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Journey into Russia Paperback – 1967
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Laurens van der Post's rather pretentious Journey in Russia (1964) is my third Soviet-era travelogue with only one other remaining unread in my shelves: Andrei Almalrik's Involuntary Journey To Siberia (1970). These books sit next time one particular gem in my collection: Fodor's Soviet Union 1978. With this handy reference book, I'm occasionally lucky to follow along a trip taken by an author via passing names of hotels, restaurants, monuments, etc. It's a quirky little hobby on mine.
Thubron traveled extensively by car throughout western Russia meeting folk along the way, providing a unique and fun account of his travels. Pond traveled by rail across the entire breadth of Russia plying her hand at a multitude of history and fact, giving a rather dry air of narrative but extensive and thought invoking. Van der Post's narrartive throughout his travelogue was tainted by two things: (1) a fixation on poetry, literature, quotes from both, writers/authors/poets of the Soviet Union and meeting the said writers/authors/poets; and (2) the author acting the part of the superior-minded English colonial deeming everything, other than classical music, as primitive.
Like many readers of Soviet travelogues (are there any others out there aside from myself?), Laurens' impetus to explore Soviet Russia was impelled by its mystery: "I had to go to Russia, to experience the power of the State and the Establishment, the immense primitive insistence on `likemindedness' and `togetherness' as the greatest of all values" (315). When comparing the "Western" formality of individual fallen soldier's graves with that of mass graves for Soviet soldiers, Laurens says, "I also feel that until Russia develops this `belonging through separateness' among its own people, it will continue to be as backward in spirit as it once was in knowledge and technology" (316).
As above, when Lauren infers that a larger sense of community equates with primitiveness (or communism as a state of mind ), in Laurens' most popular travelogue The Lost World of the Kalahari (1958), the author uses the word "primitive" eleven times to describe the people, their dancing and their singing. He doesn't defend his use of the derogatory word, but he goes on to relish the primal nature of the Africans and suggests the following:
"With our twentieth-century selves we have forgotten the importance of being truly and openly primitive. We have forgotten the art of our legitimate beginnings. We no longer know how to close the gap between the far past and the immediate present in ourselves. We need primitive nature, the First Man in ourselves, it seems, as the lungs need air and the body food and water." (The Lost World of the Kalahari, 146)
He's quick to label every facet of their lives as primal, primitive or simple, yet glorifies their simple ways on par with the literary cliché of the "noble savage". I lost count of the number of times "primitive" was used in Journey into Russia, but as soon as it was becoming overused, the author, in fact, digressed and tried to defend its usage:
"Anyone who knows from my writings what I feel about primitive people will know that I do not use the epithet to disparage. I have always believed that the balance between primitive and civilized values has never been fairly struck in any society ... The Russians, for me, tend to be ... primitive people ... I began to understand why, on my long journey through Russia, parallels with my own native life in Africa had so often occurred to me ... I know a dozen or so tribes in Africa who without the technological dress of Soviet Russia, practise in essence a Soviet system, because it is their natural, primitive way." (284)
And yet, despite the Russian melancholy and suspicion and noted government-level hatred of America, the common people actually "admired America more than any other country in the world and at the same time, envied, disliked and feared it" (136). They, villagers and officers alike, were generally receptive to Laurens' foreignness and took his ignorance in stride; they seemed knowledgeable (a little too knowledgeable, perhaps) of popular Western literature spanning the last century, as if Laurens' own pet topic seemed to effervesce from the people around him. I doubt this was actually the case. Laurens' often sends his writing on page-long tangents toward artistic merits such as art (312) and poetry (313).
These are the idiosyncratic tangents which bog down this travelogue. I think there are more dalliances into his personal history and into the arts than his actual experience in Russia. These dalliances also include his internment in a Japanese war camp, musings about Greek mythology and architecture, and the primitive tribesmen of the Kalahari. Rare are the insights into the Russian soul; I can remember one notable example, however: "They are not a smiling people. With them the smile is generally only a preliminary to laughter and this perhaps more than anything gives them their reputation for melancholy" (23).