A Russian Journey by Alaric Jacob and Paul Hogarth

I’ve no doubt commented before on the dangerous effect of bookish Twitter; I do like to hang out there, as bookish types are such fun, but they *will* keep drawing my attention to interesting-sounding books… I often manage to forget where recommendations come from, but in the case of this book I’m sure! Retroculturati regularly features images by the wonderful artist Paul Hogarth, most notably covers of Graham Greene paperbacks (some of which I actually own…) However, Hogarth’s works featured in any number of books, and when I happened to realise he’d illustrated a book with the title “A Russian Journey”, investigation was warranted… ;D

It transpired, in fact, that Hogarth not only illustrated the book, he also travelled around Russia with its author, Alaric Jacob, in 1967. Now, I’m a sucker for books which take you travelling in Soviet Russia, so of course I had to see if it was available at a reasonable price (I didn’t have high hopes, it must be said…) Amazingly, I was able to procure a copy in really good nick, with nicely intact dustjacket, for a tenner – result! Bearing in mind how often I’ve been disappointed by inaccurate descriptions of second hand books I’ve bought, this was a pleasant surprise! Anyway, on to the book…

Published in 1969, the book (which nearly shares its title with Steinbeck’s record of his journey through Russia with the photographer Capa) is subtitled “From Suzdal to Samarkand” and follows the trials and tribulations of the two men as they attempt to negotiate Soviet bureacracy and travel round the country. Jacob had a history with Russia, having lived there off and on between 1943 and 1947. His connection with Hogarth went back to nearly that time, and both men had always intended to make a joint picaresque journey round the country, recording their adventures in words and images. That had become harder and harder with the Cold War intervening, but finally in 1967 they made their trip. The result is this book, which is not just entertaining; it’s a wonderful snapshot of life both in and out of the Soviet Union at the time and raises some interesting thoughts.

The book comes will a lovely hand-drawn map at the front showing the places Jacob and Hogarth visited; and interestingly they never got east of the Ural Mountains, though they travelled south a lot into Asian Soviet Russia – Samarkand and Tashkent – as well as dropping into Kiev in Ukraine and heading into Georgia to track down Stalin’s homeland. As they travel, Jacob reflects on the changes he’s seen since 1947 and the contrasts between East and West, while Hogarth beavers away drawing wonderful images of the places they go. The pair encounter all manner of people native to each of the areas, and their interactions are always thoughtful and human. Despite the attempts at control by Intourist, the two intrepid travellers go where they want to go and see what they want to see and the results make fascinating reading.

The narrow road from the airport passed through wooded country before joining a great motorway. In the fields on either side we saw wooden cottages all bearing television aerials even though most of them seemed not to have been painted for years and some had crazy roofs and eaves on the verge of collape. Harsh electric light burst out of each house and lit up the surrounding snow. In a landscape untidy and forbidding each cottage stood out as an outpost of human warmth and jollity in the wintry waste. I was forcibly reminded of the madness of Hitler and his generals in trying to overrun and occupy thousands of square miles of such country in the depth of winter. At that time no lights ever shone over the snow: ruin and desolation lay all around. Presently we passed a memorial, composed of anti-tank barriers painted the colour of blood, which marks the sport where Guderian’s tanks were halted on the outskirts of Moscow in the winter of 1941.

One of the most interesting elements of the book is the historical point at which the narrative is poised; for Jacob, the Second World War is still a relatively recently memory, an event fresh in his mind, and many of his meditations in the book are informed by his experiences during that conflict. He’s able to see the changes which have taken place, particularly in Moscow, during the two decades since he visited and rue some of these; yet he’s realistic enough to know that change has to happen to improve conditions for those living there.

And Jacob’s politics are intriguing; he obviously leans to the left, believing at that time that the future would be best served by a move to socialism or Marxism, or at any length away from the mess that capitalism already was. He’s critical of England, referencing Iain Nairn’s “Subtopia” and regarding the country as restricted and claustrophobic. His attitude towards Stalin is – well, interesting really, as he does seem to not exactly apologise for him, but believe that the Soviet system can still be one which works. I guess that’s a viewpoint which wouldn’t really hold water nowadays…

Nevertheless, the travelling itself is marvellous, as the two men buzz about over Russia by train or plane, experiencing all the frustrations of trying to get sensible transport information out of Soviet flunkies who seem to want to make things difficult for the foreigners. The men encounter a fascinating range of Soviet citizens, many of them artists who are excited to make contact with fellow creators from the West; and also young people who are disillusioned with the Soviet regime and can’t understand Jacob’s enthusiasm for it. You get a real picture of what living in the USSR was like and what the people felt, and so the book is a fascinating snapshot of life there at the time, and also Western views.

It has to be said, too, that the book is often a very funny read; Jacobs is a drily witty narrator, and tales of their epic eating and drinking sessions were a hoot! The men were also plagued by recurring run-ins with intrusive Polish jukeboxes playing awful state-approved pop music, and poor Hogarth found the constant eating and drinking just too much; as Jacobs comments at one point:

I said that anyone who had read Churchill’s War Memoirs ought to know that no one lacking a strong head and a good digestion should ever submit himself to Soviet hospitality.

There’s also a fascinating amount of name-dropping and referencing; the men run into Pablo Neruda in passing, attempt (and fail) to find Kim Philby, see Mayakovsky’s death mask and pass the grave of Griboyedov. But underlying much of the narrative is Jacob’s memories of WW2 and the depredations suffered by the Russian people while beating off Fascism. It’s something he finds hard to forget and it informs his attitudes throughout.

A stunning image by Hogarth of Lementov’s house in Tiflis – plus an example of the marginal drawings.

As for the illustrations, well they’re just wonderful. I love Hogarth’s style and the book is stuffed full of his impressions of Russia, whether full page (or two page) colour illustrations, or small sketches tucked in the margins. It really is a joy, and if he turns out to have illustrated a book on Paris I think I’ll die happy!

“A Russian Journey” turned out to be a marvellous, atmospheric read which really took me back to the time it was written. I was quite young when it came out, yet in the decade that followed this book I can recall how close the War still seemed then. There were still old air raid shelters in a nearby piece of woodland; structures that needed to be demolished or rebuilt from wartime bombing; and a sense that, in my provincial town, we were being dragged from the 1950s and 1960s into a shiny new world. I’m not sure that promise was fulfilled, but whether the Eastern alternative was any better is not something I can judge. However, I absolutely loved this book and it will sit happily on my Russian shelf next to Sheila Fitzpatrick’s A Spy in the Archive and Fred Basnett’s Travels of a Capitalist Lackey and Laurens van der Post’s Journey into Russia and John Steinbeck’s A Russian Journal. Hmmm. I sense the dangerous possibility of a new collection of Soviet travel writing in the wings…. ;D

Retroculturati has an excellent post about the book here, which also gives more background information about it.

ETA: Jane asked in the comments if she could see the map, and here it is:

Not drawn by Hogarth, but still a very nice hand-drawn one – I’m very fond of maps… ;D