OPEN LANDS: Travels Through Russia's Once Forbidden Places by Mark Taplin
Kirkus Star

OPEN LANDS: Travels Through Russia's Once Forbidden Places

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

An extraordinary and beautifully written chronicle that combines the best of different genres: travel writing, journalism, and history. His first book reveals Taplin, a former public-information officer in the American Embassy in Moscow, to be a keen observer of Russian life and a gifted writer. Fortuitously, he was living in Moscow in 1992 when Russia and the US signed the ""Open Lands"" agreement permitting free travel throughout both countries. Taplin immediately took action. ""Instinctively,"" he writes, ""I knew I had to go beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg, sly old deceivers of travelers past. Was there a truer expression of Russia's past and its future in those forbidden places of the Soviet era?"" He searches for answers in seven locales: Velikiy Ustyug, Vorkuta, Arkhangelsk & Solovki, Kabardino-Balkaria, Tuva, Kamchatka, and Vladivostok. His journeys are full of surprises, revealing a curious mixture of the old and the new, the Soviet-driven and the local. Contrary to general opinion, Vladivostok is not alien or exotic; ""it was a veritable bastion of Russianness."" It is also, Taplin finds, the very embodiment of the new Russia, its future ""framed, at least for now, by commerce, crime and chaos."" In Vorkuta, an inhospitable, snow-covered land that is home to isolated villages and the ruins of innumerable Gulag camps, Taplin discovers ghosts of Russia's past. With his malleable prose, he is able to convey the sentiments, personalities, and worlds of both the head organizer of monuments honoring the Gulag's victims and of a woman who defends and honors those who headed the forced-labor brigades that built the region's roads and railroads. Above all, it is Taplin's exquisite literary sensibility that animates this narrative. A description of Vladivostok's airport, applicable universally to former Soviet or East European transport vehicles illustrates his precision and wit: ""The airport terminal . . . was another of Russia's countless dysfunctional edifices, a glass-fronted incubator of grime and body odor."" A modern classic tale of a foreigner's travels through Russia.

Pub Date: Oct. 26th, 1997
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Steerforth