Russia, In the Words of Its Neighbors

Book review: The Border: A Journey Around Russia, by Erika Fatland, translated from Norwegian by Kari Dickson

I turned and looked out at the grey ocean. Here, right here, is where Asia and mighty Russia end.

In The Border: A Journey Around Russia, journalist and Sovietistan author Erika Fatland embarks on an ambitious nine-month journey along the world’s longest border: Russia’s, encompassing 60,932 kilometers. Pretty impressive, especially since as she notes, the earth’s circumference is only 40,075 kilometers.

Explaining how she even came to this undertaking sets the tone for the rest of the book: dreamy yet determined, with the scope β€” of learning about a bullying yet mythical country through its relationships to its neighbors — clearly formed: she dreamt she was wandering on a map, her footsteps following “a wavy red line: the border of Russia. I wandered from country to country, with the mighty Russia always to the north or east.”

And then she really did it — over three quarters of a year, she traveled through 13 countries and the region’s disputed breakaway republics, beginning in North Korea and on to China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, and the Northeast Passage, finishing the trip in the north of her native Norway.

“What is it like, living so close to Russia?” I […] had asked hundreds of people the same question along the way.

The sheer extent of this — and all that Fatland manages to encompass in her storytelling — that is, detailed history of the shaping elements of each region with vivid, impressionistic looks at place, people, food, and culture, and a tangible sense of the neighbor who has charted the course of history for so much, so much of the world is almost hard to fathom. In the hands of a lesser guide, it may have fallen apart completely, which is what makes Fatland’s achievement so exceptional.

She meets protesters, farmers, reindeer herders, politicians, retirees, recluses, businesspeople, and everyone in between, gathering impressions from everyone who helps move her along her way: wild taxi drivers to harried but curious North Korean tour guides. Fatland is lucky to be multilingual and has a warm, easy way with nearly anyone who crosses her path. They open up to her, invite her home, link her with friends and family in countries and cities further on her itinerary.

Strangely, although this feels personal and is clearly all built around Fatland’s skills in interviewing and connecting with people (not to mention her organizational skills in plotting this, which must be stupendous), it doesn’t feel like memoir, as she acts much more as an observer. Even when she complains or expresses her frustration it always adds to the understanding of what moving through these places must feel like, rather than feeling like a too-personal intrusion. And when she writes lyrically of her impressions, it’s absolutely beautiful and perhaps surprisingly inspiring, considering some of the locales.

Fatland visits off-the-beaten path museums, tries and is thwarted in her attempt to visit the secretive and protected Cosmodrome in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, gives a personal view into Chernobyl reminiscent of Svetlana Alexievich, drinks a lot, hikes to hilltop Georgian monasteries with a high-heeled guide, travels by ship and canoe, gets in trouble for photographs in authoritarian regimes, and is endlessly asked about her plans to have children. She handles it all with patient humor and a quiet, balanced understanding of circumstances and history.

The older history was well related, especially considering that some of it is so dense and esoteric. The structure is often Fatland relating a key historical incident or figure then weaving it into the present, what she’s seeing before her. It has its less illuminating moments — there are of course a lot of long-ago wars — but she has a skill for sussing out what’s interesting or relevant.

The feeling you’re left with is almost that of a surreptitious interview about a suspect — learning as much as you can about someone without directly speaking to them. Which of course paints a very different picture than what the person would say about themselves. To see this done about a country was just extraordinary.

Her time in Georgia was among my favorites. I’ve never heard it described so exuberantly. It’s touching to see how passionate she is about certain places, and honest in her dislike for others. I loved this honesty, instead of the kind of travel writing that glosses over travel’s awful moments, or is overly critical about everything that’s uncomfortably different. Travel writing so often suffers for the wrong guide, but Fatland is such a skilled one that she makes this trip seem effortless and yet when you consider the immensity of it, the vastness of the area coupled with limited travel possibilities in spots, it’s near awe-inspiring. She even makes visa and bureaucratic issues interesting somehow.

And it’s filled with so many anecdotes that I can’t imagine having learned elsewhere — like one about the French erotic film Emmanuelle being broadcast on the Finnish state channel where it could be picked up in Estonia, where “a remarkable number of children were born nine months later.”

Or sometimes it’s the surprise of these anecdotes, like when she describes French President Sarkozy in Moscow, negotiating a ceasefire in the war between Russia, Georgia and South Ossetia. Putin told Sarkozy he’d like to “hang Saakashvili by the balls,” justifying it against Sarkozy’s horror since “The Americans hanged Saddam Hussein.” It’s an often shocking look into the kind of casual brutality that’s characterized Russia and its neighborly relations for, well, ever. (And really, the things Putin has got his tentacles into. If there’s a quiet villain behind the scenes of many of these stories, it’s him.)

Other remnants are more hidden: […] long-since-closed Gulag camps, inscriptions on graves that have been erased by wind and sand, mile upon mile of rusty barbed wire along borders that no longer exist. And in people’s homes, in closed cupboards and drawers, along an axis that stretches from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean, there are literally tons of faded red stars, heroes’ medals and pioneer scarves, covered in a thin film of post-communist dust.

An engrossing and enriching travel narrative with a lot to say about an often-ignored region’s history, politics, and current state of being, in the shadow of its domineering neighbor.

The Border: A Journey Around Russia
by Erika Fatland, translated from Norwegian by Kari Dickson
published 2018, English translation February 2, 2021 by Pegasus Books

I received a copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

22 thoughts on “Russia, In the Words of Its Neighbors

Add yours

  1. Wonderful review – I am so looking forward to this one. You’re exactly right about travel writing often suffering for being in the hands of the wrong guide, but Fatland sounds as though she really gets beneath the skin of places and writes about travel with an authentic, realistic approach. It’s a rare skill, but definitely necessary for a journey as wide in scope as this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much! I think she was so skilled in this too, and I agree it’s one of those things that when it’s done well it just comes off smoothly and when it’s bad, it ruins everything. To be such a thorough historian but also such a beautiful travel writer and gifted at observations…she just ticked every box. So excited to hear your thoughts on it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds absolutely fascinating and like a strong contender for my Transmongolian Reading Challenge! Russia is a country that has had such an outsize impact on the world, especially its near neighbours, that this is a really interesting way to write about it. I like what you write about her style when it comes to things she loves or doesn’t about different places – I agree that this is a hard balance to strike in travel writing. Books that come off as extremely critical of different places are not pleasant to read, but it is a fact that travelling is challenging sometimes, especially for a big ambitious project like hers, and being honest about that is important.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I completely agree, “outsize impact” is a great way to describe it. There was even more to that influence than I realized, it’s permeated so much about life in these places. She gets at it from such a granular level that it really drives home how much of the world they’ve shaped. And just hearing the conflicting opinions too, it’s endlessly fascinating.

      And that’s such a good point, travel writing is such a tricky genre, to strike that balance between honest but not annoying yet still showing what it’s actually like. I thought she managed it perfectly. This would be great for your challenge, I didn’t even manage to include Mongolia in my review (I hardly did this one justice, there’s so much more to it) but the time she spends in Mongolia was a highlight as well!

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  3. I was looking forward to your review of this one, because it did seem like an incredible undertaking and like a really interesting way to talk about a country. I’m glad to hear it turned out to be so good! I’m impressed the author managed to pull so much material together into an interesting and informative story.

    “The feeling you’re left with is almost that of a surreptitious interview about a suspect β€” learning as much as you can about someone without directly speaking to them. ” <- This was such a great description of what she's doing here and it definitely made me want to pick this up.

    Liked by 1 person

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