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A Trans-Siberian Journey: How Some Brits Became a Little Russian

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A Trans-Siberian Journey: How Some Brits Became a Little Russian

08.03.2017

One of the key initiatives for the UK-Russia Year of Language and Literature was a trip taken by Russian and British writers along the Trans-Siberian railway. Above all, the English were impressed by Russian train attendants, Siberian Shakespeare fans, and the simple fact that Siberia turned out not to be a vacant landscape, but instead a populated land with cities of millions. On 14-16 March, they will talk about their trip at theLondon Book Fair.

What better way to become acquainted with Russia than a journey by train through the entire country? The British Council agreed and invited several guests on a trip down the Trans-Siberian Railway: the Shakespeare scholar Andrew Dickson, the writers Alisa Ganieva and Joe Dunthorne, the literary critic and journalist Konstantin Milchin, the leader of the rock band Super Furry Animals Gruff Rhys, media artist Francesca Panetta, photographer Maxim Avdeev, and cameraman Arseny Khachaturian. The original plan was for the participants in the TransLit project to travel all the way to Vladivostok. But then they decided to end their trip in Krasnoyarsk. Nevertheless, this shortened trip left them with more than enough memories.


Participants in the TransLit project at work. Photo: Maxim Avdeev

The British participants took preparations for their journey seriously. “The Brits arrived with stacks of books, believing that we would actually be spending lots of time right in the train car, reading and talking amongst ourselves in isolation. But there was no time to read: the intervals between our stops were quite short,” Alisa Ganieva tells Russkiy Mir. It turned out there was no time to read (or still less, to get bored). The travelers were always getting out at station stops, and the longest stage in their journey turned out to be the 24-hour ride from Yekaterinburg to Novosibirsk.

Nevertheless, the train turned out to be quite enjoyable. The first experience to make an impression on the Brits was the train attendants. The restaurant car was run by a large, kindhearted woman, who insisted that we eat our oatmeal for breakfast, just like mom would. We all said no, we don’t want to, but she kept insisting anyway. And when someone didnt finish his oatmeal, she would stand over him and say that no one was leaving until he finished it. It was just like kindergarten, and this greatly amused the Brits, Alisa Ganieva tells us.

Next they discovered that Russian trains were very warm. In general, the indoor heating was a serious challenge for the British participants, as they felt uncomfortably hot everywhere. They were especially exhausted by the need to be constantly removing and putting on clothing as they would go in and out of buildings. How do you live here? they wondered. On the train the Brits would even take refuge in the enclosed space between cars, despite the shaking and terrible cold. In their words, it was like a trip into space for them—it was a kind of Russian (or perhaps British) extreme sport.


Gruff Rhys, leader of the Welsh band Super Furry Animals. Photo: Maxim Avdeev

In each of the four cities visited by the TransLit participants, they were shown something interesting and unusual. For instance, in Yekaterinburg they went to a local cemetery where criminal kingpins of the Urals were buried with expensive monuments on their graves. In Novosibirsk they visited the Academic Town, an experimental biological research station where they are raising a special breed of fox whose fear of humans is being weeded out with each new generation. True, the fox cub they met wasnt happy to see them for some reasonin fact, it cried out in fear and retreated to the corner of its cage. Joe Dunthorne was so strongly affected by this that he even dedicated a poem to the fox cub.

In general, more than anything the Brits were surprised by the number of very large million-person cities that we encountered on our path. They had thought that Siberia was just an empty space, entirely abandoned. But then we would get out and see large cultural centers. Our events were attended by quite a lot of people, who would ask interesting questions, recounts Alisa Ganieva.

In Yekaterinburg they performed in a local wine cellar, a hipster hangout. There was a European traveler in the audience who told them that he was also traveling along the Trans-Siberian railwayalthough he was not traveling by sleeping car but in economy class with the common people in order to understand Russia and the Russian people better. The crowd applauded these words, and they explained to the Brits why they needed to ride in an economy car in order to immerse themselves fully in the reality of Russian life. They also explained the idea of a road confession, when a traveler opens up his soul to an entirely unknown individual. The Brits found this Russian tradition completely unheard of and impossible to understand.


The TransLit Literary Cabaret in Kazan. Photo: Denis Volkov

According to Alisa, there were a lot of young people at their events, especially young women. The young British travelers unexpectedly felt almost like pop stars, and everyone want to take photos with them and get their autograph. Joe Dunthorne, one of whose books was translated into Russian, encountered several fans who had come to their events specifically to embrace their beloved author. There was also very long line of young women for Andrew Dickson, who read lectures on Shakespeare. He said that he had never encountered anything like it in England or in any other European country.

The British visitors were also surprised by the great variety of berry-infused liquors available. According to Alisa, it was simply impossible to accurately translate the full array of names into English. It may have been due to these infused liquors, or maybe the setting was just right, but the British participants were able to let loose and say what they were thinking. According to Ganieva, their conversation would sometimes include phrases like, ‘well, I wouldnt say this back homeit was as if they had switched their brain over to another register and they became a little bit Russian.

By the way, on the topic of language: The travelers didnt let their travel time go to waste: they studied Russian with an instructor. As a result, by the end of their trip they were entirely able to pronounce a little Russian, more or less properly.

After the trip, Andrew Dickson wrote several essays for various sites and Joe Dunthorne composed several poems about the things that most impressed him in Russia. When you look at the map, you understand this countrys size. But when you travel, you experience it entirely differently. Krasnoyarsk alone is gigantic, like an entire country, and there are places that you can only access by helicopter. Experiencing a gigantic country with so many time zones was one of their major discoveries, thinks Alisa Ganieva.


On the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Krasnoyarsk. Photo: Maxim Avdeev

In her observation, foreigners want more and more to spend time precisely in those places that they call the real Russia, to immerse themselves in something authentic. Last year I read at Kings College in London. There, a group of twenty students was planning to travel along the Trans-Siberian railway in the summer.

On 14 -16 March, Alisa Ganieva will once again meet her British travel mates at the London Book Fair. Alisa will present her book Holiday Mountain, which has been translated into English. According to her, despite the distance between her native Dagestan and the UK, there is no shortage of common issues to discuss. Both regions are concerned about Islamification and preserving national identity in the face of globalization. And once common issues are found, its not hard to find a common languageeven in a literal sense: It turns out that Alisas native language, Avar, shares grammatical structures with Welsh, the language of Gruff Rhys.

You can experience the engrossing spirit of a journey across the boundless Russian expanse on the website of The Storytellers multimedia project, which was created to encapsulate their journey along the Trans-Siberian railway.

Svetlana Smetanina

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