Exploring Sino-Russian Relations by Sarah Golkar

by tuftsigl
Jul 20

When I tell new acquaintances in Moscow that I’m taking the Trans-Siberian Railway to Beijing this summer, with few exceptions, I receive a contorted facial expression followed by a line of questioning whose subtext contains a thinly veiled accusation that I’ve completely lost my mind. The “Rossiya,” as the locals call it, ferries mostly Russian passengers to destinations across Eurasia, spanning seven time zones and an impressive 9,288 kilometers (5,771 mi) that stretch from Eastern Europe to the Pacific Ocean. Depending on your route, the train weaves through some of the Eurasian Steppes’ most extreme geography, including mountain ranges, forests, permafrost, and desert. The railroad, completed shortly after the turn of the 20th century, was once a symbol of Russia’s Imperial might and tenacity. Today, however, the aging train system is a lifeline for everyday Russians in overlooked regions outside the capital who are far from robust transportation networks linking western Russia to the rest of Europe.


The route, at this point, is also well worn by western journalists, bohemians, and other adventure-seekers. For me, the train will be my medium of study and mode of transportation to explore Sino-Russian relations in light of China’s rise and Russia’s “pivot” to the east following deteriorating relations with the west over the conflict in Ukraine. My research aims to understand the extent to which a series of recent diplomatic maneuvers between Moscow and Beijing represent a cozying between the two capitals and what these shifting geopolitical tides means for the United States. Further, I want to tap into the sentiments of the diverse populations who inhabit the vast expanse of land between the two capitals to better understand their perspectives on this budding alliance.


Currently, I am taking an intensive Russian language course to equip me with some basic survival skills and the ability to hold a rudimentary, albeit grammatically dubious, conversation with people I encounter. When I’m not fumbling my way through the Russian language’s convoluted grammatical cases, I am meeting with and talking to individuals affiliated with the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, assorted academics, friends of friends, and other random individuals—both Russian and ex-patriot—who hold conflicting views of Russia and its foreign and domestic policy in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.  Opinions of Russia’s largely untamed eastern frontier range from fear and contempt to grotesque fascination; I hope to decouple truth and myth during my trip, and get a better sense of Russia outside the European-esque Moscow and St. Petersburg.


Travel writer Paul Theroux—a Medford, Massachusetts native—took the Trans-Siberian twice in his lifetime, writing in The Grand Railway Bazaar (1975) that, “the trains in any country contain the essential paraphernalia of the culture: Thai trains have the shower jar with the glazed dragon on the side, Ceylonese ones the car reserved for Buddhist monks, Indian ones a vegetarian kitchen…and on every carriage of a Russian train there is a samovar…at times it was like a leisurely seminar, but I also felt on some occasions that it was like being jailed and then assaulted by the monstrously typical.” I head east on the train next week and one thing is certain, nothing about the experience is likely to be “monstrously typical.”  

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