"I was searching for a Russia not in the news-a Russia of common humanity and daily struggles, and my guides were writers of the Golden Age." Sara Wheeler has been one of my favourite travel writers since I read her Terra Incognita. In this new travelogue, she explores both the real Russian landscape and its emotional literary counterpart, as she journeys across eight time zones in the footsteps of writers including Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Lermentov, Chekhov and Turgenev.
Great distances are enthusiastic tropes in Wheeler’s travel writing. In her enjoyably eccentric tour of Russia – which verges on the unclassifiable, being part travel, part literary sketches, occasional cookery book – her aim is to engage with both distance and emotions: the country’s literal landscape and its emotional counterpart. She prepared by immersing herself in Russianness, reading nothing but Russian for a year and making a determined attempt to master Russian cuisine... There are a few times when her patchwork of big themes and perfect details, perspectives and tones, is too random for praise, yet her modest, ungrand tour, with its rich map of extraordinary writers and “ordinary” Russians – their devoted readers – is far more of an epic than it at first appears.
You believe her when she writes of the ‘balm’ Dostoevsky has brought her in troubled times; and I wanted to shake some of the Russians she meets for being so moody and grumpy when she was just looking for a friend and a laugh. In the end, though, she seems to learn something about forbearance and black humour — as summed up in Sonya’s great monologue in Uncle Vanya — which she mentions with grim satisfaction as encapsulating the entire Russian experience
The image many westerners have of Russia is an unflattering one, heavy on totalitarianism and repression. Sara Wheeler offers an important corrective...
Wheeler is as enthusiastic and authoritative a guide as one could wish for
Yet if her response to the literature invites the reader to follow in her footsteps, her response to the country does the opposite. She states that conditions in Russia’s provinces, especially in the villages and among native peoples, are dire. In Chukotka, she notes that one resident has ‘stuck a flyer on a telegraph pole advertising his flat in exchange for a one-way air ticket to Moscow’. She astutely observes that the fatalism widespread among Russians, ‘born out of historical and personal experience’, is ‘the opposite of the American dream’. She asserts that she set out to find ‘a Russia not in the news’, but – unlike many of the visitors to the 2018 World Cup – she seems to have discovered nothing that contradicts the image of the country found in the Western media and to have had few positive experiences of the people altogether.
This is a well-researched, droll journey around the lives of Russia’s “big beast” 19th-century writers — Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Lermontov, Gogol, Chekhov, Leskov, Goncharov and Tolstoy — in the context of today’s Russia and ordinary residents of the country...I approached this book thinking that it would be, along with Elif Batuman’s The Possessed and Viv Groskop’s The Anna Karenina Fix, the third in a hat-trick of women’s journeys through Russian literature. Wheeler goes beyond these books by travelling to the backwaters of Russia so that we don’t have to — we can continue to travel in the comfort of our armchair through the pages of the masterpieces that the great writers left behind.