The Reading Room

Journey Across the Soviet Union

Eric Newby’s Cold War journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway….

There are few travel writers to match the great Eric Newby and for me, few trips more interesting than crossing the Soviet Union in the late seventies. The Trans-Siberian Railway conjures up many an image as we imagine it crossing the vastness of Russia and Newby’s account of the eight-day journey of over six thousand miles offers invaluable perspective and insight from both a geographical and politico-social viewpoint.

It is an awesome journey by any measure; seven time zones, changing towns, cities, peoples and the haunting size of Siberia all make for a fascinating experience and coupled with an Englishman and his wife travelling it during the Cold War in 1977 we experience the difference in everyday lives between the east and west during that period.

Newby’s account of Soviet life is both humorous and disconcerting. Paranoia gripped the Soviet Union throughout its history and Newby evidences this as he describes the ridiculous banning of taking photographs of bridges, railways and buildings whilst carrying a reprinted copy of the official guide to the Soviet railways published in England!

Drink, unsurprisingly, features prominently in the book,: “Vodka was no longer served on the Rossiya, Lilya said, or on most trains in Russia. The reason was obvious. In the short time we had been in the U.S.S.R I had never seen so many drunks anywhere in the world, with the possible exception of Finland, and at such odd times of the day-early in the morning, when most people are still contemplating breakfast. In Moscow it had been commonplace to see men embracing lampposts”

The food was, unsurprisingly, grim. I always admire the courageous traveller prepared to go with the flow in local eateries and more especially onboard 1970s Soviet trains. Hotels, particularly those for the budget minded are rarely anything to write a book about but one made it into Newby’s book albeit for the wrong reasons: ‘Last dinner at the Ob Hotel: soup with bits of meat in it and sour cream and a very nasty minced meat ‘steak’ As the train passed through Eastern Siberia and along the Mongolian border the food improved somewhat: ‘The Selenga Hotel served us an excellent dinner: pork steaks with fried eggs, sautéed potatoes, delicious raw cabbage, good bread and a large carafe of apple juice. There was also a good supply of vodka, champagne and other Russian and Bulgarian wines, in fact everything anyone could possibly ask for, with the exception of the demon beer, which seemed to be reserved for alcoholics and which even here, at Ulan-Ude, was served from kiosks in back streets to never-ending queues of unshaven men’

There are moments in the book when you can imagine relations with his wife feeling somewhat strained, especially when she was struck with a stomach bug on the train and the staff were not moved to help leaving her dreaming of picnics on Derby Day in England! But they made a good team and Newby was clearly devoted to her. That she took on such an undertaking is testament to their relationship but by the end Newby writes: ‘I’ve had enough of Nakhodka’  Wanda said. Her teeth were chattering. ‘It’s a hell of a place. What’s more I’ve had enough of Siberia and we’ve all had enough of Mischa, and I’m fed up of your damn maps. I want to go home’. So we did’ 

It is a wonderful travel book, Newby is hard to beat in this genre and despite the sometimes grim reality of travelling in Russia during those times it is hard not to feel a pang of envy.

Categories: The Reading Room

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