A conversation with Colin Thubron, British travel writer and novelist.
Interviewers: Adam Reichardt and Hayden Berry
***This is an abridged version of an interview with Colin Thubron. The full version is found in the current issue of New Eastern Europe No 2 (III) / 2012 – which is available here: http://www.east24.eu/en_US/index ***
NEW EASTERN EUROPE: You have written about Russia twice. Your first book, Among the Russians, was published in 1983 and you wrote In Siberia in 1999. What drew you to this part of the world?
COLIN THUBRON: In the West, and Britain in particular, my generation was brought up to fear Russia. Just as my parents were brought up to be afraid of Germany, my generation was scared of Russia – the great bear that was going to come and consume us all, with the other communist giant, China, right behind it. And this was how we were brought up. Up until the middle of the Gorbachev era, we were very ignorant of Russia. We were served up clichés of Russians as men who saluted the May Day parade looking like cardboard cut-outs. I didn't understand Russia and I could not equate the Russians that authors like Fyodor Dostoevsky and Nikolai Gogol had written about, with the Russians that were portrayed by the western media.
I would like to say that I was being evangelical and that I wanted to introduce western readers to a more human Russia. But in fact, I was doing it for myself, out of curiosity as to what this country was. I have always tended to dispel my own fears or anxieties, but felt a continuing unease about Russia and China.
In a newer edition of your book, Among the Russians, you wrote that you considered yourself a “lone Westerner travelling into a Soviet world which still seemed impregnable.” When you finally penetrated this world, what did you discover?
Before I went to Russia for the first time, I decided I would learn Russian, which I did very poorly. I learnt just enough to talk and communicate before I took a car into western Russia in 1981. It seemed very obvious to me in those days that we had to understand this great alternative society, which seemed to have its own possibilities of living under Brezhnev’s communism, albeit flawed. Obviously the West had access to Russia in certain ways, but very little in the way of travel books, which often have the opportunity to humanise a country through meetings with ordinary people and ordinary landscapes. Travel books rarely deal with the charged news items that people read about in the papers.
That is what started me on this journey and when Siberia opened up to travel, I found it irresistible. It was like a room opening up in a house that all your life you had imagined was going to stay locked. I never thought the Soviet Union would disintegrate as it did, nor that I would be able to travel in Siberia in the way that I actually managed to. When I went in 1999, European Russia was a disaster, even more than now, and I hoped to find possibilities in Siberia of other ways of living. Western Russia seemed to be foundering economically and spiritually and I hoped that by going to Siberia I might find that other Russia. The Russia that Russians like to believe in: a purer and better place.
Do you think you found it?
Things were even worse there. Not only had the collective farms collapsed, the whole system was in shambles: the educational institutions, the roads, and the network of supplies. The collectives had been whole worlds unto themselves before, but now they had disintegrated and there was a great malaise in people; a feeling of depression and distrust. It was almost a crisis of faith as well as being a financial crisis. The worst were those small places in the north of Siberia that had actually been artificially replenished by the central government under the Soviet Union. They were failing completely.
So where does Russia fit in the world?
I can't look at it in those terms. Russia is extremely large. In a way we all hope that the Russians retain their singularity, because they are not like western Europeans, and they are certainly not like the Chinese. Russians are Russians and I think they ideally fit into the world by remaining themselves. Although that sounds a bit horrific given the government that they have at the moment. What betrays my westernism, I suppose, is my desire for them to become democratic. But at the same time, I would hope that they would go on being profoundly Russian, even with all the complications that they have.
Would you say that Russia does not fit in to the West?
It is not so easy to say that somebody fits in one place or the other. It is true that, in many ways, the Russians want to be western. They want all the comforts and the gear of the West. They want the access to communication. And although I don’t like speaking in these ethnic stereotypes, it is true that Russians are much more inclined to be impressed by power than we are. Throughout their history they have worshipped powerful rulers, be it Joseph Stalin, Peter the Great, or Ivan the Terrible. My Russian tutor used to say that Russians are all masochists; they kiss the blade that severs their heads. There is something in their wanting to entrust their national safety to a powerful ruler. It is as if there is a national nervousness if they don’t have such a man. This accounts a lot for the popularity of Vladimir Putin who has restored the national dignity and the imagined security of a strong man; something which he plays up, of course. And that is all a little alien to us in the West. I am not sure if democracy in Russia has the automatic appeal that it does in the western world. In the US, for example, life is unimaginable without democracy.
Basically, I think that the Russians want the material benefits the West offers along with the security that they had under communism. At the same time they are a very proud people, who feel as if they have always been on the edge of things. Unlike the Chinese who have a vast superiority complex, the Russians are always uneasy with themselves and with other people’s view of them. I think this has paradoxically given them a very strong sense of what it is to be Russian, and a valuing of the kinds of rulers that will return them to Russia.
Did you see similarities between the Russian people and the people of Central Asia?
Superficially, yes. But unlike Eastern Europe, the Baltics and even Ukraine, the culture of Central Asian countries, in terms of the western civilisation, was very thin. They had few educational and medical institutions which were adequate, even by the standards of Soviet Russia. But they had received everything from Russia and were able to transform themselves into “so-called” modern states. Before Russia absorbed Central Asia in the nineteenth century, they were defined by whatever the local khan or emir was able to carve out against his rival. Hence, they became a patchwork, not of nation states, but of emirates and khanates. Then in the 1920s they were suddenly defined by Stalin as countries. And as much as they would hate to think so, in a way they were creations of Stalin. But they remain rather artificial creations which suddenly had to discover their nationhood after independence in 1991. Their upper-middle classes and governing classes have quite recognisable communist characteristics, but underneath they are also tribal, with whole family networks that the Russians were never able to penetrate.
Would you say that your travels affect you personally?
That question I find harder to answer because I have been travelling like this since I was 24 years old. Going out to countries and researching them fairly heavily has taken up a great part of my adult life. I would have to think of myself as having led a more traditional English life to know what these changes would be in me. I honestly don't know. I would like to say the journeys have had such an effect. They have certainly made it more difficult for me to believe in exclusive religions such as Christianity. The encounter with many foreign faiths has made it almost impossible to believe in the definitive truth of any one of them. The traveller is changed by these sorts of things and the norms that you accept when you are back at home are always a little bit more tempered.
And what about your next book? Is there another place you would like to write about?
I am glad you put it like that! Most people say, “You're finished, aren’t you?” I have always alternated between writing travel books and writing novels, and at the moment I am working on a novel. I never know where the next travel book is coming from. I always have to feel that the journey somehow insists on itself. I can’t just look at the map and say “Where next?” I wait until something imposes itself on me. The travel book I wrote after the Silk Road was about Tibet and has just been published in the US and the UK. It is rather a personal book partly about my own family.
I like the pendulum between fiction and travel writing. My novels have much more personal roots – not autobiographical in plot, but autobiographical in feeling. However, after a novel, I become sick of myself and am keen to go off travelling again.
Colin Thubron is a British travel writer and novelist who lives in London. His book Among the Russians (1983) describes a journey he made by car through western Soviet Russia in 1981. For his second book on Russia, In Siberia (1999), he headed east. His latest book, To a Mountain in Tibet (2011), describes his personal pilgrimage to Mount Kailas.