Book Reviews - Winter 2020

History, Alive and Well

A writer’s tour of the Soviet world, 30 years after its collapse

By Graeme Wood | December 2, 2019
The Transnistria parliament building in Tiraspol (Flickr/Marco Fieber)
The Transnistria parliament building in Tiraspol (Flickr/Marco Fieber)

Pravda Ha Ha: True Travels to the End of Europe by Rory MacLean; Bloomsbury, 368 pp., $27

In a 1989 essay published in The National Interest, political scientist Francis Fukuyama asked whether history might be reaching its conclusion. Three years later, when he expanded the piece— titled “The End of History?”—into a book, he shed the question mark and declared his patient dead. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, he argued, liberalism appeared to be the last ideology with a pulse, and the once-energetic process of history had reached its telos.

If Fukuyama’s thesis were true, it would have been terrible news for travel writers. The finest practitioners of this genre read, in retrospect, like prophets of doom, foretelling the imminent devastation to be wrought by the fall of history’s scythe. Think of Rebecca West and Patrick Leigh Fermor in Europe before the Second World War, or Robert D. Kaplan, bookishly wandering the Balkans before the wars of the 1990s. The delights of travel writing always come from miseries, either of the place or of the writer. And let’s face it: a trip through liberal democracies tends toward blandly pleasant uniformity—one Holiday Inn after another; a Starbucks cup being raised up to the lips of a human face, forever.

Russians see Putin as a grand strategic thinker, with plans to “make Russia great again,” while the rest of the world flails.

The travel writer Rory MacLean wrote his first book, Stalin’s Nose (1992), just as history was allegedly ending. His new book, Pravda Ha Ha, attempts to discover “what went wrong”—how history leapt up off the slab and began staggering destructively around Europe. MacLean traveled from Berlin to Moscow in 1989, and in this update, he reverses direction, starting in Moscow and ending not in Berlin but in his adopted home country of Great Britain, having followed a path through Estonia, the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, Ukraine, Crimea, Transnistria, Poland, Hungary, and Germany.

In Russia, through the introduction of a London intermediary, he befriends a wealthy psychopath, Dmitri, who at various moments seems likely to hire, bribe, feed, or murder him. Dmitri stresses that he is not an oligarch ($50 million and up, apparently) but a “minigarch” who profited lavishly from Gorbachev-era liberalization without penetrating the top tier of thieves from the public purse. MacLean identifies Russian president Vladimir Putin as the psychopath-in-chief—a not especially surprising accusation, given Putin’s bogeyman status in the Western press. Russians see him as a visionary and grand strategic thinker, with plans to “make Russia great again” while the rest of the world flails.

Russia, in MacLean’s telling, is a morally diseased place where truth ( pravda) has become a joke. Drawing on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and other dissidents, he observes that the country’s long-running tolerance of political lies has transformed into cultivation of untruth as a form of art, and in a final degradation, to laughter at the very notion of truth. This process, he suggests, has spread over Eastern Europe like a storm front and has left once-hopeful liberalizing states (Hungary, Poland) vulnerable to authoritarian backsliding and manipulation into xenophobia and racism.

Travel writing, like ethnography, is an inductive process: you start with the observation and build a theory from what you see. Reverse this process, and the characters feel like you’ve frogmarched them into your narrative and made them speak into your tape recorder at the point of a bayonet. The best of MacLean’s encounters, accordingly, are those least obviously relevant to his gloomy view of Eastern Europe. His early chapter about Dmitri, for example, focuses on the minigarch’s truly weird attempt to recover his fortune by excavating valuable truffles from the ground underneath his dacha. MacLean pesters him for a taste of a truffle. Dimitri at first demands payment of $1 million but ultimately gives MacLean a free taste. He shaves a flake off, places it on the fingertip of his teenage female assistant, and invites MacLean to suck it off. “Her hands are very clean,” he assures him.

A moment with this mushroom pervert reveals more than all the rest of MacLean’s political conversations put together. The pathologies of power, the economic surreality ($1 million?), the treatment of women not even as sex objects but as serving utensils—it is difficult to imagine a healthy society in which this takes place. Unfortunately for this book, such revelatory depravities are few. Also marring the narrative is MacLean’s passion (stylistically depraved, I suppose) for cliché. He is the sort of author who does not write but “pens,” or sometimes even “puts pen to paper.” Things are “rare as hen’s teeth.” They are dropped “like hot potatos,” or “fell on deaf ears.” These drossy phrases would be easier to overlook in a book that did not repeatedly fault people for their lack of original thought.

The moral virtue MacLean displays in this book is also his signature shortcoming as a reporter. He meets, early in the narrative, a desperate Nigerian immigrant who tells a wild and awful story involving his quasi-enslavement by Russian nuns, who at one point sedate him and amputate his toe, for reasons seemingly punitive in nature but not fully explained. MacLean feels sympathy for the man and vows to help him reach England to claim asylum. (The man says he left Nigeria for economic reasons, and there is no suggestion that he has a more legitimate asylum claim than anyone else from Nigeria.) Throughout the book, MacLean conveys sincere concern for downtrodden immigrants, along with sputtering impatience with European right-wingers who vilify them.

MacLean appears not to see the relation between his advocacy and the xenophobia of the Central and Eastern Europeans he meets. In his account, villainous vibes from the Kremlin have awakened these regressive attitudes, and the people holding them are mentally enslaved to propaganda from abroad. By the evidence of his own narrative, though, their paranoia about fraudulent asylum claims is well founded. A richer book might have separated propaganda from fact and mapped the undiscovered borderland between them. The march of history goes on, and some of MacLean’s Russian friends think that it follows Putin’s drumbeat. No doubt that is sometimes so. But a sensitive ear, pressed to this same terrain, will hear other sources of rhythm as well.

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