In the run up to Christmas I spent some very happy hours reading classic crime (as the posts on the blog no doubt reflect!!) However, as the festive day got closer, I felt like a change and so took a look at the TBR to see what was calling me; and I spotted a title which came out in 2021 and made its way onto my TBR in February 2022. The book is “The White Birch” by Tom Jeffreys and it turned out to be a wonderfully absorbing and thought-provoking book.

Jeffreys is a writer and critic with a particular interest in art that engages with environmental questions, and he takes here for his subject the birch tree and its significance and symbolism for the Russian people and nation. The book is subtitled ‘A Russian Reflection’, which perhaps doesn’t do justice to the depth and breadth it covers. Much of the book is built around a series of journeys Jeffreys took in and around Russia, visiting St. Petersburg, Moscow, Chernobyl, and even riding the Trans-Siberian railway to Vladivostock. He explores Catherine the Great’s garden follies, and the somewhat worrying world of online Russian brides; mixes with Pussy Riot; and attempts to work out just how important the birch tree and the Russian landscape is in forming the Russian national identity.

As you can no doubt see, this is indeed a book that covers much ground, exploring the birch in all aspects from biological to ideological, and it’s a work that I’d actually find very hard to categorise! The aspect of art is vital, and it’s the kind of book which requires you to either have a notebook or the Internet to hand; Jeffreys explores a number of important Russian artworks and although some of those are reproduced in the book, I ended up with several notebook pages full of titles I want to investigate. But Jeffreys is looking further than just art appreciation; although he does appraise the paintings, he also puts them in context, digs into the Russia of their time, reveals what the artists were like and the circles they moved in and indeed traces the history of artists in the country, and how hard it was for a lower class Russian to actually take up painting.

Four slender birch trees divide the image. Through their bare, wintry branches is an undulating, snow-clad landscape, a sliver of frozen lake. Atop a low snowy rise beyond, a pastel yellow palace beckons. The image is of Pavlovsk, but really it could be any aristocratic estate in western Russia. By the time of the book’s publication in 2005, over two hundred years after the estate was first laid out, the birch had become shorthand for Russia itself.

It’s not just painting, however; Jeffreys reflects on the constant presence of the birch in art, literature, propaganda, construction – indeed just about every aspect of Russian life. This inevitably involves him covering the history of Russia itself which is complex, as the sprawling country has expanded and shrunk at many times over the years, grabbing neighbouring countries, losing them again and at most times seeming to be hostile to the rest of the world.

White Birch Tree (Neal0892, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

“The White Birch” was, of course, published before the current conflict in the Ukraine; yet it reflects the constant tensions between Russia, Ukraine and the Crimea which have actually been going on for ages before the eruption into war. The book captures the complex relationships between Russia and the West, for example as in WW2 where they movied from enemy to ally; and of course the tensions of the Cold War which I don’t feel ever really went away. Jeffreys is even-handed, though, and not judgemental; meeting and mixing with a wide range of Russian people and artists, he’s keen to simply explore the layers of meaning added to a humble yet powerful tree.

As I hinted above, Jeffreys does take a look at the biological aspects – the birch tree is a survivor, able to spring up just about anywhere, and maybe it’s that resilience of the birch tree which reflects the resilience of the Russian people; a reason perhaps why they identify so strongly with it. Throughout the book, Jeffreys is an erudite and excellent commentator, and his histories are lively and informative. As well as that, he’s an entertaining writer, relating his journeys and mishaps with a wry sense of humour; the travel sections alone are fascinating.

So “The White Birch” was a compelling, involving and really wonderful read; the book’s discursive narrative is a heady mix of art, travel, biology, ecology, history and so much more. For someone like me who’s fascinated by Russian culture and history this was an amazing read; and even if you don’t have that experience of reading about the country I think you would find the book really interesting. Jeffrey’s explorations throw light on Russia, its history and its people in a new way, and “The White Birch” was everything I hoped it would be. Highly recommended!