A few years after the Australian rock band Cold Chisel broke up in 1983, their main songwriter left the Great Southern Land to travel the world.
Don Walker’s route to rock ‘n’ roll was certainly different. When the ban formed in the early 1970s – with Walker on piano, and Jimmy Barnes’ throat-shredding voice centre stage, he had finished degrees in mathematics and physics and was working in a government research lab.
Walker travelled through Asia and the-then USSR on his way to Europe. And some years later, when the his new band Catfish released their debut album ‘Unlimited Address’, there was a song aching with the melancholy of Siberia amongst the tracks.
‘One Night In Soviet Russia’ is a sad, Slavic waltz that takes in a night at a hotel restaurant somewhere in Siberia, the air thick with cigarette smoke and laughter, and the house band in full flow. “Thus music was sad like a circus/you could hear the Siberian night,” Walker sings. It’s enough to give you shivers at the height of summer.
I thought about this song a lot in the summer of 2004.
Civilisations clings to the railways and the roadways in Siberia. The darkness on the edge of towns is absolute, the sense of otherness absolute. Walker’s song hints at the darkness, and the desolation of the endless forests and ceaseless steppes.
I don’t know if Walker ever made it to Listvyanka. It’s the only settlement of any real size on the shores of Lake Baikal, the pearl of Siberia. I stayed here for four or five days, exploring a tiny strip of the coastline of the world’s largest lake.
Even today, Listvyanka is nearly a week by train from Moscow, along the Trans-Siberian. It is a world away from the chaos and tumult of Moscow. What must it have seemed like in the 1940s, when some of Listvyanka’s sons headed up the road to Irkutsk, and then West to the titanic struggle between the USSR and Nazi Germany, a continent away. Some of then did not make it back. Like every town and village from Vladivostok to the Polish border, Listvyanka has a monument to those who died.
It was sunset when I snapped this, no doubt on the way to the sole restaurant serving food and beer well into the night. This was taken on my LC-A, on a roll of Kodak 100-speed film I’d bought in Listvyanka (yes, so long ago that even in the middle of Siberia you could still buy film).
The red paint appears to bleed out of the star, a symbol that still remained on every street corner in the 2000s, over a decade after the system that had wielded it had collapsed into history. And in the distance, past the man gazing into the water, is Baikal. Walker described it perfectly: “Cold as a mirror/and deeper than any man drowns.”