Journey Into Russia by Laurens van der Post
I’m a great believer in the right book at the right time, and this volume turned out to be very much a case in point. Knowing of my love of all things Russian and all things travel-related, OH tracked down a lovely first edition of JIR for last Christmas – it’s a wonderful object in its own right, complete with fold out map in the back and on lovely quality paper which has stood the test of time. Bearing in mind it’s 50 years old it really is looking good!
I hadn’t found the right time for reading it, but watching Michael Portillo travelling about Russia on a train recently on the BBC made me very jealous and so I decided to assuage the travel itch with Laurens van der Post!
The author himself was quite a fascinating character! The potted version from Wikipedia is: “Sir Laurens Jan van der Post, CBE (13 December 1906 – 16 December 1996) was a 20th-century Afrikaner author, farmer, war hero, political adviser to British heads of government, close friend of Prince Charles, godfather of Prince William, educator, journalist, humanitarian, philosopher, explorer and conservationist.” However, if you read the whole entry, he was friends with Leonard and Virginia Woolf (my book is a Hogarth Press edition), lived a pretty wild and sometimes controversial life, wrote the books on which the film “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” were based, and apparently wasn’t averse to embellishing his life story a little!
What’s so fascinating about this book for me, of course, is that it’s travel writing behind the Iron Curtain – much like the wonderful “Travels of a Capitalist Lackey” by Fred Basnett, which I reviewed here. However, there is a difference in perspective, as van der Post was much more high-profile visitor to the USSR, whereas Basnett’s approach is much more low-key and down to earth. Both books are excellent, and actually reading them fairly close together is quite useful because you end up having quite different impressions from both writers.
Van der Post, it should be said from the start, was obviously a complex character and it’s clear from his writing that he has no sympathy for totalitarian regimes of any sort. Nevertheless, he has a deep wish to *know* Russia and its people and he tries hard to do so, despite being hampered (of course!) by the authorities in various shapes and forms. He manages to travel to a remarkable number of places including Siberia, the Black Sea, Kharkov, Yalta plus of course Moscow and St. Petersburg. Van der Post mixes with as many people as he can, from his guides to local writers, poets, farmers, scientists and as many of the young people as he can make contact with. And he finds, despite their different political viewpoints, that the people of Soviet Russia share many of the same concerns as those outside it, as well as wishing to co-exists peacefully with the West.
However, despite the apparent openness of the world he encounters, there are reminders of the State which controls everything. One particular encounter with a group of young people ends with somewhat worrying supervision and van der Post being unable to track down the young people again. Throughout the book, he is careful not to name names so as to avoid getting anyone into trouble with the authorities, which is understandable (although I would like to be able to read an annotated modern version in which the people where actually identified now that the Soviet era is over.) What shows up very clearly here is the isolation of the Russian people, from any kind of contact with the West, its culture, music, politics and people.
Initially, it was a little hard to get going with JIR, as van der Post’s tone can be a little pompous at times. He often seems to be taking a slightly detached, anthropological view of things and sometimes wanders off into pontificating and list of facts, where I found my interest drifting slightly. However, his writing *can* be very evocative, particularly when he feels passionate about a subject:
Cypresses have always gleamed in my imagination like light at the end of a long tunnel perhaps because they may have been the first tree chosen by men to accompany them on their long and enigmatic journey through time. The scent of cypresses after rain is a smell translated and made aromatic in a way that not even the frankincense, myrrh and arboussiers of the antique world can excel. No matter where they grow, in Southern Africa, on the hills behind Golgotha, in Greece or Etruria, cypresses bring with them a sense of dedication out of the earth.
He responds particularly to the landscape of Russia, and his descriptions of travelling through the Siberian steppe are stunning.
One of the most memorable sections of the book is that where van der Post attends a May Day celebration at Kharkov. Here he witnesses Soviet bombast in all its splendour, with endless military parades and trumpeting of the superiority of the Soviet regime. Yet there is no joy coming from the people during the parades, and the whole thing is a cold, mechanical exercise serving only as a propaganda exercise. Van der Post emerges from the experience in a claustrophobic state, desperate for peace and quiet, needing the reassurance of free art and culture.
And culture is very much the keyword here. In 1964, although some thawing had begun under Khrushchev, art and literature and culture generally were still very much controlled. Years and years of Soviet realism had taken its toll on the Soviet citizen’s mindset and van der Post comes to realise that the people were limited mentally because of it, appreciating all the more the Western outlook:
All this made me realize another thing about Soviet Russia: how barren the Soviet mind and scene is of fantasy of any kind. Suddenly I felt sad that I had not brought Carroll, Edward Lear and the others with me for them to read. Those are the medicines too that the traveller in the Soviet Union needs to kill proliferation of the insect within himself. I longed now not only for fantasy of thought but the live human fantasies which one still encounters daily in the eccentrics of Britain. I realised again the natural wisdom of this deep instinctive respect and love that the English have for genuine eccentricity. And I realized how starved these young people themselves were for some fantasy in their own lives.
As van der Post leaves Russia at the end of the book, he seems to breathe more easily, physically and mentally, as the weight of the Soviet system lifts from his back. Nevertheless, he seems to have gained much from his journey – a better understanding of the place and its people, and the knowledge that things are changing and that as the thaw continues the Soviet people may come to enjoy more freedom.
This was in many ways a great read – it left me with some vivid impressions of the places van der Post travelled through and the people he met. On occasions, his views and his personality slightly got in the way for me and I did find myself a little bogged down occasionally with some of the longer passages about industry and agriculture (and bemused by one particular statement: Siberia could supply the whole of the world with coal for two thousand years and still have some to spare! – really? Then why are we having an energy crisis!) Fred Basnett’s book will probably be more of a long-term favourite of mind, but “Journey into Russia” makes a valuable companion to it!