After the last update (way back in July 2021?!), I finished a few more Russian-y books in the final half of the year…
I read Jeremy Bishop’s Torment, a quasi-religious zombie book with (surprise) a ridiculously stereotyped Russia.
To kick off the story, Russian president Misha Alexandrov declares: “Today the Americans and their allies will learn what it means to mock the great Russia… Today, we return to the communism that made this country great!” 🤨 Okay. There are so many overdone stereotypes in the opening chapters, but let’s just look at one: Misha? Really? I don’t think any authority figure in Russia would ever professionally go by their nickname. It would just be… weird. For example, if you need open heart surgery, which doctor will you pick?
“Hi, I’m Doctor Robert Smith. I’m a professional surgeon.”
Or… “Hi, I’m Bob. I’m a professional surgeon.”
Just one little edit – changing the president’s name to Mikhail Alexandrov – could have at least made that detail more accurate. Have you encountered Russian name misuse in books?
It happened again in another adventure book, but this one I loooooved anyway. 😍 To The Center of The Earth is a continuation of Jules Verne’s original story, except this one takes place in Abkhazia + Verne’s Arne Saknussemm is actually a Russian explorer named Arkady Saknussov. If you like caves and new worlds and monsters, this is an incredibly entertaining read. I’ve read it twice already and will definitely read the other two books in the series (which culminate with an incident at the Kola super deep borehole 😍😍😍). But the book does (of course) require some willing suspension of disbelief regarding both science and Russia.
Let’s talk about the Russia stuff, starting with another naming mistake. One of the original explorers is named Katya Babikov. Again, something that could have easily been caught by any proofreader with basic knowledge of Russian culture: Babikov = a man’s last name, Babikova = a woman’s last name.
Next, the story opens in “1973—Krubera Cave, Western Caucasus, former Soviet Union”. Wait… what was former about the Soviet Union in 1973? And one of the 1973 Russian cavers is “Alexi Domnin, their youngest member and an IT worker by profession.” … An IT worker? In 1973?
One more scene stood out in regards to present day Russia, as one character tries to coax his friends into exploring Krubera Cave with him:
“Say the word and I’ll confirm tickets, accommodation, and transport—all my treat.”
“Confirm?” Jane asked.
“They’re already reserved.” Michael grinned and sat back.
…more coaxing ensues…
They all agreed, and Jane folded her arms. “So what now?” she asked.
“Now?” Michael smiled broadly. “Now we head to a small Russian suburb on the outskirts of Krasnodar to ask about a crazy woman who was rumored to have journeyed to the center of the Earth.”
I was on board until we got to the Krasnodar part. A group of Americans could easily travel to Georgia. Per travel.state.gov, tourist visas aren’t required for stays of less than 365 days. And getting to Abkhazia from there, maaaybe it’s doable. But to take a research outing to Russia (Krasnodar), there’s NO WAY one guy could just buy plane tickets for his friends and voilà, welcome to Russia. 😆 There is no waltzing across the border. It’s more like a marathon of filling out documents to apply for a visa and then waiting ninety thousand months to hopefully get one. But I get it, explaining that process doesn’t move the plot along much.
Still, overlooking all the little odds and ends, it was a captivating adventure story. However, if you’re in the mood for a true story of exploring nature in Russia, I highly recommend Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident. One word of caution: this book is much harder to read than To The Center of The Earth because it’s a real-life tragedy.
If you have any interest in the 1959 Dyatlov Pass incident, this is a well-researched book on the event. Nine experienced hikers found were dead – six from hypothermia, three from internal hemorrhaging – in a remote area near Holatchahl Mountain. Why had they fled their tent without proper gear? Why had their tent been cut open from the inside? Why did the investigation find high levels of radiation on some of the hikers’ clothing? Why did the military refuse to transport the hikers’ corpses without zinc-lined coffins? What was that mysterious light in the hikers’ final photograph? And was it connected to strange lights in the sky that people spotted nearby? There are so many questions surrounding what happened here.
While living in Chelyabinsk, I had looked up the basics of the incident and gone with the avalanche theory. (Er, and I later watched a related found-footage horror movie called “Devil’s Pass”.) This book filled in the rest of the details. What a sad, creepy ending to so many young lives. Donnie Eichar did meticulous research, including two trips to Russia for interviews and his own hike to Holatchahl Mountain. Although he ran into a language barrier countless times – “I was not Russian. I didn’t speak the language. I had seen snow less than a dozen times in my life. Who was I to go roaming through Russia in the middle of winter to unravel one of the country’s most baffling mysteries?” – I think he did an excellent job in gathering information.
The book’s chapters are divided into a recreation of the 1959 trip and Donnie Eichar’s own footsteps 50 years later. The final chapters present his own hypothesis about what happened: not an avalanche, not infighting, not angry locals, not wildlife… you’ll have to read Dead Mountain yourself to find out what it is. 🙂 I think it’s a very intriguing theory. However, the New Yorker published an article last year arguing against Eichar’s theory – May 17, 2021: Has an Old Soviet Mystery at Last Been Solved? There’s also a new documentary out: An Unknown Compelling Force (2021). Who knows what really happened out there in the wilderness?
And finally, I read my first Boris Akunin mystery ever, a translation of Любовница смерти. I scored a free advance review copy of this book on NetGalley.
This was my introduction to the world of Erast Petrovich Fandorin, a 19th/20th century Russian detective along the lines of Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes. The entire series of Fandorin mysteries includes over a dozen books!
In this book, Fandorin investigates “a secret society of deathworshippers” who have formed a suicide cult in Moscow. Most of the story is told by a young woman who calls herself Columbine. In a bid for independence, Columbine leaves her family in Irkutsk and comes “not to pompous St. Petersburg, but to sad and mysterious Moscow” with a small inheritance. She has come to Moscow for a boy but soon finds herself as the newest member of the secret suicide club, under the spell of its enigmatic leader.
Will Fandorin be able to stop the suicide chain before it reaches Columbine? Is there something supernatural going on here? Detective stories aren’t my usual genre (well, Fandorin is more like an rogue undercover sleuth) but I enjoyed reading this book. It was sinister but still cozy, like something my grandmother would have read if she had liked mysteries about turn-of-the-twentieth-century Russia.
Russian-y / Eastern European books for 2022
This list is too long for a single year, but I wanted to put all these books in a single place for future reference:
📕 Open Mic Night in Moscow: And Other Stories from My Search for Black Markets, Soviet Architecture, and Emotionally Unavailable Russian Men
📕 The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister
📕 Killing Rasputin
📕 Road of Bones
📕 Secret Lives of the Tsars
📕 Old Peter’s Russian Tales
📕 Dirty Russian: Everyday Slang
📕 What Every Russian Knows (and You Don’t)
📕 One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
📕 A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir
📕 Lenin Lives Next Door: Marriage, Martinis, and Mayhem in Moscow
📕 Orwell and the Refugees
📕 The Sin Collector
📕 Wake in Winter
📕 Лучше каждый день
📕 Как перестать учить иностранный язык и начать на нем жить
📕 Как переехать в другую страну и не умереть от тоски по родине
📕 Русский язык: твоя грамотность в твоих руках
📕 30 шикарных дней
📕 Одноэтажная Америка
📕 Русский дневник
What Russian-y things are on your reading list for 2022? What have you read lately?