Book review: Behind Putin’s Curtain, by Stephan Orth (Amazon / Book Depository)
Hamburg-based journalist Stephan Orth has written several books about his global couchsurfing adventures in unconventional locales. Orth brings a certain cheerful openness and humorous curiosity to his adventuring, and of the touristic method of couchsurfing, he mentions that it offers “the mutual gift of time and curiosity,” something lacking in all-inclusive trips or cruises.
In Behind Putin’s Curtain, his latest to be translated from German, he describes his 2016 journey across Russia, plotted out using couchsurfing hosts who opened their homes, putting him up in sometimes tiny apartments strewn with laundry, or serving him chili-laced coffee, elsewhere offering him empty apartments or their dachas to sleep in, taking him biking or joining him on spontaneous road trips.
Although he hits the big cities – Moscow, St. Petersburg, Vladivostok – he also veers widely from the beaten path (“Even for Lonely Planet Mirny is a bit too lonely”). He incorporates something of the political atmosphere, mainly an attempt to gauge the relationship between Putin and the people.
This is something that’s been done by Western journalists before, like in Bears in the Streets, Putin Country or more sprawlingly in In Putin’s Footsteps, but it’s a topic I always find interesting and freshly insightful. He offers his own couch for a Russian journalist to make the reverse trip and confront misperceptions widely circulated about Europe within Russia.
There’s no other country where the information situation is so confusing. That means there’s no destination that needs visiting more urgently, at least for those like me who see travel not as a pursuit of fun but as a quest for insight.
This is the most travelogue-focused of those mentioned, and a good deal lighter in general. Orth makes a clear point to avoid focusing on “politicians, activists, or intellectuals” as he says journalists typically do. That perspective worked well, the travel narrative is endlessly amusing and I got along with his sense of humor. For a deeper, more analytical look at the sociopolitical themes, it doesn’t quite deliver. I found it interesting that this translated edition changed the title from its German original, which would’ve translated as “Couchsurfing in Russia”, to something hinting of sociopolitical analysis when that doesn’t quite fit the content.
There is some analysis of current US-Russian relations, but it doesn’t go far beyond the surface, mainly juxtaposing Trump with Putin, or Putin’s meticulously cultivated image in Russia.
Russian propaganda always presented the U.S. and the whole “West” as hypocritical and manipulative, and now the most powerful man in the world is a perfect and obvious example for that. The current U.S. president comes across as a dubious dictator, making the Russian president seem like a beacon of reliability and clarity. From interviews, it is obvious which of the two is intellectually superior.
From the synopsis, I also thought there might be more exploration of conspiracy theories or manipulated media. What’s covered is enlightening – the Kremlin’s role in the state-funded media and what people know of it, and the common underlying narratives populating the news: Putin’s strength, Western antagonism, heightening chaos in Europe and the US. And the biggie: “In general – don’t believe anyone and don’t trust any information.”
I think the English-language marketing got it a bit wrong – it’s just a fun travelogue of interesting, unusual places, and although the author claims to have understood more about Putin’s popularity by the end, I can’t say I did.
There’s some culture shock that provides laughs, but it’s never mean-spirited and Orth is worldly and experienced so provides context and an intelligent humor. And his descriptions are splendid:
He has hardly any hair on his head, but a full beard that the elderly Dostoyevsky would envy, and he scrutinizes the observer with serious eyes, deep, skeptical furrows in his brow. You could easily envisage his portrait on the bulletin board of a debt-collecting company with the heading Employee of the Month.
An attempt to meet a shaman provides another descriptive gem with an unexpected twist.
Even when he visits places equipped with warnings in standard guidebooks, he finds the situation not as scary as forewarned. Kyzyl in the Tuva Republic, supposedly the direct centerpoint of Asia, was one such example: “Lonely Planet warns of being out on the streets of Kyzyl after dark because of the numbers of drunks out and about … inclined to be violent. This is doubly threatening as the most popular local sport is wrestling. Additionally, shamanism is in fashion, so the vodka-crazed fighting machines, before leaving me half-dead on the sidewalk, will rip out some of my hair to make an effigy.”
He doesn’t acknowledge what his white male privilege may have bought him in safety, although a road trip taken with a Russian woman offers some glimpses into the different ways she and a German man handle the same situations.
My favorite leg of the ten-week trip was his stop in the village of Zharovsk to see the cult-like commune of a man he dubs the “Jesus of Siberia”. There’s a whole book to be written there, although unsurprisingly it’s a fairly insular, distrustful group.
Chapters are studded with quick cultural and linguistic lessons, including delightfully untranslatable Russian words. My favorite: “The terms suchnyak and nedoperepil are thematically related. The former describes the rough feeling in the throat after a boozy night. The latter refers to someone who is certainly drunker than is good for him, but not as drunk as he theoretically could be.”
A smartly funny, lively, always amusing and insightful (if not analytical) perspective of a country and people long misunderstood, perhaps even more so today. 4.25/5
Onion domes, matryoshka dolls, balalaikas, and prefabs? There are all of those and much more. Russia includes so many microcosms and microcultures that you feel as if you’ve traveled around the globe without ever having left the country. Behind the gruff exterior beats a huge heart.
Behind Putin’s Curtain:
Friendships and Misadventures Inside Russia
by Stephan Orth
translated by Jamie McIntosh
published May 7, 2019 by Greystone
Fab review sounds like a fun read.
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Thanks! It was such a fun one.
Is he a German Bill Bryson? Love Bryson’s travel writings
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Yes, kind of! A little less self-deprecating but quite similar in the light, funny tone. I like Bill Bryson too so I think this is definitely a good readalike for him.
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I can recommend this book too, it’s colourful portrait of a fascinating and misunderstood country.
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I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it too, it’s a great one!