As hard as I try to protect myself by ignoring the news, every so often, a story or sound-bite sneaks in under the radar. This morning, in the car on my way to an appointment with Anna, I scan the airwaves, searching for a peaceful bit of classical music. Before I even have a chance to switch channels, the phrase survivors from the derailment south of St. Petersburg hits my cerebellum like a train-wreck. My body is shaken, my synapses are on full throttle, and my brain conjures up a scrapbook’s worth of train rides through Russia. Then, as the first flakes of winter gently touch the windshield, one place especially comes to mind: Siberia.
Strange, I thought, I wasn’t even there in winter. Nonetheless, with short summers and the bleakness of winter always on the horizon, Russians – or, perhaps Siberians more particularly – are always thinking about cold, stocking up on foodstuffs, clothing, logs and barrels of vodka.
Though I’ve been wishing away winter for most of my adult life, the pragmatic part of me finally came to terms with it. In reverence to the weather gods, I went shopping for winter boots. Exactly the kind of gear I haven’t had to use in two years, the layers I’d hoped to have left behind for good.
Not having resided in this city for many years, my first thought was, where do I buy winter boots? No idea. And that’s when my mind drifted to Siberia. Yes, Siberia. Land of exile, alpine and endless tundra. I’d surely know where to buy boots in Siberia. And not just any boots. I’d have the luxury (yes, luxury!) of choosing from a dizzying array of rainbow-coloured, cold-weather boots, a selection much more extensive than you will have seen anywhere this side of the Ural mountain range. I kid you not.
Surprised? Small wonder, now that the (once) all-mighty dollar has trumped the ruble, and capitalism has supplanted Communism – in a BIG way. With millions trudging through the annual sub-arctic gloom of notoriously long Siberian winters, is it any wonder that they defy the gulag-grey uniform of yore, garbing themselves nowadays in the most outlandish, sometimes raunchy getups? Or that, even in the depth of winter, they parade around in shiny red or purple high-heeled boots, apparently oblivious to icy patches?
One shopping center in particular comes to mind, in Krasnoyarsk, along the Trans-Siberian rail-line, and just a stone’s throw from the ubiquitous Lenin statue. What a smorgasbord of footwear! Stocked floor to ceiling with thousands of shoes and boots, in styles I could never imagine, colours I’d never dare to wear. Tacky, gaudy, chic and glitzy; without a doubt, something for everyone.
My mind rewinds to the day I visited that mega-boot-complex. And to the statue erected only a couple of blocks away. A starker contrast one could not find: A bronzed Lenin stands beaming, pointing straight ahead into a large city park…in the opposite direction from the mall. Naturally.