From the bookshelf: Siberian trip leads to surprises

Posted: Thursday, September 15, 2005


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The Gentleman from Finland: Adventures on the Trans-Siberian Express

By Robert M. Goldstein

Published by Rivendell Publishing Northwest

242 pages


$14.95 (softcover)

The notion of vacationing in Siberia is fodder for bad jokes in most of the world.

But Alaskans feel a special kinship with that massive and maligned part of Mother Russia. After all, it played such a major role in our state's early history and makes our weather sound reasonable. Thus tales of Siberia, such as Robert M. Goldstein's "The Gentleman from Finland," have a special resonance here they might not have elsewhere.

Although the heady days marking the end of the Cold War — along with the flurry of exchanges and books they inspired — are behind us, this tardy tale of Soviet Siberia is well worth reading.

Goldstein narrates how a whim to cross the U.S.S.R. by rail in 1987 metamorphosed into a surreal pilgrimage that changed his life. Despite soul-searching and Russian melancholy galore, his odyssey also turned out to be darned funny and entertaining.

"I had always dreamed of riding on the Trans-Siberian Express, and perhaps that would have been possible if I had been of traveling age at the turn of the twentieth century when the line first opened. But fate had decreed that my existence begin amid the acrimony of the Cold War," he writes.

"... Independent travel was technically possible, but securing the appropriate permissions meant navigating a bureaucracy that would have made Kafka proud."

Goldstein, a former reporter who lives in Seattle, plans to tour Alaska this fall to promote "The Gentleman from Finland." It is his first book and more than a decade in the writing.

A fan of trains since childhood, he concocted the trip when two of his friends were posted to work in Moscow and invited him to visit. He resolved to end his visit by riding the famous train, nicknamed "Rossiya," more than 5,000 miles east to Khabarovsk.

The trip proved an eye-opening tour of the Soviet Union in its death throes, a land of woeful countenances, scant or putrid food, worthless currency, large cabbages and flowing vodka. Goldstein got off to a bad start, getting on the wrong train with a phrase book that produced more incredulity than communication.

Russians, if they could understand enough English, were perplexed that he was in such remote areas, in the frigid fall and without a tour group. Despite his ignorance and disorientation, he survived a gauntlet of surly bureaucrats, peculiar babushkas and grasping black-market entrepreneurs. He met and describes in lively detail a motley cast of memorable fellow travelers, both Russian and foreign.

"I am Bob. I am tourist. I am American. I do not speak Russian. Glasnost." He memorized those lines in Russian, and they became his mantra for all social situations.

Moving east, stopping to tour Novosibirsk and Irkutsk en route, he discovered Russia had far more to offer than the bleak first impressions suggested. He found a forlorn beauty in the land, the spontaneous friendship of magnanimous Russians and the hollowness of the Cold-War fears inculcated during his childhood. He found a Russia that had given up on the unfulfilled promises of Communism and was stirring with new ideas under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev. To his greater surprise, he discovered an intense yearning awakening within him to explore his family's own Russian heritage.

Ethnic identity is an undercurrent running through the book. Goldstein, whose ancestry is Mexican, Yiddish and Russian, has always been an exotic object of misinterpretation. Short and swarthy, he found himself eyed as a potential Turk, Indian, Middle-eastern terrorist or, as a favorite mistake among the Russians, an Azeri or Armenian. He most certainly does not look Finnish but, through the vagaries of the international tourism industry, the official Soviet agency Intourist was convinced that he was.

As if the real world were not weird enough, the author takes us along through the fantasies spawned by his misadventures. These run the gamut from amorous to paranoid, with a few spy thrillers tossed in like a latter-day Walter Mitty abroad. Combined, the interior and exterior scenes add up to a kooky collage of images from "Doctor Zhivago," James Bond and the Marx Brothers.

Goldstein evokes, especially in the first half of the book, the classic Yiddish comedy tradition of the clueless little guy whose bad luck and miraculous perseverance reduce those around him to tears of mirth. Indeed, it is difficult, especially for anyone who has ever dealt with Russia, Russians or ill-starred foreign travel, to read "The Gentleman from Finland" without a good belly laugh.

Not everyone will identify with the author's sense of humor, and sometimes he stretches to play the comic card. But for those who appreciate life at its most absurd, he is a sympathetic and witty raconteur.

All in all, "The Gentleman from Finland" is a pleasant surprise and delightful entertainment. Thank God the Cold War is over, and we can joke with the Russians instead of fearing them.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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