ONE OF SMITHSONIAN'S BEST TRAVEL BOOKS OF THE YEAR
With the writers of the Golden Age as her guides—Pushkin, Tolstoy, Gogol, and Turgenev, among others—Sara Wheeler searches for a Russia not in the news, traveling from rinsed northwestern beet fields and the Far Eastern Arctic tundra to the cauldron of nationalities, religions, and languages in the Caucasus. Bypassing major cities as much as possible, she goes instead to the places associated with the country’s literary masters. With her, we see the fabled Trigorskoye (“three hills”) estate that Pushkin frequented during his exile, now preserved in his honor. We look for Dostoevsky along the waters of Lake Ilmen, site of the only house the restless writer ever owned. We pay tribute to the single stone that remains of Tolstoy’s birthplace. Wheeler weaves these writers’ lives and works around their historical homes, giving us rich portraits of the many diverse Russias from which these writers spoke.
As she travels, Wheeler follows local guides, boards with families in modest homestays, eats roe and pelmeni and cabbage soup, invokes recipes from Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, learns the language, and observes the pattern of outcry and silence that characterizes life under Vladimir Putin. Illustrated with both historical images and contemporary snapshots of the people and places that shaped her journey, Mud and Stars gives us timely, witty, and deeply personal insights into Russia, then and now.
Wheeler (Chile: Travels in a Thin Country) mixes travelogue and literary history in an entertaining work centered on her fascination with the great Russian writers of the 19th century. Zigzagging across a vast landscape, Wheeler visits sites associated with Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, and Turgenev, as well as lesser lights, such as Tolstoy's writer friend Afanasy Fet. Amid accounts of these men's lives, Wheeler relates her own experiences in homestays, sleeper cars, and hotels, showing how the run-down, seedy, and kitschy live in tension against the beauties of landscape and architecture. To Wheeler, if a single characteristic unites Russia, it is misery, "before, during and after communism." At times, her tone toward the country and its people borders on mocking, as when noting the provincialism of her Russian language tutor, who "had once been to a conference in Greece, and spoke of the country like the Promised Land." Vivid details nevertheless propel the narrative, from Gogol's anorexia to "a tin-can shaded" lightbulb in far eastern Anadyr, where wages hover at just above $200 a month. Fans of Russian literature will find this survey simultaneously provoking and informative.