From Siberia with Love – Reflections on a Trans-Siberian Rail Passage

By Nasser Tufail

Dr. Zhivago’s Yuryatin

Having started in Moscow over 20 hours ago, here I am, once again journeying through the snow covered forests of Kirovskaya and Permskaya oblasts in Siberia, reminded of Boris Pasternak’s epic love story of a man torn between two women set against the turmoil of the Russian Revolution.

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Doctor Zhivago

My trans‐Siberian train journey across the vast open wilderness of the Ural mountains brings me, yet again, to Yuryatin, the imaginary city in the immortalized book (and film), Dr. Zhivago. Situated on the banks of Kama River, in real life, the place is actually called Perm. Lara’s house on Ulitsa Lenina and the public reading room where she first met Yuri on Ulitsa Sibirskaya are not far from here. Perhaps the ardent kiss between Yuri Zhivago and Lara Antipova might have been the greatest osculation in cinema history, but the Siberia that must have been on Pasternak’s mind as he wrote the book is not quite the landscape of Spain and Finland depicted in the film!

The Bolsheviks made loyalty and patriotism irrelevant; sacrifice and love mattered not. Yet, the finale of the narrative in Pasternak’s book was fabulously unobtrusive ‐ that love always prevails. The Communists forced Pasternak to renounce the greatest tribute accorded him as a writer – ‘Nobelevskaya Premiya’ (the Nobel Prize). Two years later, Boris would die a broken man. Of what transgression did he stand condemned? Making the whole world weep for joy at the breathtaking beauty of his land that I am traversing through? It is a sad irony that the redemption of his mortal remains would be delivered from the reality that his literary masterpiece outlived Bolshevism, something he did not live to see. Living proof then, I reckon, of the enduring sway of art over the evanescence of life – ‘ars longa, vita brevis’. Doctor Zhivago would not get published in the Soviet Union until 1988, and Pasternak’s son, Yevgeny, would finally accept the Nobel Prize on his father’s behalf in Stockholm a year later.

From mundane to bravura, the landscape may have changed somewhat along the way from Moscow, but there has never been a dull moment on the journey so far. The scenery has been noticeably devoid of hard‐sell billboards, even going through some sizeable population centers. I have seen plenty of those kind in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, similar to the ubiquitous Marlboro and Camel men promoting their cancer sticks and the self-assured PETA supermodels in birthday suits (Naomi Campbell, Christie Turlington, Eva Mendes, Elle McPherson – take your pick) making their pledges that they’d “rather go naked than wear fur”. I suspect if one of those fine bare ladies were plunked deep in Siberia, they’d scream for the real McCoy, and rather wear skin… than bare skin!

A “Brown American” in Perm with Olga

I have taken the Eastbound ‘Rossiya’ train from Moscow. The tri-color livery in white, blue and red stripes on the carriages are reminiscent of the colors of the Russian flag, and ‘РОССИЯ’ is displayed prominently. It is quite comfortable with sleeper berths, clean toilets and a restaurant carriage somewhere in the middle. You can always find English speaking staff for assistance. I have barely traveled a fifth of the total journey on this trans‐Siberian train that will eventually cover a total of 9,289 kilometers from Moscow to Vladivostok and go through seven time zones, making it the longest train ride in the world. After having made three stops earlier, we arrive in Perm where I break my journey.

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Trans-Siberian Railway ‘Rossiya’ train

It’s late at night and I take a taxi from the train station, go straight to my hotel and turn in early to get some rest. I plan to spend the next day with Olga, my trusted guide, re‐exploring this lovely city of Perm until it’s time to catch my next train to Yekaterinburg at night. I first got introduced to Olga four years earlier through a common friend and met her again two years later when I came to investigate the possibility of getting log homes from Perm. That is another story, for another day. Olga sometimes works as a part time guide. Her English is pretty good for someone from Perm, where not that many people speak good English, unlike some folks living in Moscow or St. Petersburg.

As sure as the rising sun and as fresh and lovely as morning dew, I might add, Olga is in the lobby to meet me at 9:00 am. “How wonderful to see you again, Olga, you look marvelous,” I say with unrestrained excitement.  “And you look good too; I am so happy to see you”, she says, as she gives me a hug. “Did you manage some sleep”, she asks. “Slept like those logs we saw floating in the river outside Anastasia’s father’s log factory… remember?” Olga is a very affable and charming lady.

Olga loves western chocolates and so I brought along boxes of Godiva and Lindt which she very much appreciates. This time, Olga has arranged for me to visit my ‘fellow Americans’ at the ‘Американский уголок’ – American Corner (equivalent to an American Center) located in the Perm State regional library on Lenin Street. Her friend, Yelena, who works at the A‐Corner, tries to camouflage her befuddlement on seeing a brown American; Olga had only mentioned to her that I was American. I try to explain the concept of a naturalized citizen. She cackles and chortles with a blush and offers me tea or coffee. I graciously accept her offer for coffee. “American coffee”, she asks with a sneaky grin? “Brown American coffee”, I submit… “make that naturalized brown American, will ya”. We are about to fall down laughing when this big burly guy resembling a lumberjack shows up and joins in the light hearted conversation. His name is Michael but his American colleagues call him ‘Big Mikee’. Mike speaks fluent Russian and is married to a country girl, Oksana, from a nearby village in Vanyuki. He tells me that he came to this place on some field study trip many years ago and stayed on after falling in love with this charming Russian lady he now calls his wife. After chatting a bit and finishing my coffee, I get up to leave as I thank my hosts and invite them to visit me in Dubai some time. I turn to Yelena and offer “bolshoi spacibo” (many thanks) for the coffee. She smiles, saying that she would like to visit Dubai one day, and I respond that it would only be my pleasure for her to visit, adding that she should bring Olga along with her too.

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Lenin Street, Perm

Perm was one of the main centers of the Russian military industrial complex during the cold war days and for a long time remained a very closed and secret zone, cut off from the rest of the country outside the Urals. In fact, for some time Perm did not even appear on Soviet maps. Olga remembers my interest in aviation and military technology from my last trip and suggests a visit to the manufacturing facilities and museum in the Motovilikha district. The artillery museum is partially open‐air and has on permanent display some of the great rockets, ballistic missiles and artillery vehicles from different generations.

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Motovilikha Plants museum, Perm

Next, we visit Aviadvigatel, the famous Perm Motors, Plant 19 where another one of Olga’s friends who works there has arranged a short tour. This facility manufactures engines for aircraft designed by the Tupolev, Ilyushin, Mikoyan and Mil factories. Although the buildings are run down and reminiscent of the old Soviet era architecture, it is nonetheless quite an awe inspiring feeling to be right in the heart of a district that churned out some great technology.

The Perm State Art Gallery is our next destination, a mere 5 minute walk from my hotel. The entrance fee is just a few token Rubles, perhaps the equivalent of $1.50 or $2.00! Housed in a former Cathedral, the museum has some really outstanding paintings by many Russian masters from the last four centuries on display, along with antique ceramics, wooden and bronze statues and arts and crafts not only from Russia but as far away as China, India, Egypt and even Tibet.

It is now time for lunch and a bit of respite. Olga suggests this restaurant in Amaks Premier Hotel, a short walk from Kama River, which serves Russian as well as Middle Eastern cuisine. “They serve your kind of food here”, she says smilingly. Olga thought that Pakistani food was the same as Middle Eastern, but when I mention that the former is loaded with ‘pyerts’ (peppers) whilst the latter is mild, she blushes and seems almost apologetic. The menu is in Russian and the waitress speaks little English, so Olga orders for me, beamingly reassuring me with a ‘nyet swinnea’ (no swine) which she taught me on my last trip – she remembers I do not eat pork.

Olga excitedly tells me that a famous person from Perm, Alexander Popov, was the one who invented the radio.

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Russian stamp honoring Alexander Popov

Not Marconi”, I ask, with a puzzled look? “Nyet”, she says, self-assuredly, as she shakes her head with a grin, adding that “Marconi just beat him to the patent”. I later found out that indeed Popov is generally considered as the inventor of radio in Russia and Marconi’s patent for his radio supposedly resembled a device Popov had demonstrated earlier.

We tell each other a bit about our childhood and respective families and Olga is fascinated to note that my daughter’s name, Natalia, is the same as her mother’s, and quite surprised too. “Really… that’s interesting”, she submits inquiringly but with slight disbelief, guardedly adding “It’s a Christian name, no, and very Russian. How did you come up with the idea?”

After watching on TV the gracefully fluid and stunningly compelling performance of World champion and ice dancing gold medalist at the 1980 Olympics, the charming Natalia Linichuk from your country, I thought that if one day I get married and have a daughter, I should like to name her Natalia”, I expounded.

And you had not even found a wife yet but were already thinking about names, which makes it even more interesting”, she said jovially. “Was your wife surprised?” she asked.

Well, I can’t say she wasn’t surprised at first, but once it sank in and she repeated it to herself a few times, trying 2, 3 and even 4 syllables – Nata-lia, Na-tal-ia, Na-ta-li-a, she looked excitedly at the baby and exclaimed, ‘You know, she DOES look like Natalia’, and that’s how she came to be Natalia.” We finish our lunch and take a stroll through the nearby open‐air market. Perm offers all the basic modern day amenities and luxuries, performing arts, museums, art galleries and the like, and seems to have made quite an effort to put behind the Soviet image of the past – the gulags, the hammer and sickle emblems, the mildew covered dilapidated buildings that once housed weapons factories and labor camps surrounded with barbed wire (they have been either demolished or repurposed). I pick up a few souvenirs for my wife, and a beautiful painting I spot in a small art shop.

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Click here for PART 2

Click here for more of Nasser Tufail’s musings: Remembering Ibn Khaldun in a World of Illusionary Truths

Nasser Tufail grew up in Pakistan and after finishing his secondary education at a boarding school, moved to the USA where he completed his undergraduate and graduate studies. After working in aviation and IT for such companies as Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and IBM, he ventured out on his own and founded two IT companies involved in Business Intelligence/analytics and Supply Chain Execution. He sold his stake in the businesses and took early retirement to travel and see the enchanting world. He has lived in 6 countries and travelled extensively to scores of others in Europe, Asia, Middle East, Africa and Latin America. He currently resides with his lovely wife and best friend, Selma, on the Costa del Sol in Spain.

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