An intrepid German journalist recounts his 2016 adventures in the far-flung reaches of Russia.
Orth (Couchsurfing in Iran: Revealing a Hidden World, 2018, etc.), who served for nearly a decade as the travel editor at Der Spiegel, seems to crave learning about places other people would never dream of visiting—e.g., Mirny, Sakha Republic, in the far east of Russia, affectionately termed “the asshole of the world” due to its massive diamond-mine operation. The author is clearly unafraid of confronting “anti-aesthetics on a scale that makes you faint,” and he is determined to look deeper than the information provided by official Russian sources. In this quirky, subtly revealing work, Orth provides a useful snapshot of the character and tone of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The author’s 9,500-kilometer journey began in Moscow, where his host was Genrich (from couchsurfing.com), a hypereducated polyglot with dozens of pages of initial interview queries who turned out to be an ideal conversationalist. Other hosts proved intelligent and keen, as well, such as when Orth visited the chess capital, Elista, in the autonomous Republic of Kalmykia; Astrakhan, on the Volga River; a farming community in Volgograd, in the southwest; or Sevastopol, the home port of the Black Sea Fleet, in the newly annexed Crimea. Orth also traveled to former Russian president Boris Yeltsin’s hometown of Yekaterinburg; there, the author reports that “in 1991, 71 percent of Russians considered themselves European…by 2008 the figure was only 21 percent.” From the Altai Republic in Siberia, where the author ventured for a week of crazy car travel with Nadya, to a retreat near Lake Baikal to the remote Olkhon island in Siberia, Orth manages to bring forth a side of Russian life rarely seen.
Amazing reporting, generous pictures, and the author’s true sense of connection with the locals add up to a truly honest view of Russia today.