.
I

have a soft spot for geopolitically-oriented travelogues, books that attempt to explain countries, regions, or conflicts by exploring them from a ground-level perspective. These aren’t travel books per se, but an attempt to provide context to areas of the world that people don’t fully understand or appreciate, but undoubtedly hear about on the news. They're less about self-discovery, and more about historic crossroads and battlefields that are consigned to textbooks for most people, but ever present for those who inherited the historic landscape. There is, of course, an underlying element of wanderlust, especially during our largely COVID-locked down state that makes these books particularly alluring. 

The Border: A Journey Around Russia Through North Korea, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Norway, and the Northeast Passage | By Erika Fatland | Translated by Kari Dickson | Pegasus Books | February 2021.

Erika Fatland finds a happy medium between travel and politics in her latest book, “The Border: A Journey Around Russia” in which she seeks to understand how the world’s largest county, Russia, affected its neighbors from the Pacific to Central Asia, and from Europe to the Arctic. Translated from Norwegian exceptionally well by Kari Dickinson, it is a fascinating journey through a staggering list of countries, all of whom have experienced Russian influence, and, with the exception of Norway, were occupied in one form or another by Soviet or Russian forces. She marries exploration of the historical legacy of Russia’s presence in these territories with discussions of how the places she travels through exist today. From a lengthy travel aboard a Russian vessel in the arctic through to her aborted attempt to see Russia’s Cosmodrome at Baikonur (now in Kazakhstan, where she ends up bowling, instead) and onto Chernobyl in Ukraine before closing in Norway, Fatland composes a rich and dynamic mosaic. 

The story Fatland presents is less about Russian largess and the legacy of its influence, and much more of a fundamental rejection of Russian-ness and the influence Moscow allegedly wields on the countries it once occupied and shaped, and today borders. There is actually very little “Russia” in the book. To be sure, the places she visited, people she encountered, and cultures she experienced were touched by Russia. Yet, outside of a mini-Russian-themed village in China, some Russians taking advantage of cheaper cross-border prices, and the odd Russian she encounters, there is little evidence of Russia on paper. That this is the case is both surprising and not. In the former, the reader would be forgiven for expecting to see more of President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin, siloviki, “little green men”, or some other form of influence in the countries through which she travels. That influence may be there, but it is a shadow of what it once was, which leads to the question of the latter—the lack of surprise. 

Many of the peoples and cultures she encountered existed in some form or fashion, even if they were not unique nation-states, prior to the emergence of what we consider to be Russia. It makes sense, then, that these cultures would continue to exist, or indeed flourish, after the departure of the Soviet Union from the geopolitical landscape. In the post-Soviet vacuum, their independence would necessitate, if not demand, the growth and strengthening of their unique national identity. Indeed, the post-independence and post-Soviet era was as much a struggle to reclaim sovereignty in domestic affairs as it was about attempting to define one’s own unique culture. The historical legacies of the Soviet Union and Russia are certainly apparent on the landscape, architectures, borders, and indeed psychologies of those Fatland encounters, but it is only one part of their complex and unique national DNA. 

Fatland also looks beyond the Soviet Union and its influence over the post-World War Two occupied territories, which is very welcome. Much like Mark Galeotti’s excellent “A Short History of Russia”, Fatland expands the aperture to look at the totality of Russian history, not merely the 20th Century—influential though it most certainly was and remains. From Kievan Rus, the Golden Horde, and Tsarist times, Fatland explores how Russia shaped the countries of Asia and Europe throughout history, not just under Communist rule. 

For as much as the West viewed the Soviet Union as a monolithic entity and some, perhaps, view Russia the same today, Fatland presents a richly complicated tapestry of peoples, cultures, and nation-states over which Moscow once loomed and, in many cases, continues to do so. One can’t help but wonder what a similar journey through Russia itself would look like through Fatland’s eyes, having looked at it so dynamically from the outside—fingers crossed she decided to embark on such a trip in the near future. 

Unlike other entries into the geopolitical travelogue, Fatland largely does not dive into contemporary politics with any gusto and that’s not a bad thing. To be sure she explores breakaway republics, discusses the occupation of Crimea and the semi-frozen war of eastern Ukraine, and other hotspots, but hers is not a weighty analytical tome. It introduces these issues, provides context, and lets the environment speak for itself in keeping with her travelogue motif. When she does stray into commentary, particularly in the closing bits of the book, it feels forced and somewhat misses the mark. That she avoids trying to create some super-narrative connecting everything to grand strategy or the sweeping arm of history is also welcomed. The distinctness of the countries explored in “The Border” is preserved despite their shared Russian connection, and that is a grand enough concept. 

At points, the balance between disconnected observer and active participant breaks down a touch, as there are points at which she becomes more of the story than the places themselves. The best travelogues are those in which the author or traveler is a participant, but not the central figure, more of a vehicle for the place to tell its story than anything else. Again, some of Bourdain’s work springs to mind. In the end, this should be forgiven as the sheer breadth and length of her journey are bound to provoke instances where she is more of the story than the story itself. 

“The Border” is best read in discreet bites, a recommendation that other reviewers have suggested and that I wish I had thought of before diving in fully. It is a hefty but engaging book, but reading it straight through left me wondering why so much attention was given to one country, but comparably less was given to others—a condition that would easily have been offset had I paced myself better. 

The greatest contribution of Fatland and “The Border”, is that in her approach, her encounters, and her writing, she allows the countries and people to stand on their own feet and shine in their own unique ways, something that is often missed when Russia or the United States is discussed: it is not all about Washington or all about Moscow (surely a sentiment that will provoke horror or incredulity in both capitals). While we may not fully be able to travel (or want to, for that matter—personally my passport is burning a metaphorical hole in my pocket), Fatland offers a welcome and illuminating escape, one that’s prompted me to order her previous book (“Sovietistan” about Central Asia) and hope she writes more. 

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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A Journey Across Russia’s Asian and European Legacy

Cheboksary, Russia. Photo by Evgeniy Ivanov via Unsplash.

August 7, 2021

In her travelogue "The Border: A Journey Around Russia," Erika Fatland visits countries neighboring Russia in an attempt to understand how Russia has affected those neighbors, in an engaging read that combines a sense of wanderlust with the political.

I

have a soft spot for geopolitically-oriented travelogues, books that attempt to explain countries, regions, or conflicts by exploring them from a ground-level perspective. These aren’t travel books per se, but an attempt to provide context to areas of the world that people don’t fully understand or appreciate, but undoubtedly hear about on the news. They're less about self-discovery, and more about historic crossroads and battlefields that are consigned to textbooks for most people, but ever present for those who inherited the historic landscape. There is, of course, an underlying element of wanderlust, especially during our largely COVID-locked down state that makes these books particularly alluring. 

The Border: A Journey Around Russia Through North Korea, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Norway, and the Northeast Passage | By Erika Fatland | Translated by Kari Dickson | Pegasus Books | February 2021.

Erika Fatland finds a happy medium between travel and politics in her latest book, “The Border: A Journey Around Russia” in which she seeks to understand how the world’s largest county, Russia, affected its neighbors from the Pacific to Central Asia, and from Europe to the Arctic. Translated from Norwegian exceptionally well by Kari Dickinson, it is a fascinating journey through a staggering list of countries, all of whom have experienced Russian influence, and, with the exception of Norway, were occupied in one form or another by Soviet or Russian forces. She marries exploration of the historical legacy of Russia’s presence in these territories with discussions of how the places she travels through exist today. From a lengthy travel aboard a Russian vessel in the arctic through to her aborted attempt to see Russia’s Cosmodrome at Baikonur (now in Kazakhstan, where she ends up bowling, instead) and onto Chernobyl in Ukraine before closing in Norway, Fatland composes a rich and dynamic mosaic. 

The story Fatland presents is less about Russian largess and the legacy of its influence, and much more of a fundamental rejection of Russian-ness and the influence Moscow allegedly wields on the countries it once occupied and shaped, and today borders. There is actually very little “Russia” in the book. To be sure, the places she visited, people she encountered, and cultures she experienced were touched by Russia. Yet, outside of a mini-Russian-themed village in China, some Russians taking advantage of cheaper cross-border prices, and the odd Russian she encounters, there is little evidence of Russia on paper. That this is the case is both surprising and not. In the former, the reader would be forgiven for expecting to see more of President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin, siloviki, “little green men”, or some other form of influence in the countries through which she travels. That influence may be there, but it is a shadow of what it once was, which leads to the question of the latter—the lack of surprise. 

Many of the peoples and cultures she encountered existed in some form or fashion, even if they were not unique nation-states, prior to the emergence of what we consider to be Russia. It makes sense, then, that these cultures would continue to exist, or indeed flourish, after the departure of the Soviet Union from the geopolitical landscape. In the post-Soviet vacuum, their independence would necessitate, if not demand, the growth and strengthening of their unique national identity. Indeed, the post-independence and post-Soviet era was as much a struggle to reclaim sovereignty in domestic affairs as it was about attempting to define one’s own unique culture. The historical legacies of the Soviet Union and Russia are certainly apparent on the landscape, architectures, borders, and indeed psychologies of those Fatland encounters, but it is only one part of their complex and unique national DNA. 

Fatland also looks beyond the Soviet Union and its influence over the post-World War Two occupied territories, which is very welcome. Much like Mark Galeotti’s excellent “A Short History of Russia”, Fatland expands the aperture to look at the totality of Russian history, not merely the 20th Century—influential though it most certainly was and remains. From Kievan Rus, the Golden Horde, and Tsarist times, Fatland explores how Russia shaped the countries of Asia and Europe throughout history, not just under Communist rule. 

For as much as the West viewed the Soviet Union as a monolithic entity and some, perhaps, view Russia the same today, Fatland presents a richly complicated tapestry of peoples, cultures, and nation-states over which Moscow once loomed and, in many cases, continues to do so. One can’t help but wonder what a similar journey through Russia itself would look like through Fatland’s eyes, having looked at it so dynamically from the outside—fingers crossed she decided to embark on such a trip in the near future. 

Unlike other entries into the geopolitical travelogue, Fatland largely does not dive into contemporary politics with any gusto and that’s not a bad thing. To be sure she explores breakaway republics, discusses the occupation of Crimea and the semi-frozen war of eastern Ukraine, and other hotspots, but hers is not a weighty analytical tome. It introduces these issues, provides context, and lets the environment speak for itself in keeping with her travelogue motif. When she does stray into commentary, particularly in the closing bits of the book, it feels forced and somewhat misses the mark. That she avoids trying to create some super-narrative connecting everything to grand strategy or the sweeping arm of history is also welcomed. The distinctness of the countries explored in “The Border” is preserved despite their shared Russian connection, and that is a grand enough concept. 

At points, the balance between disconnected observer and active participant breaks down a touch, as there are points at which she becomes more of the story than the places themselves. The best travelogues are those in which the author or traveler is a participant, but not the central figure, more of a vehicle for the place to tell its story than anything else. Again, some of Bourdain’s work springs to mind. In the end, this should be forgiven as the sheer breadth and length of her journey are bound to provoke instances where she is more of the story than the story itself. 

“The Border” is best read in discreet bites, a recommendation that other reviewers have suggested and that I wish I had thought of before diving in fully. It is a hefty but engaging book, but reading it straight through left me wondering why so much attention was given to one country, but comparably less was given to others—a condition that would easily have been offset had I paced myself better. 

The greatest contribution of Fatland and “The Border”, is that in her approach, her encounters, and her writing, she allows the countries and people to stand on their own feet and shine in their own unique ways, something that is often missed when Russia or the United States is discussed: it is not all about Washington or all about Moscow (surely a sentiment that will provoke horror or incredulity in both capitals). While we may not fully be able to travel (or want to, for that matter—personally my passport is burning a metaphorical hole in my pocket), Fatland offers a welcome and illuminating escape, one that’s prompted me to order her previous book (“Sovietistan” about Central Asia) and hope she writes more. 

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.