Through Siberia by Accident

by Dervla Murphy
302 pages,
ISBN: 0719566630

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Crossing Siberia not by Express
by Erling Friis-Baastad

Over the summer of 2002, the Irish traveller and author Dervla Murphy journeyed from Moscow by train, steamer and decrepit bus across the Volga, through the Urals, over the steppes and along Lake Baikal, venturing as far east as Tynda and Yakutsk. Murphy is a famous long-distance cyclist. A bicycle expedition in 1963 became the basis for her break-in book, Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle (John Murray, 1965). On this latest journey, before being able to put her bicycle, Pushkin, through any Siberian paces, she damaged her knee so severely that it became a character, The Knee, in her book. Murphy is a professional travel writer in the finest sense of the label. She converted her painful setback into an opportunity, a chance at another perspective that allowed her to experience the caring and humanity of the people she limped among. "After a week in Tynda I could clearly see the wide silver lining around the cloud of my injury," she writes. Pain modified the journey but didn't stop it. In fact, being forced to take public transportation allowed the author to meet many more Siberians, and indulge in longer and more-illuminating conversations than she might have from the seat of her bicycle. Murphy is now in her mid-70s. I mention this not as a way of suggesting, "Wow, what an intrepid granny," but because I believe that understanding where a travel writer is coming from is as essential as knowing where he or she is going. Murphy's age has allowed her to witness some of the worst decades of Ireland's sectarian struggles, its poverty and sudden emergence as an economic Celtic Tiger. She's sensitive to the mixed blessings of that change, such as the tears in the social safety net and the failure of civic infrastructure to keep pace. This informs her observations of, and her interactions with, the Russians she visits over the course of Through Siberia by Accident.
For one especially worthwhile instance, Murphy takes sympathetic interest in Siberian drug addicts: "In their view, explained Father Grigori, addiction happens when poor people who can't get a job are lured into the 'happy escape' of heroin. So why, they wondered, did affluent Ireland have drug addicts? Giving them an over-simplified answer to that question took half an hour. My listeners exclaimed incredulously on hearing that Ireland's comparatively poor minority feels as desperate as they do, not because of equal poverty, but because we associate status with possession to a dangerous extent, making them feel equally deprived."
Not surprisingly, considering that the mere mention of Ireland conjures images of conflicting faiths, Siberians frequently asked Murphy very blunt questions about her religious beliefs. This too gave her a privileged perspective on the upheavals in Siberian society. As Orthodox Russians venture out from communist closets into social breakdown, poverty, hunger, environmental devastation and addictions, faith offers some solace, while displaying its dark side.

"Then Tikhon infuriated Tolya by asserting that in some ways all the Christian Churches are less good at putting Christ's teachings into practice than the Soviets had been. He recalled participating as a schoolboy in May Day festivities when communities were united and felt happy celebrating together. Pavel translated: 'He says capitalism which Christian churches support has broken the bond we had. Individuals are so busy competing they say "That's your problem.ŗ".'"

Murphy, always an attentive observer, brings back disturbing images of near-birdless landscapes, of garbage-plagued riverbanks and toxic waters. And it is not enough for her to simply bear witness. She explores the processes that bring such sorrows about. Hoping to visit Lake Baikal myself, I was especially troubled to learn of how this huge fresh water sea has so long been mistreated:

"The lake's purity, and its saturation with oxygen even in winter, is entirely owing to these miniscule crabs which over the past four decades have been gradually but inexorably dwindling in the southern waters. They are being killed by extremely toxic effluents from the Baikal Paper and Pulp Combine (BPPC), with predictable consequences for all the lake's fauna."

As the pulp and paper facilities were being constructed, state propagandists tried to soothe the fears of area residents and environmentalists by lying to them: "The [BPPC] sewage water will create conditions for the propagation of life within the radius they cover, and this will mean an increase, rather than a decrease, in fish reserves." Rapacious free enterprise has since simply taken over from rapacious communism.
Of course, Murphy could have stayed home and discovered such disturbing facts in libraries and on the Internet. But a traveller can discover small details with long-range implications that an armchair researcher would miss. When Murphy asks one of her Siberian friends why the landscape is so covered with litter, she's told: "Our young people enjoy celebrating democracy by vandalizing. Some young men I know pay a little more for a bottle of beerýtins are cheaper. They want the satisfaction of smashing glass on the ground whenever they happen to finish their drink."
To be fair to both Murphy and Siberia, I must stress that she manages to portray the country's natural beauties, the hospitality and warmth of many of its people, and the courage of those who are struggling to maintain basic health and sanity in the midst of anomie. All of this is to be found in her book, but for better or worse, Siberia, the land of exile, hunger, gulags and ecological disasters, maintains many dark associations in Through Siberia by Accident.
If descriptions of demoralized Russian youths, or garbage-strewn wilderness tend to linger in a reader's mind longer than Murphy's lyric description of dawn's light breaking into a mountain pass, it's not the author's fault, but rather a testament to an honesty travel writing too often lacks. Even at her most enraptured, Murphy keeps an eye open for the informing grit: "Bulky boulders wore cloaks of snow, fringed with icicle needles. Even the old tyres were now acceptable: one could fancy them to be the coruscating coronets of giantesses."

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