The following is an entry from a blog I wrote for London’s The Telegraph newspaper recounting a journey from England to Japan by train
Looking out on the sun-soaked grasslands and pine forest from my vantage point on the Trans-Siberian railway (we’re currently about half way through our train journey from Moscow to Vladivostok), it’s hard to believe the frightening role this place occupies in Russian history.
Even before the gulag, Siberia had long been a place of banishment. In the first 48-hours of the train journey, we pass through two places with dark pasts that pre-date the Stalinist purges of the 1930s.
Yekaterinburg is the first major town after leaving Moscow and is renowned as the site where Tsar Nicholas II and his family met their gruesome end in 1918. The Romanov royal family was executed by Bolsheviks in the cellar of a merchant’s house in the town before their bodies were dumped in shallow graves in nearby woodland.
Another 12 hours on from Yekaterinburg, we pass the industrial city of Omsk where the writer Dostoevsky spent four years doing hard labour after he was exiled for alleged revolutionary activity under Tsarist rule in the 19th century.
But it was under Stalin that the suffering in Siberia reached its zenith.
A huge system of hard labour camps, known collectively as the Gulag, saw an estimated 18 million sent into exile. Most of the towns we pass through were the location for one or more of these camps where 90 per centÂ of the inmates died – worked to death, most perishing within two years.
From Omsk, our route dips further south, crossing the mighty Ob river. This waterway meanders the full length of Siberia to the Arctic Ocean.
We pass over the Ob in the late evening to the city of Novosibirsk on the other side. We’re three days into our journey now and the scenery is starting to change.
The tufting grasslands of the steppe have disappeared, replaced by dense forests of pine and birch. This wall of trees is the southern end of the taiga, the world’s largest forest, which begins near to the Arctic Circle and spreads south to encompass an area of over three million square miles. It really feels like Siberia now.
First published on 19 September, 2007