Mother Russia

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Mother Russia

Adventures in the Land of Putin and Beyond

Russia has been in the news a lot over the last four years and usually not in a good light. There is that thing called the 2016 election and Russia’s interference. The United States and Russia/The Soviet Union have not always had the best rapport but, love it or hate it, Russia is addictive. Its people are beautiful and strong. And, while cold and allusive at first, they are some of the warmest and most welcoming people in the world. I’ve gathered a few books that brought the author, and now us, into close contact with a wide array of Russians and members of some of the former Soviet Republics.  


Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia by David Greene
David Greene, co-host of NPR’s Morning Edition, previously served as NPR’s Moscow bureau chief. In Midnight in Siberia, David recounts his 2013 return to Russia and his experience on the Trans-Siberian Railway, the 6,000 mile epic train journey from Moscow to Vladivostok. On the train, and at each stop, David interviews ordinary people about how their lives have changed since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Each chapter is named after a person that he encountered. Among others, we meet a group of babushkas who enjoy singing Beatles covers and explore places like Lake Baikal, the world’s largest fresh body of water.    

Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia by Lisa Dickey
Unlike David Greene, Lisa Dickey visited Russia not once but three times over a span of fifteen years - 1995, 2005 and again in 2015. The title of her book refers to a Russian perception that Americans think that bears roam the streets in their cities. On her trip in 1995 Lisa accompanied photojournalist Gary Matoso on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Lisa’s journey is similar to David’s with the exception that on her subsequent trips she seeks out, for the most part successfully, and locates the people that she met on her first trip. With the collapse of the Soviet Union she documents the changes in each of their lives from Soviet past to Russia present.

Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier

Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia, unlike David’s and Lisa’s works, is dense and large much like Siberia itself. It’s more than a travelogue, it’s a rich cultural and historical look at this fascinating region in the world’s largest country. Frazier not only includes glimpses of contemporary Russians and their lives in Siberia but also looks at some of the more infamous Russians who spent some unwanted time there, i.e. Dostoyevsky, Decembrists, Lenin, and Stalin. A rich and comprehensive examination for those who want to delve a little deeper.

Pravda Ha Ha: True Travels to the End of Europe by Rory Maclean

Renowned British travel writer Rory Maclean makes his way throughout Eastern Europe some 30 years after the fall of communism and 30 years after his initial trip to the region. Reminiscent of Paul Theroux’s Great Railway Bazaar and subsequent Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. Maclean examines how hopes and dreams for change in the region have not always gone the way once desired. His book takes us beyond Russia to some of the former Soviet Republics and into other Eastern European countries. The short chapters provide bite-size vignettes of individual lives.

Sovietistan : Travels in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan by Erika Fatland

With Sovietistan we branch out from Russia into the “Stans,” a widely misunderstood and little known region of the world. Norwegian writer Erika Fatland examines Soviet history and how that period influenced the region and helped to forge these countries to where they are now. The region varies from Turkmenistan, a repressive regime whose first dictator banned beards and renamed the months of the year after himself to Kyrgyztan an emerging and evolving democracy. The “Stans” were once part of the famed Silk Road and Fatland delves into that rich and remarkable history. As with the previous titles Fatland peppers her tome with stories of individual lives and encounters with parts of the area’s past such as visiting former Soviet nuclear testing grounds. Unfortunately, the book has no index but does include a brief bibliography for those who would like to explore the “Stans” a bit further.