NPR's David Greene on New Book 'Midnight in Siberia'
As his two-and-a-half year post as NPR's Moscow bureau chief came to an end, David Greene decided to chase after one final story. Together with Sergei, his translator, co-producer, and closest friend in Russia, Greene rode the Trans-Siberian Railway across the country - a 6,000 mile journey - to speak with ordinary Russians about how their lives have changed in the post-Soviet years. Kate Lochte speaks with Greene on Sounds Good.
The story of the long trip is a fast read with good photos. David Greene takes you into many homes to meet folks, including the parents of a pro-hockey player killed when a plane carrying the entire team crashed. There's also a visit to the Kalashnikov Museum, honoring the inventor of the AK-47.
What do Russians want?
Greene says that when he grew up watching the fall of the Soviet Union, he had an assumption that Russia and former Soviet Republics would be on an inevitable path to democracy and western style values. In doing trips across Russia, he's realized that one can't make that assumption. Russia is trying to figure out its future right now, he says, but there's not a 'cry' for democracy as we know it.
"It's not that they feel what they've been through in their past is unfair. There's this sense among many Russians that hardship actually makes you stronger."
Opening up in Kaliningrad
Kaliningrad is a portion of land in Europe near northern Germany that Russia has held onto. Greene recounts an event near the end of the Holocaust where Jews were marched to the coast and brutally executed. After WWII, Kaliningrad became Russian and no one spoke of this event. By officials, Jews were considered 'some of the heroes that died' not put in a separate class of people. For years, stories like this either went untold or became forgotten. Only recently have some locals begun to open up and tell these stories. He says these are some of the "small battles" he experienced while in Russia.
"One after another there's these little battles that seem to be happening - Russians finding strength in themselves - and realizing that they actually can bring change in a place where people didn't really believe that for many, many years."
One of the most educated and literate societies on Earth
In Soviet times, education was universal and of high quality - with government investment. That still remains the case today. Greene says he met people educated in the Soviet Union who were very literate and very knowledgeable about the world. Sophisticated conversations about world issues made him question why Russians don't speak up and fight their leaders. Often, American thinking is that Russians are lazy or drink too much. But Greene say he found these sterotypes to be inaccurate. He learned that in his encounters Russians don't necessarily want to have the type of democratic system that exists in America.
In talking with people who grew up in Soviet times, there was a feeling that one was better off and safer in public if you stuck to yourself - why take the risk talking or joking if it could get you in trouble with authorities? This feeling is still embedded in the Russian soul. Greene says he doesn't want to generalize too much, however, that one can meet people on the street who are open to giving directions or being friendly. Once being welcomed into a family's home, he says, the Russian people he met opened up and have been very generous.
Also, the word for older women is pronounced 'BAH-bush-kah,' not 'Buh-BOOSH-kah,' which is a scarf.
David Greene is host of NPR's Morning Edition. Last month, his book Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia, was published by W.W. Norton & Company. Greene lived in Murray for a while when his mother taught at Murray State University. He visited last year at the invitation of his friend Michael Robinson to honor the Murray High School Speech Team.
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Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia by David Greene