Archive for December, 2009


for this group we took aunty anne’s advice and read among the russians by colin thubron.

the two key things to note are that it was written in the early 80s before the wall fell, so it is a picture of soviet russia not modern russia, and secondly it includes some great writing

thubron appears to be a great traveller. he has learnt the language before going there, he has all the paperwork needed to get around, a detailed itinary and a seemingly inexhaustible fund of russian history knowledge on which to draw. in addition, he seems to have a gift for meeting people along the way, getting drunk with them, collecting their stories, and weaving their stories into his broader narrative about the history of russia and the place of soviet russia within the history.

the only problem with the book is that he seems to have formed that narrative before his arrival. as a result his beautiful descriptions of who he meets and what he sees seem to confirm his pre-existing theory rather than open him up to any new ideas about russia. for the first two thirds of the book he appears not to make any discoveries or learn anything new, despite travelling through this vast, astonishing country run completely differently from his own.

however, all this annoying feeling of pre-conceived prejudice starts to dissappear as he heads south leaving moscow, leningrad and russia proper behind, and entering what have since become georgia and armenia.

down here his language really runs away into beautiful spiralling descriptions of what sound to be exotic exciting places, even if sad and chaotic at the same time.

but even as i was luxuriating in these detailed descriptions of places i had heard of but knew nothing, i had a nagging doubt. was this an englishman’s prejudices about the nature of europeans and the differences between the the nordic north, germanic middle and latin south transposed onto soviet eastern europe? it seemed strikingly familar, as he talked about depressed grey northerners and lively colourful southerners.

despite this, in the end i really enjoyed it. it left me and the other bookgroupers wanting more, in particular more recent writing on russia. so we are reading some russian short stories in a couple of bookgroups time. it also left me wanting to go to st petersburg and georgia, they really do sound amazing, but alas i wont be doing that, reading will have to suffice.


December 22, 2009 at 12:39 am 1 comment


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