One night in 2011, I had my iPhone plugged into a wall socket in the hallway to charge
it. As we pulled out of a city I saw the single bar of phone coverage disappear, and I didn't
have service for hours. I just stood there, gazing out into this vast, white Siberian landscape
that was lit by the moon at midnight. I felt melancholy, this feeling that Russians are living
in some sad darkness, unable to see the future that could await them if they only fought
harder. And yet something about the poetry of the place, the pain people have been through,
the laughter and strength and kindness from so many I've met, all made me want to smile.
Before leaving Sagra back in 2011, Rose and I gave Andrei our phone numbers, and
promised to stay in touch. I bought three new bottles of vodka and asked Andrei to give
two of them to the neighbors (who were supposed to receive the ones I broke) and to keep
one for his family. I told Sergei and Rose that I had to return to Sagra, to learn more.
. . .
W E FINISH UP dinner and tea at the hotel restaurant in the center of Izhevsk, and cab to the
train station. Our FSB friends are still with us. We saw them ask for their check at the res-
taurant as soon as we did. We saw them leave the lobby of the hotel just after us. Now
we see them on the platform. Since we have no family to bid us farewell here, this almost
makes me feel special, that a couple of thuggish strangers are seeing us off!
To reach Izhevsk we had to detour off the Trans-Siberian main line. Tonight we are
heading north to the Russian city of Perm, on the western edge of the Ural Mountains. We
have to lay over there for a few hours, then rejoin the main line, cross the Ural Mountains,
and reach Ekaterinburg where Andrei is picking us up for our trip to Sagra.
The trip has been grueling, frustrating, exciting, with unexpected twists at every
step—but you fall into a routine that gets you by. Often I'm especially in the dark because I
don't know the language. It strikes me—what a metaphor for how Russians approach their
lives. In a way I feel that's how the Russian government keeps citizens in the dark—laws
are never clear, courts are unreliable, punishments are arbitrary—it's like living in a place
where the people in charge are speaking a language you never understand. And consider
what that does to any impulse to speak up.
I remember on one Russian Trans-Siberian train a pleasant young woman with dyed
blond hair stumbled into my compartment and seemed delighted to have found a foreigner.
She was holding a plate of pirozhki, little stuffed pies—these had cabbage—and said in
very broken English, “You get all, twelve hundred rubles. Deal good, very good.” I wasn't
understanding, so I asked if I could find my translator. “No, no. No. good deal. Pay, please.”
I wasn't inclined to fight with an employee with whom I would be sharing a train for days,