Mud and Stars by Sara Wheeler review — a literary tour of Russia

A droll trip in the footsteps of Russia’s great writers amuses Malika Browne

For a travel writer who has spent so long swaddled in extreme weather gear in the Arctic and Antarctic, it’s perhaps not surprising that Sara Wheeler has a thing about other people’s hair. For a change, she can see uncovered heads as she travels round Russia on the trail of its literary giants for her latest book, Mud and Stars. A tour guide in Trigorskoye, where Pushkin lived, has hair dyed the “colour of cornflakes”; a train attendant rules over her carriage like a “benign dictator with a weird hair do” as it hurtles along the Black Sea Riviera; a “guide with a bouffant” steers her through Leskov country; and on a fleeting trip to Moscow she notices Uzbek women washing their hair in the ladies’ loos in McDonald’s.

This is a well-researched, droll journey around the lives of Russia’s “big beast” 19th-century writers — Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Lermontov, Gogol, Chekhov, Leskov, Goncharov and Tolstoy — in the context of today’s Russia and ordinary residents of the country.

Perhaps it was the writers’ exiles to inhospitable provincial outposts that sparked the idea in Wheeler, a writer fond of banishing herself to the ends of the Earth. Or perhaps it was the long stints spent snowed in on her polar expeditions, in which she devoured the works of Tolstoy and others. Whatever the motivation, we have uncomfortable travel to thank for Wheeler’s trips to medieval Pskov, near Estonia (Pushkin), the Volga town of Tver (Dostoevsky on his way back from Siberia) and Irkutsk in Siberia (Chekhov went there for his personal research).

 

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