Travel Reference
In-Depth Information
After he began funding and supporting political parties in opposition to Vladimir Putin,
Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003 on charges of tax evasion and sent to a Siberian pris-
on camp. I interviewed Khodorkovsky, by way of letters from prison, in 2010, and he
urged Westerners to see Russia “beyond the window dressing.” Russia is a country, he said,
“where a political opponent can be sent to prison for many years and have his property
taken from him. You have to see Russia as a country where society views all this with indif-
ference, where the elite keep silent.” Khodorkovsky speaks to Russia's modern-day iden-
tity crisis. The “window dressing”—a nation with elections and foreign investment that's
eager to welcome tourists—hides a nation with all the repression of Soviet times, made
even worse by corruption and a race for money.
I T'S COMPLICATED to consider the Trans-Siberian's impact on Russia's economy. In the early
days critics saw building the railroad as wasteful. But closer to completion, others thought
pouring money into the project was driving economic growth. What's more, it made it easi-
er for the Soviet government to transport people and resources and industrialize Siberia.
But that may now be part of Russia's problem. In their 2003 book, The Siberian Curse ,
scholars Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy describe how many remote cities are all but cut off:
“They have no railways or major highways linking them to the rest of the country, while
airline tickets remain prohibitively expensive.” Riding the Trans-Siberian, you meet pas-
sengers who need to reach isolated places—for work, or to see family or friends—and the
Trans-Siberian is their only option. They may get off the train in a large city, then drive
hundreds of miles to reach their destination. But the question Hill and Gaddy ask: Should
so many people be living in these places? They argue that the Soviet government, by relo-
cating people and industries to some of the coldest, harshest, and most remote places on the
planet, made “monumental errors” that now explain many of Russia's economic struggles.
In a way, traveling the railway can feel as if you are riding down Russia's spine, seeing the
link that connects so many disparate places. Deeper considerations notwithstanding, today
a Trans-Siberian train adventure is a dream destination for travelers all over the world,
mentioned in the same breath as the Orient Express and the Queen Elizabeth II .
Sergei and I are headed for Vladivostok—but not on a famous Trans-Siberian train. We
chose train No. 240 because it makes a stop in Yaroslavl, a hockey-obsessed city several
hours east of Moscow. Midnight has passed, but our train doesn't board for another forty
minutes. Holding his plastic cup of tea, Sergei is a bit nervous. He purchased our tickets for
this first leg from NPR's travel agent, and for the first time, she offered “electronic” tick-
ets. We have no formal tickets—just a printed-out itinerary. Elsewhere in the world, this
would be a welcome, modern convenience. Russia being Russia, the thought of a train at-
tendant happily welcoming us onto a train without a fancy ticket with a pretty stamp—an
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