Searching for the Russian soul

A Journey into Russia
by Jens Mühling
(Haus Publishing)

muhlingcoverJens Mühling is a brave man. In pursuit of a Russia beyond “the usual news stories”, he set off to find a religious hermit in the wilds of Siberia, where he was savaged by a dog and led astray on a swollen river by two boat drivers who got so drunk on hooch they couldn’t put up a tent. Braver still, he has written a book about 21st-century Russia that barely mentions the name “Putin” or the word “oligarch”. He manages well without either.

The book appeared first in Germany in 2012 under the title Mein russiches Abenteuer (“My Russian Adventure”). It has just been published in English by Haus Publishing as A Journey into Russia. Neither really does it justice. Mühling is neither recounting his own escapades nor exploring the country; he is searching for the Russian soul.

Mühling’s first contact with Russia was in 2000, when he met in Berlin a television producer, Yuri, who was selling stories about his homeland. Yuri showed him one about millionaires that he had made up, then told him: “The real stories in Russia are more incredible than anything I could invent. It’s just that no one in Germany will buy them from me.”

Ten years on, having covered conflicts in Chechnya and Ossetia and the revolution in Kiev, and having travelled widely in Russia, Mühling found himself being wheeled out at editorial conferences in Berlin to “explain the Russian soul”. He did so, but guiltily, feeling that Russia, for all his experience there, was still a puzzle – still the stack of olive-green pieces that had taken him longest to fit into his jigsaw map of the world when he was a boy.

One rainy day he pulled out of his clippings an old story from the Russian press about Agafya Lykova, who lived alone in the forests of Siberia, more than 100 miles from the nearest village. She was one of the Old Believers, a splinter group of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the only survivor of a family who had lived for more than three decades without contact with the outside world. She refused to move. Hers was one of those unbelievable true stories – and “she was the last inhabitant of a Russia that would cease to exist after her death”. Mühling took a year’s leave and set off to find her.

The key stations on his journey are Kiev, where the Russians adopted Christianity from Byzantium in 988; Moscow, where in 1666 – or 7174, as the Byzantine calendar has it – a patriarch’s reforms drove Agafya’s ancestors into the wilderness; St Petersburg, seat of the Revolution, which led to further persecution of the Old Believers, this time by the Bolsheviks; and Siberia, where in 1978 a team of geologists stumbled upon Agafya and her family when they spotted a potato field in the middle of the taiga.

Mühling sets these out early, but he doesn’t stick to them. Several times he apologises for a diversion (“My goal lay east but… I was drawn to the west”), and heads where a chance conversation and the promise of another scarcely believable story have taken him. He spends time with a priest in the exclusion zone of Chernobyl, whose flock blesses and then drink the water that flows past its power station; with Slavs in a village six hours west of Moscow who worship wooden gods and consider vodka unpatriotic; with a dreamy former traffic cop who styles himself “Vissarion Christ”, and who promises his followers essentially what Lenin promised his: a paradise on earth.

He is introduced to a caged bear in a national park that has become an alcoholic (because visitors think it’s amusing to pour vodka in its water trough) and to a renowned prostate specialist in a St Petersburg clinic, who paid $8,000 for what might (or might not) be the penis of the grubby monk with grey eyes who hypnotised a tsar – Grigoriy Rasputin.

There’s a danger of this becoming no more than a cabinet of curiosities. Mühling avoids it. The spine of his narrative remains the quest for Agafya; for a woman whose ancestors, at each of “the crucial crossroads of Russian history”, had refused to follow the herd. En route, he reports on the revival of the Orthodox Church and goes some way to explaining why so many Russians hunger after a certainty Agafya has never lost.

It won’t spoil the story to say that he and she (then 69) do finally meet, an encounter that Mühling describes movingly and elegantly. It’s a tribute to the translator, Eugene H Hayworth, that this never reads like a book that was first written in German. (Perestroika, Gorbachev’s “restructuring”, is brilliantly summed up as a time “when Russia choked on its history and coughed up the pieces”.)

Returning to Moscow from his stay in St Petersburg, Mühling takes the express train, the only real one in the country, and finds it devoid of all that’s interesting in Russian trains, from the samovar to the feuding families to the preparations for sleep. It’s a cold tube full of cappuccino-drinkers and laptop-typists sitting in silence. He says dolefully: “Twenty more years, I thought, maybe 30, then all of Russia will look like this.” His own book, thankfully, suggests he might be wrong.

A Journey into Russia by Jens Mühling is published by The Armchair Traveller at the bookHaus at £16.99.
This review appeared first in Telegraph Travel.

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