An oncologist on the human cost to treating cancer and why she believes we need to re-think how to fight the disease.
Morning Edition co-host David Greene spent five years in Russia as NPR’s Moscow bureau chief. During that time, he took a trip on the Trans-Siberian railway, reporting on the impressions, hopes and dreams of ordinary Russians. The experience affected him so deeply that Greene returned last year for another train trip. This time, he traveled nearly 6,000 miles, from Moscow to Vladivostok, interviewing people from all different parts of the country, including Siberia. The Russians he meets share the same struggle with old soviet ghosts of corruption and oppression. But most are deeply ambivalent about democratic reform. A cross-country journey into the heart of modern Russia.
- David Greene Co-host, NPR's Morning Edition; former Moscow bureau chief
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia by David Greene. Copyright © 2014 by David Greene. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Last year, NPR's Morning Edition co-host, David Greene, climbed aboard the historic Trans-Siberian railway to travel across Russia. The journey from Moscow to Vladivostok covered nearly 6,000 miles. In a new book, he writes about his encounters with ordinary Russians and how their lives have been changed since the fall of the Soviet Union. He says they all struggle with the ghosts of the Soviet past, but remain ambivalent about democracy. His new book is titled, "Midnight In Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia." David Greene joins me in the studio.
MS. DIANE REHMI'm sure you'll have your own questions for him. Join us, 800-433-8850, send us an email to email@example.com, follow us on Facebook or Twitter. David Greene, it's so good to have you here.
MR. DAVID GREENEIt is great to be here, Diane. I have to say, I've been a fan for a long time. It's great to meet you in person. When I travel around the country and talk to public radio listeners, the first question I get, have you met Diane Rehm? So now, I can finally say, yes, I've met her in person.
REHMHave a big hug for you.
GREENEYes, thanks for having me.
REHMNow, I must say, people do think of you as Morning Edition co-host, but may not know you were Moscow bureau chief for four years. Tell us about deciding to take that position.
GREENEWow. I had covered the White House four years for the Baltimore Sun and then four years for NPR with Don Gonyea. It was eight years covering George W. Bush. And you finish a stint like that and you sort of -- you're so used to a certain kind of journalism, that you step back and you kind of have to figure out what you want to do with yourself. And I had always wanted to take a try at being a foreign correspondent. People who had done it had said that it's just the greatest job in the world. And my wife, Rose, and I had a lot of, you know, really tough conversations about whether...
GREENE...yeah, I mean, take this adventure together. She was in a successful career in policy for New York City Council and she would have, you know, she would have to give it up and move to Russia. She's kind of a -- she has wanderlust, like I do. But it would -- it was asking a lot of her and it was sort of taking a dive together into the unknown as a couple. So it was really difficult and it was a difficult few years. Moscow's a hard place to live. But journalistically, god, I mean I had the entire former Soviet Union to cover and NPR's international desk.
GREENEYou know, you get deployed not just in your region, but all around the world. So from Moscow, I went to cover the Arab Spring. I was in Tunisia and Libya. I was sent to London to cover the royal wedding. It was just -- it was just -- it was a great, great few years. And it was really a privilege to get to know so many Russians and to really begin -- begin to understand that story. Because, I have to stress begin, because it's a hard story to really understand.
REHMExactly. Tell me what your wife did during that period.
GREENEWell, she did a lot. She volunteered a lot. She worked with the American Women's Organization. She traveled a ton. And in fact, she -- these travels that she did and that we did together have led to her second career. She now owns a restaurant in Washington and serves international street food and has sort of brought...
GREENEYeah, I'm really, really proud of her. She has pulled off something amazing, done it, you know, pretty much by herself. And, you know, it's a lot of the foods that we tasted together. And really the travels we did were the inspiration, which -- it's wonderful. So now...
REHMWhat about housing?
GREENEIt's really -- it's interesting. Because, so we lived, and NPR has the apartment and office in a place that's nicknamed "Sad Sam" for (speaks foreign language) . It's a...
REHMI was going to ask whether you spoke Russian and clearly...
GREENEYeah. Just a little bit. (speaks foreign language) , which means just a tiny bit.
GREENEBut, I mean, I picked up a nice bit. So it's a journalism compound. And back in Soviet times, you know, a lot of news organizations, Western news organizations were sort of confined there by the Soviet government. They didn't have a choice. But it -- over the years, it became such a wonderful journalism community that, even after the fall of the Soviet Union, you know, news organizations now could go anywhere -- could have your bureaus anywhere. But NPR, The New York Times and some others have decided to just stay in this place. And we think it's probably still bugged, since it's, you know, it's owned by the government.
GREENEBut, it's a great place but I'll say, Diane, the sad thing that you see now, is it used to be, you know, 80, 90 percent news organizations. And so many newspapers and news outlets have been closing foreign bureaus. You just feel it there because now, you know, with the number of journalists, you know, it's really dwindling. And you see Russian businesses opening. And so, sort of, it's a microcosm for what I think we're seeing in journalism. You know, you're just, fewer and fewer organizations are deploying abroad.
REHMSo during those years as Moscow bureau chief, what stood out for you the most?
GREENEI think one thing that stood out to me was that to even try and understand this country, you really had to get out of Moscow. You know, Moscow's so important. It's the center of Russian power today. It is becoming an international city in its own strange, uncomfortable way. It's not that inviting to tourists but it's beautiful. It's vibrant. It's frustrating. It's just a place full of life in good ways and bad ways. So it's a wonderful place to live and experience.
GREENEBut, you know, when you see -- and I'm thinking of December 2011 -- when you see protests against Vladimir Putin in Moscow, that's a huge thing. For Russians to go out on the streets and protest the government, it takes courage. It's risky. And for thousands of people to be there, it's a big deal. But there's a tendency, I think, sometimes to think that the story you're seeing unfold in Moscow is telling you the story of Russia. And it's just really important to remind yourself that it is a totally different landscape once you get out there.
GREENEAnd that's one thing, and I think people who cover Russia, you know, have to remind themselves all the time, that it's a big country with, you know, with, just, it's a vast, vast space. And the story of Moscow is not the story of Russia.
REHMAnd for most of us, I think that 6,000-mile journey on the Express -- we've only seen it in "Doctor Zhivago"...
REHM...on film. And you saw it firsthand.
GREENEYeah. It was something I always wanted to do. And as I was wrapping up the time as Moscow correspondent, I was sort of talking with editors about whether that was the moment to do it. And to just sort of say to our listeners, you know, we've been following Russia -- I've been following Russia for the last few years. It seems like an interesting time. Let's jump aboard the train. Let's listen to voices. And I didn't know, when we were planning the trip, that it would be the time when these protests against Putin would be erupting in Moscow.
GREENEAnd it was funny, we'd have these conversations while I was on the train about whether I was in the wrong place. Because here I am covering Russia for NPR and these protests are happening and I'm 2,000 miles to the east in some remote section of Siberia. And there were some editors who were like, "Should we get David back there maybe? Going to want to put him somewhere."
GREENEBut I think we came to the conclusion that I was in the right place because capturing the country more as a whole and not just focused on the capital.
REHMBut what was it that, you know, put you over the edge and said, I really want to do this train trip.
GREENEWell, I mean, I'll be honest with you. As kind of a lover of travel -- I mean, it's one of the romantic, exotic trips in the world. I don't know if there are many, if any at all, that you could put on top of that list for me. It just seemed like the kind of thing that you -- I would just love to tell my kids and grandkids. You know, I did the Trans-Siberian railway, which is just kind of crazy. But I also saw it as a way to see all of Russia. I mean, if you think about it, Russia is -- it's so vast. The communities, especially once you get into Siberia, are so remote and far from each other, that you kind of wonder what holds the country together.
GREENEAnd if you think of Russia as kind of a body -- I mean, the Trans-Siberian is sort of the spine. And it's a way to sort of travel along and see the place as a whole and to kind of grasp its vastness, and to get a sense for the complexity and the variety of people and cultures and ethnicities.
REHMTell me about the people on the train itself.
GREENEIt varied and it depended on which class of service we were on. So some people, when you think about the Trans-Siberian, you imagine trains that literally go these 6,000 miles, from Moscow to Vladivostok. And absolutely, some of the trains do that. But when you're stopping and getting off, as we did, you know, you might be on a train for 12 or 14 hours that's actually only traveling two days...
REHMI see. I see.
GREENE...from one city to another. And so it depends what train you're on. You might meet people who are just traveling sort of five or six hours. Or you might find someone who's traveling across the entire country. And I think the -- if you're in sort of first class or second class, they're closed cabins. You might have a cabin on your own. You might have a cabin for four. So you and a friend might be sharing it with two strangers. And those might be, you know, people who work for energy companies, or they might be doctors or lawyers who are paying a little bit more money to go across. Third class, it's kind of like a college dormitory.
GREENEYeah. It's, I mean, imagine an open car with just a bunch of bunks. And you're walking down the aisle, and to your right there's a table that becomes a bunk and then another bunk above that one. And to your left there are four bunks that are perpendicular to the window, two and two. And that class of service could have anyone -- families who couldn't afford to see other family members who live, you know, 3,000 miles away and they're taking a trip for the first time to see them in years. And they've gone shopping in Moscow and they have these bags to bring to their family when they get there.
GREENEIt might be people coming up from Central Asia who don't even speak Russian that are looking for construction work throughout Russia, and they're traveling along the train. So it's a real mix. And you get to know people. And not necessarily talking to them.
GREENEI mean, you get to know them by hearing their snores and, you know, seeing them change to go to bed. And you are in this space. And you have to get used to certain rituals. I mean, if, Diane, if you're on the bottom bunk and I have the top bunk, I need to, you know, almost step on you sometimes to get up to my bunk to go to bed.
REHMDavid Greene, he is co-host of Morning Edition, author of a brand new book, "Midnight in Siberia." Your calls, your comments, when we come back. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. If you've just joined us, NPR Morning Edition host David Greene is with me. He's written a new book all about his train journey into the heart of Russia. It's called "Midnight in Siberia." He spent four years as Moscow bureau chief for NPR and then decided he needed to take this train trip across into the heart of Russia. And for those of you who'd like to see a map of David's trip across Russia, some pictures from the people he met along the way, you can go to our website drshow.org. Some glorious photographs there and a wonderful slideshow.
REHMYou said, David, that Russians are some of the warmest people on earth. That could come as something of a surprise to many Americans. Do you think they're misunderstood or do we simply not see them where they are comfortable?
GREENEProbably mostly the latter because I think, from everything I know about Soviet times, people describe it as a place where it wasn't very comfortable out on the streets and in public. There was a sense of why do anything, why interact, why talk to the police, why do anything that might draw attention to myself. And so I think there was this tendency to look inward and to sort of put a straight face or a sort of cold face on yourself when you were out in public. And then just get home to the confines of where you live. And I feel like that style is sort of still there.
GREENEI mean, you talk to Russians who come to the United States and they'll say, why do you Americans smile so much which is really funny. And on the flipside, you know, as an American as soon as you arrive, you know, it just feels so cold and unwelcoming on the sidewalks. You know, people will just walk by you. No one will get out of your way or they'll sort of run into you on the sidewalk as if, you know, this piece of human flesh is in their way and they just want to push it out of the way.
GREENEI mean, there's just no natural interaction. But as soon as you get to know a family or someone, you know, they bring you into their apartments or their homes. There's these traditions that are beautiful. You know, you take off your shoes and they might have slippers ready for you. They offer you tea or maybe vodka or cognac which can be the scary thing to hear.
GREENEBut you just relax and you feel so at home so quickly once someone welcomes you in.
REHMYou know, I have been to Russia a few times. And on one occasion we were invited into an apartment belonging to a resident. She must have put out a week's worth of food for us to enjoy.
GREENEA spread I would imagine.
REHMJust incredibly warm and kind and sharing her life. And yet now I happen to live right down the street from the Russian Embassy. And there are Russian people walking back and forth with their children. They rarely make eye contact.
GREENEThere you go. No. I think you captured it perfectly. That's exactly what living in Moscow is like.
REHMSo those exactly two different kinds of interactions. But you managed to find your way through.
GREENEYeah, and it was sort of developed -- it was developing trust. And once you developed that trust, you know, it would happen. I mean, one of the first experiences I had -- and often it was, you know, if you -- if someone trusted you they might bring you into, you know, their world so to speak. And Sergey Sutnikoff (sp?) , he is a dear, dear friend. He's the Moscow producer for NPR, an amazing journalist. And in many ways I saw Russia through his eyes, producer, interpreter and friend.
GREENEOne of the first trips we did together was to Eastern Ukraine, the Russian-speaking part of Ukraine. Sergey grew up in Donetsk and he took me to his father's house. And, you know, it was this neighborhood that was -- it was rough, it was snow-covered, it was dirt roads. It was kind of dilapidated homes. It was a coal miners community. People, you know, had it really tough. And he brings me into his father's house and it's the spread. It's the spread of food you're talking about.
GREENEAs soon as we walked in at 7:30 in the morning, I mean, it wasn't just, you know, breakfast. It was a breakfast massive buffet on the table with everything, hot, cold. And then one shot of cognac or vodka after another at 8:00 in the morning. And I just felt at home so quickly.
REHMBut, you know, here in this country we talk about the 1 percent and the 99 percent. Is the same exactly across Russia?
GREENEI think so. I don't know the exact numbers but the amount of wealth that is concentrated is stunning. I mean, you think about oligarchs and these Russians who were able to capitalize at the end of Soviet times. And, I mean, they have so, so, so much money.
GREENEAnd I think that is one of the untold stories of Russia today, that a lot of what we're seeing when it comes to Russian policy, you can't forget that there's money tied up in it. And that there are, you know, people who are close to Putin are not who might benefit or might not when you're talking about energy and other things. And it's a hard, hard story to dig into because those are the stories that get Russian journalists in big trouble.
GREENEAnd then you look out in the villages and across Russia and it's very impoverished. But I will say Russians in general have done better under Vladimir Putin. And that is one of the things you don't hear much of. I mean, in general, you know, Russians have done better over Putin's time. And it's not something to lose sight of or forget as we sort of wonder where Putin's popularity comes from.
REHMYeah, so therefore they're very uncertain about the idea of a democratic form of government. They're happy with, for the most part, Putin as is?
GREENEFor the most part. I mean, there's growing opposition to Putin in the country and that's a big question going forward. But, you know, Putin's poll numbers -- and polling's really tough in Russia, it's hard to say it's reliable.
GREENEBut it looks like he's, you know, in the 70 to 80 percent range which, you know -- and the annexation -- the forced annexation of Crimea which, you know, a lot of the west doesn't recognize, made Putin enormously popular. And so -- and this is -- you know, Diane, you look back at sort of the tradition of Russian culture. I mean, back through czarist times there was this idea that if you were Russian, and it's a dangerous world out there, if you give yourself to the czar, he will protect you. And that legacy, in a modern way, still exists today. And it's really unbelievable that that kind of culture and history matters so much. But it really does.
REHMSo how do they talk about Putin?
GREENEThey talk about Putin and, you know, there's -- it's funny, there's one young man who stands out to me. His name's Yvonne and I met him near Chelyabinsk, which was the city where the meteorite fell out of the sky which was one of those bizarre Russian stories. And I was actually looking to collect a souvenir because I wanted a space -- you know, a chunk of space debris. I'm a Star Wars nut and I thought that was really cool.
GREENEAnd so I met him and we decided to go to a café together the next morning. And Yvonne, as a kid, los both his parents and got to the point -- I mean, he was trying to get by himself with the help of neighbors and people in the community. He had to do his mandatory year in military service. And he asked the government if he could not do it, if they would let him out because he was orphaned, and they said absolutely not. You have to do it. It sounds torturous. I mean, Russian military training is so, so incredibly brutal. I mean, they literally tear you apart and then put you back together again.
GREENEAnd this young man is sitting there and telling me that he's so happy he went through this because he feels like it made him Russian. It made him strong. It made him able to endure. And, you know, he cried at one point as we're sitting there, you know, sipping tea. And he just said, I love my country and I feel like the sense of community. And the protection I feel in my village is so, so important.
GREENEAnd I challenged him. I said, you know, Yvonne, what do you dream about? And he said, oh, you know, I'd love to own a business sometime. I have enough money to buy a truck and run some sort of delivery business or something. I said, well, you know, are you going to do it? I don't think I'll ever have the money to do that but I feel like I have my friends here. And, you know, his relationship with Putin, I mean, it just -- he felt like that protection that he felt in his village and community. That kind of protection was what he was getting from the top.
GREENEAnd it's just this -- it goes back through generations in Russia. I think there's just a feeling of the world out there can be very scary. And when we hear things like, you know, these arguments that the west and the fascists are doing terrible things in Ukraine and a lot of the propaganda right now in Russia, I think it resonates with people and they feel a sense of fear and uncertainty in the rest of the world.
REHMDo you think women feel the same way men do?
GREENEThat's a really good question. I mean, the story of women in Russia is extraordinary. I think - you know, I don't think there's this marked difference politically when you talk to men or women. I think women also -- you know, a lot of them take pride in their strength. I think...
REHMThey were among the first doctors. They were professionals.
GREENEAbsolutely. And this goes back to World War II times when so many men died, you know, fighting in World War II. And so women have always taken pride in going about it alone and kind of being the lifeblood of the country. And you see that still today. I mean, the life expectancy for me because of alcoholism, because of just, you know, tough living and tough work, it barely got over 60 recently. I mean, it was in the upper 50's for a good number of years.
GREENESo you meet a lot of women babushkas who, you know, are living life on their own without a man. And they are tough. You don't want to mess with a babushka on the streets of Moscow or anywhere in Russia because they really are -- you know, especially the older generation, they really keep the country -- you know, they're the engine in a way.
REHMYou know, I think we also should mention you have family roots in Russia.
GREENEI do. It's funny, some Russian, some Latvian and also some Ukrainian. I was in Western Ukraine in the city of Lviv which is very beautiful, very European. Fell in love with the city and I was speaking to my father one day. And I said, you know, I was in Lviv and he said, oh that's the city where our family roots are. You know, that's the Polish city where our family's from. I said, well, it's actually Ukrainian, dad, and he was like, well, I mean, you know, borders have changed so much. But it turns out, you know, I have Ukrainian blood as well, if we consider that part of Ukraine which, you know, it's really cool.
REHMAnd your mother?
GREENEMy mother is the Latvian side. And going to Riga, you know, I had to make some trips to the Baltics when I was covering that. I felt a connect there as well. My -- the research I've done is my family left at the end of the 19th century from Latvia and they were on their way to New York. And the boat stopped in Cork in Ireland and they screamed out -- you know, they screamed out Cork but a lot of Latvians thought they had heard New York and they all got out. So I had family in Dublin for ten, twenty years.
REHMDavid Greene, co-host of NPR's Morning Edition. His new book "Midnight in Siberia." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." David, you mentioned the babushkas and I know we have some music from them.
REHMTell us about this.
GREENESo this is a group of singing babushkas from the village of Baranova. Russia has a lot of little pockets of ethnicities. And they are Udmurt which is, you know, a small -- they have a distinct language which they weren't really able to speak during Soviet times because different languages and different religions weren't really encouraged, shall we say. So these women began a singing group together, singing in their native Udmurt language.
GREENEThere are probably about a dozen of them total. And they made sort of international fame because they had YouTube videos and they did some Beatles covers. And they just started singing and got a lot of attention.
REHMTell me how old these women are, David.
GREENEI just get chills listening to them. They're 60's, 70's. I think one was over 80. They...
GREENEYeah, they started singing and they wanted to raise money to rebuild the church, the orthodox church in their village Baranova. And they just started getting attention so much so that they represented Russia at the big international Eurovision contest. And they were an absolute hit. And I think that's the tape we were hearing right there. And you just can't imagine these wonderful, brilliant, adorable women in their native Udmurt outfits onstage.
GREENEThey're so, so inspiring and have had such rough lives. It's exactly what we were talking about. Many of them had lost their husbands and sort of turned to this singing group for friendship and to sort of get by together. They're just -- I -- the time I spent with them I just felt so honored to hang out with them.
REHMYou know, you mentioned they raise money for their orthodox church. Did you, on your travels, infer the kind of religious discord between those who were orthodox and those who did not believe?
GREENEYeah, I think there are some people in Russia who are deeply, deeply religious. There's some who just -- you know, they'll have orthodox icons hanging on their dashboard or from their rearview mirror. And so, you know, I think religion gives them, you know, a feeling of -- you know, a feeling of support, you know, to get by in the day. But they're not that religious.
GREENEBut there are people who, you know, aren't that religious at all. And I think it comes from living through Soviet times perhaps in a time when religions wasn't encouraged and a lot of Orthodox...
REHMBut do they ever look askance at each other?
GREENEI don't -- I never got the sense of religious tension.
REHMYou didn't pick that up, yeah.
GREENEYeah, I mean, that wasn't there. And, you know, orthodox churches are -- they're...
GREENE...they're absolutely gorgeous. Some people who are more cynical, you know, journalists and westerners will say, I've finally gotten sick of going to an orthodox church because you go to one after another in every city you go to. I never got sick of it. And you'd always go in, there'd be a different style of icons all over the walls. And there would be people who would bring you in and candles and, you know, something really special.
REHMAbsolutely beautiful. David Greene. He's co-host of NPR's Morning Edition and he's written a new book. It's got a great cover, called "Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey Into the Heart of Russia." Going to take a short break now. When we come back, it's time to open the phones, read your email. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMWelcome back. If you've just joined us, David Greene, who is co-host of NPR's "Morning Edition," is here in the studio with me. He's written a new book all about his 6,000 mile train journey into the heart of Russia. The book is titled, "Midnight in Siberia." Here's an email from Mark. He says Russia has over 80 republics and regions, many of which have non-Russian indigenous populations. Has Putin exposed its own multi-faceted federation to the risk of secessionist sentiment with his Ukraine inadventure of stoking Russian separatists in the Ukraine?
GREENEThat's a really interesting question. I mean, Russia is full of different republics and ethnicities. I mean, Udmurt Republic that we talked about earlier Diane, it's where these babushkas come from. I don't know. I mean, I wonder what the reaction is going to be to what's happened in eastern Ukraine. There was an outpouring of patriotism after...
REHMAnd support for Putin.
GREENE...and support for Crimea.
GREENEYeah, I mean, and Russians felt a real deep connection to Crimea. But there's been chatter and some polls suggesting that support for eastern Ukraine has been much less so. And what we've seen has been this sort of very powerful terrible story where the Kremlin has denied actually having deployed, officially, Russian troops into eastern Ukraine. But you had these journalists who were going and finding families who had lost, lost sons who were deployed, it appeared, to eastern Ukraine.
GREENEAnd, you know, one of -- one hypothesis is that the Kremlin is really sensitive about this, because they don't know if Russians are willing to sacrifice for eastern Ukraine. You know, they don't know whether they believe in that cause. Now, whether the idea of sort of republics being separatist, I'm not sure. I will say, you know, it's one of the things in Russian politics. Putin's party, the United Russia Party, he's really taken firm control over the regions as best he can. And so you have prosecutors, you have city officials who are literally tied to him politically and bureaucratically.
GREENESo, it's -- his presence is everywhere. And there's a feeling that he has, you know, that division is actually Putin's strategy of avoiding some sort of large scale opposition movement. Because if you keep people feeling divided, it's hard for an opposition movement to come together. But it's -- Mark, it's a really interesting question to explore.
REHMHere's a tweet from Stan. Can you please have David talk more about the Russian countryside and the people and less about politics? My fault.
GREENEOkay. Both our faults, Diane.
GREENEThe Russian countryside is gorgeous. I mean, Lake Baikal is this stunning, stunning place in the Far East. It's considered the sister lake of Lake Tahoe. They look similar. I would argue that Lake Baikal is even more beautiful.
GREENEThis place is visually stunning. It's this huge, huge deep, deep water lake with mountains that just rise on all sides. And the lake freezes during the wintertime. And you can walk across it. You can ride bicycles across it. You can -- they literally form snow roads across it. And you can take a hovercraft across it, which Sergei and I did. We hired a hovercraft. I was expecting some sort of high tech hovercraft. This was like a Russian latta stuck on top of a pontoon. I mean, it was just bizarre, and I thought that this is the way Sergei and I were gonna go.
GREENEThat we were gonna crash through the ice. But wow. I mean, it's just that the ice on Lake Baikal, it freezes, and when it's not snow covered, it's like this sort of green, cracked glass that just shimmers in the sunlight. It's beautiful, and then it becomes snow covered and you're -- you know, it's just a snowy landscape and it is one of the most stunning places I've ever seen in my life.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Torrance, California. Aaron, you're on the air.
AARONHi. Hey, that was a great show. I'm confident about listening to this.
AARONI actually drove with my 19-year-old daughter from (unintelligible) to Sochi, back in 2008.
GREENEIt's a long trip.
AARONYeah. It was long. It was fascinating trip, though. So I had to have like a boots on the ground, so I really wanted to visit that place. Then I saw that "Doctor Zhivago," I said, wow, that place to be so we drove from (unintelligible) all the way to Sochi. And I went through some villages and even noticed that those villages, like civilization hasn't touched for hundreds of years. I mean, when we saw -- we got lost so many times, and we ended up in a village, people would just come straight to us. Some of them scary looking, some of them totally curious what we were doing over there.
AARONAnd I had added on a number plate, so they thought it was just a kind of decal. They didn't know that it was American car. But yeah, we had a lot of good times with the local people, but so good time with the police. I mean, we ended up putting a lot of bribes, and we got in the jail a few times.
REHMOh, my goodness.
AARONWe got stuck in the (unintelligible) and they would not let us go. They would start bargaining with us for like a thousand euros (unintelligible). The moment they see American passport, you are done.
REHMThat's interesting. Once they see an American passport.
GREENEYeah. No, it's -- that's really interesting, and that can, that can -- I mean, I felt like that helped sometimes in reporting.
GREENEYeah. But the police in the -- spending time in jail, that's really...
REHMNow, here's what I wanted to ask you. In talking with people, I know you had a translator with you, but how did you approach people? Why would they want to talk to you? Why would they trust you and not fear that perhaps you had some ulterior American motive?
GREENEI am -- I ask this question to myself all the time. I mean, when I do journalism in the United States, I sometimes wonder why people talk to me. Because I'm thinking, if a journalist came up to me and started asking about my life, would I just start, you know, pouring out facts and my history and my emotions? And so, I'm grateful all the time that people will talk to me. In Russia, the rate of people talking probably was even higher than in the United States.
REHMOh, for heaven's sake.
GREENEAnd I would just, you know, Diane, I don't know. I think Russians are, because of the Soviet education system, they are, on average, so educated and so sort of knowledgeable. Rich, poor, no matter where, what part of the country you're in. I mean, it would just be stunning. I remember being in this village and meeting this woman who was scared that this mill was going to close in town. She was, you know, she was screaming out food, food, food. We need food. That's why this mill can't close, because it provides jobs.
GREENEIncredibly poor, you know, dressed almost in rags, I would say. I mean, just someone who, I don't know, we started chatting, and the thing that stunned me, you know, she asked where I'm from. And I said I'm from NPR. And she said, well, help me understand what that is. And our -- my colleague Sergei said, well, it's like the BBC. She had listened to the BBC service.
GREENEAnd had heard and knew exactly where I was coming from, got that we were radio journalists for, you know, a national network in the United States. And just started chatting with us, and was as curious about me and my life as I was about her. And that's probably what the window was often. Their own curiosity.
REHMAnd we often hear that Russians turn to alcohol out of despair. Did you find that?
GREENEI did. And it's sad. There was, in the city of Krasnoyarsk, one of the chapters in the book is named after a taxi driver who drove us all around and he was telling me about -- you know, he's just scared of his country today. He's scared of Putin. He's scared of having a President who was a KGB spy. He didn't want to give me his name at the end. And then as I'm getting out of the cab, he said, you know what, I'll give you my name. Let the world know who I am, which was huge. But we were driving, and we stopped at this overlook.
GREENEAnd Krasnoyarsk is this unbelievably gorgeous city. It's just beautiful. Chekhov called it his -- the most beautiful city in Siberia. And we stopped over, and there was this overlook where there were wedding pictures being taken. And I remember Rose -- Rose was on this part of the trip with me, and she and I were watching these couples just -- and I have a picture of it that I took. And it's so memorable. Standing there taking pictures. Laughing and smiling and enjoying life. It was all the best of Russia.
GREENEAnd I got back in the taxi cab, and I said to the driver, you know, I was like, God, I feel this joy and this happiness. And he said, well, you know, it's not like that most days. And to make it as much like that as possible, we just drink to forget about, you know, the unhappiness. And that was sad. I mean, that was sad. And I could tell that he did it. And, you know, I think it's a way of escaping and, you know...
REHMIt's the other side.
REHMAnd how some people cope, and certainly, the same is true in this country. But that is the reputation that we, in this country think belongs with the Russians. David Greene is with me. His new book titled, "Midnight In Siberia." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And let's take another call. This time from John in Texas City, Texas. Hi there.
JOHNCan you all hear me?
REHMYes. Go right ahead sir.
JOHNOkay. I like the title of the book. That's really enchanting. Great title, whoever thought of it.
JOHNI think part of your story on the train inspired me, because I know most people, including myself, most people love the idea of train travel. We love Amtrak, in spite of what some Republicans try to do to it every year. Every funding, defunding. You inspired me for this idea of we should take part of that in the UN budget. And use that to bolster Amtrak and encourage diplomats from other countries to get together onboard an Amtrak train and do some train travel across the country.
JOHNNot just here, but across Europe and in Russia. I think people will find really soon that people are exactly alike, no matter what part of the globe they're from.
GREENEThe train is a place where you really do meet people and feel that connection. And John, I've got to say getting on Amtrak is now so boring to me after experiencing the Tran Siberian. So, I wish we had some more of that feeling here.
REHMAnd let's take a call from Jeanine. You're on the air.
JEANINEThis is Jeanine from San Antonio, and David, I've been wondering where you've been and now I know.
REHMNow you know.
GREENEI'm right here, Jeanine. I'm right here.
JEANINEI miss your "Morning Edition."
GREENEAww, thank you. I appreciate that.
JEANINESo, I thought there might be a work, you know, in progress. So, and I also have to just tell you that we're in the middle of a fund drive and I am supposed to be someplace. And when I heard you on the radio, I said, I'm gonna be late, because I'm gonna sit through the phone drive.
JEANINEAnd just to like listen to your show. So anyhow, could you talk a little bit about going through Siberia and the people and the scenery there?
GREENEYeah. I mean, Siberia is just -- it's a different place. And I'll tell you what really, what really felt different to me -- it's, it just feels this spirit of freedom. And...
GREENE...that's, and all is relative, of course. Yeah.
REHMWhen that's the place everybody thinks of as this huge prison.
GREENEYeah. Like, I mean, that's where you were sent...
GREENE...and you were imprisoned.
GREENEAnd what's funny is there's this legacy of the Decembrists. I'm not going to go into too much detail, but the Decembrists carried out a revolution against the czar. This is going back a couple centuries in Russian history. It failed. They were exiled to Siberia. Their wives all came along with them and they served time in prison camps. And afterwards, a lot of them settled in Siberia. They were well educated, they were part of -- you know, some of them were princes. And they sort of set the tone out in Siberia for, you know, being educated.
GREENEA little bit of, you know, a revolutionary spirit. They encouraged the arts. They were, they were living there and that legacy has kind of, has kind of continued. So, it has this sort of western frontier Colorado kind of feel, if you're in a city like Irkutsk near Lake Baikal. But that legacy of the Decembrists sort of lives on. And you talk to people, and it's not they're ready to go out and fight their government. But there's a feeling of, you know, we're out here. We can sort of do our thing, live our lives. Yes, you know, all of our government officials are tied to United Russia, Putin's party.
GREENEBut it feels so far away from Moscow. You know, you're near China, you're near North Korea, you're near the Sea of Japan. Once you get really far out there, you know, the distance from Moscow, it's not just a physical distance. It -- you can sort of feel it in how people live.
REHMAnd I think of Siberia as nothing but cold and ice and frigid...
GREENEOh, that's all there.
REHM...it's all there.
GREENEIt's all there.
REHMBut what about green? Is there any green?
GREENEOh yeah. And Siberia, we should say, is enormous. I mean, it's bigger than the United States. It's -- I mean, it is huge. And so, you -- it's hard to generalize about Siberia. You know, there are mountains. There are forests. There are flat plateaus. It get -- there's cold and there's really, really, really unbelievably oppressively cold. And in the summertime, it can actually get hot and bug infested. And so a lot of people say that Siberia is a lot more pleasant in the winter, which is amazing to even consider.
GREENEBut there's this -- the rivers actually run north in a lot of parts of Siberia, which doesn't sound all that interesting, until you consider that they bump up against the ice in the north. And so you get, during the summertime, these kind of swamps that have all sorts of insects and mosquitoes and the bug problem in lots of Siberia is just awful in the summertime, so...
REHMWhat about young people in Siberia?
GREENEAgain, it's -- they're there, and there are a lot of large cities, and so even when you have villages that are losing their younger population, it's not like everyone's going to Moscow. They might be going to Irkutsk or Vladivostok and living lives and doing business and doing well for themselves.
REHMDavid Greene. He's going to be back on "Morning Edition" soon. But he's just finished this great book called, "Midnight in Siberia." Congratulations, David.
GREENEThank you, Diane. And thanks for having me. It's really been a pleasure.
REHMOh, lovely to have you here. And thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
Most Recent Shows
How dynamics have shifted for the 2020 Democratic presidential contenders ahead of Tuesday's debate.
NPR's Aarti Shahani tells the story of her family's migration to the U.S. She ended up at Harvard, while her father nearly got deported.
There's a showdown between the executive and legislative branches of government.