Sara Wheeler’s book about Russian writers could have been great. She is a good writer, when she can get out of her own way, and clearly knows the subject matter well. In this book, Wheeler takes the reader on a journey through Russia, and brings Russia’s greatest writers along for the ride. Turgenev and Lermontov and Dostoevsky and Herzen and of course Tolstoy. She visits their estates and landholdings, the places they were imprisoned or exiled, and the amazing Russian expanses that inspired so much talent and vision.
Russia is special, and Russia’s writers are also special. Russia, which sees itself as the natural counter-balance to western decadence. A place where legacy and nobility are achieved through suffering – not stuff. Lev Gumilev called this ‘Passionarity’.
But you have to approach Russia, and her writers, with a sense of wonder. Liberals, however, replace wonder with cynicism. Scoffing, and mocking are their answers to anybody who does not think like they do. And Wheeler is clear on her position, on social issues which a deeply conservative and religious place (rightly) considers anathema; or political ones (Trump and Reagan and Thatcher join Putin as the book’s villains – how ‘openminded’ is that?).
I feel sorry for Wheeler – there is something epic and marvelous in Eurasia, if only you can find a way to defy your own petty prejudices and embrace something grand and old. An ancient land, poorly governed forever but still serving as a balance against the mono-culture Wheeler and her ilk would like to impose on the world. Places marinated in Christianity and timeless continuity can save your life – I recently spent two years in Armenia, and I certainly am better for it.
But we must be humble.