The West has always found Russia an unfathomable place. Churchill famously described it as a “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. For all the spotlight recently thrown on it, recent events have only intensified the enigma. The enigma is only likely to deepen in Russia’s present status as a pariah state. A journey through Russia may resolve some of those complexities. How better to travel than on what is probably the most famous railway in the world, the Trans-Siberian Railway. Not only does it span Russia’s 6000 miles and 9 time zones, but it also links all the light and dark phases of Russian history.
The route allows variations, so the six cities which we will visit best illustrate that historical journey. We will start in another country on a branch line in Kiev, which was once, according to the medieval Primary Chronicle “the mother of all Russian cities”. This takes us to Moscow, where the Trans-Siberian Railway officially begins, far from the oldest, but the most successful of the pre-Romanov Varangian principalities. Next stop is Kazan, the last of the old Mongol khanates, and even today, a Muslim stronghold in the heart of European Russia. Then on to Ekaterinburg, the first great city in the Urals, and the site of one of Russian history’s most dramatic episodes. Now we are in Asia, and our next leg covers 1200 miles to Irkutsk, the “Paris” of Siberia, product of another uniquely Russian conflict. And finally, 2400 miles further on, we disembark in Vladivostok, the face of a different Russia – Pacific and global rather than Baltic and European.
The story of the Trans-Siberian railway itself is fascinating enough in its own right but from its windows the whole of Russian history unravels from its pagan beginnings to the would-be superpower of today.