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Russia, A Nation Shaped By Tragedy And Hardship

Ella Stroganova opens the door at the city museum in Yaroslavl, Russia, where she serves as curator. "Progress makes person absolutely weak," Stroganova said. "He loses his strength because he doesn't need to think how to survive."
David Gilkey
Ella Stroganova opens the door at the city museum in Yaroslavl, Russia, where she serves as curator. "Progress makes person absolutely weak," Stroganova said. "He loses his strength because he doesn't need to think how to survive."

Seven time zones and thousands of miles separate Russia's capital, Moscow, from the port city of Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean. NPR journalists traveled the full length of the Trans-Siberian railroad and report on how Russia's history has shaped its people, and where, 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians want their country to go.

First of three parts

Two decades after the collapse of communist rule, just where is Russia headed? Scholars, diplomats and poets are spending careers contemplating the question.

In my two years as NPR's Moscow-based correspondent, I traveled widely in Russia and talked to wealthy businessmen, powerful politicians and poor pensioners. And before returning to Washington, in one last reporting trip, I hoped to make my most ambitious effort yet at tapping the mood of the country and its people.

I knew it would be impossible to capture the essence of a country in one journey. But I wanted to try; so I took the train across Russia. The timing was right. Recently, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has been challenged by street protests that hint at dissatisfaction and dissent.

The train journey was a chance not only to see the country and explore its history, but also to gauge the sentiment of Russians far from prosperous Moscow.

My route — the nearly 6,000 miles of the Trans-Siberian railroad — is a pathway that's loomed large in Russia's history.

Anna Konstantinovna, the lively woman who directs a Moscow museum devoted to transportation and the train, explained to me how the Trans-Siberian moved soldiers to the front lines of Russian wars, helped Russians maintain their holdings in the Far East, and improved trade throughout the country.

There was a darker side, as well: The train carried exiles and political prisoners to forced labor camps and prisons during both tsarist and Soviet times.

Today, the railway is an important form of transportation in a country where air travel is too expensive for many. Most people aboard the Trans-Siberian are Russians, traveling to visit family members scattered across this huge country. During the long rides, passengers sit, read, chat and welcome visitors. Friendships are formed over food.

In the first hour of our journey, a woman in the compartment next door had already offered us chunks of her Belarussian sausage, along with homemade horseradish with sour cream. All food is accompanied by steaming hot tea, Russia's proudest addiction.

Shaped By Tragedy And Hardship

The Trans-Siberian is epic, colorful and fascinating — but it can also be a bit of an ordeal, as can much of life in Russia.

Russians are very well-acquainted with ordeals. Millions were enslaved as serfs under the tsars. They were repressed during Soviet times. Over the past two decades, Russians have felt more personal freedom, but there's also much poverty in the country, and political upheaval. Tragedy and hardship always seem to shape Russia's character.

We were reminded of that by one passenger, Sergei Yovlev, a middle-aged man sharply dressed in a navy blue pinstriped suit.

His hometown, Yaroslavl — located just a few hours northeast of the Russian capital — was in the news last summer, when nearly every member of the hockey-loving city's professional team, Lokomotiv, was killed after the team plane crashed on takeoff.

My personal opinion is that progress makes a person absolutely weak. He loses his strength because he doesn't need to think how to survive.

Yovlev, who works for the Russian railroad, just stared blankly when we asked him about the accident. Then, he began reciting names.

"I can name all of them," he said of the team members. "What happened was a true tragedy. But we'll survive."

Living through tragedy, he said, is a quality that is "built into a Russian person's soul."

Russians do survive. That's apparent in Yaroslavl, where despite the tragedy, hockey is alive and well, in part thanks to a youth training program.

At a hockey arena on the outskirts of the city, some 20 or so 11-year-olds chased pucks and skated in drills as their coach, Ivan Dobryakov, looked on.

He takes his job — developing this next generation of players — very seriously. The Lokomotiv tragedy took a toll on him and his players.

"We lost something that is impossible to get back," he explained. "We do have a feeling of emptiness. Yet, as long as this hockey school works, we will have a future."

'Progress Makes A Person Weak'

There is something especially stoic about the way Russians accept tragedy. A year ago, I covered a suicide bombing at Moscow's main airport, where 35 people were killed.

In the U.S., that airport might have been shut down for days. In Moscow, planes were taking off and landing again right away. And people went right back to work, as though nothing had happened. The cab driver who drove me home had been splattered with blood in the bombing and was back behind the wheel of his cab, having never changed clothes.

Inside Yaroslavl's small city museum, photos hanging on the wall are of local residents who died in dictator Josef Stalin's gulags. The curator at the museum, Ella Stroganova, told us she proudly puts Russia's pain on display. It's what has defined this country's older generation.

"They always ready to meet difficulties," Stroganova said. "Maybe because the practice of their lives showed revolution, civil war, World War II — always difficulties, tragedies, and everything like that."

Her concern is that the comparative ease of modern life in Russia may actually cause the younger generation to lose what it means to be Russian.

"My personal opinion is that progress makes a person absolutely weak. He loses his strength because he doesn't need to think how to survive," Stroganova said.

Hardship, it seems, is a way of life that makes Russians stronger. And, given that mentality, it explains the relationship Russians have traditionally had with their leaders.

Putin and those who governed before him have rarely taken the blame for difficult times, since they're accepted as reality in Russian life. But as we spoke with citizens around the country, we began to sense a desire for change.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Greene
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.