In Russia's Far East, A Frayed Link To Moscow | KERA News

In Russia's Far East, A Frayed Link To Moscow

Jan 12, 2012
Originally published on January 13, 2012 10:50 am

After a train journey of nearly 6,000 miles from Moscow, the Russian Pacific port of Vladivostok can feel like a different country. The people and the language are still Russian, but the strong Asian influence is undeniable. And many residents say the bond to the rest of Russia has been growing weaker, while the ties to Asia have been growing stronger since the Soviet breakup two decades ago. NPR's David Greene has this report as he wraps up his journey on the Trans-Siberian railway.

The last of three stories

"Russia, where are you going?" The question was posed nearly two centuries ago by novelist Nikolai Gogol.

Last month, Russians I spoke with during my journey aboard the Trans-Siberian railroad can't fully address that question, or predict their country's future. And after traveling across all of Russia, I can see why.

This is a country in transition, just two decades removed from the traumatic collapse of the Soviet Union and still coping with rapid changes. It is a country in search of an identity — no longer a communist state, but not a democracy either.

And the farther east I traveled, the more apparent it became that there's not much holding the country together. In the U.S., if you asked someone what it means to be an American, most people would have an answer, even if it's not always positive. But you'd likely hear phrases such as "freedom," "democracy" or "land of opportunity."

Many Russians don't seem to have a sense of what defines them as a nation. The former president and current prime minister, Vladimir Putin, has overseen a system that has made a few people very wealthy with a national economy based on energy and minerals. But much of Russia feels no connection to that; in fact, they feel little sense of pride or identity about their country at all.

That sense of detachment is strong in Siberia, a vast frontier of wilderness, industrial towns, timber and mining production, and tragic history. For most people, Siberia conjures an image of an icy wasteland where exiles and political prisoners were sent to live out their days during tsarist and Soviet times.

The view out the train windows confirms the bleak view: the same repeated scene, a snow-covered landscape with the occasional village whirring by. On the short whistle-stops made by the train, conductors chop accumulated ice off the bottom of the rail cars.

A Land Of Exiles

Deep in Siberia, north of the border with Mongolia, the Lake Baikal region is an important landmark in Russian history. People were exiled here — political activists, dissidents, religious minorities. They would stop at the shore and wait for the dead of winter for the water to freeze, so they could cross the lake on horseback.

It's a beautiful but unforgiving landscape, especially in winter, and it binds the residents.

"Here, it's very cold. And they have to help each other," says Alisa Sukneva, one of many descendants of Soviet-era exiles still living in the area. Her grandmother's family was forced to start over in this region in the 1930s.

Sukneva works as a tour guide here. Asked about her thoughts of Moscow and the people running Russia, she says: "I'm not really sure the connection with Moscow is very close."

Lyudmila Nazarova is a member of a religious community whose forebears were exiled here in the 1600s, when they broke with the Russian Orthodox Church. Her feelings on Moscow echoed Alisa's.

"Moscow is just a city," she told me. "It's just a capital, but that's about it."

It wasn't always this way, though. During Soviet times, for better or worse, there was an identity.

Nostalgia For Soviet Times

On a brief stop on the train platform in the city of Amazar, I met a fellow passenger, 62-year-old Inna Khariv. She worked on a mink farm in Soviet times, and now lives on a pension of $300 a month. She is one of many Russians who feel nostalgia about the Soviet era, when many Russians felt a common national purpose, and a welfare state provided employment and health care, however modest compared with Western standards.

"You can argue with me, but this is what we had — we lived with it — we had one faith, one goal," she says. Today, "nothing holds us together." She doesn't like Putin, and she's also disappointed that no other inspiring political figure has emerged.

"I lost my faith in this government, and I lost my faith in our youth," she explains. "We do not have a replacement, [there's] no worthy replacement for us."

Looking To Asia

As their trust in the government has faltered, Russians have begun looking away from their country for opportunities elsewhere — especially in Russia's Far East, where Tokyo and Beijing are literally much closer than Moscow. In this region, Asia is a logical choice.

In Russia's eastern port city of Vladivostok — home to almost 600,000 people and the Russian Pacific fleet — cars have steering wheels on the right-hand side and come from Japan and South Korea. There are almost no Russian-made cars on the roads.

China, especially, has become a huge source of wealth and opportunity.

As one professor put it, "China is our everything." But there's a feeling that some of those opportunities are being missed. For many, the Russian government's historic distrust of China is holding this region back.

Dmitry Granovsky and his wife, Olga, both 37, live in Vladivostok with their four children. They see Russia as too centralized and express hope that a new political system might develop — a federation of states, or something resembling the European Union or the United States.

They don't fear their government, as Russian citizens in the past have, but they are disappointed in how little the government does to provide opportunities for its citizens.

The couple see leaders in Moscow as clinging to the carcass of Soviet times, trying to make it work in a modern era. They express a sense that the current system will collapse.

"Our society is sick," says Olga. "It's ill. It's not healthy. We have no society."

The two of them dream of taking their family to another country, to live and work somewhere that's not so hard. Like so many Russians, they're disappointed with their country, and they're ready for change. But their patience seems as long as the train trip from Moscow to Vladivostok. They are willing to wait for the better system they want so much.

On Vladivostok's Golden Horn Bay, two huge bridges are being built. They are supposed to be finished in time for Vladivostok to host the 2012 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

The structures under construction are awe-inspiring, but they're still incomplete. They seem to be a metaphor for a country that has spent the past 20 years, since the end of Soviet times, trying to build something new — but not quite getting there yet.

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Let's take a final few stops on the Trans-Siberian Railway. David Greene has been taking us on that railway across Russia, and he's going to take us to the region that gives the railway its name, Siberia - David - which of course, we associate with icy wastelands and also, with exiles and prisons.


Yeah, I think that's a pretty accurate image. I mean, Siberia alone is bigger than the United States; it's vast. And it symbolized, as you said, the cruelty - I mean, leaders exiling Russians to get rid of them, and send them off. Today, I think Siberia is beginning to represent something else. It's beginning to represent how difficult it is for Russian leaders to hold this country together, to make sure Russia has one identity. And so we took the train - you cross all of Siberia. I mean, it's just this endless snow and finally things open up, and you see Lake Baikal.


GREENE: It's the deepest freshwater lake in the entire world. There are snowcapped mountains I'm looking at - across, on the opposite shore. This has been an important landmark throughout Siberia's whole history. Some people on their way to exile would have to stop here along the shore, and wait for the dead of winter for the water to freeze, so they could cross the lake on horseback. It's this beautiful but also really unforgiving landscape - especially like now, in wintertime. The water you hear behind me - it isn't frozen yet, but it's getting close. It'll be frozen for several months. You can only stand outside for just so long, and then you start to feel your toes and your fingers getting numb. I mean, you can just imagine how shocking it was for people who because of their politics, or because of their religion, were forced to move out here and begin this new life.


GREENE: One of the groups who began a new life was the Old Believers. They're a religious community in Russia who grew angry back in the 1600s, when the Orthodox Church instituted reforms. That religious disagreement was their ticket to this part of Siberia. And the people who descended from those original exiles are still here, trying to keep the Old Believers tradition alive through music and dance.

LYUDMILA NAZAROVA: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: A group of women from the community invited me into their home, cooked a dinner of Russian pancakes and Baikal fish, and performed some of their music for me. One of them was Lyudmila Nazarova. Having grown up in the harsh climate of Eastern Siberia, Nazarova said she hasn't lost her cultural connection to Russia. But ask her about politics or the future of her country, or who's leading in Moscow, she's ambivalent.

NAZAROVA: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: Moscow, it's just a city - she told me - it's just a capital; that's about it. And that made me wonder about Siberia. There are so many ethnic groups scattered across this region, also the descendants of political activists, dissidents and religious adherents who were moved here. Does anything bind all of these people together? I threw that question to Alisa Sukneva, a bubbly woman with red hair and bright-red lipstick, who's a tour guide around Lake Baikal. Her grandparents were exiled here in the 1930s.

ALISA SUKNEVA: Of course, something holds these communities together. They have to stay alive, all of them. And here is very cold, and they have to help each other.

GREENE: What is the connection to Moscow, would you say, out here?

SUKNEVA: Oh, connection to Moscow - for people, I'm not really sure the connection with Moscow is very close, is very popular here.

GREENE: It wasn't always this way. During Soviet times, there was a deep sense of connection to what Moscow represented. Hard as life was, Russians were proud of Soviet dominance in science, space travel. They felt their country was the envy of the world, in some ways.

INNA KHARIV: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: Sixty-two-year-old Inna Khariv recalls a better life. I met her on a brief stop on the train platform, in the city of Amazar. Bundled up in the cold and between puffs of her cigarette, she told me how she worked on a mink farm in the Soviet era. Now, she lives on a $300-a-month pension, and she's one of many Russians who have nostalgia for communist times.

KHARIV: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: We had one faith, one goal in the Soviet era, she said, adding that today, nothing holds us together. Inna Khariv is no fan of Russia's most powerful politician, Vladimir Putin, but she's also disappointed, feeling that no one else has emerged with anything inspiring to say about the future. As she put it: I lost my faith in this government, and I lost my faith in our youth. We don't have a replacement, no worthy replacement for us.

Inna Khariv and I both boarded the train again and we headed eastward. I was on to my final destination, the port city of Vladivostok.


GREENE: And when I got there, I was truly in Asia - Japan, China, North Korea are all neighbors. What you're hearing here is karaoke at the Pyongyang Cafe.


GREENE: People on the roads in Vladivostok are driving Japanese cars with the steering wheels on the right. Russian- made cars - they're scarce. Out here, as trust in Russia's government has faltered, people seem not so much in the mood to protest, but more to look elsewhere for opportunity. Dmitry Granovsky and his wife, Olga, are both 37, and they're raising four children here.

OLGA GRANOVSKY: Our young people - some of our young people have never been to Moscow, or to St. Petersburg or other cities in central Russia.

DMITRY GRANOVSKY: We've got generations of kids, like teens, who - never been to European part of Russia, but been throughout Asia.

GREENE: And so China, Japan...

DMITRY GRANOVSKY: China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan.


GREENE: This city, Vladivostok, has a university and younger, educated citizens. I thought people would feel invested in what was taking place 6,000 miles to the west, in Moscow - these anti-government protests.

People on the streets calling for change, calling for a different president...

DMITRY GRANOVSKY: It's done for people like you. It's just a political show.

GREENE: This couple, as you can hear, doesn't fear speaking out. And they don't fear their government, as some Russian citizens have in the past. But they see leaders in Moscow clinging to a carcass of Soviet times, still committed to a centralized system of government that can't provide for the citizens of this vast country.

DMITRY GRANOVSKY: Nowadays, Russia doesn't have any sort of society - I mean social society, public society.

OLGA GRANOVSKY: Our society is sick.

GREENE: But like so many of the Russians I met along the way, Olga and Dmitry are mostly waiting, and hoping, for change to come. Their patience seems as long as a train trip from Moscow to Vladivostok.

INSKEEP: Totally different perspective on Russia from our colleague David Greene. David, we hear so much about Vladimir Putin, about the Kremlin. We'll hear more, but it's not often you get out into Siberia. And people can hear your earlier reports, I should mention, at

GREENE: They can also see a lot of David Gilkey's photos. NPR's photographer was along for the ride, took a lot of the shots of the people and scenes of Russia. I do want to mention one other name, Steve, NPR's Moscow producer, Sergei Sotnikov(ph). I've worked with him the last two years, including on this journey. Puts a lot of effort into this network, and a shoutout to him. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.