Polar expert Sara Wheeler's new adventure: "Russia is very lovable, despite it all"

Having explored Russia in the footsteps of its 'golden age' writers for her new book, author Sara Wheeler talks Trans-Siberian glories, Putin propaganda and George Best's wandering eye...

5 mins
Sara Wheeler writes in Pyatigorsk, Russia (Sara Wheeler)

Sara Wheeler writes in Pyatigorsk, Russia (Sara Wheeler)

What do you do if you’re going to be all-but-isolated for months at a time? Well, if you’re Sara Wheeler, you load up on the Russian classics.

During the acclaimed polar traveller’s time as the first female writer-in-residence at the South Pole, and the seven months exploring Antarctica, Wheeler killed downtime with Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Pushkin - the Golden Age of pre-Soviet writing.

Having caught the bug, Wheeler’s latest project found her hot on the heels of these icons of Russian literature — including the likes of Gogol, Chekov, Lermontov and Turgenev. She crosses eight time zones to track down the often small villages far from the big cities, spending time getting to know the streets and local people of ordinary Russians far from the headlines.

Part travelogue, part biography, Wheeler’s new book, Mud and Stars: Travels in Russia with Pushkin and Other Geniuses of the Golden Age, devotes a chapter of travels to these ‘big beasts’. You don’t just get a crash course in the classics, but also a great sense of what being Russian involves today.

We caught up with Sara to discuss Mud and Stars, travelling in Russia and meeting George Best in Moscow…

Sara on the steps of novellist  Ivan Turgenev's house, Russia (Sara Wheeler)

Sara on the steps of novellist Ivan Turgenev's house, Russia (Sara Wheeler)

How did this book come together?

I’ve been looking over my shoulder at Russia since I was 11 years old. I thought it would be my last language [to learn]. It was something I had to do, because my favourite thing is reading and writers, and there’s no literature that anyone could say is superior to Russian - nobody could argue that, in my opinion.

So I thought, 'it’s time to address something about Russian literature'. And there was a lot of places in Russia that I wanted to go and hadn’t been, though I have had a few trips in the intervening years, when I was writing about the Arctic.

And I thought, ‘I’d like to spend three years of my life thinking about Russian literature and travelling to Russia and learning Russian’. And that’s what I did.

One thing I’ve learnt from all the books that I’ve written - I think it’s 10 now — is that you’ve got to decide what you’ve got to do, and then you do it!

You just have to keep battling on and not think about the time you’re spending, which might not come to anything. You just have to keep at it and my experience is that if you keep on at it for long enough, you’ll get there.

Epic Russian literature seems ideal for long polar nights...

Yes. Tolstoy’s doorstops are perfect for polar whiteouts. You learn quickly to take long books with small print and you can’t use electronic devices as you haven’t got any power — you have to learn to really pick carefully.

That's when I really started falling in love with Tolstoy, sitting a tent in the polar regions where there might be a white out lasting 10 days. And as well, who wrote really, really long books — the polar regions are perfect for that.

You first travelled to Russia with your family when you were 11. Thats at the height of the Cold War…

It was particularly extraordinary because we were a working class family and never went anywhere, but my mother was fascinated by Russia and it was one of the first package tours.

That’s what we did - obviously shepherded everywhere. I hadn’t been anywhere by that stage and nor had they, but somehow or other this thing occurred.

What do you remember from that experience? 

Of course, it was completely under the thumb of the state. For example, you could only stay in approved hotels. There would be an enormous woman at the end of every corridor, watching you go in and out, but they all patted me on the head as they liked children.

One day, we went down to breakfast at this hotel and all these figures walked in and we recognised them as the Northern Ireland football team and there was George Best!

It was like the gods had come among us, but they didn’t have any people to talk to so they came and sat at our table. The manager said, 'do you want some tickets to the game tonight?' which was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to us.

So, we went to the game and it was snowing. Back in the West Country, in the Daily Express the next day, there’s a picture of my mother and me with George Best - looking at my mother’s tits!

It was really extraordinary from all points of view. And it give me a taste for Russia…

Did travelling young broaden your mind? 

I like to think so, but we really didn’t go to many places. We were very working class people and that was a very anomalous episode. Apart from that, it was South Wales and Cornwall.

It certainly inspired the enthusiasm towards Russia. It took quite a few decades for that to come to any maturity but I always felt like I was looking over my shoulder at it. 

Sara visits the site where writer Mikhail Lermentov died, Russia (Sara Wheeler)

Sara visits the site where writer Mikhail Lermentov died, Russia (Sara Wheeler)

You experienced that Cold War oppression first hand. The book makes it pretty clear that ordinary Russians have spent most of the last 150 years under the control of the state, in one way or another…

I knew this book was going to be anchored in the writers of the golden age, but one of the things that I wanted to do was find out what had changed between then and now.

Basically, it turned out to be nothing. For 'ordinary people', it was a sick country then and it’s a sick country now, and the disparity between the few and the many was as ridiculous in the writer’s day as it is now.

This is a really horrible country at every level of government. It was corrupt and terrible. Russia bounces along at the bottom of almost every social index, as it always has.

I did mainly homestays and there’s a lot of gaunt people trying to save money in order to get their son into university, in order that they don’t have to do military service, which is pretty grim.

I was interested in the fact that the human spirit still flares up there - as it does everywhere.

It feels like some of these authors tapped into a deeper sense of being Russian that Putin now also seems to be drawing on...

Yes, there’s a lot of similarities. But what I learnt was that people, regular people, don’t have any illusion about Putin at all.

They know that he’s corrupt and take a very ironic view of the images of him that come out on state television, of him strangling a bear with his bare hands or spearing an emperor-sized fish.

Their attitude is less that he’s a monster, but he’s our monster. It’s very easy to flaunt this illusion that the West is behind everything. When Ukraine and the Crimea kicked off, it was all ‘the West fermenting’, and it’s very easy to put those messages across if you control the state media.

People can half-believe that. They know that he’s a villain, but they also believe the fact that the West is behind every bad thing. He wields power extremely cunningly.

What do you hope to achieve when you’re taking a trip that follows in an author’s footsteps?

You have to have an open mind with any trip, and with the work I do obviously you don’t know what you’re looking for until you’ve found it. I just go through the motions of following in their footsteps as much as possible and reading the things they wrote about those places and seeing what comes up — and things always do.

People say to me, ‘What do you do when you get somewhere?’ and I say, ‘Often I’ll sit around for something to happen’. And something always does.  

Sara Wheeler's Russian highlights

The Trans-Siberian railway in winter (Shutterstock)

The Trans-Siberian railway in winter (Shutterstock)

Sara's beloved Western Caucasus (Shutterstock)

Sara's beloved Western Caucasus (Shutterstock)

Oh, there were so many highlights. Russia is very lovable, despite it all, that’s what I took away. People say Russians are unfriendly, and maybe they don’t smile but they come through in the end. It’s such a beautiful country and so varied. And there’s so much fantastic open space.

The Trans-Siberian Express is such a highlight and I’d certainly advise anyone to do it in winter. You go through days and days and days of coniferous taiga forest, days of birch trees in the show, and then suddenly you pull in to this monumental Soviet station, which is three times the size of Kings Cross, with icy platforms and babushki patrolling around selling dried fish.

When the Trans-Sib stops for half an hour, there’s always this fantastic layering up, to put on lots of kit, and then you walk up and down the platform. That was a highlight for me.

Another highlight was camping in the Western Caucasus, which is completely enormous, pristine and beautiful. You can take drinking water from frozen water from lots of lakes, so you don’t have to cart water around. You just put your tent up and light a fire. Looking down towards the southern republic, that was really beautiful.

Pushkin's family estate, near the Estonian border (Shutterstock)

Pushkin's family estate, near the Estonian border (Shutterstock)

The Arctic Chukotka region in Russia's far east (Shutterstock)

The Arctic Chukotka region in Russia's far east (Shutterstock)

Another highlight I would say was the Chukotka region - beyond Siberia, in the Far East, opposite Alaska. To get there, you set off from Moscow and into the Urals, over eight time zones, eight hours flying. And it’s a region the size of France with no roads and it’s very poor, with unemployment running at 70% in the villages and displaced indigenous people.

You find a lot of that with the indigenous people of Russia - particularly of the Polar North - of which there are many, dragged into a cash economy without much care by the Soviets and just floundering since really. A lot of social chaos and misery. But it was a highlight being there because it was extremely beautiful and because the Russian Far East is so desperately unusual, not many people go there.

Other highlights: Going to Pushkin’s maternal estate, which is close to the Estonian border - very beautiful. Pushkin wrote a lot about it, so you could easily follow in his footsteps. He was exiled by the Tsar so he was cooling his heels quite a lot.

I spent very little time in Moscow and St Petersburg because they’re so unrepresentative, as they always have been. The cultured classes spoke French in the 19th century, and the rest of the people there didn’t know anything about France. And it’s exactly the same now. There’s 160 million people who don’t live in Moscow and St Petersburg, who don’t know about Oligarchs and bling.

Mud and Stars: Travels in Russia with Pushkin and Other Geniuses of the Golden Age is out on 4 July 2019, via Penguin Books

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