I am (belatedly) here with the first of my reviews for Nonfiction November: Behind Putin’s Curtain: Friendships and misadventures inside Russia by Stephan Orth. Orth is a German journalist who travelled around Russia via the couchsurfing app. This book acts as his account of the people he met and the conversations he had – an attempt to get under the skin of ordinary Russians, rather than the very particular view we get of the country in the west. Of course, by mingling almost entirely with people who are willing to host strangers in their spare rooms, he’s inadvertently selecting people more open to outside ideas and having friendships with foreigners – but it’s a noble attempt nonetheless.
I envy the bravery that it would take to go couchsurfing in a foreign – and in some places dangerous – country, especially one where you don’t confidently speak the language. This strikes me as something I might have done at twenty (though it would have been extremely foolish at that age), but would never do now. I’m not even sure that I would do this in an English-speaking country now, despite the fact that I’d probably be safer than I would have been at twenty. Orth jokes that being “female and pretty” would get him better offers on the Couchsurfing app. This indicates to me that he does not think about risk in the same way that the average woman would. Similarly, I am not sure that a gay man would feel comfortable going and sleeping in strangers’ homes all over Russia, especially in Chechnya, and I think his insistence that this mode of travel is safe could have done with at least a nod to the fact that it would not be equally safe for everyone. Still, it probably is a good way to get to know ordinary people – he sleeps on sofas, on the floor in empty flats for sale, in teachers’ accommodation, and in communes during his stay, and his hosts tend to invite him into their lives for the few days he spends with them. It makes for a good story, even if it wouldn’t be for everyone.
The way people reacted to Orth being German made me very curious what Russian schools teach on the subject of WWII. People’s reactions are telling and alarming: there are jokes about how it would have been better if Germany rather than Russia won the war; one man tries out all the German he knows immediately upon meeting Orth – which seems like politeness, until you discover that this includes “Heil Hitler” and “Sieg Heil”, with apparently no awareness that a 21st century German might have a negative reaction to those phrases; there is a strong presence in Yalta that commemorates a branch of the SS every year. One man tries to convince him that Auschwitz was quite civilised and the number of deaths during the Holocaust was exaggerated. At the same time, we get Orth’s reaction to the way that some parts of Russia are still nostalgic for Stalin, with statues and oil paintings of the dictator present in some areas. This would be disturbing from any viewpoint, but it’s especially so seen through German eyes. Although Orth stays nonjudgemental in his conversations with locals, in a few places in the book you can really feel the “huh, so you celebrate your bloody mass-murdering twentieth century psychopath, do you? Interesting choice” energy coming through. There are other areas that were much more directly harmed by Stalin’s rule, where there is a bit more antipathy towards him, but even there Lenin is still venerated. Basically, I thought the book was a fascinating look at authoritarianism in a country that has not dealt with its past (or its present) very well, through the eyes of someone whose country, broadly, has dealt with its legacy and continues to do so.
I also appreciated the insight into Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014, specifically the perspectives of local people from Yalta. One of Orth’s hosts explains that there was a lot of fear among ethnic Russians in the Crimea that they would go to prison for speaking Russian if they voted to remain part of Ukraine – which was never a threat by the Ukranian government, but was instead a rumour spread by Russian nationalists. At the same time, there were real concerns among Crimean citizens about the way that region of Ukraine celebrates a particular group of former SS soldiers. As I said, the “were the Nazis bad?” argument does not seem to have been decisively resolved in all areas of Russia (or Ukraine, I guess), and the commemoration of SS soldiers was sufficiently concerning for a lot of people to sway them to vote to become Russian again. I knew about the linguistic aspect of the Russian-Ukrainian poll, because I vaguely remember that being reported at the time, but the concerns about the veneration of Nazism (!) were new information to me. Orth reports conversations with several people who had different opinions about the annexation, ranging from appalled to delighted, and I think this allows for a more sophisticated depiction of the issues – the role of propaganda tangled up with people’s genuine fears and concerns.
As the book progresses, I think it falls off its perch a bit, and becomes less serious. The analysis disappears in favour of anecdotes and friendships. Orth’s visit to a cult deep in the Russian countryside took up three chapters with almost no criticality – which, given some of the cult’s antivax and other dangerous teaching, seemed like a strange choice. There had recently been a death from vaccine-preventable disease tick-borne encephalitis at the time of Orth’s visit, for example, but other than baldly reporting this he doesn’t do much thinking about the conspiracy theories and anti-intellectual slant underlying it. Overall he makes no real attempt to consider what factors contribute to the popularity of the cult, why people were drawn to it in the first place etc. I much preferred the more analytical and thoughtful first half of the book. In the final couple of chapters, Orth makes an abrupt return to his original tone, looking at the role of propaganda and state media – the way that all Russians have lived their lives without free media, and that Russia Today etc seem at least less bad than Pravda and other Communist propaganda. Fascinatingly, a lot of people he spoke to accepted that the propaganda was untrue, but felt that it was better for the country than honest reporting. This is a really interesting topic, and I wish the tone of the book had been less uneven. Had these themes been sustained throughout, I think this probably would have been a more compelling read.
While I’m reading a translated book, I rarely think about the translation itself, which I think is probably a sign that it’s being done well. It was inevitable in this case, however, given that Orth communicates with his hosts in a mixture of German and English, and Russian as he becomes more confident. As a result, there were individual words that the translator chose not to translate, or where I wondered if German words were being used in place of English for the same “foreignness” feeling. I was irritated by the ubiquity of soccer in the translation, given that it was presumably being translated from Fußball, and a few other Americanisms that seemed out of place (dork gets used in places where I suspect it is an inaccurate translation). I know the soccer thing seems petty, but here’s my argument: football (Fußball, fútbol, futebol, fotbal) is what the game is usually called in countries where it is of cultural importance – which certainly includes Germany, and appears to include at least the European parts of Russia. Soccer is what it gets called when it’s more of a fringe interest – even Americans who are really into the game often call it football. Given that every time the word cropped up it involved two or more Europeans from different countries using it as common ground, it seems like football would more properly capture the tone. I recognise that this is nitpicking, and yet I can’t help myself – the soccer/football thing felt like the most egregious way in which this is a very non-European translation, despite being a book that is in large part about Russia’s relationship with European neighbours.
Also interesting was the translation of the title and subtitle. In German, it’s Couchsurfing in Russland: Wie ich fast zum Putin-Versteher wurde, which (as best I can manage) is Couchsurfing in Russia: How I almost became a Putin-understander or possibly How I came close to understanding Putin. (Fast is a tricky word to translate). The German title seems closer to the aim Orth sets out in his introduction, while the English one seems to convey a Brysonesque collection of mishaps and japes. The book has a balance of both elements. Although this is entertaining, and funny in places, I think the first half is a more serious attempt to understand Russian culture, history, and politics than is conveyed by the English title. As I read this, I enjoyed it enough that I looked to see if Orth had written any others, and to my delight there are several, including one about China. It has the same title disparity as this: Couchsurfing in China: Durch die Wohnzimmer der neuen Supermacht (Couchsurfing in China: Through the living room of the new super-power) becomes Hi Tech and Hotpot: Revealing encounters in the real China. Again, this seems like a real tonal shift, and I am extremely curious about what goes into this decision to shift the focus of a book for a different audience*.
This is therefore not a completely enthusiastic endorsement, but if you’re interested in Russia – especially contemporary Russia – and its relationship with Europe, it’s a fascinating read. Orth is an entertaining and often – though not always – thoughtful travel companion. It is particularly useful if, like me, you are hoping to travel in Russia. I thought long and hard about the ethics of giving money to Putin’s government before we booked our tickets (in visa/invitation letter form; the same goes for China). I think this book is a useful contribution, even though it doesn’t directly address the issue. It’s a compelling argument that more contact between ordinary Russians and ordinary “westerners” is a beneficial counter to the Everybody Hates Russia Even Though We’re Best At Everything narrative that pours out of Russian televisions every day – but also a useful alternative to the Putin-scented version of current events that we hear in western Europe. Not a perfect book, but a valuable one nonetheless.
*Note – after I wrote this, I looked up Rennie’s review, which is very good and has the opposite viewpoint on both the title change and the extent of cultural analysis within the book – so if you want a contrasting opinion you should go and read that too!