Reading about Russia: A ship and a cat in the tundra

With two trips to Russia under my belt and a lifelong fascination – thanks to my mother’s own obsession with all things Russia – it’s a country that, while I don’t feel I want to return to in the near future, I always like to read about. Russia is such a prominent feature of the world map on our wall, and I’ve sat on a train to cross from one side to the other, and spent a month there across two trips, and yet I still know so little about this rather unique place.

All this to say, when I was offered the chance to review the book Destination Russia: A ship and a cat in the tundra and other extra-ordinary encounters, I jumped at it! Destination Russia was originally written in Italian by Roberta Melchiorre and Fabio Bertino, and the English translation is recently released. The two of them have a long-running obsession with Russia too, but being based in Italy (a whole lot closer to Russia than me!), they’ve made the chance to visit various parts of it on many separate occasions.

All of these different trips come together beautifully in Destination Russia, which is a collection of anecdotes, with each chapter covering a different experience in various parts of Russia, and a few also covering Belarus and Ukraine. It’s part travelogue, part history, part culture and part anthropology: and the effect is very much like being a fly on the wall in Russia yourself.

There were quite a few tales in the book that reminded me very much of some of my own Russian experiences, and they rang very true. It opens with train problems with grumpy provodniks and provodnitsas, the infamous Russian train attendants … in this case, the problem was partly caused by Deutsche Bahn, but train problems are a necessary evil in all traveller’s lives I think! I very much remember on my Trans-Siberian crossing having to deal with several provodnitsas who definitely thought they were the dictator of our train carriage; when they came through each day to vacuum our car, it seemed there was no way I could get my feet off the floor fast enough to avoid their wrath!!

The Rosiya train, back when I took the Trans-Siberian in 2003

Speaking of the Trans-Siberian, Destination Russia describes a ride on the Rosiya, the train that crosses all the way from Vladivostok to Moscow on the Trans-Siberian railway, with such passion that it reminded me how much I did love that journey. I took it spread out over a couple of weeks, with stops at various places along the way for a couple of nights each time, but a long held dream of mine since then is to one day return and spend the full seven days non-stop travelling from one side of Russia to another. There’s something about the odd combination of the regular clank of the train, the slowly changing landscape outside, and the fascination of who your cabin mates are inside, that makes it a very special journey. Destination Russia includes tales of several special cabin mates and to this day I still remember some of the special and interesting people I met – and this was back in the days when all we could do to communicate was use our extremely rudimentary Russian and our small phrase book – imagine how much more I’d find out these days with a Google Translate app or the like!

As well as meeting all kinds of interesting Russian locals throughout their travels, authors Roberta Melchiorre and Fabio Bertino have also travelled much further of the beaten path than anyone I’ve known from my years of comparing Russian trips. Roberta can speak Russian which gives them a big advantage (and a hidden advantage because nobody expects that she can!) and the book includes trips to far flung places like the far north-east of European Russia where they meet the Komi people, in a place that snows for eleven months a year. (Hmm, it actually sounds more like a place I’d just rather read about than visit!)

Destination Russia is the perfect book to read either as a substitute for travelling to Russia for now, or to accompany a trip there. With several pages of interesting demographic facts and figures at the back along with photographs highlighting the main sights of the stories, it’s a good read with a lot to tell you about Russia.

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