Why do people travel? To be there for oneself: this is the essential way to know what a place is really like. For me Crossing Over allowed me to look at my homeland, Russia, in a new way and to encounter a country I had never travelled in or known.
Thousands of rail tracks reach out across Russia like threads of a giant spider’s web. Even today, more than a hundred years after its construction, the Trans-Siberian Railway is at the core of Russia, for both transit and trade. Taking a trip along the whole length of the railway offers a unique way to grasp the vastness of this country and simply sitting back and watching the landscape that exhibits itself within the constantly moving, narrow frame of the window is a hypnotic pleasure.
Dense forests stretching to the horizon; expanses of grassless steppes; blurred, distant hills and hidden scattered villages. My preconceptions of the Russian landscape had been formed by the depiction of Russian scenery in our national art and literature. Grand and diverse, often unsympathetic and uninhabitable, Russian territory is constantly represented as a question, a set of contradictions.
As I was there, traveling through it, I realized that the identity of Russia, as I see it, is a product of some kind of instinctive popular sentiment. Is this a real or imagined Russian identity? ‘Russianness’ in my mind was exclusively created by the Russian books, paintings and songs which I grew up with. We were taught to simply accept and love the country’s unprepossessing landscapes. The sanctuary of my train carriage let me rediscover those feelings in even greater extent. The wide-open spaces of Russia’s fields and steppes, which to foreign eyes might seem to lack excitement and variety, for me indicate the boundless greatness of this country, The open countryside was always revered as one of Russian’s important and idiosyncratic national features.
Another tenent of our national literature and poetry is that Russia is, above all, a land of people. The image of Russia I saw from the Trans-Siberian train is a network of interconnected yet dispersed populations. The human figures that appear in the photographs are signifiers that life is present in what seems to be a boundless and lonely territory. Space, or in this case, the landscape of the country, has no substantial essence in itself, but is ‘a context for human life’, whilst place ‘constitutes space as a center of human meaning’.
In my journey this space is reflected in the motion of the train as it progress across the land seen through my carriage window. The people and settlements become clear when the train in pulls in to a station or stops along the tracks during the journey, when the motion is suspended. The Trans-Siberian train stops several times a day, for periods ranging
from just a few moments to a maximum of half an hour. Even the longest stop, however, does not
allow more than a quick tour of the train station.
The railway penetrates the whole country, stringing together 87 cities and villages in an invisible chain: from Novosibirsk, to Krasnoyarsk, Sludyanka, Taiga, and Birobidjhan and many more beyond. My co-passengers were from all points along the line, with some I shared only a passing chat; with others I spent days full of intense and interesting conversation as the land rolled by outside our window. When they reached their stops I stepped down with them onto the platform to take their portrait to mark our new friendship and hold their place on my map of Russia.