‘The Border’ – a review

I’ve never been to Russia, which may seem strange in someone who has at times specialised in Eastern Europe and formerly Soviet countries, but I’ve met more than enough Russians in the neighbouring countries. They talk a lot about the Russian soul, which in practice seems to mean wanting me to join them in a vodka-based search for oblivion, rather than good cheer. But when I heard that Erica Fatland had written a book about Russia as seen from its neighbouring countries I was interested! It soon turned out that, unlike me, she spoke Russian and had spent time there, writing a book on the Beslan massacre as well as Sovietistan, about the Central Asian ‘Stans (including Uzbekistan, which I have also written about in my way.

 She spent 259 days (over a two-year span) making a virtually complete loop through all fourteen countries that currently border Russia, including a cruise along its Arctic frontier; I have only been to China (in 1983), Georgia, Ukraine, Poland, Estonia, Finland and Norway, as well as the formerly Soviet states of Armenia, Moldova and Uzbekistan, which don’t actually border Russia.

 The first chapter of her tour was actually the last to be undertaken, when she finally managed to find an affordable cruise through the Northeast Passage, from Anadyr to Murmansk. This also touched on the Russian involvement with Alaska, another place that I’ve had plenty to do with, having spent two winters there and updated several editions of the Rough Guide to Alaska and the Alaska chapter of the Rough Guide to the USA. This is very different to the rest of the book, and both interesting, covering a part of the world that few of us have been to, and entertaining, with its account of her fellow passengers. It’s also the most environmentally engaged part of the book – even two decades ago it was clear that the poles were warming up far faster than the equator, and of course it’s the lack of sea ice that now makes it easy for ships to travel through the Northeast Passage. And there’s the regular mention of the rusty oil drums that were left everywhere by the Soviets.

 The next section, on North Korea, is a bit too similar to other accounts of organised tours of the paranoid dictatorship – she does it very well, but for the most part we’re drifting away from the Russian theme here. Chapters on China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, similarly, are very well-done history lessons with lots of detail of wars with Russia, but they don’t reveal much about Russian character or culture.

 Then we get to Georgia, which Fatland has said is one of her favourite countries – and it’s one of mine, too, for the same reasons – food, wine, scenery, and above all the sheer joie de vivre of the Georgians. The food on much of her journey must have been hard going for a vegetarian, but here Fatland would have been able to live off the fat of the land… But I don’t think Georgians dislike Russians as much as she says they do – yes, they loathe Putin and his régime, but they will almost all say that they have no problem at all with Russians themselves – partly because Russian tourism is very important economically. I also disagree about ‘the most famous monastery in Georgia’ – surely that’s Davit-Gareja (ok, a group of monasteries) rather than Gergeti, which is certainly the most iconic church in Georgia, but not much of a monastery.

The Gergeti Trinity Church, by Mary Holzer

 The Ukraine section is excellent, with interesting visits to the remnant of the Swedish community and to the secessionist Donetsk People’s Republic; her account of Crimea is based on a visit nine years earlier, before its annexation by Russia – I was there back in 1991, but again I agree with her that, like Georgia, ‘Crimea had everything’, scenery, culture, beaches and beer. On the other hand, there’s only fleeting coverage of lovely Lviv.

 As for Belarus, she finds some interest in the dullest of countries – I was interested that Lukashenko once dragged out his annual speech to seven hours and twenty minutes, because Fidel Castro had famously set a record by droning on for seven hours and ten minutes (although Fatland doesn’t mention this). The Chagall museum in Vitbesk was closed, as was the Rothko museum in Daugavpils, Latvia – I feel her pain. The three Baltic states are also familiar ground well covered, and she makes a brief detour into Poland because it surrounds the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Another detour via the Åland islands, between Finland and Sweden, is new and interesting.

 It’s easy to forget how close to the Soviet Union Finland once was (politically and economically), and how carefully they walked that tightrope between keeping some independence and not offending the bear next door – there was a huge Soviet military base west of Helsinki until 1995, the year that Finland joined the EU and began to remodel itself as a modern Scandinavian social democracy. Finland has not joined NATO, but in 1996 it began to participate in peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and then Afghanistan. And from Finland Fatland actually crossed the border into Russia, with a visa-free cruise to Vyborg, once Finland’s second city and now ‘sad and worn’.

 Norway is the only one of Russia’s neighbours that it has never been at war with – in other words her home country, the last one described in this book, is the one with the best relations with Russia. Even so, the paranoid deportations of the Stalinist era affected the Norwegians on the Kola peninsula too; and this area of Russia bordering Norway is, by her account, the most polluted place in the world, due to a filthy nickel refinery and dumped fuel from nuclear submarines – this is now being cleared up, but by NATO countries, not by Russia.

 One could argue that she should also have gone to Iran, as it faces Russia across the Caspian Sea (and Alaska and Sweden do get mentioned), but I think we can give her a pass on that. But I just finished reading Fifty Miles Wide, by Julian Sayerer, about cycling in Israel and Palestine, and Israel is a country that has been heavily influenced by Russians – more or less anyone in Omsk or Tomsk or indeed Donetsk who feels that his or her life is a dead-end can claim to be Jewish, and these people have little interest in sharing Israel with Arabs.

 Fatland quotes the father of Norwegian social anthropology, Fredrik Barth, who said that you can only see yourself, your people and your culture in relation to “the other”. It is at the border with the unknown that identity and cultural differences arise. Perhaps the people of the countries that Fatland travelled through had a clearer sense of themselves by comparing their history and culture with those of Russia, and maybe she does too, but for me this was largely a history lesson – most of it was fairly familiar to me, but most readers will find a lot here that is new and interesting. Of course there’s the endless litany of Stalinist atrocities, but if it’s any comfort, it’s clear that the very worst of all were carried out by the Nazis. In any case this is an entertaining and perceptive account of these countries in their own right.

The Border by Erika Fatland, Quercus Books, 2020, translated by Kari Dickson (first published in Norwegian as Grensen by Kagge Forlag in 2017).

Details details

There was clearly a bit of a delay between the first publication in Norwegian and the translation into English – footnotes have been added to bring it up to date, although they don’t cover the recent election and protests in Belarus. Fatland or her editors do have a bit of an issue with big numbers 

on p.106 ‘The unification of East and West Germany … is estimated to have cost between one and a half and an eye-watering two billion euros.’ In fact it’s estimated at 2 trillion euros. Two billion seems like NOTHING at all in our Covid-19 world, where Joe Biden’s relief package is worth US$1.9 trillion and Apple is worth US$2 trillion.

on p.119 ‘Two and a half million passengers travel on Chinese trains every year’ – it’s more like 2.5 billion.

on p.273 ‘on February 25 million people marched’ – one million, I think, on February 25.

and on p.381 ‘Nikishyne, between seven and eight hundred kilometres north of Donetsk’ – in fact it’s between seventy and eighty kilometres.

 and some editing/ translation issues –

on p.226 ‘By the end of the 1950s, Russians were in the majority in Kazakhstan and accounted for more than forty per cent of the population.’ – no, that’s a plurality, not a majority.

on p.291 ‘there’s a clear view from Shusha to Stepanakert’ – so she obviously means that the Azerbaijanis were shelling the city, not bombing it.

on p.370 ‘winter 1942’ and on p.527 ‘winter 1943’ seems to mean early in the year, whereas I’d expect it to mean the end of the year.

on p.392 ‘strike camp’ should be ‘set up camp’ or similar.

on p.518 it was Turkey, not Italy, that was allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I!

And just a couple of typos that I noticed – ‘Kakazhstan’ (p.227) and ‘A dead solider’ (p.381).

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