Of the things that I’m completely obsessed with, communist monuments, signage in Cyrillic, and rusted Soviet cars are high atop my list.
That’s pretty much how I ended up living in Eastern Europe-the draw of a beautifully faded Cyrillic sign.
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I’m Obsessed with Eastern Europe and the Former USSR
Since moving here, I’ve gotten to explore a lot of the region. I’ve seen each of the Balkans, Hungary, bits of Eastern Germany (where they want you to forget they were ever “East”), Slovakia, and Poland. And I’ve started diving into the former Soviet Republics, visiting the Caucasus, Ukraine, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan.
Of course, can you really call yourself a Slavophile until you have set foot in Russia? (And just streaming episodes of The Americans from Sofia doesn’t count).
Enter a Fabulous Russian Travel Memoir
So, my intense need to still see Russia is what initially piqued my interest in the travel memoir, Destination Russia: A ship and a cat in the tundra and other extra-ordinary encounters.
I think every travel writer who has wandered into these mythical lands has thought that their travel stories here might make a good memoir (I know I have a few Word docs on my computer stuffed with anecdotes. Sometime I’ll tell you about that time I shared a taxi with a cat to cross a border).
The brilliant thing, though, is Roberta Melchiorre and Fabio Bertino actually finished theirs.
And it’s not just that it’s a real book (and not collecting dust in a laptop somewhere). It’s that it’s actually fantastic.
The prose style reminds me of Italo Calvino, one of my favorite authors. This is partially due to the fact that this is an Italian memoir translated into English (with all the fabulous flourishes that us English speakers seem to leave out). But also, the style is perfectly suited to the subject matter.
If Russia and Eastern Europe feel illusory from afar, in my experiences in the former USSR, they feel just as perplexing-yet-magical when you’re confronted with their reality. Thus, the memoir reads the way you actually feel when you’re a foreigner in this part of the world. That is a difficult thing to capture, but something that sets this memoir apart from lesser attempts.
Okay, but what is Destination Russia Actually About?
The book opens with a handy map, giving a visual representation of the journey we are about to take before we begin our break-neck series of vignettes. We open with a near-catastrophe in Warsaw, and then we begin heading further East. In this book, we are always going further, and further East until Italy is a hazy memory (that is when we aren’t freezing our tails off and heading further north).
We visit Chernobyl, and the book offers up one of the most honest takes I’ve read about what it’s like to visit the disaster site. Authors tend to over-sensationalize it or act too cool for school. Here the balance is reverent, yet realistic. It’s a tourist site, yet it’s so much more.
Since this book was written before the HBO miniseries came out, it offers a nice antidote to the over-the-top portrayal of tourism at the site. It’s not overwhelmed with Instagram models posing half nude. Yet, there is a slight ick-factor to the way some people behave while there.
If you’re curious about touring Chernobyl, this memoir paints a realistic portrayal of what you can expect during your visit.
Saint Petersburg has a Place in My Heart
When I was a lowly undergrad, I majored in Russian and Eastern European studies, eating up classes on Russian literature and architecture. One of the most educational (if borderline insane) classes I took covered the art, history, architecture, and literature of Saint Petersburg. All three hundred years of it.
Well, I never got the Russian credits I needed to finish that major, but I can still name architects for obscure Petersburg landmarks. If I can ever spend the time to get my Russian visa sorted, I’d love to spend a few weeks just seeing if my old professor knew what he was talking about.
But alas, I’ve yet to go. And that’s why the passages on Saint Petersburg and Moscow were so stirring. I got to live vicariously through the authors’ trip, while knowing mine is at least a few years away.
But What’s This About a Cat?
Well, that my friends, is a delightful story, and I shall not ruin it for you here. (This is a spoiler-free zone).
Into the Russian Hinterland
What I love is that you see Minsk, Kiev, Chernobyl, St. Petersburg, Moscow, a bit of the Arctic, but we keep going. Russia spans the globe from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Yet, I once heard that a travel writer got to Siberia and proclaimed, “did you know that people here look like Asians?”
As if one hard look at a globe wouldn’t have set him straight.
So, what exactly is it like to traverse a nation so large, with so many cultural norms different than western Europe and North America, all while you’re trying to learn as you go? Messy and amusing, it turns out.
I think that many foreigners glamorize the Trans-Siberian railway, and Russians don’t quite understand why we are so enamored with it. Yet, reading about a modern trip on the railroad is simply inspiring. Even if it’s a silly thing we westerners are into, how can you not feel the need to see it for yourself?
Well, if you never want to cross Siberia by train but you still want to know what it’s like, this is a great way to get a taste. And if you’re like me, and you know you simply MUST take this journey one day, well then, this delightful read counts as “research,” doesn’t it?
Who Should Read Destination Russia?
I would recommend this book for any avid travelers interested in Eastern Europe and Russia, but it’s so much more than that. Even if you prefer your travels from your armchair, there are so many wonderful stories in this memoir that you will happily walk away enriched.
I also think this is a great read for history lovers, especially Russian history lovers since the vignettes that deal with historic places go into details more than you’d expect from a typical travel memoir. There is a ton of context provided for how and why things are the way that they are as we encounter them.
This extra layer of history is something I thoroughly appreciated (and made it reminiscent of the works of Michael Totten, another one of my favorite travel writers).
How to Get a Copy of Destination Russia?
If you’re curious to learn more, you can find the book available on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback.