Searching in Vain For the ‘soul’ of Modern Russia: A Review of Sara Wheeler’s Mud and Stars


It would be hard to have better travel-writer credentials than Sara Wheeler. Here the author of The Magnetic North and Terra Incognita, a specialist in Arctic and Antarctic adventure, turns her attentions to the land mass that sprawls across eight time zones, where any traveller is guaranteed to receive an ostentatiously frosty reception — initially, at least. Wheeler’s task has been to capture Russia through a bifocal lens: first through the eyes of the classic Russian authors she loves, and second through the lives of contemporary Russians we rarely hear about, outside of the Moscow–St Petersburg axis. ‘I was searching for a Russia not in the news — a Russia of common humanity and daily struggles — and my guides were writers of the Golden Age.’

This entertaining and insightful book performs two functions. It’s a whistlestop guide to the best of Russian literature from 1800 to 1910. And it’s a beautiful piece of travel writing about the Russia of all our fantasies, from the ‘willow stooping over the central alley’ leading to Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s estate south of Moscow, to the distant shores of Lake Baikal, where Wheeler finds a delicious meal of white fish in a place where Chekhov could find only vodka (leaving him to surmise that Russians were pigs).


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