A writer for the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza reports on life at the harrowing margins of contemporary Russian society.
The goal—driving solo 13,000 kilometers from Moscow to Vladivostok in a Russian Jeep—sounds like a travel stunt, complete with bandits, militia men, frigid overnights in the cab with the engine running for heat. But Hugo-Bader is a journalist by trade and travelogue is only the pretext for this book, which takes a stark, shocking look at Russia’s lower depths, its homeless people, alcoholics, drug addicts, sex workers and HIV sufferers, among others. Hugo-Bader’s best writing occurs after he finally leaves Moscow and hits the road, passing through off-the-charts places in eastern Russia and especially Siberia. Along the way, he visited with the inventor of the Kalashnikov assault rifle in Izhevsk, capital of the Russian arms industry; explored a still-lethal nuclear weapons test site near the Kazakhstan border; and interviewed shamans and a self-styled reincarnation of Jesus Christ. Most striking is the tale of the Siberian taiga reindeer herders, members of nearly extinct aboriginal tribes who have been embarking on self-decimation by alcohol and suicide. Amid the brutality, the author found moments of joy and genuine humanity. “Time and again,” he writes, “after ten or more hours of lonely driving across wild wastelands I felt as if I were part of this machine…it was an uncanny feeling, so in my thoughts I had started to humanize it, talk to it, call it names, pay it compliments, saying it had a lovely voice, for example. Because it did.”
No charming folk customs here, just the hard facts of life in the frozen Russian north.