Among the Russians, by Colin Thubron (William Heinemann, £8.95).
Writing about travel in foreign parts is a deceptively easy occupation, as anyone following in the footsteps of an author in this field is liable to find out only too soon. It is not merely the facts about foreign countries are often difficult enough to establish, and harder still to interpret convincingly, let alone correctly: even if the travel writer managed to overcome such initial obstacles successfully, there is still the hurdle of translating a remote, and often very alien reality into an idiom that the reader can both understand and enjoy.
All this is worth saying because Cohn Thubron is among the very best writers of his kind in English today, as his books about the Middle East richly demonstrate. Even so, I opened Among the Russians with great misgivings. On the very first
page the author himself quotes that sour, but hawk-eyed French Nineteenth Century traveller, the Marquis de Custine: "Russia," he wrote, "is a country where everyone is part of a conspiracy to mystify the foreigner." And this is more true then ever nowadays, when a sizeable part of the Soviet information machinery is dedicated to the task of standing truth on its head.
I need not have worried. Colin Thubron has survived the test brilliantly and has produced what is certainly the best candid picture of what the Soviet Union looks and feels like for many years past. He was helped by what — despite his modest disclaimer — is clearly a more than adequately accurate, as well as extremely fluent grasp of the Russian language, an essential first qualification in any attempt to penetrate beneath the surface of Soviet reality. If proof of the quality of the author's command of the vernacular were needed, it is well provided by the episode in the course of which he manages to ram the car of a Soviet Policeman who had offered to show him the way, yet succeeds in emerging from the resulting situation not only without penalty, but with relations unimpaired.
The sheer scope of his achievement is impressive. Thubron and his far from new Morris Marina managed to range from the Polish border to the old Russian lands beyond Moscow, and from the shores of the Baltic to the heart of the Caucasus and beyond, a matter of some ten thousans miles. In fact, by Western standards, this figure is misleading.
In the Soviet Union every mile traversed counts double or treble, what with the physical difficulties of doubtful roads, scarce facilities and often dead monotony on one hand, and, on the other, seemingly endless difficulties in establishing meaningful communications with the ordinary, everyday inhabitants, for whom visitors such as the author are indeed apparitions from another, practically unknown world. And yet, as Thubron found, 'the concept of the West might be abhorrent, but the Westerner himself was human and susceptible, and the Russians' open nature embraced him, at least in my experience, with an immediacy which was the more touching because it flew in the face of everything they had been taught.'
One of the most valuable aspects of this account of the present day Soviet Union observed at ground level is that it takes in not only the Russian lands, but also the ethnically and culturally completely different — indeed hostile — Republics of Estonia and Latvia in the north, Georgia and Armenia in the south. This lends deep perspective to the picture as a whole, as well as highlighting the author's mixture of delight at escaping from the heavy blanket of Russian slogans and exhortations, and alarm at the additional, ethnic tensions revealed in the border states.
Yet it must be said that the picture painted by Among the Russians is both grim and grey, despite Thubron's warm and sympathetic insight into the Russian mind, and the allowances he rightly makes for the sheer strain of daily life in the Soviet Union and the fog of propaganda which to some extent befuddles every mind, be it for the regime or against it.
He illustrates again and again from experience the double standards that Soviet citizens, and Russians in particular, autornatiCally and often unconsciously apply to every idea and action at every public moment of their lives. He also makes it clear how deeply the Communist techniques of control, far more than its ideology, have succeeded in distorting the most elementary human aspects of Soviet behaviour.
Yet, despite the generally pessimistic conclusions to which the author is driven, this is neither a difficult, nor a depressing book to read, In fact, once embarked on it is hard to put down. That is mainly due to Colin Thubron's personal sense of colour and love of life, which manage to survive the pall of Soviet reality. Walking through Riga, he caught sight of some gipsy women telling fortunes in the street: '1 followed their progress with amazement. They walked like scandalous royalty, anarchic and free. People averted their eyes.' Again and again during the course of his journey he caught reflections of such flashes of colour despite all official efforts to suppress it.