I saw this book recommended last year in a book blog featuring recommended non-fiction reads. Sadly, I can’t remember who wrote the post but whoever it was, I’m grateful for finding a great read.
This was a fascinating read, part History book and part travel memoir. For a period of two years, the author travelled the length of the Russian border, a distance of over 20,000 km. This took her through the North-west Passage with very random mix of elderly travelling companions, to Korea, the Causcaus and eventually Europe finishing off in her homeland of Norway. The final leg of her journey was the sea voyage through the North-west passage but she actually begins the book with this before starting her journey along Russia’s land border.
For each country we get a brief account of its history and then an account of her visit and the people that she meets in each place. It’s a relatively easy book to read and congratulations are definitely due to the translator Kari Dickson who has created such a readable translation. The book was completed in 2017 although not published in the UK until 2020 which means that it has been overtaken by recent events in the Ukraine. She does discuss the 2014 takeover of the Crimean and the Ukranian chapters definitely foreshadow last year’s invasion.
The main premise of this book was to try to discover what the impact of having Russia as a neighbour has been. However, at times this seemed to get lost in the narrative and it just became an account of a country’s history. As the author herself states, there are as many answers to this question as there are neighbouring countries but there did seem to be a common theme of uneasiness. The fluidity of the border was a surprise. Many of the countries haven’t been independent for that long and borders are still changing. Living in the UK with a fixed coastal border, her accounts of interviews with people who had lived in two countries without ever moving were fascinating and at times really sad.
“And none of the countries I had travelled through were without wounds or scars left by their neighbour, Russia. For centuries, the smaller countries and peoples in particular, had been ground between the millstones of power, torn by wars between the major players and pulled here and there.”
I found the opening chapters to be the most compelling particularly those about Korea and Mongolia. This was probably because I knew so little about them before reading this but maybe just because they were the first countries visited and so had the benefit of novelty. At just under 600 pages, the book is very long and at times I did find that the accounts of each country’s history were beginning to blur together. I read it over a period of two weeks but I wonder if I might have been better leaving longer gaps between the different sections to allow my brain to absorb the information better.
Some of the stories that she heard along her journey were heartbreaking especially from those who had survived the second world war and the mass movements of the Soviet population carried out by Stalin. Over and over again, I was reminded of Robert Burns words:
Man’s inhumanity to man,
Makes countless thousands mourn.
This was an incredible journey undertaken by a young woman travelling alone and gave me a bit of an insight into what it must be like to live in a politically unstable part of the world.
“Nations have no collective memory: nations have no healed wounds. It is the individuals, millions of them , who carry the scars”.
This is the second book this year in the Non-Fiction reader challenge which is hosted by Shelleyrae at Book’d Out and details can be found here