Siberia, August 23, 1999
The map says I'm in Siberia and the forest looks different, then why do all the people look the same?
|This week I am in Krasnayarsk, Siberia and I've noticed something
so familiar that I find it odd.
It didn't strike me when I was changing the time zone on my computer and I found that at four hours ahead of Moscow, I'm in the same zone as Bangkok, Jakarta, and Hanoi. It didn't strike me when I read in the Lonely Planet Russia Guide that I'd traveled over 4000 km in the last two weeks on several different Trans-Siberian trains. It hit me when a friend asked me what the buildings in Siberia looked like. They look just like the buildings in European Russia!
Today, after I read his email, I walked around Krasnayarsk looking for Siberian buildings that he would not recognize from his European Russia travels, and I couldn't find a single one! Currently Europe is employing an army of bureaucrats to attempt to do what a few Russian and Soviet leaders (most notably Tzar Alexander III in constructing the Trans-Siberian and Stalin in sending most of the country into exile there) achieved in less than 100 years: complete homogeneity across a very diverse and distant land mass.
To start with, my hotel is no different that the hotels in Ulyanovsk or even Kyiv. The same wood furniture, the same single beds, and the same terminally bored dezhorniya moving the dirt around. Outside, gray Soviet concrete apartment blocks are interspersed between earlier brick apartment buildings. The occasional wood home, ala Dr Zhivago, is the only evidence that any of these Siberian cities were settled before the revolution.
More surprising, even though everyone else at this longitude (or is it latitude?) is eating with chopsticks, I am still surrounded by Russians who'd rather fry potatoes than rice. Only rarely do I see any "Oriental" (for Russians on this side of the Urals are Asians too!) faces in the crowds that pass me as I relax in one of the many outdoor shashlik cafes. I do see all the usual shapes and colors. The majority of Russians have a base European genealogy, with two thousand years of immigrants, two hundred years of Mongol fatherhood, and too many decades of forced relocation that gives 'em a very unique look. I've even gotten to the point that I can pick Russians out of photographs even when everyone is dressed alike!
This same look is here in Siberia, as much as in European Russia, which shows the absolute power of the Tzar and Soviet regimes. Both would ship anyone who even made a peep in protest, to one of the many villages along the Trans-Siberian for re-education. The Tzar would allow petty criminals to go free once they reached their destination, forbidding their return to the other side of the Urals, with hard criminals and political offenders sent a different route. Those who didn't agree with the Tzar's (or Stalin's) rule were sent to one of the many "camps" along the railroad, or even several days march beyond, to extract the amazing mineral wealth that Siberia holds.
The exiles that were allowed to go free (or the handful that survived the camps) formed the base of Siberian culture, which even today is definitely Russian. Unfortunately, this homogeneity occurred at the expense of the local peoples. With rare exceptions, the overwhelming numbers of Russians have assimilated the indigenous peoples.
The only difference I note, is the increasing number of right-hand drive Japanese cars. In Moscow, there are plenty of Hondas, Toyotas, and Nissans, along with the obligatory fleets of black Mercedes, but out here, there is a subtle difference. Instead of being Japanese cars swiped from the homes and streets of Europe and smuggled into Russia, Siberian imports are usually swiped from the homes and streets of Japan.
The first time I rode in a right-hand car, while still driving on the right-hand side of the road, I was too scared to open my eyes. I'm not used to being so near oncoming traffic without a steering wheel to defend myself!