Siberian dreaming

by Terence MacNamee

What is the country that is most like Canada? Easy. It’s Russia. They are both huge countries that get snowed in for the winter.

Yet Canadians never think of Russia as a twin country, a mirror of their own. They are only interested in the US and to a lesser extent England, and French Canadians are interested in France. Yet the unexplored parallels with Russia are undeniable. The feeling of a vast country that stretches as far as the Pacific, and that in the middle lies under an endless expanse of winter snow. A country so big that it could only be united by railways, beginning as a string of lonely, snowed-in colonial outposts along the endless track. And yes, a colonial nation, a European order imposed by conquest on the scattered tribes of native peoples who had once been its only inhabitants.

Canada seems vast to Europeans. But Western Europeans have always got the same feeling of a vast country when they go to Russia.

It’s a funny thing about Russia. It is “Eurasian”. We talk about Russia in Europe and Russia in Asia, like we do about Turkey, but whereas Turkey only has a tiny foothold in Europe, Russia has a huge European land-mass and an even huger Asian one. Russia is a mirror-image of what we usually now think of as “the West”, namely Europe and North America, two continents that would be joined were it not for the inconvenience of the Atlantic.

Russians are a part of Europe, yet they feel the centrifugal pull of the steppes. That is why they like to talk about “Eurasia” as being their destiny, and fancy they are as much Asian as European, whereas their heritage, all they have culturally and historically, comes from Europe: literature, music, religion – even Communism. It just so happens that their writing system and their brand of Christianity came from Greece and not Rome, which fact has created an apparent exoticism and links that would not otherwise be there.

What is Canada, then? Has it got an equivalent of Russia’s “Eurasian” identity that it could adopt or invent to distinguish itself from its European founders or its dominant neighbour to the south? When the Canadian Pacific train crosses the Rockies and gets down to the Pacific Coast, Asia is still an ocean away. But Asia has also been coming to meet the Europeans who came out to the West Coast. Vancouver could yet be a new Hong Kong – China’s foothold on the North American landmass. So Canada could be a kind of Eurasia too, a place where the peoples of East and West are destined to meet and at last create a new form of culture.

But perhaps this is just dreaming on a walk in the snow, in the darkest days of winter…