Our editor-in-chief, Russell Valentino, has just returned from a trip across Eurasia via ferry, plane, and Trans-Siberian Railway. Here a brief final reflection on crossing.
Nevsky Prospect, St. Petersburg. Sitting on a bench inside the six-story Shopping Centre Nevsky, I am again speechless, not so much this time from the contrast in time as from the one in place. Here it’s sleek, hyper modern. Leave town in just about any direction and who knows. Petersburg’s had another makeover, in some spots, as in this, by taking down entire buildings, moving all the people out, and putting up new ones just with the old facades in place, to make way for the large shiny spaces of contemporary commerce. “Business centers” sprout in high-rise mushroom patches just across the Neva. Sushi restaurants, pasta sushi restaurants, souvenir shops, and book stores line the streets. Banks are everywhere in the city center. I’ve never seen so many in one place (though in a few days, I’ll see more – in Moscow). Last night I was taken to dinner by friends to a newish restaurant overlooking Kazan Cathedral, with enormous windows, Asian fusion cuisine, a balcony for receptions. I can’t help recalling Fedya’s comment in the train when the two of us were looking out at a nothing of a village in the middle of a nowhere just west of Irkutsk: “Man is the kind of swine that can get used to living just about anywhere.” Russia is a mess, just not here.
One late afternoon a week before, I was sitting in the hall to write because I didn’t want to bother my compartment mates. I had a notebook on my lap and was looking out the window when one of the passengers from the end of our wagon came up, tapped me on the shoulder, and said something I didn’t catch. Then he pointed out the windows on the other side of the train, and there was Lake Baikal. He had never spoken to me before that, but he knew I was there and that I’d be interested to know what was on the other side of the train. Indeed I was. The night before, a woman from the next compartment with whom I had also not spoken had approached to let me know that she had reassured the other passengers about me. Reassured? Yes, she said, they were concerned about my taking so many pictures