The Russian soul – does it even exist? This was the question Emilia Schüle put to journalists and others. Actor Schüle, who started life far away in the East, traveled to Russia in search of clues – and rode the Trans-Siberian Railway.
The lake lies still, unruffled, despite the wind whistling over the cliff. Stretching away before her, Emilia Schüle surveys a steppe landscape of stiff, bleached grass, yellow as her jacket. A couple of meters further on, the plain falls away to a steep cliff. Below lie the shimmering waters of Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater reservoir in the world. For as long as she can remember, Schüle’s parents have talked about this lake. They said it was as big as a sea, absolutely beautiful, soothing and impressive all at once. “They didn’t exaggerate,” she says. Schüle was born in Siberia in 1992. When she was one year old, her family moved to Germany. Schüle was raised in Berlin und became a well-known German actor, but her place of birth, Blagoveshchensk, was a constant presence, visible in the clothes of her aunts and grandmothers, expressed in the family’s loud, direct sense of humor, plain to see on the breakfast table in the form of thin, Russian pancakes. Russia remains a part of Schüle’s biography today, and also because her role as a disposable Belarusian girl in the German TV crime series “Tatort” brought her breakthrough.
Now Schüle is on the island of Olchon in Oblast Irkutsk and reviewing her impression of a country she knows only from stories. “I want to fill the blank spot in my past with pictures,” says the 24-year-old, “see the place that until now was no more than a word in my passport. Schüle is still feeling a little timid. She speaks Russian but doesn’t feel at home in the language. She can’t get the R to roll properly; words fail her. From Berlin’s grimy, colorful streets to the moonscape of Olchon: The contrast could hardly be greater – and yet Schüle is rooted in both worlds. “Since I talked about the ‘Russian soul’ in an interview once, everyone keeps asking me what it is. Everyone has an idea, but I can hardly put it into words,” says Schüle. She’s taking a journey to Siberia to change that. We will accompany her.
Irkutsk, 5185 kilometers beyond Moscow
Irkutsk Central Station is the starting point for the journey into Schüle’s past, for the train ride to Blagoveshchensk. Iron snout first, a long line of gray carriages slides into the station – our home for the next 58 hours. The Trans-Siberian Express has already covered 5185 kilometers since leaving Moscow. We took a short cut and flew this far.
On each wall of our sleeping compartment, there are two bunk beds covered in red fake leather, where we later roll out the mattresses. Schüle had trouble getting to sleep the past few nights – too many thoughts running around in her head – but now, the steady ratatatat of the moving train soon sends her to sleep. Wilderness surrounds the carriages. Russian rulers have always used the distant province to consolidate their power. It is where the sources of Russian wealth spring from the ground; it was here that Stalin sent his opponents – to oblivion or death. In 1891, the province was annexed to the rest of the country and construction of the Transsib begun: 9288 kilometers of railroad tracks from Moscow, across the Ural Mountains, to Vladivostock in the Far East. Permafrost and thaws hindered progress, and every year, construction of the railroad devoured one-third of Russia’s iron production. The gigantic dimensions of the project made a legend of the chugging iron horse.
Ulan-Ude, kilometer 5640
In the morning, we find ourselves in the grip of that particular brand of disorientation that befalls all first timers on the Transsib. The trains may move through eight time zones, but their timetable sticks to just one, Moscow time. When the train stops in the morning and we stretch our legs in the cool air of Ulan-Ude, our cell phones tell us it’s 5 a.m. – but the station clocks and the timetable maintain it’s midnight. We go by the daylight and have some breakfast: cheese, sausage and crumbly white bread.
The reason Schüle wants to take the train to Blagoveshchensk is to see as much of Russia as possible along the way. For three whole days, she will look out on green birch woods, delicate saplings beside the tracks, mighty trees beyond, and scorched stumps. “The great thing about traveling by train is that your soul has the time to travel with you,” she says.
Schüle’s parents are both physicians. The Soviet Union paid for their studies and in return, they went to Blagoveshchensk to work at a military base. Schüle’s elder sister recalls how the kids there played outside in winter, so well wrapped up in fur and felt boots they could barely move, so they just waddled around the small playground like overweight penguins.
Chita, kilometer 6198
Every few hours, the train makes a brief stop and spits out passengers at stations in the middle of nowhere. No time to explore these small places. Conductor Natasha unloads sacks of used bedclothes and new provisions arrive for the dining car. Some girls take advantage of the opportunity to practice a choreography in front of the vibrating train. They are on their way to China, to a dance contest, the young athletes tell us. “Russian discipline,” says Schüle, “just like at home.” It was always very important to do well, she explains. The Russian soul, is it so ambitious? Slowly, but with every passing kilometer, the many faces on the train lose their unfamiliarity.
Zilovo, kilometer 6670
Lunch awaits us in the dining car. On the way there, we pass through seven third-class carriages. Doors and private sphere are non-existent here. A hot, sweetish smell of unwashed skin and packet soup hangs in the air. Feet droop into the aisle, elbows protrude from beds. Most of the passengers are lying on their bunks, sleeping; there’s a group of soldiers playing cards. The pictures in the travel agency’s brochures show gold, teak wood, red plush, the Trans-Siberian Railway, the pride of the Russian Federation. But those trains are the special ones for tourists. Only Russians without the cash for an airline ticket would consider making the journey in the cramped, stuffy compartments of the regular trains – and backpackers dreaming of an old-fashioned adventure.
Schüle adapts easily to life on the train, brushes her teeth in the corridor, chats with Natasha at the samovar. “The humor feels very familiar, the way people talk at the top of their voices. The tone may sound rough, but that doesn’t mean they’re being unfriendly,” she says. We rumble along across the steppe at 60 km/h. Only another 1300 kilometers to Blagoveshchensk.
Amazar, kilometer 7004
On the platform, we buy a bag of pine nuts from an old woman. The other wares set out on her small table: gherkins, chicken legs, resin chew sticks and pelmeni, a Russian version of ravioli. Lying on her bunk in the evening, Schüle talks about Nikolaiski military base, where she spent one short summer and a very long winter: two five-story prefab blocks and a playground between them. A car would come once a day, bringing food. Her mother would stand at the window looking out for it because if you got to it too late, you missed your daily ration.
Erofei Pavlovich, kilometer 7111
Solitary houses stand beside the tracks, and beside them, fields of freshly plowed, but dry earth. All around them, concealing fences, as though the occupants were determined to mark off their territory from the surrounding vastness, so as not to get lost in it. Schüle is collecting the pieces of the mosaic and slowly assembling a picture of the Russian soul. Russians often meet strangers with mistrust. But then – a few words exchanged in Russian, a smile – and everything changes. Schüle puts it like this: “The door to the Russian soul is always open a crack, and when a gentle breeze comes along, it flies open and lets everyone in.”
Belogorsk, kilometer 7866
The train slides across the endless expanse. It’s a space without time, a compact parallel universe packed with workers, families and soldiers speeding across the Taiga. We gaze out at meadows, forests and rivers without ever smelling them, without ever walking through them, without hearing the birches rustling in the breeze. In a few hours’ time, Schüle will see her birthplace again. She intends to see and feel as much as possible: “I’m trying to embrace every day here.”
Blagoveshchensk, kilometer 7971
Eight a.m. The first impression of Blagoveshchensk: Here, too, there are the old wooden houses and children playing between washing lines and Ladas in the yard. But the closer we come to the Amur River forming the border between Russia and China, the smarter the buildings become. Gleaming cars, freshly cleaned facades, illuminated signs. This place is nothing like the impoverished small town Schüle’s mother used to talk about. The place has opened up, is trading with China, has invested in rental bicycles and a cableway.
Our path takes us down to the water. The lights of the Chinese city of Heihe twinkle on the opposite bank of the Amur. Only now, after all the conversations, the warm welcomes, here, among ball the well-groomed Russian women in their skimpy, sparkly dresses enjoying the evening by the river does Schüle recognize the real purpose of her journey: It’s not about defining the German or the Russian soul, it’s about uniting the two. It won’t be easy, but Schüle wants to try: “I may have to start small – learn how to make borsch.”