VLADIVOSTOK, Russia – In May, 1891, the Grand Duke Nicholas II, (the last Czar)
picked up a ceremonial shovel; filled a wheelbarrow with soil and emptied it on
an embankment in the port of Vladivostok. That was the beginning of a great
railway line: The Trans-Siberian Railway.
Even if you are not a railway
buff and don’t have “rambling fever,” you still might want to explore the vast
expanse of Russia where you’ll meet citizens from throughout the world.
highly recommended way to do this is to board the largest railroad in the world:
“The Trans-Sib,” as it’s affectionately called. Indeed, by riding the
Trans-Siberian, you’ll be nearer to the heart of the Russia of Anna Karenina or
Dr. Zhivago than anywhere else.
This is the “the big train ride,” all
5,753 miles from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean. All the other train
rides in the world “are peanuts” in comparison, remarked noted travel writer
Eric Newby. Your journey will take you through European Russia; across the Ural
Mountains (which separate Europe and Asia); into Siberia’s taiga and steppes,
and onto Vladivostok.
Then, you’re bound to realize that Siberia makes up
three-quarters of Russia.
Needless to say, you don’t have to spend six or
seven days on the whole journey. You can fly to the major cities of Siberia,
Yekaterinburg, Krasnoyarsk, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk and Khabarovsk. You can travel
the route in sections and you can get off along the way as your trip will cover
nearly 100 degrees of longitude in Europe and Asia and eight time
All along the route, Jewish communities are alive and well.
Figures are hard to come by, but about 30,000 Jews reside in Siberia, which has
a population of approximately 40 million.
Conventional wisdom has it that
if you can afford only one stop on the Trans-Siberian, make it Irkutsk, which
stands on the banks of the Angora River. A charming, relaxed city filled with
art museums, restaurants and cafes, Irkutsk lies only 47 miles from the icy blue
waters of Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest lake.
A day trip to Lake
Baikal is highly recommended. We enjoyed a beautiful omul fish, plucked out of
Lake Baikal, placed in a smoker and handed over to us as “smoked fish.” This is
a meal to be savored, along with bread, caviar and country-fresh cucumbers and
Then take a motor boat ride on the lake: It’s smooth and calm
About 3,000 Jews live in Irkutsk, known as “the Paris of
Siberia,” down from previous years due to the large migration of Jews to Israel
in the 1990s.
To meet the Jewish community, I hastened to one of the
oldest houses of worship in Siberia – a three-story concrete building at 23 Karl
Liebknecht Street. I leaned that street names mirror history – in this case,
Stalinist history. Karl Liebknecht was the Jewish founder of the radical
left-wing Spartacus Union in Germany. He and his Jewish comrade, Rosa Luxemburg,
were murdered by the German Army in 1918.
Jewish life in Irkutsk
coalesces around the synagogue which contains a Jewish Community Center, a
prayer hall, a meat kitchen, a mikveh, meeting rooms for the community,
including one for the chess club, a very popular pastime in Russia, as well as
rooms for groups and organizations, such as a sewing club, computer rooms, a
preschool and a library.
The Joint Distribution Committee’s “Hesed”
welfare network, which opened in 1990, is housed in a separate building at 5
Army Street. That organization provides food packages, medicine, meals
on-wheels, a soup kitchen, medical equipment and home care.
Irkutsk celebrated its 350th anniversary. But it has remained “a young” city, at
least in demographics.
The average age is only 31.6 years and young
adults and university students fill the cafes and restaurants.
back to the Trans-Siberian, we learned that the railroad was built for military,
economic and political reasons. Before the rail line, people traveled on an old,
historic road, known as the trakt. The railway, it was hoped, would build up
Russia’s defenses on the Pacific and bind Siberia forever to the
Traveling through Siberia on the rails, one has plenty of
time to read. I learned that Jews were exiled to Siberia from Lithuanian towns
captured by the Russians in the Russo-Polish War of 1632-34. By the 19th
century, Jews were among the convicts and political prisoners sent to Siberia
for settlement or hard labor.
They helped found the first Jewish
communities of Omsk, Tomsk, Tobolsk and Kuibyshev. But by the end of that
century they were banned from settling in Siberia.
Still, Jews played a
prominent role in the culture and economic development of the area, especially
in the fur trade. The arrival of Soviet rule in Siberia, in 1922, marked the
beginning of the end for Jewish communal institutions. In the early days of
World War II, large numbers of Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Poland, Russia
and Ukraine escaped to Siberia and remained there after the war.
the destinations of those refugees was Khabarovsk, which is near Birobidzhan,
“the Soviet Zion,” as The Jerusalem Post
once called it. Situated on the Amur
River, Khabarovsk, founded in 1858, and known as the “Paris on the Amur,” offers
travelers pleasant river cruises.
Tourists shop in fine stores on wide
avenues. Stop off at the Regional History Museum, walk around the huge city
square with the statue of Lenin still standing or stroll on Muraviev-Amursky
Street – named after Count Nikolai Muraviev-Amursky, who, energetic and
ambitious, promoted Russia’s advance in the Amur River area. The street itself
features old world architecture, though the mall is not as chic as the one in
Moscow near Red Square. The view of the Amur from Komsomolskaya Square, now
called Cathedral Square, is magnificent.
Don’t forget to stop at the huge
Soviet Memorial to the “Dead Heroes of the Red Army” in World War
While some guide books call the monument “bombastic,” one must never
forget that about 30 million Russians died in the “Great Patriotic War,”
including about 1.5 million Jews and several hundred thousand Russian Jewish
soldiers. Today, veterans proudly display their battle ribbons on jackets and
A major stop on the Trans-Siberian railroad, Khabarovsk is home
to about 12,000 Jews living among 700,000 residents, though the metro area
contains about 1.3 million. The city’s synagogue and JCC are at 76-2 Frunze
From Khabarovsk, the Trans-Siberian runs south following the
Ussuri River and the border with China and onto Vladivostok. The train takes us
over hills and down into flat valleys similar to those in Montana in the US or
rural France. From the stark Siberian tundra, green scene after green scene
along with fertile fields, pleased our eyes.
In summer, it gets dark late
at night and that’s when one cries out: “Let the parties begin.” Our fellow rail
passengers were a gregarious lot, with hearty appetites.
tradition demands passengers share vittles with their cabin-mates. Having
devoured our box lunches, we handed out chewy fruit-and-nut bars which we
brought from America.
An American professor and his cabin-mate, a
sternlooking Russian army officer, came into our compartment.
the military man “the General.” He offered up some vodka, made toasts; and after
a few hearty nazdarovyas, he, too, began to smile. The two brought black bread,
caviar and halvah. It was past midnight when we turned in.
As the train
pulled into Vladivostok next morning, I recalled Osip Mandelstam, the Russian
Jewish poet who was arrested for a poetic attack on Stalin. Mandelstam was sent
to Vtoraya Rechka, a transit camp in suburban Vladivostok where thousands waited
for ships to take them to the gulag. He was “arguably the most brilliant poet
Russia produced in the 20th century,” and was among the noted Jewish victims of
Stalin to be doomed in this frozen wasteland. He died in Vtoraya Rechka in
Some clues about traveling on the Trans-Sib. It is highly
recommended to speak to a specialty travel agent to help you plan your trip.
Group travel (or several couples) is best. Some travelers take a security guard
Several institutions exist on the train.
One is the
“provadnitza,” the conductor-provider.
Don’t get on is his/her wrong
side. They control your tea, meals, snacks, dining-room seat and entrance to the
single bathroom in the carriage.
Some tips: Don’t leave valuables in your
compartment, bring books, games. It’s like taking a long cruise.
books correctly suggest that you bring toilet paper, a plug for the bathroom
sink, insect-repellent , a bottle-opener, corkscrew and a travel alarm clock
plus necessary medications.
So, as Czar Alexander III said when asked for
his approval of the road, “It is time, high time.”
“All aboard!” Ben G.
Frank, journalist, travel writer, is the author of the just-published
Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti &
Beyond, as well as
A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe, 3rd edition; A Travel Guide
to Jewish Russia and Ukraine, and
A Travel Guide to the Jewish Caribbean and