Viv Groskop

A far cry from Chekhov

Sara Wheeler travels thousands of miles to understand the country of Tolstoy and Pushkin, only to meet surliness, racism, homophobia and distrust

It would be hard to have better travel-writer credentials than Sara Wheeler. Here the author of The Magnetic North and Terra Incognita, a specialist in Arctic and Antarctic adventure, turns her attentions to the land mass that sprawls across eight time zones, where any traveller is guaranteed to receive an ostentatiously frosty reception — initially, at least. Wheeler’s task has been to capture Russia through a bifocal lens: first through the eyes of the classic Russian authors she loves, and second through the lives of contemporary Russians we rarely hear about, outside of the Moscow–St Petersburg axis. ‘I was searching for a Russia not in the news — a Russia of common humanity and daily struggles — and my guides were writers of the Golden Age.’

This entertaining and insightful book performs two functions. It’s a whistlestop guide to the best of Russian literature from 1800 to 1910. And it’s a beautiful piece of travel writing about the Russia of all our fantasies, from the ‘willow stooping over the central alley’ leading to Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s estate south of Moscow, to the distant shores of Lake Baikal, where Wheeler finds a delicious meal of white fish in a place where Chekhov could find only vodka (leaving him to surmise that Russians were pigs).

There’s plenty here for those who already know their classics (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Turgenev, Gogol), but it’s also put together brilliantly for anyone wishing to know more or just wanting to ease their way into a reading binge. And there are some surprises, such as a chapter on Nikolai Leskov, the author of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, a grim 1865 novella about a reverse, guts and glory Anna Karenina type, with blue-black hair, who murders anyone who gets in the way of her adulterous lust until she is swept away herself on a tide of revenge.

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