Russia, A Nation Shaped By Tragedy And Hardship

Jan 10, 2012
Originally published on January 11, 2012 2:15 pm

Seven time zones and thousands of miles separate Russia's capital, Moscow, from the port city of Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean. NPR journalists traveled the full length of the Trans-Siberian railroad and report on how Russia's history has shaped its people, and where, 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians want their country to go.

First of three parts

Two decades after the collapse of communist rule, just where is Russia headed? Scholars, diplomats and poets are spending careers contemplating the question.

In my two years as NPR's Moscow-based correspondent, I traveled widely in Russia and talked to wealthy businessmen, powerful politicians and poor pensioners. And before returning to Washington, in one last reporting trip, I hoped to make my most ambitious effort yet at tapping the mood of the country and its people.

I knew it would be impossible to capture the essence of a country in one journey. But I wanted to try; so I took the train across Russia. The timing was right. Recently, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has been challenged by street protests that hint at dissatisfaction and dissent.

The train journey was a chance not only to see the country and explore its history, but also to gauge the sentiment of Russians far from prosperous Moscow.

My route — the nearly 6,000 miles of the Trans-Siberian railroad — is a pathway that's loomed large in Russia's history.

Anna Konstantinovna, the lively woman who directs a Moscow museum devoted to transportation and the train, explained to me how the Trans-Siberian moved soldiers to the front lines of Russian wars, helped Russians maintain their holdings in the Far East, and improved trade throughout the country.

There was a darker side, as well: The train carried exiles and political prisoners to forced labor camps and prisons during both tsarist and Soviet times.

Today, the railway is an important form of transportation in a country where air travel is too expensive for many. Most people aboard the Trans-Siberian are Russians, traveling to visit family members scattered across this huge country. During the long rides, passengers sit, read, chat and welcome visitors. Friendships are formed over food.

In the first hour of our journey, a woman in the compartment next door had already offered us chunks of her Belarussian sausage, along with homemade horseradish with sour cream. All food is accompanied by steaming hot tea, Russia's proudest addiction.

Shaped By Tragedy And Hardship

The Trans-Siberian is epic, colorful and fascinating — but it can also be a bit of an ordeal, as can much of life in Russia.

Russians are very well-acquainted with ordeals. Millions were enslaved as serfs under the tsars. They were repressed during Soviet times. Over the past two decades, Russians have felt more personal freedom, but there's also much poverty in the country, and political upheaval. Tragedy and hardship always seem to shape Russia's character.

We were reminded of that by one passenger, Sergei Yovlev, a middle-aged man sharply dressed in a navy blue pinstriped suit.

His hometown, Yaroslavl — located just a few hours northeast of the Russian capital — was in the news last summer, when nearly every member of the hockey-loving city's professional team, Lokomotiv, was killed after the team plane crashed on takeoff.

Yovlev, who works for the Russian railroad, just stared blankly when we asked him about the accident. Then, he began reciting names.

"I can name all of them," he said of the team members. "What happened was a true tragedy. But we'll survive."

Living through tragedy, he said, is a quality that is "built into a Russian person's soul."

Russians do survive. That's apparent in Yaroslavl, where despite the tragedy, hockey is alive and well, in part thanks to a youth training program.

At a hockey arena on the outskirts of the city, some 20 or so 11-year-olds chased pucks and skated in drills as their coach, Ivan Dobryakov, looked on.

He takes his job — developing this next generation of players — very seriously. The Lokomotiv tragedy took a toll on him and his players.

"We lost something that is impossible to get back," he explained. "We do have a feeling of emptiness. Yet, as long as this hockey school works, we will have a future."

'Progress Makes A Person Weak'

There is something especially stoic about the way Russians accept tragedy. A year ago, I covered a suicide bombing at Moscow's main airport, where 35 people were killed.

In the U.S., that airport might have been shut down for days. In Moscow, planes were taking off and landing again right away. And people went right back to work, as though nothing had happened. The cab driver who drove me home had been splattered with blood in the bombing and was back behind the wheel of his cab, having never changed clothes.

Inside Yaroslavl's small city museum, photos hanging on the wall are of local residents who died in dictator Josef Stalin's gulags. The curator at the museum, Ella Stroganova, told us she proudly puts Russia's pain on display. It's what has defined this country's older generation.

"They always ready to meet difficulties," Stroganova said. "Maybe because the practice of their lives showed revolution, civil war, World War II — always difficulties, tragedies, and everything like that."

Her concern is that the comparative ease of modern life in Russia may actually cause the younger generation to lose what it means to be Russian.

"My personal opinion is that progress makes a person absolutely weak. He loses his strength because he doesn't need to think how to survive," Stroganova said.

Hardship, it seems, is a way of life that makes Russians stronger. And, given that mentality, it explains the relationship Russians have traditionally had with their leaders.

Putin and those who governed before him have rarely taken the blame for difficult times, since they're accepted as reality in Russian life. But as we spoke with citizens around the country, we began to sense a desire for change.

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NPR's David Greene is joining us here at MORNING EDITION this week after a reporting assignment in Russia. He's going to be a backup host and correspondent going all over the place. And, David, you brought back some stories for us from Russia.


Yeah, I did, Steve. It's been an extraordinary time to be in Russia. We've seen these recent anti-government protests in Moscow that caught the world's attention and made news, thousands of people on the streets demanding fair elections and an end to the era of Vladimir Putin as the country's powerful prime minister.

INSKEEP: Which immediately makes people ask if there's going to be a true uprising in Russia.

GREENE: Yeah, and I asked that question, Steve, before I left, and in trying to get a sense of what the whole country is thinking I decided to take this trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway, and I'd always wanted to try it before ever moving to Russia. And the timing seemed just so, so right because it feels like a defining moment in Russia's history. So let me take you to Moscow, right to the train platform where our journey began.


GREENE: This is the spot where most trans-Siberian journeys begin. I'm standing in Yaroslavsky rail station. It's actually one of nine train stations in the city of Moscow. Off to my right there's a statue of Lenin staring out onto the street. And to my left, all the trains are lined up and people waiting to board. And this spot, this place, has meant so many different things over time. Years ago it was the beginning of a trip to Russia's eastern frontier, a chance to begin a new life. But for other people during Soviet times, it was the start of exile or the beginning of a trip to a forced labor camp. Today, people just gathered for what is going to be a long, long journey.

My journey was taking me from Moscow to Russia's Asian port Vladivostok, almost 9,300 kilometers. To give you an idea, that would be the distance if you took a train from New York to L.A. and then from L.A. to New York. You're still not done. You'd have to then go from New York to Chicago.


GREENE: Most passengers share these four-bedroom compartments and they pass the long hours listening to music like this, maybe reading or watching the countryside pass by. Friends are made over shared food. The Trans-Siberian is an epic, colorful, fascinating ordeal, perhaps just like Russia itself.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Russian spoken)

GREENE: Russia sure knows about ordeals. People were enslaved as serfs under the czars. They were repressed during Soviet times. Over the last two decades, Russians have felt more of a sense of personal freedom, but there's too much poverty in the country and political upheaval. Tragedy, hardship, always seem to shape Russia's character, and I was reminded of that by Sergei Yovlev, a passenger in a pin-striped suit who works for the railroad.

SERGEI YOVLEV: (Russian spoken)

GREENE: He was traveling home to Yaroslavl, which was to be our first stop, the industrial city just a few hours northeast of Moscow. It's a hockey-loving place that suffered an unimaginable tragedy this past summer - nearly every member of the city's professional hockey team, Lokomotiv, was killed when the team plane crashed on takeoff. I asked Sergei Yovlev about that accident. He just stared at me blankly, and then he started to recite the names of the players.

YOVLEV: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: I can name all of them, he told me. What happened was a true tragedy, he said, but we'll survive. Living through tragedy, he said, is a quality that is built into a Russian person's soul.


GREENE: And I have to say from the moment I walked into a hockey arena on the outskirts of this city, I could tell that Yaroslavl survived this tragedy. Hockey is alive and well.


GREENE: I'm looking at probably about 24, 25 11-year-olds at a youth training program. Their coach is watching proudly as these kids are just all over the ice.

IVAN DOBRYAKOV: (Russian spoken)

GREENE: That coach, Ivan Dobryakov, reminded me of the legendary Soviet Olympic coaches, businesslike and laser-focused on his job developing young talent.

DOBRYAKOV: (Russia spoken)

GREENE: We lost something that is impossible to get back, he told me about the plane accident. He mentioned having a feeling of emptiness, yet he said as long as this hockey school works, there will be a future.


GREENE: The future is young players like 12-year-old Nikita Shchepochkin. He sounded mature for his age. He was honest about the sadness he felt watching so many role models die, but he was eager to help rebuild. And Nikita and his teammates are already finding new role models.

NIKITA SHCHEPOCHKIN: My favorite sports player is (unintelligible)...

GREENE: I am a Pittsburgh Penguins fan. Can you give me five? That's what I'm talking about. There is something especially stoic about the way Russians accept tragedy and move on. I remember a year ago covering a suicide bombing at Moscow's main airport - 35 people were killed. In the United States, that airport probably would have been shut down for days, but in Moscow, planes were taking off and landing again right away. The cab driver who drove me home that night had been soaked in blood from the bombing, but he got right back to work. Russians do not hide their tragedy.

ELLA STROGANOVA: We invite you to our city. We'll accept you here and we will show you everything you like to come to know what a Russian person, a Russian soul and Russian nationality is.

GREENE: That's the voice of Ella Stroganova. She's the curator of Yaroslavl's city museum. And there you can find hanging on the walls photos of local residents who died in Joseph Stalin's gulags. Stroganova told me that she proudly puts Russia's pain on display. It's what's defined the country's older generation.

STROGANOVA: They always ready to meet difficulties. Maybe because the practice of their life showed revolution, civil war, the Second World War - always difficulties, tragedies, and everything like that.

GREENE: And she told me that she's actually worried that a modern way of life will mean the younger generation here loses what it means to be Russian.

STROGANOVA: My personal opinion is that progress makes person absolutely weak. He loses his strength, because he doesn't need to think how to survive.

GREENE: And so, Steve, her point to me was that hardship is just a part of Russian life and that Russians are stronger for that.

INSKEEP: I suppose they'd be awfully strong given some of the stories that you just heard. Well, given the very personal stories you're hearing along the Trans-Siberian Railway, how do those stories fit into the news in Russia that we hear every day?

GREENE: Well, I think for so long one of the hardships the Russians have suffered through is tough leaders. And Vladimir Putin, you know, claims to have done a lot for the Russian people. But some of them, as much as they've lived through, as much as they have endured, they're reaching a point where they're questioning that. They're questioning their bargain with Vladimir Putin, they're questioning whether they have to continue to live under his style of rule and we're starting to see some push for change.

INSKEEP: OK. And we're going to hear more of that questioning as David continues his journey along the Trans-Siberian Railway tomorrow. In the meantime, you can go to and find amazing photos by David Gilkin - incredible colors, incredible faces along the railway. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.