This is a photo of my favorite sight in St. Petersburg. It’s a map on the wall of the Muskovsky Train Station (where you catch trains that go to Moscow — you disembark at the Leningradsky Train Station in that city, very logical) that shows all the railway lines and major cities you can reach simply by ambling onto a train leaving one of the platforms in Russia’s imperial city.
I can spend hours staring at this map, which baffles my relatives. It brings to life everything I — and probably you — love about travel, especially train travel: the lure of a different place, the flavor of an unpronounceable name, the excitement and expectation, the clickety-clack that could bring us, just by buying a ticket and stepping aboard, somewhere so different we could spend the rest of our lives trying to fathom it. It also brings to life, as almost nothing else can, the dizzying size of Mother Russia.
Look at a map of the world. Now look at it again. Look at how much of this planet Russia takes up. It’s huge. It’s unwieldy, monstrously large. You’ve probably read books about this hugeness, the sprawling red space out beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg and the Ural Mountains. Maybe you’ve been riveted by Jeffrey Taylor’s adventures in Siberian Dawn, or even sunk deep into Colin Thubron’s In Siberia. But admit it: you know nothing about this vast country. You can’t even get a fix on Singapore, or Portugal, or your hometown. I know I can’t.
These train lines, snaking silver from St. Petersburg, reach out across what used to be an empire, across a whole country that has probably never, in reality, existed except by political consensus. What is an empire? Power, money, force, oppression, weapons, knowledge, order, control, superiority. An empire is not a place. It’s a time, or a stretch of history, or the common belief of those who control it.
A few years ago I was researching the Old Believers of the Russian Orthodox Church, out of sheer curiosity. This is the branch that split with the rest of the church in the mid-1600s over obscure dogma that I, being completely non-religious, never fully understood, such as how to pronounce “Jesus.” I see its effects mostly in old paintings of Old Believers being arrested and carted away, their fingers frozen in the two-fingered blessing that was replaced by crossing oneself with three fingers, one of the niggly disagreements the caused the great Schism.
I remember reading that in the 1990s someone stumbled across a village of Old Believers somewhere out in Siberia. They’d secluded themselves away from arrest and persecution, hidden so thoroughly that they had lived the 20th century completely unaware of Lenin, Stalin, communism, the KGB, the Cold War, the Space Race, and the Gulag. The Soviet Union had come and gone, and they hadn’t known.
This planet is still so big, with depth we can’t imagine. Dig into any city or country and there’s always further to go, like a fractal or a Socratic dialogue. This train map — on the wall of one single station in one single city of one single country — is only a speck, even of this country alone. There is so much more out there.
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