True Travels to the End of Europe

by Rory Maclean

(Bloomsbury 2019)

From the acclaimed author of Stalin’s Nose comes this superbly described, darkly comic exposé of the collapse of Soviet communism and its dysfunctional effect on millions of the Russian population. The opportunistic rape of the nation by oligarchs as they have appropriated for themselves some 40% of its wealth is scrutinised alongside the progress of ‘Tsar’ Vladimir Putin’s new Russia and the destabilisation of Europe.

In his previous book, Rory MacLean led us through the chaotic but jubilant period immediately following the fall of the Berlin Wall as he travelled from Berlin to Moscow. Thirty years later he retraces his journey in reverse, reliving the same desolation and facing new challenges. His account exemplifies corruption and greed through opportunistic characters such as the ‘Chicken Tsar’, who found his fortune in George H. W. Bush’s gift of American chickens in the early 1990s, intended to feed the starving millions after the communist regime ceased to be their breadbasket. The demise of the Gorbachev and Brezhnev eras are handled with precision in the lead up to the advent of Putin.

Exposing the rotting state of many cities and abandoned villages throughout Russia, MacLean explores the means by which Putin often mocks the truth. He compares the inversion of the pre- revolutionary disastrous tsarist losses of Russian troops in the Japanese war of 1904-5 into victorious history, with Putin’s subversion of terrible truth into false rhetoric so brazen that it becomes spuriously credible. He questions how different life in Russia is today from that which had to be endured under Stalin’s totalitarianism or that of the autocratic tsars.

The introduction of colourful characters is used to demonstrate the restricted lifestyle that most people are forced to endure in contemporary Russia, often bound by loyalty to ageing parents. The constant fear of punishment for craving intellectual freedom, is present in many people. In Hungary, memories of life under the Soviet regime and German wartime cruelty, make most people feel both victimised and less optimistic about the future. Maclean’s travels through Poland illustrate the instability and xenophobia sweeping the country as reflected by the policies of the PiS (‘Law and Justice’) nationalistic party, and the air disaster of 2010 which wiped out 96 members of the political elite.

Concern for mass migration into Europe is also sensitively handled through the prism of MacLean’s connection with a young African whose illegal entry into Russia is tracked through much of the narrative, and the plight of immigrants on makeshift vessels across the Mediterranean is poignantly described. Whilst Germany has welcomed many of them, much of the rest of Europe has introduced increasingly anti-immigration policies. There is a marked disparity between the post-war success of Germany following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the desolation of life in most eastern European nations.

MacLean paints his pictures with imaginative clarity. His brilliant and sensitive descriptions, depicted in richly defined and unsettling detail, make for a compelling, often amusing and always challenging read.


Review by Bill Bennette, Sherborne Literary Society

© 2017 by SHERBORNE LITERARY SOCIETY - Charity No 1168489

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