David Greene‘s reporting memoir of his journey on the Trans Siberian Railway, Midnight In Siberia: A Train Journey Into the Heart of Russia, provides a view of Russia that gets out of the urban centers and into the heart of the country where small communities fight to survive, often against their own government. He finds a balance between personal narrative and professional reporting that made this an excellent exploration of a very different world.
Greene paints loving portraits of those he meets even as he struggles to understand their perspective of loving their country despite its flaws. He finds that perspective particularly difficult, he admits, when he spends time with people like him, urban professionals who are “happy with our jobs, enjoying our friends, the local music scene, and vacations together.” They should, at least in Greene’s opinion, want more of a Western style of life with freedoms and opportunities. They are willing to live in a country that they admit is “ill,” something he and Rose do not believe about the society in which they live.
That view shows a blind spot in Greene’s view of the United States that kept getting in my way. Here is his description of Russia:
This is a wild, entertaining place full of culture, creativity, and craziness. I understand why Russians go to the United States and find it boring and too controlled. Here, it’s the Wild West, for better or worse. Worse, surely, if you have to live here with little means. For those with wealth the place must feel like an electrifying vacation where any amount of adventure or luxury is possible. For people without money, the chaos must be a cruel existence, because life can feel so uncertain. Little is possible, and little seems fair. I have kept that in mind at every stop on this journey, tempering the fun and wild moments with a dose of reality (p. 279).
I wonder what a poor person in the United States would make of this description? In an earlier passage, Greene references the corrupt, chaotic legal system in Russia and, again, seems to be blind to the failings of his own country when it comes to those not living the upper middle class life in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
No one said, I’m satisfied with the system in Russia–let’s leave it as it is. As an American, sure, I’d love to make some tweaks. But all in all, if a Russian writer came and asked me, I would say I am pretty proud of what I have. No one is Russia said that (p. 287).
Again, this passage is tone deaf to real structural problems in the United States around equity and justice. A few tweaks? I suspect, he would find Americans living in poverty and experiencing injustice, who also loved their country and carry that same pride but would not be quite as satisfied with the system as Greene seems to be.
Here is where reading both opens us to a new world but also reminds us that authors write from their own perspective, their own lens on the world. Greene did, during the early days of the Obama administration, make a similar trip into the heart of America to see how the recession was impacting Americans. I wonder if the interesting book might be to compare apples to apples: impoverished, struggling Americans living in small, dying towns with their counterparts in Russia.