most of the women he meets are divorced, but holding things together. Trust in the authorities (police, government and law) is hard to find and corruption rampant. People protect themselves by keeping their heads down.
His golden rule is to ‘never ask why’, which is, oddly, exactly what he does. The answers are often surprising as he encounters nostalgia for Soviet security, even Stalin. People crave stability, strong leaders and even when they travel, have a longing for the sort of suffering that seems an intrinsic part of their lives. The joy of the book, and it is a joy, is in the detail. The pagan beliefs that hang on with a mirror beside the front door and the refusal to shake your hand across a doorway, the personal tragedies, the weird stories and incomprehensible cruelties, the irrational attempts at order on an underlying chaos.
Since writing this book Russia has gone down a gear economically but the book suggests that Putin will weather this storm on the back of a people who, in practice, no longer trust or rely on politicians to solve their problems. In the end, however, what he finds and reveals is something I also encountered, a strange addiction to fatalism. I travelled twice to the Soviet Union, over three decades ago, from St Petersberg to Moscow, way down to Kiev, Bukkara, Dushanbe, Tashkent and Almata. It was both exhilarating and infuriating, and remains the strangest, most foreign, enigmatic place I’ve ever been. Thirty five years later, with a great many books about Russia under my belt, it remains as odd a place in my imagination as it’s ever been!