Photos by Maxim Avdeyev
Writer Joe Dunthorne, Shakespeare scholar Andrew Dickson, musician and Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys, and media artist Francesca Panetta travelled on the Trans-Siberian Railway. On the British Council’s invitation they spent several days in the cities of Kazan, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk where they met local residents and experienced Russian culture. On their return they shared their impressions of the trip.
Joe Dunthorne: before the trip to Russia I thought of circus because the Russian circus is very popular in the UK. I had watched a video with St Petersburg clowns Valik and Valerik on YouTube. But, having spent a fortnight in Russia, I did not see any clowns.
Andrew Dickson: Though in Kazan we passed by one such strange building…
It is not my first time in Russia. I have already been here on several occasions. Maybe it is due to the present political climate or the strained relations between our countries but I thought of Russians as of cold, self-confident, unfriendly people. But what we actually experienced was the reverse of what we had imagined. The people turned out open and friendly and at any time they were willing to talk to us. They were interested in discussing Gruff’s music, Shakespeare, Joe’s poetry… It was amazing. And each time many young people came to our performances.
Francesca Panetta: I thought that as soon as we would leave Moscow there would be no signs of the civilization – just a few timbered cottages and wild nature. But the reality was completely opposite. We visited huge, well-developed cities, research centres, theatres, and went to concerts. Everywhere we met artists and writers. I expected a rural idyll. And indeed we passed such places on the train. But the sites that we visited were very different from what I had imagined before our tour.
Joe Dunthorne: we stopped at the village of Ovsyanka near Krasnoyarsk. It was truly an idyllic site. It corresponded to my idea of how a snow-covered Siberian village should look like. They were carrying buckets full of water to their homes in their hands. Huskies [strong dogs used to pull sleds in the snow]were running. It was marvelous! The Yenisey River which flows into the Arctic Ocean…
Gruff Rhys: I thought that Siberia was all tundra. It seemed that Siberia would appear to be a wilderness with a large number of villages, not an urbanized landscape.
ON THE SPACE
Gruff Rhys: in everyday life each of us has very little spare time. We are in a hurry all the time. And during our train journey we were privileged to reflect on what we had seen. We talked about it very much. It seemed that the train was a special world, separated from all other worlds. A bright, warm, safe space where you may walk about in pyjamas. And as you travel on train outside you have -20 degrees Celsius, snow and worlds rushing by. It is a stark contrast. I could spend a few more days, weeks or months on this train… And lose the sense of time at a certain moment.
The fact is that all Russian railways operate on Moscow time. So at some point you have to stop to understand whether you are having breakfast or dinner. And as you are drinking vodka in the dining car, all around becomes jumbled up. Meanwhile, the train is moving forward, slightly rocking.
Francesca Panetta: by means of this project the British Council intended to foster a dialogue between different cultures: the English-speaking and Russian-speaking ones. We were not alone on the train – a Russian woman writer and a Russian journalist journeyed with us. We spent much time discussing absolutely all subjects: from politics and culture to tongue twisters. I fancied that on train we would be looking out of windows romantically. But we spent all our journey talking.
Joe Dunthorne: I felt as if I were at a seminar. But I did not have to do anything special, to deliver any result. We all were travelling in the same carriage, in neighbouring compartments, and this common space inspired us to team up.
Gruff Rhys: we mainly stopped in big cities so it is difficult for us to make a judgement about the rural population. I find the different cultures that we experienced there very interesting. In Kazan I was impressed by the Tatar culture. It was obvious that Krasnoyarsk is another place where various cultures coexist and people speak different languages. When it comes to vast territories, such diversity is a distinctive feature.
Francesca Panetta: as for the pace of life, in the regions we always had to wait for our food at restaurants a long time. And yesterday we went for a meal in Moscow for the first time and were surprised that the restaurant took less than an hour to serve our dinner. In Moscow you sense a fast pace of life: at restaurants they tend to service clients as fast as they can so that they could have more diners per day. In the regions you could stay at a restaurant or a bar for the whole day or night, nobody hurried.
Andrew Dickson: that is true. Another prejudice is associated with Siberia: many think that it is a backward area. Perhaps even some Muscovites are of the same opinion, too. In actual fact, many cultural events take place there, many artists live there. In Krasnoyarsk the former Lenin Museum was turned into Museum of Modern Art. People launch interesting projects, open interesting restaurants. I spoke with one Krasnoyarsk resident and he told me that the city has a diverse population because of the specific character of the region’s history. Criminals, including political prisoners, were exiled there. Now quite a few scientists and musicians reside there. It is an interesting and peculiar mix.
ON THE RUSSIAN AND BRITISH MENTALITIES
Joe Dunthorne: Russia is so huge that it looks like a mini-planet. Between Moscow and Krasnoyarsk our trains ran through vast landscapes. All is done on a large-scale in Russia: streets are laid out, statues are installed, the space exploration programme is being developed. Maybe you don’t think that a country’s size and space exploration programme are interrelated, but I do think so.
Andrew Dickson: I have pondered on various stages of the Russian history along with the existing tensions between Moscow and the rest of the country very much. How can a ruler control vast land areas just from one centre? In the UK this problem even cannot emerge. The country is so small that one can govern it from London without problem. Heads of the regions in Russia may say: ‘We comply with orders that come from Moscow’. But in fact they are doing whatever they want.
Gruff has mentioned a multitude of ethnic groups that can be found within Russia. The question naturally arises: is it one country or an assembly of dozens of smaller countries? I am of opinion that the size and territory of a country have an impact on its people’s mentality, on how they perceive the space around them. In the UK you will not be able to escape to the wilderness. Wherever you go you will be ten miles away from a big town. We were told that the Krasnoyarsk territory is ten times the size of France!
Francesca Panetta: history is such a delicate matter. I believe what makes our trip so interesting is that it can serve as an introduction to the Russian history. We are interested in the history of this country as it is quite dramatic. You can gain an insight into the history of a specific period, for example, the 1990s, by taking a tour of Yekaterinburg’s mafia cemeteries or by talking with the artists who worked in the Soviet era. And though it is not a consecutive narration, it helps you create your own images, based on the places you have visited and the people you have met. I think it is a kind of knowledge that cannot be obtained by reading books or watching documentary films. We were lucky to have been able to create our own collage from different fragments of Russian history. And not only geographically. It was a sort of time travel: in both breadth and depth.
Andrew Dickson: I presume there is an interesting parallel between Britain and Russia. And this theme is worth paying attention to, given the current political tension. The Russian Federation and the UK are empires, or former empires. In some sense both these countries are strong, but in some sense they are weak. Both are trying to redefine their roles in history, in the modern world of technologies and globalization. As you see, Britain has uneasy relations with Europe, as is evidenced by Brexit. Russia and Europe have troubled relations, too. It remains not clear if Russia wants to belong to Europe or to distance itself from it. During my trip to Russia I had a feeling that it was like looking in the mirror. The image was very similar, even though a little distorted. Both countries have a special complex national pride. We think of our politicians in a similar way. During our travel I dwelled on these ‘complex similarities’.
Gruff Rhys: I think of Brexit as of a hangover of the post-colonial period. This is phantom limb pain. A patient still feels the leg which has been amputated. In my view, the rise of British nationalism and such phenomena as Brexit demonstrate this: people feel as if they still had the extremities which actually have been amputated. The sense of space is often a psychological, non-physical category.
ON THE EXPECTATIONS FROM THE TRIP
Francesca Panetta: for me this tour was about people, not places. I wanted to figure out how people themselves saw their place in the modern political and historical context. As I work for a newspaper, I feel that our understanding of the Russian people is very limited. I had anticipated that people would be prone to black-and-white thinking: ‘either for Putin or against Putin’, but in reality I saw a variety of opinions and subtle nuances. The situation appeared to be more positive than I had expected, and the people – more open. I was also looking forward to seeing new sites, though it was not top priority.
Andrew Dickson: I wanted to try the longest train journey in the world, to meditate on the extensive geographical space. And I had a naïve ambition to see real Russia (laughs). But eventually I saw lots of unreal Russias in varied combinations.
We spoke much on the relations with the Soviet past, and that is understandable, taking into account our national history. Astonishingly, the Russian people have a stronger desire to meet with their own past than the British people. They (Russians) are more prepared to look at it from a new angle, to play with it, to analyse it. In a sense, Britons tend to deny their past. I have a feeling that we are yet to rediscover our history, while Russians have the ability to understand theirs.
Gruff Rhys: by a strange coincidence, before receiving an invitation to this trip I was thinking of the futurists and anarchists who strove to create their own republic in Eastern Siberia. And it was interesting to learn that after the Revolution these futurists and anarchists became among the main ideologues of the new Bolshevik authorities. So, I was thinking about it, and, to my amazement, on the following day received this invitation. I rejoiced: ‘Great! I will be able to visit Siberia!’ But, unfortunately, we did not go as far as Eastern Siberia.
Joe Dunthorne: I was interested in the Russian trains. I am passionate about trains, long-distance ones in particular. The trains in Russia did not disappoint me and were fantastic. We changed them several times. The very first one, a double-decked train, was too high-tech and upset me a little bit. But as we headed deeper into Siberia, the trains were older and I got happier.
ON THE CLIMATE
Joe Dunthorne: the temperature dropped every three hours, while we were on train. In Krasnoyarsk it was already -17 degrees at night.
Francesca Panetta: buildings were overheated. So it was too hot inside and too chilly outside. An extraordinary contrast!
Andrew Dickson: I have no idea how you manage to endure temperature differences like these. We were feeling either underdressed or overdressed all the time (all laugh).