Last week we acknowledged the centenary of the final nail in the Trans-Siberian Railway’s iron track. Well, frankly someone had to. As discussed: the fanfare had already sounded, 100 years after the line connected Vladivostok in the East to European Russia. 2016 is essentially the anniversary of a correction; the re-routing of the line across difficult territory that crucially avoided a risky incursion through Northern China. Who celebrates a correction? Well, we do it seems.
Aside from the profound technical achievement of the line, the impact upon commerce and the the lives of common folk was equally remarkable. The ultimate use and effect of the invention overshadows the mere nuts and bolts every time.
‘K’, my knowledgeable advisor and historian of such matters advises me: “It was like a moon landing; a miracle for the peasants”. Picture the touching scene of Siberian commoners turning out in their best clothes to greet the arrival of this steam-driven, mechanical marvel as it graced their local station. Yes, some were there to ride the machine from the future, but others just came to gaze in awe and excitement, brushed down and tidied up to offer the wondrous locomotive the respect that it deserved.
It is important to state that the railway was not a mere plaything for the rich, a short, 3rd class trip was within financial reach of enough folk for the railway to be a part of the lives of the relatively poor – and we are talking in relative terms here. As ‘K’ reminds me: “short” and “long” to an inhabitant of Russia or Siberia does not mean the same as it does to a provincial UK resident like myself. 100 to 200 miles? That’s a short trip, just down the street in a country whose magnificent Lake Baikal could comfortably swallow the surface area of England. They say “lake”, we say “inland sea”. Do you get the idea?
So anyway, I asked ‘K’ a “Westerners” question – I suppose it had to happen sooner or later: “Did the Trans-Siberian railway allow those living in Siberia to leave and move to the city?”. I have a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation. ‘K’ elaborates: “Westerners believe that Siberia is just ice and gulags”. Well I didn’t believe that but I take his wider point: we know relatively little about Siberia and often fall back on stereotypes. That is a stereotypical view of us, on “their” part, but I digress.
‘K’ goes on to explain that there is not the same evacuation to the bright lights in Siberia, as we often see in the West, nor is there the unspoken (or even spoken) assumption that heading to the city is automatically trading up, or that rural or provincial life is a 2nd rate existence. I find it hard to imagine a ‘high-flyer’ in Moscow looking upon an impoverished Siberian smallholder as an equal, but I know neither, and we are talking in general terms, right?
The point is that a life in Siberia was (is?) considered equally valid, but different and with its own blessings: the tuning in to the natural cycle of life, space and the beauty of the surroundings, the change in pace. It marks a different mindset, and an arrival at a different truth about existence.
In more prosaic terms: Siberia also had no serfdom, so freedom, independence and indeed trading up to a life of your own would often involve heading East, into the countryside and away from the ‘developed’ West. Trade up: move to the country! As Katie Aune says in her blog: “In my opinion, one of the best things about the Trans-Siberian is the opportunity it affords you to see more of Russia than just Moscow and/or St. Petersburg”.
One fabulous image that stays with me from my talk with ‘K’ concerns the decor in the houses of well-off peasants (not an oxymoron in Siberia) of the Northern Urals. They would have painted inner walls, depicting the joyous beauty of their surroundings: the birds, the flowers, nature in its finery. And there, sometimes, in the corner: a painted shadow of an incongruous mechanical form, the distinct man-made shape of a billowing steam train: a new wonder in it’s own right.