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Among the Russians

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"There is no travel writer working today in English who possesses such a remarkable combination of the observant and the lyric gifts--the most poetic of us all."  — Jan Morris The first book in Thubron's Russian trilogy AMONG THE RUSSIANS, called "superb" by the New York Times Book Review, recounts Thurbon's 10,000 mile journey throughout half of Russia's cities and countryside. Here is a fresh perspective on the last tumultuous years of the Soviet Union and an exquisitely poetic travelogue. With a keen grasp of Russia's history, a deep appreciation for its architecture and iconography, and an inexhaustible enthusiasm for its people and its culture, Colin Thubron is the perfect guide to a country most of us will never get to know firsthand. Here, we can walk down western Russia's country roads, rest in its villages, and explore some of the most engaging cities in the world. Beautifully written and infinitely insightful, Among the Russians is vivid, compelling travel writing that will also appeal to readers of history and current events—and to anyone captivated by the shape and texture of one of the world's most enigmatic cultures.

224 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1983

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About the author

Colin Thubron

61 books373 followers
Colin Thubron, CBE FRSL is a Man Booker nominated British travel writer and novelist.

In 2008, The Times ranked him 45th on their list of the 50 greatest postwar British writers. He is a contributor to The New York Review of Books, The Times, The Times Literary Supplement and The New York Times. His books have been translated into more than twenty languages. Thubron was appointed a CBE in the 2007 New Year Honours. He is a Fellow and, as of 2010, President of the Royal Society of Literature.

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5 stars
246 (26%)
4 stars
393 (41%)
3 stars
238 (25%)
2 stars
50 (5%)
1 star
16 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 72 reviews
40 reviews3 followers
June 24, 2012
I was born in the USSR in 1984 and left post-Soviet Russia in 1995 for the US.

17 years later, I read this travelogue and had mixed feelings about it because although Thubron is a great descriptive writer, his interpretation of the Soviet Union of the 1980s is somewhat simplistic and firmly rooted in Cold War-era British biases.

The name, "Among the Russians" (likely chosen to move units on the shelves) is a misnomer since he spends half his time in the Soviet republics with Belorussians, Estonians, Latvians, Georgians, Armenians, and Ukrainians. The republics had a historically strained relationship with Russia and by 1991 they seceded and became independent countries. Each of Thubron's experiences in the republics was thus unique and he could have depicted a less monolithic USSR in his essays - Soviet Georgia and Soviet Estonia are dissimilar places and he could have spent more time discussing the tensions between the republics and Russia with his interview subjects during his travels.

Throughout the book, Thubron does not hide his disapproval for the Soviet system and almost enjoys portraying the misery of the common people while dismissing anyone who appears happy or satisfied as delusional or crooked. This black-and-white approach takes away from the complex subject that is the Soviet Union. He should go back to Putin's Russia and comment on the Russian society now that the Soviet overhang has been replaced with the parasitic traits of Western capitalism.

Towards the end of the book, Thubron gets more comfortable as he goes to Georgia, Armenia, and the Ukraine, and connects better with the characters along the way. One of them aptly captures the transience of travel: "you and I...like two people meeting in outer space." Thubron gets three stars, and a break from me, since he likely felt he ventured to outer space back in 1983.


"It seemed as if everything which people considered important - beliefs, systems, ideals - were fatally divisive, and that the miracle of human unity was performed instead by pop songs."

Don't underestimate the power of pop music, Colin
Profile Image for Jan-Maat.
1,548 reviews1,821 followers
November 29, 2017
An OK travel book that in hindsight is less about the Russians and more a set of postcards of life in the late Soviet Union.

Thubron managed to travel individually as a one-man group. He drove a fair part of his journey and was able to stay at camp-sites, occasionally he took internal flights. What struck him was the size of the country, alien to anyone from Western Europe and the sameness of material life that gave the country a strong feeling of blandness and an irrepressible desire on the part of locals to buy his jeans or admire the interior of his Morris Minor.

Really this is more of historical interest now, not so much because of changes in Russian life so much as the country is much more open (potentially) to foreign visitors. Thubron was much more limited in the places that he was able to go and the routes that he was able to travel by than a contemporary traveller need be and perhaps that contributes to the melancholy tone of wandering around concrete tower blocks and dismal zoos full of masturbating monkeys, I think he almost liked Estonia, but maybe I am misremembering. He meets a Russian woman blissfully happy under the spiritual guidance of a Hindu sage (presumably via correspondence), Thubron doesn't much care for that either as it smacks of pure escapism!
Profile Image for Деница Райкова.
Author 71 books211 followers
January 27, 2019
Колин Таброн - "Сред руснаците", изд. "Вакон" 2017, прев. Маргарит Дамянов

Снощи започнах да чета "Сред руснаците" от Колин Таброн. Чела съм всички негови книги, които са издадени в България, без "Йерусалим", която чака ред.
Таброн е автор, когото открих случайно, а след това изчетох за късо време всичко, което намерих. Книгите му са определяни като пътеписи, но те са много повече от описание на местата, които посещава. А тези места са все интересни - Тибет, страните от "Пътя на коприната", Йерусалим, Сирия /една от последните му издадени у нас книги е "Огледалото на Дамаск"/, Сибир.Места, недостъпни за обикновения турист.
Споменавала съм преди, че начинът на писане на Таброн ме дразни. Поне за мен, стилът му не е точно това, което би нарекла "увлекателен". А и в повечето му книги долавях една снизходителност, пренебрежение, да не кажа презрение, към "местните".
Затова и доста се чудих за "Сред руснаците". Накрая реших да я прочета.
И... тя се оказа приятна изненада.
През 80-те години на 20 в. Таброн предприема пътуване из Съветския съюз. Беларус, Москва, Ленинград, Балтийско море Кавказ, Армения, на запад към Черно море, Киев. Не като част от група. Сам. И "натоварен" с всички насаждани представи и предразсъдъци относно руснаците.
Та, думата ми беше, че се изненадах. Защото дотук, след 45 прочетени страници, нито веднъж не усетих това дразнещо отношение, за което споменах по-горе. Напротив, долових съчувствие. Дори симпатия. И едно... не знам как да го нарека. Разбиране? Осъзнаване? Просветление? Може би по малко от всички тези неща, защото:
"Само ако бях начело на Политбюро, а ти да беше президент на Америка - усмихна се тъжно той, - веднага щяхме да подпишем вечен мир и щяхме заедно за гъби! /думи на един от хората, с които се запознава в Беларус./ И "просветлението" на Таброн:
"Никога повече не поставих знак на равенство межд�� руската система и руския народ".
Имам да извървя още път с тази книга. И мисля, че ще бъде интересен... и поучителен.

Четири дни по-късно книгата е вече прочетена и, вместо да пиша нов отзив, допълвам вече написания. Допълвам го по един може би нетрадиционен начин, но така ми идва отвътре.
Първо да кажа, че когато чета, по принцип рядко вадя цитати. по-скоро се старая да запомням моментите, които са ме впечатлили, и почти винаги, сядайки да пиша за съответната книга, успявам да ги намеря отново.
И тук не преписвах. Но сега, когато затварям "Сред руснаците", между страниците й стърчат бели листчета, с които отбелязвах цитати, които исках да запомня. Цитати на разнородни теми - политика, обичаи, душевност, лични разбирания /на автора и на хората, с които се среща./
Да, именно: хората, с които се среща. Защото Таброн не е "традиционен" турист, дошъл да види само онова, което предлагат екскурзоводите и пътеводителите. Той пристига "въоръжен" с адреси - на приятели на свои приятели, на инакомислещи хора, на дисиденти. И наистина прави усилие да отхвърли собствените си предразсъдъци.
Още в първите страници има един такъв момент, в който един от неговите съебседници се опитва да го приобщи, разказвайки му за нещо явно типично руско - честно казано, бях изненадана, че на подобно нещо може да се гледа като на ритуал, но явно е възможно. А именно... ходенето за гъби.

"- Ходенето за гъби... Ще ми се да мога да ви го обясня - лицето на Володя се озари от онова смътно национално вълнение. - Ето какво е. Отиваш в гората и инстинктивно усещаш дали условията са подходящи за тях. Можеш да го почувстваш. Обзема те странна тръпка. Може би тревата е израснала с подходящата гъстота - или пък слънчевата светлина е точно колкото трябва. Можеш дори да ги помиришеш. Просто знаеш, че тук ще има гъби - изговаряше думата "гъби" със свещенически шепот, - и затова тръгваш напред към сенките - или може би в някоя тясна просека - и ето ги и тях, под брезите! - Протегна ръка насред крехката абстракция и откъсна нещо невидимо от въздуха. - Помирисвали ли сте някога гъба? Отровните имат горчива миризма - но ядливите - никога няма да забравите този аромат!"

Признавам, че това е един от любимите ми моменти в книгата. защото от предишните книги на Таброн се бях наситила на надменността му, на снизходителното му отношение към страните и народите, за които пише, на предразсъдъците му, които в тази книга и самият той не отрича. За мен това беше може би най-човешкият момент в тази книга, защото е един от малкото, в които няма противопоставяне на постижения и величие. Просто един обикновен руски /по-това време всъщност все още съветски/ човек говори просто и искрено за това, което обича. Което не е нито Партията или "системата", нито някакво измислено величие... а нещо, родено от природата. Може би е злорадо от моя страна, но си представих смущението на англичанина, дошъл с всичките си представи за "войнствения руснак".
Друг момент, който отбелязах, беше от главата, посветена на Армения, описание на нещо, което всъщност си е чисто жертвоприношение. И което един български читател вероятно би приел, без да се впечатли, но за англичанина е потресаващо:

" - Това се случва непрекъснато - каза Манук. - Сигурно искат дете или пък повече успех в бизнеса. Затова принасят в жертва овца.
За него всичко беше нормално и беше озадачен от въпросите ми. Нямаше нищо неразбираемо: сделка, сключена с Господ. А господ беше арменец".

Цитатите станаха много, но не мога да отмина и това, което ще публикувам по-долу. Не мога да го отмина най-вече защото за мен, както и за поколението между 1946-а и 1989-а то звучи ужасно познато, А за един англичанин то е било неразбираемо - и се питам дали всъщност въпросът не е там, че човек не може да проумее подобни неща, а че не иска, че отказва да ги проумее.

"Изглежда, според съветските власти авангардната книга или картина притежава ужасяващи разрушителни сили. Може би е така. Страхът от една абстрактна картина, която може да освободи разбирането за свят, който не е толкова прост, колкото изглежда, е всъщност страхът, че превъзходството може да се прехвърли от колективното към частното възприятие. И щом това пътуване започне, вече няма да има връщане към племенната невинност".

А аз бих добавила: и защото посланието, което една абстрактна картина или една "западна" песе�� предава, е по-кратко и поради това - по-ясно от това на една пропагандна книга или дори един лозунг. И защото идва момент, в който всичко в който и да е вид изкуство, което е дори с прашинка по-различно от налаганото - пък било то дори и само едно чуждоземски звучащо име - вече носи полъх на освободеност.
Стресна ме описанието на детските ясли и градини. Няма да го цитирам, тъй като е прекалено дълго, но ще отбележа все пак това - "... двугодишното момиченце... беше отглеждано при режим, който цели - според наръчника на съветския учител - "да формира убеден колективист".
На двегодишна възраст.
Преди да може да каже без запъване името си.
А най-страшното е, че това също е нещо, което не звучи непознато за българския читател.
Може би има значение и това, че четох тази книга почти веднага след "Чернобилска молитва" на Светлана Алексиевич. Може би. Но "Сред руснаците" ме потисна и натъжи. И все пак - прочетете я. "Сред руснаците" има надъхани, има и войнствени, но успокояващото е че все пак още има и от онези, които помнят простичките удоволствия... като например това да отидеш в гората за гъби.
Profile Image for Lisa.
43 reviews2 followers
December 17, 2013
So, this author sounds like he swallowed a thesaurus, but overall, this was a well-formed and kind of poetic travelogue. The title is misleading. He was actually not only traveling through the Russia in 1980, but also through the Soviet states of Belarus, Georgia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Ukraine. Summary: Really great travelogue, but I didn't want to hear about his personal political opinions because it sounded like he'd just start in on people and it seemed pretty rude.

I took off one star because I didn't like his political proselytizing. Every time he talked to someone about politics, it sounded less like he was having a thoughtful political discussion about the differences between Soviet-era Communism and Western-style capitalism, and more like he was lecturing some naughty children. A British guy? Moralizing about another country's economic choices? During the Thatcher era? I don't think so. I realize his attitudes are mostly the product of his generation (Thurbron was born in 1936), and I'm not old enough to give two hoots about the Cold War, but he knew exactly where he was going and when and he had been there before, so his moralizing seems disingenuous, and I don't think he understood that some of what he had to say that was critical was kind of hurtful to the people he was saying it to. Like. Mind your own business, dude. Also, Thurbron is British. I love the Brits and all, but his country's track record is not the best. Seriously. If you don't like the government, why are you there?

Anyway. I digress. This is a really interesting look at the USSR in 1980. This is a part of the world that I don't think most Americans, even today, know much about, and it's interesting to read it because it's kind of like a time capsule from 30 years ago. So, it's overall very interesting, but rather dated.

Side note: I want to go to St. Petersburg. And Sochi. Like right now.
229 reviews5 followers
February 11, 2017
Thubron has a way of writing that few others can match, let alone the average travel writer. His knowledge of his subject is so thorough it would make a guidebook blush, but he expresses it in the most accessible way you feel like you are learning the history of Russia without ever feeling you are getting a history lesson. His writing is as incredible as his journey: a trip through Breshnev's pre-Glasnost USSR in a British car. He gets drunk with dissidents and the agents that the KGB sets on his tail, and zig-zags across this once great country, from Ukraine up to the Baltics, and back down to the Caucuses. He spends so much time in the SSRs that it seems that "Among the Russians" is a misnomer. But despite the title, Thubron is acutely aware of the differences between Russians and the people of its republics. Being tall and speaking bad Russian he is often misidentified as an Estonian, an alter-ego he uses to his advantage.
515 reviews1 follower
July 12, 2017
I had higher hopes for this book than it wound up delivering. Thubron drove a British Morris car across a huge area of the Cold War-era Soviet Union, staying in campgrounds and the occasional hotel, and meeting people. Stylistically Thubron's writing was hard for me to enjoy at times; it seemed so detached, and even his meetings with dissidents, arranged through mutual friends, come off (to me) as repetitive and uninteresting. Perhaps he's reflected the general malaise of the USSR a decade before its collapse, I can't say. If you want something more lively, try out Paul Theroux's "The Great Railway Bazaar", which recounts a train journey across the USSR in the early 1970's.
Profile Image for Vikas Datta.
2,178 reviews128 followers
June 8, 2015
A fascinating account of a meandering trip through the European part of the then Soviet Union, from the Baltics to the Black Sea and down the Caucasus, in the days when the USSR was a power to reckon with... Mr Thubron draws some memorable characterisations of various people he encountered and compelling descriptions of this enormous swathe of territory including beaches, mountains, forests and extensive plains... A most nostalgic read!
Profile Image for kallis.ema.
70 reviews
February 22, 2023
"‘I was unhappy for years after the boy’s birth. I wanted to die.’ Her eyes shut, as if testing the idea, opened again. ‘I didnt find the world worth inhabiting at all. It was just a haze of people hunting for money, positions, things. And I thought: what’s the point? They were like children playing games.’ "

"You're made to feel you're letting down society, the system, the country. God!' he blazed incongruously, 'Who is the country, the system? The country is me too! Let me breathe!'"
October 14, 2018
I had been really looking forward to this book, and reading Thubron. I had interviewed him years ago and he was lovely. But I really had trouble with his writing style - his choice of verbs is bewildering, and it's unusual that I come across so many words that I'm not familiar with in one paragraph. This is the first time I've read anything Russian-themed since the 2016 election, because I was so disgusted (I even stopped my Russian language course). When he stops being florid and describes the locations, it's enjoyable, and I found the Caucasus section to be riveting. So, a mixed bag.
Profile Image for Vandita.
69 reviews22 followers
July 28, 2013
A perfect travel companion read when travelling in Russia. This travelogue by Colin Thubron is 'dated' in a way as it was written during his travels in the Soviet Union Russia (i.e. includes the countries which have now become independent e.g. Estonia, Lithuania and not just present day Russia) in early 1980s when the Union was under the Communist regime. Much has changed since then in Russia's place under the sun, its politics, its geographical boundaries, existential questions/ ideologies which its people search for but it is still perhaps the best travel book which goes to explain the ethos of the place and its people and helps us to understand the 'new Russia' which followed that era, better.
I loved the descriptive and evocative language that Thurbron uses and hence the book can be read as much as a piece of literature as a travelogue. You feel the pain, the shock, the fear, the freedom, the warmth - everything that Thubron feels during this trip across the massive country posing not as a writer but as a 'company director' (whatever that means!).
In my opinion, Thubron's book is unable to reach the 'great travelogue' level (rather than just 'a very good' one) due to one jarring note : that is the inherent, ingrained, ideological bias that Thubron has on Russian system of that time before stepping into the country which colours his every interaction, observation and conclusion. Unfortunately the book seems to be an expression of ratifying his strongly held views rather than an exploration of what the country may mean: the very essence of travelling ! The saving grace is that Thubron does give in and acknowledge that never will he confuse the 'state' with its 'people' after having witnessed time and time again the warmth and hospitality of Russian people. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Richard Newton.
Author 27 books565 followers
October 7, 2016
I enjoyed this book. Thubron is a wonderful writer, although this is one of his earlier books and I don't think he had quite honed his writing style. At times he is a little over florid in descriptions.

It describes his travels around the soviet union in the early 1980s - a journey not possible now in the same way since the collapse of communism. The Russians of the title is a slight misnomer as he travels for some time amongst non-Russians such as Georgians, Armenians and Latvians who certainly don't consider themselves as Russian (and could be very upset if you called them this now).

It is more a historical view than a modern travel guide. The world has changed hugely in the 30+ years since this was written, but it is still interesting. Three things stand out - the roots of some of the current issues between Russia and its near neighbours, the sometimes impenetrable misunderstandings between Thubron and those he meets due to hugely different world viewpoints, and just the pleasure of reading a well written text. It is occasionally amusing, sometimes sad (although no where near as sad as his later writings on the ex-Soviet Union), always engaging.

As in his other books, Thubron does not always paint a picture of himself as the most engaging of people. If you need to love your author to enjoy a book, this might not work for you. And don't read this if your are looking for a modern relevant travel description as in many ways it is well out of date.
Profile Image for Toby Tsoutseos.
27 reviews
August 8, 2018
A journey at the end of an era

An amazing journey at the end of an era. The author tried to understand the Russian soul and observed with as much insight as possible people and the places he visited. I am not sure he met the representative people of Russia and that he finally understood them. Definitely he did not understand the religion and the art.
I was thoroughly impressed with the language of the text that in certain aspects it was very rich, almost poetic but sometimes convoluted and difficult to understand. Greatly enjoyed reading this book and I think it is a unique travel memoir.
33 reviews
March 5, 2018
AMONG THE RUSSIANS is a travelogue that narrates Colin Thubron's road travel through Russia and several other states of the USSR, a few years prior to its collapse.
He gives a detailed account of the geography, history, people, culture, religion, and government of Soviet Union.


The crux of his thesis is the utter failure of communism in providing an efficient and fair system of government.
He writes about a discourse with locals that denied anew the possibility of imposing selflessness on men by any system. He says:

"Their pile of accusations went to join the pyramid
already in my mind: rampaging bribery, ingrained
corruption. The self-accorded privileges of top
party members were a rankling sore - their
numberless grades of private shops, the select
schools, universities and bureaucratic posts into
which they inveigled their children; their permits
to travel abroad, their country dachas - even their


The author felt that ruthless discipline and control by a totalitarian government aided by KGB had taken away all individuality and creativity of its people, and turned them into robots - a nation of sleep walkers.

Nikolai, a dissident professor of languages,
explained the cause of communist party's
intense desire for 'order'.

"It is fear," he said. Then added:
"If we had elections only ten percent would vote
for this government. Tension and combat are
built into the party's very heart. It can never relax
because the fear comes first from within.

So the age-old Russian nightmare of
encirclement - from China, Japan, NATO and
America - not only creates the Russian fear, but is
created by it.
War readiness is like a fever here: the aggression
of a dangerous and insecure child."


"Communism is a religion," Nicolai said.
"It has its own dogma, it's own prophet, and even
- ugh!- it's own embalmed saint. What else is that
Lenin mausoleum?
The analogies between christianity and
communism were almost unending. Like
mediaeval Christianity, communism precluded
any fundamental speculation; its faithful walked
in blinding eternity of gospel.
It was complete, dead.


"Christianity had a hard time under the shadow of communism," Nicolai said. "Our leaders have always worried about the church and keep a close watch.
The churches are only full of old women."
"Where are their men?" the author asked.
"Drinking probably," Nicolai answered. "That is their form of oblivion. The old women take to God, the men take to drink. Unfortunately it is easier to find a bottle of vodka than a church in Moscow.
Some churches here look as if they're working but in fact they're shut.


As early as the ninth century, it is said, when the Russians were choosing, which religion to embrace, they repudiated teetotal Islam with horror.
"Drinking is the joy of Russia," declared their Prince, "we just cannot do without it."

The author then depicts the present situation:
"Drunkenness accounts for over half the motor
accidents and almost all the murders in the
country. It has accelerated infant mortality and
drastically reduced the life expectancy of men,
whom it lures from their work and leaves
crumpled in the doorways of every city in the


Shopping is the housewife's weariest chore. She is condemned to tramp a labyrinth in search of even simple artefacts. On an average day (it's been computed) she spends two hours in queues.

Muscovite women, and men too, prowl the shops on the lookout for anything of quality, their string bags or briefcases ready to receive the sudden arrival of Yugoslav boots or Polish bras.

In a state-planned commercial economy, insensitive to consumer demands, availability is more important to the shopper than cost. So shopping becomes a nightmare game of musical chairs in which most of the players are left out.


Equality of sexes is the Marxist dogma.
The author noticed on a building site, typically, the foreman and the crane-operator were men, and the labourers women.


Most people that author came across were interested in purchasing spare items from him. They were interested in things like jeans, books, pop music, and his car. They enjoyed inspecting his car, and some of them wanted to buy it.


The author enjoyed a moment of joy and peace on the dance floor of an Armenian motel. It was a mixed group of Armenians, Americans, British, East Germans, and Czechs. This is what he has to say about it.

"It seemed as if everything which people
cosidered important - beliefs, systems, ideals -
were fatally divisive, and that the miracle of
unity was performed instead by pop songs."


The travelogue portrays a comprehensive picture of USSR and its people, as existed in 1980.
It is a bleak picture, and the author failed to see even a tiny bit of good in Soviet Union or its people.

The portrayal may be largely accurate, but a certain amount of bias is indicated, especially as most of his information was obtained from dissidents.

The language of the narrative is mostly smooth and easy to follow. However, there are patches with unnecessary use of uncommon words.
Overall, it is an excellent read.
Profile Image for Daisy.
140 reviews7 followers
March 31, 2008
Glorious book written by an American journalist living in Communist Russia. Although some of it might seem a little outdated now that communism has "fallen", in reality, many of the societal issues of the Russia remain the same. Funny, weird and disturbing - a phenomenal culture shock.
Profile Image for Kate.
347 reviews48 followers
January 12, 2009
Lots of stereotypes that get frustrating, but nevertheless a really interesting book that captures the zeitgeist of the USSR on the verge of dissolution. I am looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.
Profile Image for Thorlakur.
253 reviews
September 5, 2015
A delightful account of an Englishman abroad, more precisely a car ride through Russia and its surrounding Soviet republics in 1982. Mr. Thubron is an excellent pen, sympathetic to his subjects, but yet critical of the absurdities of the Soviet system.
Profile Image for Румяна.
45 reviews1 follower
December 1, 2019
За 1983г. може би е била актуална и евентуално интересна, ако си предубеден читател. С днешната дата от съдържанието лъха високомерие и нежелание на автора да е "сред руснаците". Изключително тромава и енциклопедично поднесена за пътепис.
32 reviews
June 11, 2017
I found the writing style heavy and pompous, making reading unnecessarily slow and difficult. Also, some of the views expressed vs Russians can be condescending at times. Not a great read for me
Profile Image for David Wilby.
Author 4 books
February 23, 2020
Stick a proverbial pin in a map of China (I tried this) and you'll probably end up somewhere like a city, but do the same thing with Russia and you'll most likely land thousands of miles from anywhere. This is the scale of the task set in trying to portray the USSR, an empire which once covered a considerably greater proportion of the globe than even modern Russia.

In the mid-eighties, equipped with a stack of reporters' notebooks, Colin Thubron tours Russia behind the wheel of a clapped-out Morris Minor to find out what life behind the Iron Curtain was really like. What he finds is remarkable, yet how he tells it is more remarkable still. Adept at weaving microstories into the wider fabric of his travels, Thubron's account may not always be easy reading but it is coherent. We are made to feel like voyeurs on an Orwellian roadtrip, somehow overcast with the stubborn inviolability of the post-Brezhnev years. Doom and gloom is everywhere: from the backstreets of Moscow to the furthest corner of Estonia, it resounds in the pre-eminence of Leningrad and echoes through the forbidding mountains of the Caucasus.

The true subject here is Russia herself, yet drifting in and out of this immense stage-set are numerous misfits, lost souls and chance encounters on the road. The characters all seem emotionally damaged, fragile, or torn between blind-faith and embittered resignation as to the impending fate of the failing communist ideology. Thubron spends much of his time getting inhumanly paralytic with various locals on campsites. Presumably he has to wait until the next day to transcribe their monologues, but the result is like something from a radio phone-in: sobbing alcoholic husbands, estranged wives, distraught daughters pursued by babushkas.

I was impressed by this gritty storytelling and the writer's ability to get under the skin of Russia. If anything he is too scathing in his condemnation of the stock-phrases from an Intourist guide in the pay of the politburo, and in general I found myself wishing he would be less grumpy about everything. Still, after many miles and covert liaisons with dissidents, it is perhaps not surprising when his Morris Minor is eventually picked apart by the KGB in Kiev as Thubron completes this remarkable tour.
Profile Image for Richard Thompson.
1,826 reviews92 followers
February 19, 2023
This is my second Colin Thubron book, and I'm afraid it will be my last. I thought maybe the grim critical attitude that he displayed in his Amur River book was only a product of his writing it as an older man. It's harder for some people to look at the world with a smile when your body is getting old and creaky, and the world is run by people much younger than you, but now I see from reading this book written in the early 80s that Mr. Thubron was always a curmudgeon. He finds little to like in most of the places he goes or the people he meets in this book. I get that he wrote in the time of Andropov, when the country was going through the last post-Brezhnev years before the reforms under Gorbachev. It was certainly a time of disillusionment and cultural and economic stagnation, and in those days, many Russians were reluctant to open up to foreigners, so the ones who did were not typical people, but still he could have found much more of interest in both the people and places if he had had a better attitude about it. Instead, what we get in the people is a lot of variations on the theme of the classic "Sovok" or "Homo Sovieticus" personality. I don't doubt that there were really a lot of people who fit this mold, but I have known many Russians, and most of them are smart, interesting and colorful people, sometimes a little crazy, but that's not always a fault. And in describing the cities and the countryside, it's mostly gray poorly constructed high rise apartment blocks and flat farmland. I acknowledge that Russia has a lot of those, but so do we. There are plenty of other things of greater interest if you seek them out and focus on things you love. This guy has written multiple books about Russia. I really don't understand why he has kept cranking them out, given what little love he seems to have for the land and its people.
Profile Image for Rob.
40 reviews9 followers
July 10, 2019
It's a travelogue encompassing large swathes of the Soviet Union during it's final years in the 80's. Thurbon has a beat-up Morris Minor car and does a series of road trips to experience the region. It's an interesting snapshot of that period, and gives a subjective insight into the mind and soul of the motley groups of people residing within the Soviet Union. Thurbon has some memorable encounters and projects himself into a wide spectrum of experiences visiting the soviet states from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, and to the interior of Russia. I really enjoyed the personal exchanges with dissidents and his prescribed tours with guides, he is largely reticent with his hosts, but in the narrative he doesn't hide his disdain for the soviet system and it's acolytes, but his affection and fascination for the people and the country does shines through. The descriptions of architecture and some historical accounts make the narrative drag for me in places, but overall it is a reasonably informative and entertaining account of life and the tribulations of the communist era. I don't know if I would be enthusiastic enough to read one of this other books on Russia, but I will look to see if they are considered better or worse than this, and decide later when I want to pick up another travel book.
Profile Image for Vicky Pinpin-Feinstein.
64 reviews4 followers
January 19, 2018
When I read the first sentence of this book which begins like this, "I had been afraid of Russia ever since I could remember," I knew that Thubron has hooked me. I'm not surprised about this because I have long been an admirer of his work. I consider him one of my favorite travel writers.

Thubron traveled through Russia in 1980, years before the fall of communism. So, reading the book after that momentous period in 1989 and onwards is like a history lesson. His delving deep into Russian daily life in a period that can be reasonably described as bleak, gray or even dark, is something that we should know about, particularly those who are currently leaning towards fascistic and nationalist inclinations.

As much as Thubron's Russian adventures are enchanting to read, I read Thubron not so much for his adventures as for his sentences, his writing style, the way he strings those words together to craft some of the most beautiful sentences in literary nonfiction I've ever read. Among the Russians is not one of his best. For even better exquisite sentences, I would suggest his book, Beyond the Wall.

Still, if you've ever wondered what Russia was like in that period, this book is it.

Profile Image for Michael Goodine.
120 reviews10 followers
November 28, 2021
Here we have Thubron's first travel book after an eight year break (since 1975's "Journey into Cyprus"). It seems like Thubron became a whole new writer in the interim. Or maybe someone gave him a copy of Williams' "Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace." The sentences here are clear and concise. Gone are the infinite semicolons and em dashes of his first three books. Most of the sentences here have only one or two clauses. When speakers are quoted, the only occasionally trail off into nothingness. There is no index. I spotted the word "sepulcher" only one time.

Most importantly, this is truly a travelogue. It isn't a history book like his first three efforts, nor even a half-and-half like his fourth. We get a sense of Thubron not only as a scholarly observer, but as a human being.

There is also quite a geographical divide between this book and the his first four. Thubron has left the Holy Land behind for a trip through Russia... a place that has loomed large in much of his writing since the publication of "Among the Russians."

The result is a strong one. Indeed, I recommend that readers start here if they are seeking an entry-point into Thubron's larger body of work.
400 reviews
July 1, 2022
The author took a very long drive through the eastern and southern USSR in summer 1980. Interestingly, I was driving through Russia at the same time and his observations remind me of the strangeness of a country where people would drive you off the road asking to buy jeans and lumpy concierges sat like Jabba the Hutt in the corridors of every hotel observing all comings and goings. It is also frightening how similar the communist USSR is to today's newly assertive Russia. It is as though 1990 to 2020 when Russia appeared to open up and became an easily accessible destination with a well traveled and sophisticated intelligensia, never really existed. Today's bully with tightly controlled media and people who mostly seem to believe what their leaders say seems little different to the country of 1980. Is this an old dog, no new tricks situation? (Purchased secondhand from a charity seller on Amazon.)
13 reviews
June 26, 2022
I mean I guess this was ground-breaking when it came out but now it is hard not to read it and feel b how dated it is. Not least because of the straight white male take on everything in the Soviet Union. The less said about the description of ‘Russian’ women (especially teenage women) by a 41- year old man, the better. Let’s also address how the book is called ‘Among the Russians’ but talks about the people of the Baltic states and Eastern Europe under this heading. However, I gave this book three stars because it gave an insight into how the privileged, highly-educated Westerner in the milieu making policy at that time viewed the Second World. Yet at times it was difficult to push through some of the cringe Orientalism and condescending opinions. It is time for another travel writer on the region to take Thubron’s place.
Profile Image for Kolyo.
10 reviews1 follower
January 12, 2020
About me - born in 1988 in Bulgaria, close ally of the USSR until 1989. For the past 30 years Bulgaria became member of EU and a friend of the USA. I was raised by USSR cultivated parents. Afterwards I lived/studied/worked for 9 years in western Europe. So I believe I know a fair bit about the USSR and the western world and I can say that....

This book is a great example of propaganda! Apparently back in 1983, someone in the UK thought it is a smart idea to ask a writer to tell the world how horrible the USSR is. This could work only for blinded people though. In 2020, one could have a good laugh reading this book.
5 reviews
May 31, 2021
Having finished Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar which featured Russia towards the end, I was intrigued to read this book. A lone British car traveller exploring the old Soviet Union in his Morris Minor sounded highly adventurous. He met different types of people either at campsites that he was staying at or at their homes. However the author often went off-track and so much so that you forget which place he was actually in. A difficult read with too much jargon and not enough interaction. Highly disappointing and could not finish.
4 reviews
March 17, 2022
This was the first time I’ve read a travelogue and this one is beautifully written, compelling and just plain interesting. Although a bit dense in his often hyper-descriptions, Thubron poetically captures a period of Russian that now has since changed and illuminates the Russian people in a captivating way. He includes everything from Russian history, to flora and fauna, to religion and churches (“…But there is no God left.”), or lack thereof, and drinking. Lots of drinking.
83 reviews
June 4, 2022
hadn't really heard of this book or author before, but he seems quite prolific. Don't confuse this book with a scholarly work, but his trip presents an interesting snapshot of life in the Soviet Union at a point in time that doesn't get so much attention. As a writer, his descriptions are very vivid which makes it very interesting. I'd be interested to read his books on the Silk Road and the Amur River, too.
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