Before setting foot in Siberia, like most people, I imagined it mostly as a distant but somehow exotic place of extreme cold, and a region of vast forests and steppe filled with exiles. It seemed like Australia—my place of birth—in an ice-box. When I happened to come across someone who had travelled through Soviet-era Siberia with a guitar and collected Russian folk songs, my fascination grew. Several years would pass, however, before I crossed the Urals myself. In January 1992, at a time when the Soviet Union had ceased to exist but Russia was caught in colliding worlds of the past and present, I travelled to Moscow and stayed with a family to round off a Russian language course I was doing at Melbourne University. The Moscow I found in early 1992 was a chaos of systems—some things worked by the old rules, others by the new, and the whole economy had moved out of the shops and onto Moscow’s bustling streets. Visits to St. Petersburg followed, and in 1998 I finally had the opportunity to travel to Siberia for a couple of months spent working on chapters of a guidebook for an international publisher.
The Siberia I found in 1998 was, as in Moscow six years earlier, a twilight zone between the old and the new way of doing things. Each visit to a region is different in its own way, however, and this was also true for the Siberia I visited most recently to research this book. I was surprised to find that some streets in cities had become unrecognizable because of traffic and advertising hoardings. By and large, the hotels had been partially or fully renovated. Extreme poverty had, if not disappeared, become less of a problem. (The villages nevertheless remain Siberia’s problem zone.) Restoration of buildings had moved ahead, even if much still needed to be done. A mood of neglect had given way to an upbeat optimism and functioning everyday life. Although the financial crisis of 2008-9 halted some projects, this trend will undoubtedly continue. Beyond the towns, the beauty of Siberia’s physical landscape remained a stabilizing constant. Crossing large parts of this landscape in trains, communal taxis, buses and in boats to research this book was as enjoyable as the distances were exhausting.
Despite enormous progress, the task of “restoring Siberia” is as monumentally large as Siberia itself. Its historic churches, for example, condemned to neglect for so much of the Soviet period, are in poor shape and