YOU USE A QUOTE FROM HENRY DAVID THOREAU AT THE START OF YOUR BOOK. WAS IT, AS THOREAU WROTE, PLEASANT TO GO TO A PLACE THE WAY A RIVER WENT?
Amongst other things Thoreau was a naturalist and a leading transcendentalist – believing in the inherent goodness of both nature and people… I thought this was a pretty good place to start from.
To follow the Volga from its birth and to watch her story unravelling in front of my eyes was a privilege. It was like passing through centuries of Russia’s gilded and varied history – the river is in so many ways representative of the country through which it travels. I passed through regions as rich in diverse cultures as they are in arresting scenery – Orthodox churches and hilltop kremlins share a stage with the concrete brutality of Stalin’s industrial vision – whilst all the time meeting Russians who lived their lives a very long way from the skyscrapers of Moscow.
The Russians speak of the river with a god-like reverence, and spending a prolonged period in its company I really got a sense of its place amongst the people; it truly is a thing of spiritual wealth and of hope, not to mention employment and food. The Volga River is the heart of the country at the heart of the country.
HOW DID YOU DO THIS JOURNEY, AND WHY?
Travelling the length of the Volga in one trip had been something I’d harboured thoughts of doing for a while. For anyone with more than just a passing interest in the country and its history, it seemed so obvious – here was this great river that sliced through the heartland of Russia, a river that wasn’t particularly long (relative to other great rivers) and one that didn’t throw up too many physical challenges (again , relative)… a river that many Russians would cite as relevant to them for so many different reasons. Eventually the nudge – well, shove really – that I needed to get on and do it came when a friend of mine chose to get married in Astrakhan, a city located right at the end of the river. If that wasn’t a sign for me to get on with the journey, I don’t know what would have been. I went for it and will be forever grateful for being handed the excuse.
I made the journey by a variety of means. Having originally planned in a moment of fancy to row down the whole length, I eventually ditched the dinghy after about eighty kilometres, after travelling the gentlest stretch from the source to the provincial town of Tver. It was then local buses, train, passenger boat; I hitched the stretch from Yaroslavl to Nizhni Novgorod, eventually getting a lift from a trucker with a keen interest in thermodynamics, and I walked some of the more picturesque stretches of the lower Volga. I joined a freight carrier for the final leg from Volgograd down to Astrakhan as I thought it only appropriate to complete the journey on the water.
WHAT WAS YOUR FAVOURITE EXPERIENCE, AND HOW WOULD YOU SUM UP YOUR JOURNEY FOR READERS IF YOU HAD TO?
I like to find stories about the people of Russia that are essentially fun and uplifting (they do exist), away from the politics (as much as that is possible). This is a side of the country I see when I travel there. I see the warmth and generosity of spirit of the people, something we tend not to hear so much about in the West. It’s hard to choose a favourite experience, as so many stand out…
Perhaps the Mamaev Kurgan: nothing could have prepared me for this memorial to the Battle of Stalingrad, which was simply mind-blowing in size and statement. I was kindly taken by a man called Alexi who I’d met only hours earlier on a train. The 82-metre Mother Russia bearing down on present day Volgograd, sword aloft, is more than a little intimidating, and a fitting memorial to one of the most brutal battles of WW2. My enthusiastic guide Alexi then insisted that I stay with him and his wife in their apartment, which I duly did for the next four days…
… Or perhaps my favourite experience was in the boat along the early stretch from the source, through a Russia apparently untouched by modernity…
… No, the highlight has to be finishing the journey with friends at a wedding – Russian style! A double celebration that went on for several days…
THIS WASN'T YOUR FIRST JOURNEY THROUGH RUSSIA. WHAT IS YOUR CONNECTION WITH THE COUNTRY?
Ever since a first visit to the then Soviet Union with Mr Gardiner’s A-level history class, I’ve been hooked. My first big trip through Russia was in Max the Campervan travelling from Tallinn in Estonia to Vladivostok in the Russian Far East, in the nineties, and I’ve been a long and short term visitor to Russia ever since. A Russian boss I once had joked that I was ‘just another Englishman coming to Russia in search of adventure!’ I guess I was then and still am perhaps; however, nowadays I have good friends in Russia so my motivation to return is less fanciful. I have lived and worked in St Petersburg over the years and consider the city something of a home from home – although I increasingly find myself avoiding the winters.
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