STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's take a final few stops on the Trans-Siberian Railway. David Greene has been taking us on that railway across Russia, and he's going to take us to the region that gives the railway its name, Siberia - David - which of course, we associate with icy wastelands and also, with exiles and prisons.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Yeah, I think that's a pretty accurate image. I mean, Siberia alone is bigger than the United States; it's vast. And it symbolized, as you said, the cruelty - I mean, leaders exiling Russians to get rid of them, and send them off. Today, I think Siberia is beginning to represent something else. It's beginning to represent how difficult it is for Russian leaders to hold this country together, to make sure Russia has one identity. And so we took the train - you cross all of Siberia. I mean, it's just this endless snow and finally things open up, and you see Lake Baikal.
(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES LAPPING)
GREENE: It's the deepest freshwater lake in the entire world. There are snowcapped mountains I'm looking at - across, on the opposite shore. This has been an important landmark throughout Siberia's whole history. Some people on their way to exile would have to stop here along the shore, and wait for the dead of winter for the water to freeze, so they could cross the lake on horseback. It's this beautiful but also really unforgiving landscape - especially like now, in wintertime. The water you hear behind me - it isn't frozen yet, but it's getting close. It'll be frozen for several months. You can only stand outside for just so long, and then you start to feel your toes and your fingers getting numb. I mean, you can just imagine how shocking it was for people who because of their politics, or because of their religion, were forced to move out here and begin this new life.
(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)
GREENE: One of the groups who began a new life was the Old Believers. They're a religious community in Russia who grew angry back in the 1600s, when the Orthodox Church instituted reforms. That religious disagreement was their ticket to this part of Siberia. And the people who descended from those original exiles are still here, trying to keep the Old Believers tradition alive through music and dance.
LYUDMILA NAZAROVA: (Foreign language spoken)
GREENE: A group of women from the community invited me into their home, cooked a dinner of Russian pancakes and Baikal fish, and performed some of their music for me. One of them was Lyudmila Nazarova. Having grown up in the harsh climate of Eastern Siberia, Nazarova said she hasn't lost her cultural connection to Russia. But ask her about politics or the future of her country, or who's leading in Moscow, she's ambivalent.
NAZAROVA: (Foreign language spoken)
GREENE: Moscow, it's just a city - she told me - it's just a capital; that's about it. And that made me wonder about Siberia. There are so many ethnic groups scattered across this region, also the descendants of political activists, dissidents and religious adherents who were moved here. Does anything bind all of these people together? I threw that question to Alisa Sukneva, a bubbly woman with red hair and bright-red lipstick, who's a tour guide around Lake Baikal. Her grandparents were exiled here in the 1930s.
ALISA SUKNEVA: Of course, something holds these communities together. They have to stay alive, all of them. And here is very cold, and they have to help each other.
GREENE: What is the connection to Moscow, would you say, out here?
SUKNEVA: Oh, connection to Moscow - for people, I'm not really sure the connection with Moscow is very close, is very popular here.
GREENE: It wasn't always this way. During Soviet times, there was a deep sense of connection to what Moscow represented. Hard as life was, Russians were proud of Soviet dominance in science, space travel. They felt their country was the envy of the world, in some ways.
INNA KHARIV: (Foreign language spoken)
GREENE: Sixty-two-year-old Inna Khariv recalls a better life. I met her on a brief stop on the train platform, in the city of Amazar. Bundled up in the cold and between puffs of her cigarette, she told me how she worked on a mink farm in the Soviet era. Now, she lives on a $300-a-month pension, and she's one of many Russians who have nostalgia for communist times.
KHARIV: (Foreign language spoken)
GREENE: We had one faith, one goal in the Soviet era, she said, adding that today, nothing holds us together. Inna Khariv is no fan of Russia's most powerful politician, Vladimir Putin, but she's also disappointed, feeling that no one else has emerged with anything inspiring to say about the future. As she put it: I lost my faith in this government, and I lost my faith in our youth. We don't have a replacement, no worthy replacement for us.
Inna Khariv and I both boarded the train again and we headed eastward. I was on to my final destination, the port city of Vladivostok.
(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)
GREENE: And when I got there, I was truly in Asia - Japan, China, North Korea are all neighbors. What you're hearing here is karaoke at the Pyongyang Cafe.
(SOUNDBITE OF STREET TRAFFIC)
GREENE: People on the roads in Vladivostok are driving Japanese cars with the steering wheels on the right. Russian- made cars - they're scarce. Out here, as trust in Russia's government has faltered, people seem not so much in the mood to protest, but more to look elsewhere for opportunity. Dmitry Granovsky and his wife, Olga, are both 37, and they're raising four children here.
OLGA GRANOVSKY: Our young people - some of our young people have never been to Moscow, or to St. Petersburg or other cities in central Russia.
DMITRY GRANOVSKY: We've got generations of kids, like teens, who - never been to European part of Russia, but been throughout Asia.
GREENE: And so China, Japan...
DMITRY GRANOVSKY: China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan.
OLGA GRANOVSKY: Taiwan.
GREENE: This city, Vladivostok, has a university and younger, educated citizens. I thought people would feel invested in what was taking place 6,000 miles to the west, in Moscow - these anti-government protests.
People on the streets calling for change, calling for a different president...
DMITRY GRANOVSKY: It's done for people like you. It's just a political show.
GREENE: This couple, as you can hear, doesn't fear speaking out. And they don't fear their government, as some Russian citizens have in the past. But they see leaders in Moscow clinging to a carcass of Soviet times, still committed to a centralized system of government that can't provide for the citizens of this vast country.
DMITRY GRANOVSKY: Nowadays, Russia doesn't have any sort of society - I mean social society, public society.
OLGA GRANOVSKY: Our society is sick.
GREENE: But like so many of the Russians I met along the way, Olga and Dmitry are mostly waiting, and hoping, for change to come. Their patience seems as long as a train trip from Moscow to Vladivostok.
INSKEEP: Totally different perspective on Russia from our colleague David Greene. David, we hear so much about Vladimir Putin, about the Kremlin. We'll hear more, but it's not often you get out into Siberia. And people can hear your earlier reports, I should mention, at npr.org.
GREENE: They can also see a lot of David Gilkey's photos. NPR's photographer was along for the ride, took a lot of the shots of the people and scenes of Russia. I do want to mention one other name, Steve, NPR's Moscow producer, Sergei Sotnikov(ph). I've worked with him the last two years, including on this journey. Puts a lot of effort into this network, and a shoutout to him.