Solving the riddle and unwrapping the mystery

This is my review of Among The Russians by Colin Thubron.

At first I wondered if it was worth spending time on a travelogue of 1980s Soviet Russia written before "perestroika" and "glasnost" triggered the fall of communism. Was the book only of interest to those who could relate with nostalgia to, say, being pestered for jeans, instructed to take hands out of pockets when filing past Lenin's coffin, intrigued by the job creation scheme of a middle-aged lady seated on every hotel corridor, and depressed by the lack of goods for sale in the gloomy grandeur of the GUM state department store?

Relevance seemed unimportant as I became ensnared by the novel-like quality of Thubron's writing, so that I was not surprised to note that he has in fact written a good deal of fiction.

Also, the book proves of value, in its vivid and perceptive analysis of Russia as a basis for understanding how it reached its current state – apparently materialistic, corrupt and increasingly unequal.

Thubron asks whether "the easy Russian submissiveness to God and tyranny….the unwieldy immensity of Russian bureaucracy" is the result of a people crushed by the vastness and impersonal isolation of their country. Yet, some of them like nothing better than picking mushrooms in the birch woods.

An extreme example of conditioned thinking is the woman who insists a statue is holding a torch. "The torch should be there, so it was there. It was an emotional fact". Yet in complete contrast a man falters, "Not to be subjected to a laid-down principle, only to be governed by what you find is so. It's harder but right."

Thubron introduces us to unexpectedly beautiful towns off the tourists' beaten track, like Suzdal, with its dozens of paired medieval churches set in a landscape of streams, meadows and chickens squawking along unpaved streets. I have resolved to visit Armenia after reading of Echmiadzin, with the oldest state-built Christian church in the world, and Garni, with its "perfect and solitary" Greek temple on the edge of a steep bluff.

There are some funny anecdotes: when a Lada saloon drove up alongside Thubron's car to reclaim a drunken girl he had befriended, "in the back seat a formidable pair of grandmothers added their Gorgon stare to the barrage of accusation, until the whole car resembled some livid and scandalized hydra, which said not a word."

On the negative side, claiming to speak "only hesitant Russian", how did Thubron manage to conduct such complex exchanges with the locals he encountered? How genuine are his records of conversations? I would have liked a larger, clearer map, an index and some photographs, although Google has shots of many of the places and buildings mentioned. Some of Thubron's descriptions seem too studied, and my interest flagged on the way to the Caucasus but he brings the book to an effective conclusion with a reminder of the underlying menace of continual surveillance.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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