The Trans Siberian railway trip from Vladivostok to Moscow, 9, 2230 km over 14 days, 7 trains, was as exciting as I had hoped and I saw Russia’s politics and human rights on a Political Tours course in Russia for my first week.
We saw different sides of the country, starting in Far East Russia then crossing Siberia. We stopped at the vast Lake Baikal, 220 km long and 80 km wide.
The Russian trains are well designed for travel, we had bunks and made tea from the carriage hot water heater previuosly a samovar. The train travels smoothly at 50 km/hr, so one can appreciate the scenery and we explored the stations and their food on regular stops. We had a drink in Novosibirsk station on a long stop there. Russian city architecture is varied with many 19 century buildings. The central squares are attractive with public buildings, museums and many statues of Lenin. The stations are attractive and well maintained and the styles change from East to West. We saw much forest but also big rivers and Lake Baikal. Siberian culture with smoked fish, birch bark goods and pine nuts is present everywhere. We travelled as a foursome (Rita, Vincent, Ann and myself) in a 4 bed couchette and made our own coffee, tea and picnics. Rita organised the trains in London. Rita spoke some Russian, Vincent is a public transport expert, Ann first visited Russia in 1982 and again in the 90’s as an IT expert. Rita and I had previously visited St Petersburg and loved the culture.
I started my Russian month with a Political Tours week organized journalists to help one see the different aspects of a country and facilitated by Russian journalist based in Latvia. Leonid Ragozin. We met people across the political spectrum especially political activists and social workers in Yekaterinaburg and Moscow. We met Vladimir Milov, opposition activist in a Moscow subterranean bar, he described the hurdles Putin’s government place on the opposition, needing 2.000 signatures on a nomination for a city councillor election and being in prison for opposition activities. The police are unpleasant, other inmates difficult in a shared jail and he worries about his dogs at home. A week later he was again arrested for broadcasting about the current protests and is back in prison. Marsha is a human rights lawyer struggling to get justice for people in the opposition being arrested on trivial grounds. The judges ignore well presented evidence by the defendants. For her Russia being part of the Council of Europe is important because the final legal appeal is in Strasbourg. The human rights problems in Russia and the need for an opposition is palpable from these conversations. Putin has increased wealth for average Russian and the country is visibly improving. Putin has rewarded his cronies and prevents the opposition functioning in many ways. Ultimately this will undermine him, but it will take a long time.