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TraveLit--A blog about travel literature. 

     Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.

Book Review

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Where Nights Are Longest: Travels by Car Through Western Russia.
By Colin Thubron. Originally published in England (1983), as Among the Russians. Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987, 212 pp.

“Nobody from the West enters the Soviet Union without prejudice,” says Colin Thubron at the start of Where Nights Are Longest. “But I think I wanted to know and embrace this enemy I had inherited.”

In many ways, these sentiments evoke another era. Indeed, setting off in the summer of 1980, Thubron was traveling before Glasnost, and it isn’t surprising that his exploration of attitudes—the Soviets’ and his own—found his negative biases confirmed. But his depiction of Soviet power provides a good background for thinking about Russia today.

Traveling by car and staying mainly at campsites, the author’s route took in Moscow, Leningrad, the Baltic States, the Caucasus, regions on the Turkish border and the Ukraine. In all, he journeyed some 10,000 miles through a land whose vastness never ceased to impress him: “Wherever you touch it, you are conscious of a giant, alienating hinterland. You are always, somehow, on the periphery.”

The very format of Thubron’s trip posed a challenge to Russian tourism, which favored delegations (“Are you a group?” he was asked repeatedly at campsites) and supervised sightseeing. His journey was solitary, individualistic.

Individualism—and its political counterpart, freedom—form the book’s recurring theme. Not that Thubron omits description: he depicts countryside, architecture, and people in beautiful prose made precise by close observation and deepened by a knowledge of Russia. But if he is looking at everything, he is also looking for something, always moving beyond description to penetrate the texture of Russian life and compare it to his own “world of private love and choice which Communism sought to supersede.”

From this perspective, Thubron describes how Russia enshrined its authors in the writers’ museum in Oryol, but also how in Oryol, it was “hard to find the works of Mandelshtam, let alone of Solzhenitsyn.” He describes the churches, but also how the government closed them in an effort to make Communism the new religion.

In a telling scene, he describes some girls in a Park of Rest and Culture engaged in a drawing competition. Their pictures, on the subject of peace, were, he says “heartbreakingly similar...,” filled with “taught phrases and symbols.” The girls “had drawn nothing truly their own.”

Clearly, Thubron’s viewpoint is very Western, but his book is persuasive in its defense. Throughout Russia, he met people who were dissatisfied with the government, with their inability to think, worship, read as they want, who drink to forget the “emptiness of their lives.” These people are at the heart of the book, and from their warmth, spontaneity, and thoughtfulness—all in evidence on these pages—Thubron learns never to equate “the Russian system with the Russian people.”

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