“We'll manage that.”
With that we shake hands, and Robert is already offering his next guest tea and a seat.
Sergei and I quietly gather our things and walk outside onto the street to look for a taxi.
Talking to Robert makes me even more eager to return to Sagra, and to reconnect with
Andrei. He and his family have tested democracy in Russia, whatever it is. And I wonder if
he feels that he has overcome the barrier Robert mentioned between people and power—the
feeling that as a citizen you can't interact with power in this country. It just exists and does
its thing. And you do yours.
I T'S THE MIDDLE of the afternoon, and the sun is setting in Perm as Sergei and I arrive back
at the train station—dragging all our luggage, since we didn't want to leave it in the storage
room. Oddly enough there are no “friends” in sight. Maybe they have finally decided that
an American writer riding the rails is no real threat.
Sergei and I are ravenous. We find a food stand outside the train station. I wait with our
suitcases. The weather has turned bitterly cold—I desperately dig out my gloves, as my
hands are already feeling numb. Sergei buys four beers, a bag of piroshki (the same pastries
I tried to buy on the train—this time they have their filling), and chechel (a stringy, salty
cheese from the former Soviet republic of Georgia). We board our train, chow down, and
relax, taking in the scene out the window.
Over four hours our train moves into the famous but less-than-impressive Ural Moun-
tains. Even with the benefit of daylight, they don't look like much—foothills, really, mak-
ing you expect the giant peaks to arrive, but they never do. Symbolically, though, the Urals
are an important marker. They divide Europe and Asia and mark the official beginning of
Siberia. The borders of Siberia differ depending on who you ask—the official Russian re-
gion extends from the Urals to west of Lake Baikal, not even close to the Pacific Ocean. But
most geographers and historians consider Siberia to be all of Russia east of the Urals—all
the way to the Pacific, all the way to North Korea to the southeast and Alaska to the north-
east. Russia as a country is already by far the world's biggest geographically. Siberia alone
is 5.1 million square miles—meaning somewhere close to 1.5 United States of America
(yes, including Alaska) could fit inside Siberia.
Aside from most of the place being very empty and very cold, it is hard to generalize
about it. In fact, it's not always even cold. Parts of Siberia get horribly warm and bug infes-
ted during the summer months, making many people dream of the snow and twenty-four
hours of darkness in the winter. The topography is different in different places. So are the
cultures. There are scores of different ethnic pockets and native languages. The Siberia that
borders North Korea is nothing like the Siberia that Sarah Palin marvels at, which is noth-
ing like the Siberia that Sergei and I will see when we head farther east from here.