Firstly, I bought this book in Washington DC, hence the title. In the UK it is published as Among the Russians. It’s subtitle is Travels by Car through Western Russia. And actually this is about travels through the Soviet Union. It was first published in 1983 when the Soviet Union still existed and was generally referred to as “Russia”.
Secondly, it struck me just how much the world has changed since 1983. Oddly it seems both not so long ago and like a far off place where like was simpler. In reality I guess I’ve done a lot of growing up and older since 1983 so see things from a different perspective.
Anyway, to the book. This is the tale of Colin Thubron’s journey round the former Soviet Union in a battered car. It is a Soviet Union with only certain roads designated for foreigners, with Intourist guides and KGB operatives keeping watch and long patient queues to buy anything in the shops. It is also a country of camaraderie, endless discussions and lots of vodka. I went to some of the same places as Thubron nearly 20 years later and, whilst things had changed, his Russia was recognisable in mine.
This is a book about travel but it is mainly a book about people and the author has a knack for getting to know people and being able to translate what he sees and knows into great pen portraits. His books come to life when he is describing the wonderfully diverse characters he meets; Intourist Alex who spouts random facts about Soviet gigantisism at him; the Moscow intellectuals who live under constant suspicion; the Estonian Methodist preacher who, despite years of persecution has never lost his faith. The characters are a mixed bunch but all brought to life. For me this characterisation is one of the joys of reading Colin Thubron books.
The other joy is his descriptions of the landscape he is travelling through. The book starts with the road to Minsk but could start anywhere on that long, seemingly endless Warsaw to Moscow road. Mile after mile after mile of flat landscape with few villages and even fewer towns. It is the same road Napoleon and Hitler took when trying to execute their grandiose invasion plans and you can sense how hopeless the defeat and retreat must have felt to the fleeing invaders wondering whether they would ever reach civilisation and safety.
It’s been a while since I last read a Colin Thubron book and I’d forgotten how much I like his writing. I’d also forgotten how much I enjoyed travelling around the former Soviet Union. Time to go back I think.
The downside of this book though is that Thubron writes about Georgia, Crimea, Armenia and Kiev and makes me want to see them. The sad fact of the passing of the Soviet Union is that these places are no longer stable enough to visit. I don’t lament the passing of CCCP. I do regret that not everywhere is better for its passing.
Well, got to go; I have travel brochures to read and plans to make…