Magazine article The Spectator

Variations on an Enigma

Magazine article The Spectator

Variations on an Enigma

Article excerpt

RUSSIA: A JOURNEY TO THE HEART OF THE LAND AND IT'S PEOPLE by Jonathan Dimbleby Ebury, £25, pp. 564, ISBN 9780563539124 £20 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

You may have caught Jonathan Dimbleby on television recently travelling across Russia, picking potatoes with doughty Russian women, baring all for a steam bath in Moscow, looking alarmed as a white witch from Karelia promised to heal his bad back with a breadknife, etc. Here is the book of the series, in which Dimbleby, drawing on Churchill, plans to 'reveal the enigma, unwrap the mystery and solve the riddle' that is Russia.

What is it about Russia that inspires this desire, again and again, in Western Europeans? Why does it matter to us?

There are other countries that play influential roles in world politics, that 'straddle the East and West' as Russia is supposed to do, and books devoted to them too, of course; but nowhere seems to draw the interested amateur in quite such numbers as Russia.

Dimbleby, I think, would agree with me that the motivation often has little to do with Russia's political or economic situation. It springs from our enduring fascination with 19th-century Russian writers whose works, in Britain at least, are more widely read, performed and adapted than perhaps any other non-Anglophone literature. (In the last few years we have seen Anna Karenina and Dr Zhivago adapted for television; War and Peace is currently touring provincial theatres; Chekhov is more or less treated as an honorary Englishman. ) These writers, and many others, imprinted on Western European consciousness a notion of the Russian character -- passionate, troubled, joyous, self-analysing, and above all flawed and human -- that, a century and a half later, still summons up a thrill of recognition, if not of ourselves then of the selves we long to be. 'Rereading the great works of 19th-century Russian literature was one of the delights of my journey, ' Dimbleby writes. So his happiest moments were those that satisfied this literary itch: a visit to Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy's estate; meetings with 'peasants', sturgeon poachers -- 'they could have been characters out of Tolstoy or Turgenev' -- dissidents and intellectuals.

Some of Dimbleby's interviewees come across vividly: the archaeologist, at first unwelcoming, who later warms up, explaining of a 12th-century bronze cross, 'It had the power of the divine. People wore them to protect themselves, and today it fills me with great trepidation to touch these things that people wore with such faith'; the émigrée returned from abroad, who says simply, 'It is exciting here. …

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