Travels across Russia have featured heavily on The Bedside Table for some years. The latest version is one of the best, words flowing, the picture building as the birch sap rises across the Taiga. It is the work of a journalist from Germany, Jens Muhling, ably assisted by a translator, Eugene H Hayworth, who ensures we lose nothing. A Journey Into Russia is brought to you by one of my favourite small publishing houses, The Armchair Traveller branch of Haus Publishing.
We start wondering what year we are in, 2010 as we know it but otherwise 50, 1010 or perhaps 7518, depending on how you mark your calendar. Via Kiev, Moscow and St Petersburg we head west, into the past. But there’s much more to it than that.
In Ukraine it’s Lenin’s nose that is the focus of attention, and Chernobyl too. But in St Petersburg Muhling has a real treat in store for us, in a jar of formaldehyde. It’s 24cm long, in the idle state, and alleged to once been a vital part of a certain monk, Rasputin. The story behind the journey of that particular member back to a university lab is well worth reading.
And fascination for the Romanov dynasty does not end there, for it cannot be ignored in any delving into Russia and to the people and their history. Yekaterinburg is on the agenda, and shattered bones. Yeltsin had the house demolished, then, when power came his way and the world was changing, arranged the internment of remains in St Petersburg. More bones were found later, tests carried out, but they remain in a bag in the lab in Yekaterinburg even yet, whilst two niches lie empty beside the fallen family.
Icons, painted and sold, churches springing up, numbers beginning to exceed the Lenin statues. And we are on the trail of Old Believers. To Siberia then, and the Taiga, across the Steppes, and back into the woods. We travel by train, by car, on foot, and by river. The season is short, the one where the rivers are navigable.
But inevitably there is vodka, and toasts. Despite his best efforts Muhling cannot avoid it. There are bribes too, of pure alcohol. And there is help, eventually.
At risk of spoiling the tale I’ll mention only a family who spent thirty years with no contact with the outside world, deep in the Taiga, escaping persecution. Only one of the daughters remains, in the house in which she was born; born to parents who lived when the Romanov’s lived. And Muhling has a quest, not an easy one.
I’ve come across the Old Believers in other books, Vissarion and his acolytes, writing chapters of the next testament as they go. Muhling’s bibliography contains classic writings on Russia, and I’m pleased that a number rest on The Bookshelf. There are others which I should be looking for. It won’t be long before A Journey Into Russia is on similar lists in the next round of researches. A really enjoyable read.