Book Reviews - Winter 2020

History, Alive and Well

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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.

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