Tuesday, 28 December 2010

The Tide Turns on Communism: Cruising Down the Volga on the Last Boat to Astrakhan (Russian Southern Federal District)

My journey to the Southern Federal District of Russia really WAS as much about the journey as the destination. For this trip I retraced my steps from Chechnya to Moscow (for reasons outlined in my previous blog) – and then began my river cruise down the Volga (Russia’s main river) to Astrakhan, the primary city in Russia’s Southern Federal District, courtesy of “Last Boat to Astrakhan” by Robert Haupt.

In 1995, his fifth year in Russia as a foreign correspondent, celebrated Australian journalist Robert Haupt decided to take a boat trip down the Volga River to Astrakhan by the Caspian Sea. This journey forms the core of his book, which interweaves strands of art literature, politics, history, economics and geography to capture a country and a people for which the author had an immense passion. I say ‘had’, as sadly Mr Haupt died soon after the publication of this work.

Haupt's time on the Volga cruise ship Fyodor Shalyapin, along with his earlier experiences while living in Moscow, forms a framework around which he intersperses historical episodes, numerous quotes from earlier traveller's accounts, and his own perceptive observations, to give an impression of the character of Russia. The difficult transformation of Russia since the end of communism is a central theme. However periods of difficult transformation are also presented as being characteristic of the wider flow of Russian history, and Haupt makes many telling points about how and why Russian society differs from the West, and why we in 'the West' can often misunderstand Russia by judging it through the perspective of our own past.

Haupt uses the story of his apartment building's plumbing system to illustrate the 'workings' of Russian bureaucracy; and the plight of the Chaika watch factory trying to sell handmade products in competition to machine-produced electronic watches from China as an example of dead-end paths still being followed.

Whilst discussing bribery in the police (after reading the observation of a British MP, writing in the Times, that the Yaroslavl traffic police hadn't been paid for months), Haupt notes that “What he meant was that they had not been paid by the government for months; those who live in Yaroslavl or drive through it feed the police force there everyday.” and goes on to observe that “Jurisprudence is as poorly developed in Russia as particle physics in Rwanda. To a Russian, the law is a source of oppression, not an avenue for the relief of injustice.”

The above examples encapsulate much of how this book is structured. On the surface this is an engaging and insightful account of Haupt’s journey from Moscow down to Astrakhan by river cruise. We are treated to some fascinating observations not just of the stopovers along the way but also his fellow passengers – largely the tracksuited nouveau riche of New Russia - as well as lengthy and involved digressions of Haupt’s observations of Russia’s socio-economic past, present and likely future.

I must admit, the latter often defeated me. Haupt was obviously a highly intelligent individual with an in-depth knowledge of Russia’s workings, and he exposits these eloquently here. However, not having the same knowledge of Russia (nor, I fear, the same level of intellect), these narrative diversions often left me a little bewildered. I occasionally found myself floundering though pages of in-depth socio-political analysis like a poor swimmer in a lake of intellect, looking for an island of straightforward narrative description!

That said, I can only attribute this as a fault on my part not the author’s. After all, I am on a journey of observation, keen to glean facts and impressions about each place that I visit – and the fact that I am on a schedule to visit every country in the world means that I am occasionally impatient when being given essential background information and historical context to places I am visiting.

Furthermore, during the 3000km(!) trip from Moscow to Astrakhan we are introduced to interesting descriptions of a range of cities and towns that have developed, prospered (and in some cases perished) as a result of the rise and fall of the mighty Volga river and its importance to Russia.

Ultimately, we arrive at our destination of the city of Astrakhan in Russia’s Southern Federal District.

“In Astrakhan, the air is heavy, the people sleepy. Nothing seems to get underway before ten-thirty or so. The cars move with astonishing slowness along wide streets lined by motionless trees. Even a road accident – a man who had steered his red motorcycle and sidecar into the path of a police jeep – appeared as a tableau, onlookers frozen in mid-stare as the motorcyclist, his blue helmet neatly placed on the road beside him, solemnly picked pieces of dry grass from his socks. Even when something like this happened, everyone seemed to be waiting for something to happen.”

Haupt goes on to describe Navy Day in Astrakhan. This is, apparently “the occasion in a Fleet town for epic displays of drunkenness”. Haupt’s descriptions of how drunken “young men – boys, really – with their caps pushed back to near-vertical, leant on their girlfriends and climbed imaginary stairs on their way home” are telling – they form a notable and telling precursor to the next book on my journey: “Little Tenement on the Volga.” This account is written by Englishwoman C.S. Walton about a year spent in Samara in the Volga Federal District, and one of the overriding themes of her fascinating observations here, is that of stoical females (girlfriends, wives, mothers) coping with their own harsh lives and the pressures of supporting their families. The images of Astrakhan’s Naval Day are telling: often Walton’s depiction of Samaran women’s lives involves them looking after men – sons, lovers, husbands – who are enslaved to alcoholism, with the women themselves enslaved by the Soviet social system of female subjugation.

Samara – one of the largest cities in Russia – lies in the Volga Federal District. Having already passed through here during my river cruise courtesy with Robert Haupt I am tempted to retrace part of my Volga river cruise to return here. However, the current price of 100 EURO for a single berth on one of today’s cruise ships PER NIGHT is off-putting. And even if I had been tempted, it is December and decidedly off-season (cruises only run between May and October).

Therefore, I opt for the train – quicker than the six days a cruise would take between these destinations - but still nearly 28 hours (well, the journey IS 1147km in total)!

I take the easy option for booking and buy my tickets online at realrussia.co.uk – a very user-friendly UK-based website that sends me my tickets via email for collection at Astrakhan station. I buy a one-way 2nd class ticket for £64.97 on the 373 train, which is on the lower-quality and slower end of the Russian train scale (apparently, the higher the classification number, the lower the grade of train).

And so I set off from Astrakhan’s spacious train station at 13.25, taking a train that – after numerous stops - will drop me off at Samara the next day at 16.23 in the afternoon (before it heads on to its final destination of Beijing!).

A word about the train itself: my cabin is second class, sometimes called a ‘Kupe.’ This is a cabin for four people with two lower bunks with storage underneath, two upper bunks, a window table and a lockable door. There is also a shared toilet for the carriage and a restaurant car. Russian restaurant car food is quite edible and not expensive. Allow about US$15-$20 for a 2-course meal with a bottle of beer. During my day-long trip I have ham and fried eggs for breakfast, schnitzel and potatoes for lunch and dinner, with soups and salads for starters. I also have a few shots of vodka in the evening – after all, when in Rome (well, Russia)…

And so I arrive, surprisingly refreshed, in the city of Samara in the Volga Federal District. The modern train station, I have to say, looks amazingly like a huge glass R2-D2 from Star Wars…. My rather-more modest accommodation in Samara is at Number Four, Specialist Alley, a cramped communal apartment which was occupied by Englishwoman C. S. Wilson during 1993, and whose account of her stay there forms the next leg of my journey.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Under Oath: A Surgeon’s Testimony of Hope and Despair in Chechnya (Russian North Caucasian Federal District)

“The Oath: A Surgeon Under Fire” tells the story of Khassan Baiev, a cosmetic surgeon working in Moscow but born in the Chechnyan town of Alkhan Kala whose life - along with that of the rest of the population of Chechnya – is turned upside down by several wars with Russia from the 1990s onwards, as a result of Chechnya’s declaration of independence.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Chechen-Ingush Soviet Republic was split into two: the Republic of Ingushetia and Republic of Chechnya. The latter proclaimed the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, which sought independence. Following the First Chechen War with Russia (1994-96), Chechnya gained de facto independence as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. Russian federal control was restored during the Second Chechen War (1999 – 2007). Since then there has been a systematic reconstruction and rebuilding process, though sporadic fighting continues in the mountains and southern regions of the republic.

The above factual paragraph however, does not go any way towards giving the historical context of the conflict, nor the scarcely believable human tragedies that these conflicts inflicted on all involved – civilian and military. Baiev’s book, however, depicts these elements in graphic detail and to great effect.

Whilst this is very much the story of Baiev’s life it is also the story of the homeland that he loves so much. Indeed the fact that the horrific descriptions of war in this account are sandwiched between a prologue detailing Baiev’s idyllic rural childhood and his later life as a refugee in urban Boston (safe, but cut off from his nation and his extended family), only serves to highlight what has been lost to this nation – and the book’s author – through this conflict.

Even during Baiev’s childhood it is apparent that as a Chechnyan he is an outsider in his “Russian” motherland. His father’s accounts of being denounced as a Nazi collaborator in WW2 because he was a Chechnyan – despite having fought with the Soviet Army at Murmansk - is particularly telling.

Another example of disenfranchisement through his ethnic origin is seen in his being denied at the last minute of attending the World Sombo Martial Arts Championships at the last minute, despite his prowess in the sport as a youth, by the KGB so as not to have Russia represented by a Chechynan.

However, the above slight – though reprehensible – pales next to what Baiev and his countrymen endured after August 1994, when Russia massed thousands of troops along the border of Chechnya and Baiev, then 31, left his promising surgical career in Moscow to aid his Chechen countrymen.

What follows is a harrowing and relentless account of Baiev’s forced move from cosmetic surgeon to wartime field surgeon. Whilst trying to keep a semblance of normality with his family and his staff, Baiev is faced with treating an ever-growing conveyor belt of wounded – many from mine and shrapnel wounds – with ever-diminishing supplies (even resorting to using sewing thread in operations). Baiev’s matter-of-fact narrative jars heavily (to great effect) with descriptions of 48-hour surgical sessions where he could no longer move his arms through the amount of amputational sawing he had to do, through to descriptions of himself and his staff having to work whilst feeling faint due to the amount of blood they had to directly donate to treat the wounded.

His efforts to save lives in the midst of war are played out against a backdrop of constant shelling, threats to his life and – on several occasions (one resulting in him being in a coma for some time) the physical destruction of the hospital premises he is working in.

This brings to mind a phrase that Baiev quotes on several occasions in the book: “The Russians destroy, Chechnyans rebuild.”

And, in the context of this war, the Russian army does destroy: buildings (Baiev’s family home is targeted several times), cities (the capital of Grozny is literally razed to the ground), and indeed people. Time and again we hear of men, women and children – young and old – whose bodies are shattered by this conflict. And just as the populace rebuild the cities, it is surgeons who are left to rebuild the shattered bodies of the wounded.

Sadly, just as some buildings and cities were bombed beyond repair – so some causalities could not be saved. And it is here that the mental toll of war begins to be inflicted upon Baiev – he is haunted by the images of friends, family and strangers who were simply beyond salvation despite his expertise.

But this account is not just a litany of horror. What makes this book relevant and unique is the fact that Baiev – according to the Hippocratic Oath and his Muslim beliefs – treats each patient equally; be they civilian, Chechnyan fighter or Russian soldier.

For this, he becomes vilified as a traitor by both sides – although there are individual flashes of humanity which provide a certain counterpoint of hope in the overall despair of the conflict. Not least among these is a Russian FSB (the former KGB) colonel who risks his own life to help Baiev escape to America at the point where his assassination by one side or the other has become inevitable. The ultimate fate of this brave individual, which we learn later, only adds to the poignancy of this act.

If this account tells us one thing it is this – that war and interracial hatred is more about governments and regimes than individuals: who are capable of great heroism as well as hateful acts.

I should also make it clear here that Baiev – whilst a patriot and a proud Chechnyan – is no apologist for the atrocities that were also carried out by the Chechnyan separatists, such as the taking hostage of a Moscow theatre audience of 850 people in 2002. Most of the Chechnyans and around 130 hostages died as a result – mainly from a gas pumped into the theatre by Russian forces. Baiev is unequivocal in condemning this. The book was published before the further outrage in 2004 where separatist took an entire school hostage. Ultimately, at least 334 hostages were killed, including 186 children. Hundreds more were injured and many were reported missing. One can only imagine that Baiev would have condemned this act also, had it happened before publication.

In summary then, this book shows two things – the human capacity for evil and the human capacity for good. Reading this book, one can feel uplifted by the capacity for good in the worst of scenarios, but one does not hold out much hope of this struggle between good and evil ever resulting in more than a stalemate.

Still, to end on a positive note: a touching detail of Baiev’s later life (effectively in exile) in the US is that he was finally free to compete in the World Sombo Championships (in Paris) in 2001. These are the championships the KGB denied him way back in 1983. He won – and was able to raise the Chechnyan flag on the winner’s podium.

From Chechnya I make the rather unusual move to take a return flight back from Grozny to Moscow, my previous destination. The reason for retracing my steps is the fast moving changes of national / federal boundaries! Chechnya was chosen as my stopover in Russia’s 'Southern Federal District'. However, earlier this year (2010) the District was split into two: The 'Southern Federal District' and the 'North Caucasian Federal District'. Chechnya now falls into the latter so I needed to quickly find a stopover for the former!!

This I have done with a book by foreign correspondent Robert Haupt called “Last Boat to Astrakhan”. This is an account of his riverboat cruise down the Volga, starting at Moscow and travelling down into the Southern Federal area of Astrakhan, ending at the Caspian Sea.

Thus – rather than describing a book and then my onward journey as usual - this book IS my onward journey, as I will take a leisurely cruise from Moscow’s North River Terminal down the Volga – Russia’s primary river – to Astrakhan on the cruise ship Fyodor Shalyapin. I would love to give you the price of this trip but – as it was taken in 1995, I can only tell you it involved a shopping bag full of inflation-era roubles! This particular route has since been discontinued, but similar cruises are operating today (and they aren’t cheap!)

I shall let you know if it is worth the money in my next post.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Moscow: The Russian Bear plays host to Ancient Chinese Foxes and Modern Werewolves (Russian Central Federal District)

My stopover in Moscow - in Russia's Central Federal District - is represented by the novel "The Sacred Book of the Werewolf" by acclaimed contemporary author Victor Pelevin.

In this satirical, erotic allegory of the post-Soviet and post-9/11 world, Pelevin gives new meaning to the words “unreliable narrator.” The story is told by a shape-shifting nymphet named A Hu-Li, a red-haired Asiatic call girl who is some 2,000 years old but looks 14. Her name, said aloud, sounds like a Russian obscenity, but it derives from the Chinese expression for fox spirit, huli jing — an epithet that doubles in China as a put-down for a lascivious home-wrecker. By day, A Hu-Li lives in a dark warren under the bleachers at an equestrian complex in Bitsevsky Park in Moscow; by night, she works the high-end Hotel National, hunting investment bankers.

While she may look like an ordinary (albeit exceptionally alluring) sex worker, A Hu-Li is a supernatural creature, a “professional impersonator of an adolescent girl with big innocent eyes” who ensorcells her clients by whipping out her luxuriant fox tail before each tryst and setting it a-whir like a pinwheeling ray gun, beaming hypnotic carnal fantasies into her customers’ minds. Although the men feel the telepathic pleasures in the flesh, a hotel spy-cam would reveal that the vixen took no physical part in the gymnastics. The men frolic alone.

However, early in the novel, as A Hu-Li plies her trade, her signals get jammed when she brushes up against a member of the F.S.B. (the new K.G.B.), the “captain of the hit men’s brigade.” Alexander Sery (his surname, which means “grey” in Russian, is also a euphemism for the black market) is “unshaven, sullen and very good-looking,” with a “fierce, wolfish” mien, for which there’s a very good reason. Alexander is a werewolf, and A Hu-Li’s shifty vulpine defenses prove useless against his crude lupine brio. His greyish-yellow eyes burn into her retinas, but the “most significant thing,” she notes, is that his face “was a face from the past. There used to be a lot of faces like that around in the old days, when people believed in love and God.”

Alexander calls his lover Ada — a nod to her Internet name, to Nabokov and to the Russian word for hell. She nicknames him Shurik, deliberately suggesting the name of the dog Sharik from Bulgakov’s story (famous in Russia) “Heart of a Dog,” about a cur who turns into a proletarian and becomes so annoying that he has to be stopped. Their werefox and werewolf games begin with lovestruck “tailechery” (a form of transcendental canine commingling) but detour into more dangerous sport as A Hu-Li and Shurik initiate each other into secret passions. She likes to put on an evening gown, drop by farmhouses and horrify the occupants by nabbing their hens and bolting, transforming into a werefox as she flees. He likes to rally with other F.S.B. werewolves in the frozen north, howling at a cow skull on a stake in hopes of necromantically summoning oil from the substrate into Mother Russia’s waiting pipelines. Watching this scene, seeing the cow’s skull, A Hu-Li is reminded of a grim Russian fairy tale about a slaughtered cow who takes pity on an orphan and sends the girl gold from the grave (a story told to her by Shurik, just prior to this episode). Touched, A Hu-Li adds her own soulful lament to the cacophony: “We were all howling, with our faces turned to the moon, howling and weeping for ourselves and for our impossible country, for our pitiful life, stupid death and sacred $100 a barrel.” In response to her emotion (she thinks), oil comes burbling up the stake. Shurik laughs at her sentimentality. “It’s my job to get the oil flowing,” he scoffs. “And for that, the skull has to cry.”

It’s a joy to read Pelevin’s phantasmagoria so brilliantly translated by Andrew Bromfield, a crowning achievement of the pair’s longtime association. Complex ideas are rendered simply and organically, never disturbing the narrative flow. Brom­field’s English text is fleet and magical.

Animal parables lie at the heart of every culture. Usually such tales are meant to instruct human behavior, but Russian folktales are unusual because they so often lack a moral. Instead, they portray bleak or unjust situations in mesmerizing language, making a fable of resignation itself. Russian children grow up on stories like the adventures of Alyonushka and her thirsty brother, Ivanushka, who turned into a goat after he drank water from a hoof print.

Werewolf literature is an offshoot of the man-and-beast genre and an abiding preoccupation of this author. In his early story “A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia,” Pelevin sent an unsuspecting young man to a village near an old collective farm to take part in a gathering of werewolves, creatures whose existence he had not previously suspected. “What are werewolves, really?” he asks the leader of the pack. “What are people, really?” the leader retorts, baring his teeth.

For a man as steeped in Nabokovian wordplay as Pelevin is, it can be no mistake that in the Russian version of “The Sacred Book of the Werewolf” he chose the word oboroten, which means shape-shifter or, literally, someone who turns back to what he was before, instead of vervolk, which he used for his earlier werewolf tale. Could this choice be a comment on present-day Russia? Is there a moral to Pelevin’s story? What are changelings, really? Those are questions best answered by A Hu-Li.

The above review was written by Liesl Schillinger for the New York Times Book Review © 2008.

Apologies from myself for my tardiness in posting a review of this fascinating book. Whilst pursuing my ‘virtual’ round the world trip, occasionally I am distracted by real world events in my life and, as I have occasionally before, will need to recourse to existing reviews to keep my travel journal up to date. Where possible I shall return to add my own views: but please be assured that when I add a third party review I will only be if that review fully endorses my own opinions about a book and destination. As does the one above!

As I mentioned earlier I have divided the seven largest countries in the world up into their main regions, so as to be truly representative. Therefore I have split Russia up into its eight Federal Districts, with a book for each. Having starting my journey within Russia in the most internationally well-known Central Federal District courtesy of Moscow, I now make my way to a much more contentious region.

The next stop on my journey is to a small town called Alkhan Kala with occasional forays to Grozny. Both of these locations are based within the republic of Chechnya. Whilst Chechnya is officially located within Russia’s North Caucasian Federal District, it is involved in a long and bloody battle with Russia for independence. It is this struggle and its tragic consequences that form the backdrop to my next book: “The Oath: A Surgeon Under Fire” in which the author, Khassan Baiev (a Muslim Chechnyan surgeon) describes his harrowing experiences throughout the Chechnyan-Russian wars of the 1990s and the 21st Century - and the personal implications of following the Hippocratic Oath by treating both Chechnyan and Russian fighters alongside innocent civilians.

And so, warily, I prepare to leave Moscow. Sadly, travel from Moscow to Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, is complicated due to the conflict, so I stay on a few days whilst I arrange complicated Visas and a safe route into the country. Fortunately, Chechnya's airport is finally open again for the first time since the start of the war. Planes to Grozny leave 3 times a week from Moscow's Vnukovo airport. Estimated flying time is 2 hours and 30 minutes. Having been lucky enough to secure such a flight I arrive in my destination of Chechnya. I shall post an update on this leg of my journey soon.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Belarus: Dark Times Under the Black Cloud of Chernobyl

Given my parameters of each book on my journey being post 1990 and set in the country of origin, it may seem rather strange that I have selected a book to represent Belarus that is about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster – as this happened in 1986 in neighbouring Ukraine.

However, the devastating impact of that event had far-reaching consequences, both geographically and in its long term effects, and “The Trace of the Black Wind”, published in 1996, examines these profound effects from the Belarussian perspective.

The disaster occurred on 26 April 1986, 1:23 A.M., at reactor number four at the Chernobyl plant, near the town of Pripyat, during an unauthorised systems test. A sudden power output surge took place, and when an attempt was made at an emergency shutdown, a more extreme spike in power output occurred which led to the rupture of a reactor vessel as well as a series of explosions. This event exposed the graphite moderator components of the reactor to air and they ignited; the resulting fire sent a plume of radioactive fallout into the atmosphere and over an extensive area, including Pripyat. The plume drifted over large parts of the western Soviet Union, and much of Europe. As of December 2000, 350,400 people had been evacuated and resettled from the most severely contaminated areas of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. According to official post-Soviet data, up to 70% of the fallout landed in Belarus.

The text of the book is made up of a series of competition-winning essays written by Belarussian schoolchildren about the disaster and its impact upon their short lives. Overall the result is profoundly saddening, and recurrent motifs are of young lives blighted by ill-health and the loss of loved-ones, as well as regret at the loss of their homeland (many areas of Belarus are still contaminated and effectively out of bounds).

What is particularly striking is the ordinariness of many of the recollections of the fateful day, April 26th 1986 – this disaster did, after all, occur many miles away and the deadly radiation that followed was undetectable to most people. Time after time, we hear accounts of children being allowed to play outdoors for weeks after the event itself, due to lack of information from the authorities. And once the scale of the disaster did begin to filter through, then idyllic childhood memories are replaced by panic stricken flight, confusion and fear, and ultimately illness and death.

It must be said that, whilst effective in some ways, the format of this book does inevitably lead to a sense of repetition:- many of the essays follow the same structure: the day of the disaster, subsequent flight from their homes and long term illnesses of themselves or friends and relatives. Whilst always affecting, this does not lend itself easily to a reading in one sitting… Similarly, the quality of the writing varies widely, and the tone can border on the contrived in some instances.

One other minor gripe is that throughout the book we are also provided with photographs and drawings made by schoolchildren; but these to not relate to the stories on the pages they appear next to, and no real context is ever given to them.

However, there are many instances here where the simplistic innocence of the child’s perspective jars with the horrific scenario with extremely moving consequences. Often it is the realistic, matter-of-fact tone of these accounts which highlight their tragedy, for instance, in ‘A Saint Martyr’ by Viktoria Kozlova:

“This is the story of the short life and quick death of a little girl from Polesye. Her father died after an unsuccessful bone marrow transplant operation. He was buried in Mitiniskoe graveyard, and a few days later his nameless daughter was buried with him. The girl did not suffer much really, they did not even have time to give her a proper name. She was christened by radiation in her mother’s womb on April 26. And now this nameless girl, a saint martyr, lies on the Chernobyl altar of innocent victims next to her father. She never knew the happiness of childhood or the joys of womanhood and motherhood.”

Another heartrending example is found in, ‘A Smell of Mint in the Air’ by Olga Detyuk.

“When Mother came home from the doctor’s and told me everything it would have been rather natural of me to cry out “Mummy, why me? What have I done?” But Mother did it for me. She burst out crying like a child, brushing her tears against her cheeks with the palms of her hands, saying over and over again, “Olya, Olya! Why you? Why do you have to die?” There was nothing left for me to do but purse my lips and keep silent. I was at a loss. I did not know what to do, for I had never been dying before.”

“The Trace of the Black Wind”
depicts a country with proud traditions and a proud people, yet this is a country devastated by radiation (many of the essay writers compare it to the after effects of a nuclear war). In many ways, what we get here is a sense of a Belarus which has been lost to the disaster, with huge areas evacuated and never returned to, land unfarmable and generations blighted by illness and death. Yet through all of this relentless tragedy, there runs a sense of hope at the determination of this young generation to address these issues, and in doing so, to begin to build a future for this benighted country.

From Belarus I now make my way to its giant of a neighbour: Russia. I shall be spending some time in Russia, as – due to the size of this country - I have split it up into its eight Federal Districts, with a book for each. I am starting with “The Sacred Book of the Werewolf” by renowned Russian author Victor Pelevin, which is set in Moscow in the Central Federal District.

Fortunately whilst the train journey from Minsk to Moscow is a long one – around 11.5 hours(!) it is at least direct, and relatively simple to organise. Although first I have to apply for my tourist visa (which is actually quite simple – you can do it online for a cost of $30 with a 24 hour turnaround). I also apply for my transit visa (allowing me to leave Belarus!) a few days in advance at a cost of $20.

I book my tickets in advance (this route is very busy) and, given the length of the journey, I fork out $150 for a first class ticket with a private sleeper car – which is actually quite luxurious - departing for Moscow from Minsk's "Passazhirskiy" Station in the heart of the city. And so I arrive in Moscow, refreshed and ready for my next port of call (although it is absolutely freezing!!).

Friday, 3 December 2010

Lithuania Past & Present: “The Last Girl” Leaves a Lasting Impression

I have to say I struggled to find a suitable book to represent Lithuania whilst planning my route around the world. Despite the rich history of this country, translated works are still few and far between – and contemporary works in translation are non-existent. I was, therefore, delighted to come across “The Last Girl” by Stephan Collishaw.

Whilst Stephan is not a native author (being born in Nottingham in the UK in 1968), he has an interesting cultural link with Lithuania. On a whim, he relocated to Vilnius in 1995, where he met and married a Lithuanian woman named Marija, who had been teaching him the Lithuanian language. Marija already had two daughters from a prior relationship and later gave birth to Collishaw's son Lukas. The family relocated to Nottinghamshire in 2001. By this time, he had written a total of three unpublished novels, and at his wife's urging, began taking his writing more seriously. “The Last Girl” was his first published novel, which was released in 2003.

This novel garnered universally positive reviews upon its release and it is not hard to see why. For a debut novel, by a relatively young author from another country, Collishaw weaves an insightful, empathetic and thought-provoking novel about both a country and its inhabitants living in the modern-day yet haunted by a tragic past.

In broad terms, the novel is split up into three distinct, yet interrelated, narratives. The first concerns an elderly writer, a borderline alcoholic who no longer writes yet has an obsession with photographing women with their babies on the streets of modern-day Vilnius. The second is an extended account of the modern day tribulations of Svetlana, a washerwoman living on the breadline and dealing with an abusive (and often mercifully absent) husband, who happens to take in laundry for Steponas. In a decaying back street of the city this woman struggles to raise her family. As her son dreams of a better life, she is torn between Vilnius' twilight world of prostitution and her determination to secure hope for her children. The final third takes place in the Lithuania of the second world war, and gives an account of the tragic consequences of independence, Soviet rule and then Nazi occupation, whilst providing the back story to the life of Steponas.

In terms of the narrative, The Last Girl is an engaging and extremely well written novel. The characters are, in the main, portrayed entirely realistically: Collishaw does not hesitate to acknowledge their flaws, whilst allowing enough of their humanity to show through to allow us to empathise with them as readers. Steponas’s refusal to confront his dubious past, and resultant use of alcohol to avoid dealing with his conscience is a case in point. What becomes apparent from the start is that there is a dark element of Steponas’s past which he has yet to deal with, and it is the faces of the women and babies that he photographs that he sees the reflection this secret. A secret he has spent years trying to bury. It is perhaps here that I would tend to find fault in the narrative – as the denouement is sign-posted very early on in the book and, when it comes, seems to lack a degree of emotional punch.

That said, this is astoundingly complex for a first novel. The city - tenderly drawn - feels tense, vivid, effortlessly real. Collishaw’s Vilnius combines past and present, with the rubble of the Jewish ghetto lying side by side with the fallen statues of communist heroes.

Not only does Collishaw take on this huge swath of history - the eradication of the Jewish ghettos, the Soviet occupation of Vilnius - but he also has the nerve to take us into the minds of both Steponas and Svetlana, with their different agendas, different unsettled scores. And no layer is wasted. Each adds meaning, makes the whole more uneasy and disturbing - a feat few first-time novelists could pull off – and results in an excellent stopover on my journey.

And so on to the ex-Soviet Republic of Belarus – a country massively affected by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, of which I shall be reading more in my next book “Trace of the Black Wind”.

Before setting off I ensure that I obtain the necessary Visa for travel into Belarus. There are three kiosks at Vilnius’ modern train station that sell these, and I order a 10 day tourist Visa – ordering it at 9 in the morning and receiving it at 4 in the afternoon for 78 Euros.

The train from Vilnius to central Minsk costs me just 15 Euros for a second class ticket (in a four-person passenger compartment) and take about four and a half hours, leaving at 17.43. The journey is fine, not the fastest or most modern trains you will ever see but they get you there in reasonable comfort and cheaply!

And so on to Belarus and “The Trace of the Black Wind” - a collection of essays written by Belarussian children about their memories of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the impact that it has had on them and their country in later life.