By Bob Braban - Editor
For much of my 35 years as an RAF officer and on odd occasions as a freelance journalist, I studied Russia and its people, their character, attitude to the rest of the world, their likely resolve in the event of conflict and the economics of their nation, to develop an understanding of the Russian national character. Or did I? In truth, I studied and assimilated what my government told me about their perception of the government of the USSR. It was, of course, referred to as the Soviet Union, but Russia was the driving force, the other governments being of very little consequence in the overall picture, except for their manpower, land mass and natural resources. What my government told me was largely invalid outside of those government circles. Since then, I have visited Russia on a number of occasions, developed close ties with two Russian families, met many of the people and confirmed what I have for long believed; that governments are seldom more than a remote reflection of the people they govern.
Governments are largely made up of people whose oxygen of life is power over others; the majority of the remaining population being generally happy if they can retain power over their own lives. The Russian revolution took from the Russian people their individual freedom in such a way that there was probably very little any other nation could have done to prevent it. The hardships and atrocities of the years that followed are well documented, but today Russia is slowly emerging from those dark days. There is still an all-pervading air of suspicion about foreigners, there is outrageous bureaucracy and, in many ares, decaying infrastructure. However, with each visit one sees improvements in lots of areas. The first and most obvious change is that the brown-uniformed, finger wagging Godzillas have gone from the sinister immigration booths, and with them the ability and desire to imprint through five pages of your passport with a single blow from their stamp! They have been replaced by more friendly faces, in crisp white blouses and a more gentle touch. Where did Godzilla go? Traditionalists will be pleased to hear that she has joined the room security staff at the various museums, where a single stare and a wag of the finger can still condemn an erring visitor to a state of petrifaction.
Russia is a vast country, spanning eight time-zones, with a wealth of natural resources, a population comprising a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds, most being eager to meet people from other nations or distant regions of their own. Above all, there are truly wonderful things to see. Siberia (common English transliterations: Sibir’, Sibir; Tatar: Seber) is a vast region of Russia and northern Kazakhstan constituting almost all of northern Asia. It extends eastward from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean and southward from the Arctic Ocean to the hills of north-central Kazakhstan and the borders of both Mongolia and China.
All but the extreme south-western area of Siberia lies in Russia, and it makes up about 56% of that country's territory. It was against this background that we set out with 104 others, on a journey across Russia on the Transsiberian Railway, a lifeline without which Siberia would still be a vast wasteland occupied only by tribal settlements.
Irkutsk - Central Siberia - A wooden house of bygone days
Selling cigarettes to passengers at a Siberian train station
Novosibirsk - Central Siberia. Lenin still dominates the central square
The Winter Palace. St. Petersburg. Home to much of the Hermitage Museum
The Transsiberian Railway, passing through the heart of Siberia, covers 9288 kilometres (about 5,772 miles) from Moscow to the home of the Russian Pacific Fleet, Vladivostok was built between 1891 and 1916 and the trip from Moscow is the longest single railway journey in the world. The line became imperative after the founding of Vladivostok in 1860 and its growth into a major Pacific port by 1880. A National Geographic article of 1896 reports ' The Russian budget for 1897 assigns 65,000,000 Rubles to to the continuation of the Trans-siberian Railway and its opening will be an event scarcely less important than the opening of the Suez Canal. 5,000 miles of steel rails have been laid already at a cost of 350,000,000 Rubles and in 1898 trains are to run to the Amur river. Passengers, post parcels and freight will be pushed on by fast steamer to Chaborowka and thence over the South Russian section of the Siberian road to Vladivostok, thus making the distance from London to the Japan Sea in 17.5 days, the journey by sea taking 30 days. The London to Vladivostok ticket will cost US$119 first class, with the sea journey via Brindisi and the Suez Canal costing US$428'.
The importance of Vladivostok as an outlet to the Pacific Ocean can be appreciated when viewed in the context of Russia's status as a trading nation and important military power, and the difficulties with sea access in its Eastern regions.The railway was commenced at either end (Vladivostok and Moscow), using principally convict labour and Russian soldiers. One of the major obstacles was Lake Baikal, some 40 miles east of Irkutsk and the section of track from Irkutsk to Slyudyanka was only completed in 1950. The enormity of the task becomes even clearer when one takes account of the weather, with just three months of the year being considered 'reasonable' working conditions. Add the engineering difficulties caused by the permafrost and the achievement assumes even greater proportions. Electrification of the line was completed between 1929 and 2002, when the last of the Transsiberian steam trains was discontinued.
Today, despite the loss of steam, it is a romantic journey, though one for travellers rather than tourists. It passes through the Ural Mountains, crosses the Volga River and provides the single life-line through territory that would otherwise remain uninhabitable. Even today, the people who live left and right of this artery have a tough life, enduring up to nine months of winter, with temperatures dipping to a bracing -50C. Children are excused school attendance when the temperature reaches -25C!
This truly is the enigmatic journey of a lifetime and a wonderful experience for anyone who is fortunate enough to have the opportunity to complete it.
If you would like to follow the journey through story and picture, follow the link to our separate site. Enjoy
Nothing is more certain than uncertainty,
Fortune is full of fresh variety,
Constant in nothing but inconsistency.
Richard Barnfield (1574 - 1627)