ARCHANGEL by ROBERT HARRIS
This thriller is set in a well researched setting: Russia. The novel came out in 1997 and set in contemporary Russia. In short, it posited the hidden existence of Josef Stalin’s son and the machinations of old-style Communists to use him to mount a coup against the government. The story whisked along and was entertaining and well-plotted. But for me, what was so interesting was the background detail about Stalin – the man was a monster directly responsible for the death of somewhere in excess of 20 million Russians and yet, according to the novel, a recent poll revealed that one in six Russians thought he was a great leader and would have him back in power tomorrow! I saw similar very recent corroboration on the Dimbleby Russia TV series, made mid-2000’s. Did the Russians not know what Stalin did? Are they in denial? Or don’t they care?
Harris’description of the city of Archangel was very depressing. I’ve had Russia on my To Visit List for years but now, having read this novel, I wonder why I would even contemplate visiting this a run-down, dirty, corrupt country with such a terrible past. St Petersburg may be one thing, a glittering treasure house of art, but the rest of Russia does not have a glorious past – brutal and violent, more like it.
RUSSIA by Johnathan Dimbleby
I read this mammoth tome (570 pages) whilst on holiday.
It took me a while, but was worth the effort. The book was a by-product
of the BBC TV programme on Russia. JD covered 10 000 miles and several centuries on his travels, moving not only West to East, but also North to South. What a vast and varied country Russia is! The Black Sea in the South – warm and balmy; Siberia in the North with its frozen tundra and taiga; Vladivostok – a seaport on the Pacific ocean. I wish I hadn’t given away my copy of Colin Thubron’s Siberia. Too late now.
The book highlights the terrible lot of the Russian peasant, both past and present : their brutal lives, their fatalism, their alcoholism.
The statistics he quotes are mind-blowing, especially in the case of Siberia – it’s a treasure chest of natural resources : gems, oil, coal and timber.
A striking feature of the book was the attitude of the people he encountered. They think the crypto-fascist Putin is a good leader, a strong leader and they just shrug off the oligarchs and the endemic corruption. The younger generation like Western clothes and music, but are nonetheless deeply proud to be Russian.
Dimbleby travelled through Russia clutching, and re-reading the Russian classics: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky et al. All I can say is, he must have had a generous weight allowance on the airlines because my holiday reading always has to be ultra lightweight, and it’s the one time I wish I owned a Kindle!