LEIGH FORBES: Books of all Sorts

The Big Red Train Ride


by Eric Newby.

Eric Newby, his wife, Wanda, Otto the German photographer, and Mischa, their “guide”, journey from Moscow to Nakhodka (on the Pacific) by way of the 5,900-mile trans-Siberian railway.

As we journey long each section of the railway, Newby describes the history of that stretch, the local industry (timber, mining, trade, etc.), the people, and the landscape/geology. He introduces us to the great depravations and stomach-turning brutality suffered by the millions of slaves used to build the trans-Siberian, as well as some of the excesses the region enjoyed at the time of writing (though doubtless only by the favoured few). With only one map, at a scale of 1″ to 500 miles, it’s impossible to identify the scores of locations mentioned, which is a shame given the wealth of information presented, and this restricted my enjoyment this book. Another downer for me was Newby’s inability to mention any of the many women he encounters without judging their clothes, hair, legs, and breasts, and whether or not they were “easy on the eye” – which got seriously tiresome. He also contemplates how he could have hit his wife when she won an argument. (My copy is from 1978, and maybe this tone has been edited out of later editions.)

I enjoyed the social history – and that I was able to gain some perspective of this vast country – but overall I found Newby’s narration to be too arrogant and judgemental for my taste, and I was glad when I’d finished. It has inspired me to read more about the region, as long as it’s by a different author.


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