“A remote and unkissable Estonian cousin”

“A remote and unkissable Estonian cousin” – that is the way how Colin Thubron hoped to be seen during his visits to the Soviet Union and Russia (the quote comes from page 86 of my copy of “Among the Russians. From the Baltic to the Caucasus” by Colin Thubron. He was attempting to mingle among relatives of a young couple, observing a register office marriage ceremony at that time. But he did come to like the role and returned to attempting to look like an Estonian during his travels even decades later)

But I started my journey thorough reading books by Colin Thubron not from this journey thorough a state that does not exist any more, but from another book by same author: “In Siberia”

A Western reader described “In Siberia” with words:” The book reads more like an anthropological study of the downtrodden than a travel account. If a foreigner journeyed through New York or Michigan and reported his findings to the outside world in terms of congested freeways, fast-food joints, derelict trailer parks, graffiti, crack-smoking youth and gang violence, no one would believe America to be worth visiting. Not that such blight is entirely absent from the the local scene, but travelers who have a choice will avoid such nuisances and head instead for the Adirondacks, Niagara Falls, or Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. If Thubron likes to travel on a shoestring, so be it, but he would be well advised to overlook the discomforts that come with roughing it, in order to better appreciate the artistic or natural beauty of the places visited. Who cares if he puttered about for weeks in a rotten van with a stinking driver for a partner, conversing with all sorts of riffraff? Siberia is far too remote a place to go slumming.”

This comment made me think about my love of the book. Probably, having more background knowledge about Siberia, I was just more suitable reader for the book? And, well, Siberia IS a place with very depressing history, you cannot look past this. It is a thought provoking book, but I would not recommend it as first book about Siberia.

But to whom would I recommend “Among the Russians”? To historians, probably. Or people in need of some time travel.

“The feeling that Communism is a spent force had already seeped into me thorough – ironically -government advertisements. There was about them a ring almost of desperation, as if they were attempting a colossal confidence-trick on the people. For they were trying to equate the Party with that older, deeper Russian religion of the Rodina, the Motherland. Against this numinous and only half-translatable concept, the subtleties of Marxism-Leninism, with its vision of a nationless proletariat, broke in vain. ‘We are anti-patriots’, Lenin declared in 1915. But no people on earth indulge such a sentimental and subliminal patriotism as the Russians. It rises in them with all the unconditional love of child for mother. I knew White Russian nuns in Jordan who wept at their exile after more than fifty years of separation. Patriotism is Russia’s heart and womb, whereas Communism is merely – and not always – its head.

‘The Party’s tapping nationalism quite consciously,’ Nikolai said,’because it’s failed to drum up support for Communism. In my own lifetime I’ve seen an enormous growth of nationalistic ritual. These cults were very big during the war; then they faded, but now they’re returning. They’re like an attempt to replace Christian ceremonial. War memorials, you know, are our national altars. We’re still building them thirty-five years after the war. I used to work almost within sight of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin Wall. It was only created recently, but now brides and grooms come to it after their wedding, as if it conferred some kind of sanctity to them.’

The countryside bristles with memorials, of which many are quite new – tanks and field-guns elevated on concrete plinths, mounds and circles of glory, eternal flames, sculptured heroes, obelisks, symbols, epitaphs. In every city callow-looking cadets of Komsomol stand guard in twenty-minute shifts at the monuments of a war which even their fathers are too young to remember. Teenage boys clutching sten-guns and Kalashnikov assault rifles goose-step (ironically) to and fro, and schoolgirls stand at knock-kneed attention on little wooden shutters, their hair bursting from under khaki caps in a froth of baby ribbons. These are the points of sanctity which married couples visit after their weddings. Shivering with cold, the thin-clad bride lays her bouquet at the shrine; the pair poses for a ritual photograph, lingers a while as if something else might happen, then drifts away. Such places are not really memorials to the dead at all. They are symbols of Russian regeneracy after the bitter humiliation of German victories and of German propaganda that the Slavs were semi-human. They are hymns and panaceas in stone.”

Page 38, “Among the Russians” by Colin Thubron 1983


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