In May 1891, the Grand Duke Nicholas II, who later became the last czar, picked up a ceremonial shovel and emptied a wheelbarrow full of soil onto an embankment in the port city of Vladivostok.
It was the beginning of the great 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 not only people from former Soviet republics, but also citizens from throughout the world.
A great way to do this is to board the largest railroad in the world, the “Trans-Sib,” as it’s called. By riding the Trans-Siberian Railway, you’ll be nearer to the heart of the Russia of “Anna Karenina” or “Dr. Zhivago” than anywhere else.
This is a big train ride — 5,753 miles from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean. Your journey will take you through European Russia; across the Ural Mountains, which separate Europe and Asia; into Siberia’s taiga, or boreal forest, and steppes; and onto Vladivostok. Then, you’re bound to realize that Siberia makes up three-quarters of Russia, which is a long distance from the unrest in Ukraine.
You don’t have to spend six or seven days to do the whole journey, which you should undertake in the summer. You can fly to the major cities of Siberia: Yekaterinburg, Krasnoyarsk, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk and Khabarovsk and Vladivostok. You can travel the route in sections, and get off along the way, as your trip will cover nearly 100 degrees of longitude in Europe and Asia, and eight time zones.
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 Angara 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 recommended. We enjoyed a beautiful omul fish, plucked out of Lake Baikal, placed in a smoker, and handed over to us. This is a meal to be savored, along with bread, caviar and country-fresh cucumbers and tomatoes. Then, take a motor boat ride on the lake; it’s smooth and calm in summer.
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 St. I learned that street names mirror history, in this case, Stalinist history. Karl Liebknecht was the 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 mikvah, meeting rooms for the community — including one for the chess club, as chess is 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 network, which opened in 1990, is housed in a separate building at 5 Army St. That organization provides food packages, medicine, meals on-wheels, a soup kitchens, medical equipment and home care.
Irkutsk is more than 350 years old, but it has remained a young city, at least in demographics. The average age is 31.6, and young adults and university students fill the cafes and restaurants.
Getting 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 motherland.
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.
One of the destinations of those refugees was Khabarovsk, which is near Birobidzhan, once known as “the Soviet Zion.” Situated on the Amur River, Khabarovsk, founded in 1858, and now called the “Paris on the Amur,” offers travelers pleasant river cruises.
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 Jewish community center are at 76-2 Frunze St.
From Khabarovsk, the Trans-Siberian runs south, following the Ussuri River and the border with China and on to Vladivostok.
A few recommendations for those who want to travel on the Trans-Sib:
Speak with a specialty travel agent to help you plan your trip. Group travel, or several couples, is best. Some travelers take a security guard with them.
Several institutions exist on the train. The main one is the provadnitza, the conductor-provider. Don’t get on is his or her wrong side. These are the people who control your tea, meals, snacks, dining-room seat and entrance to the single bathroom in the carriage.
And a few tips:
Don’t leave valuables in your compartment. Bring books and games to help pass the time.
Guidebooks correctly suggest that you bring toilet paper, a plug for the bathroom sink, insect-repellent, a bottle-opener, a corkscrew and a travel alarm clock, plus necessary medications.
Ben G. Frank, a travel writer and lecturer on Jewish communities around the world, is the author of the recently published “Klara’s Journey” (Marion Street Press); “The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond” (Globe Pequot Press) and other Jewish travel guides.