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‘Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey Into the Heart of Russia’

by David Greene

Norton, 320 pp., $26.95

An American correspondent in Moscow sums up his experience of Russia in a book. This has been done many times, and David Greene, National Public Radio’s man in Moscow 2009-2012, has done it with style in “Midnight in Siberia.”

Much of Greene’s account will be familiar to readers of such books — the sharp difference between Russians in public, with “nervous, blank faces,” avoiding “eye contact as if they might get a disease from it,” their pushing in queues; and the Russians in private, “warm and generous to family and friends,” eager “to wash the night away with vodka.”

Greene is fascinated by the Russian character, which is little changed from the era of the Soviet Union. The communist state built itself upon Russian fatalism, the idea that people “had to accept their fate as it was,” Greene writes. “This philosophy remains in the DNA, passed from one generation to the next.”

In today’s Russia, he writes, “there is little to be proud of or believe in.” In the public realm, “laws are never clear, courts are unreliable, punishments are arbitrary.” A woman tells him, “You get used to knowing nothing about your future.” The people focus on warding off the bad things and trust that “the good things will come on their own.”

For people of talent and cash, the upside of uncertainty is adventure. “This is a wild, entertaining place full of culture, creativity, and craziness,” Greene writes. “I understand why Russians go to the United States and find it boring and too controlled. Here, it’s the Wild West, for better or worse.”

Greene writes little about the public events he covered for NPR. He makes reference to the Moscow protests of 2011 against Vladimir Putin, only to discount them. “Russians made a bit of noise and then settled down again,” he writes. It was “Russia’s urban elite” speaking, the denizens of the trendy cafes in Moscow.

Greene wants to describe the Russia of the vast interior. He frames his book around a railroad trip across Siberia, but little of “Midnight in Siberia” is travel narrative. This is an impressionistic book, a book about people along the way. Greene sets out to meet Russians at random, and does, but he also makes sure he has enough material by setting up interviews with people in advance. And when it’s convenient, he throws in an observation from someone else or an experience of his own.

In Moscow he boards a streetcar and the driver won’t sell him a ticket. Not speaking Russian, Greene is stuck. The driver expects him to get off, but he is not going to move. A voice comes from the back of the car: “Malchik!” (Boy!) An older woman plods up the aisle, holding a bus pass. She yells something unkind at the driver, and uses her card to let in the bewildered foreigner. In Russia, Greene says, a thing can happen that “touches your heart in ways I rarely experience at home, or in any other country.”