On one level, this book is the story of an epic 6000-kilometer road trip from the frigid shores of the Barents Sea to Sochi, Russia’s southernmost tip on the Black Sea. Dubbed "The Spine of Russia," the adventure tasked a mismatched duo of Russian and American journalists with capturing a view of Russia from the ground, to collect powerful images and honest human stories that offered a more subtle, complex picture of the world's largest country.
But this book is far more than just a travel essay. For it intertwines fascinating subject profiles with digressions into historical and cultural themes relevant to understanding modern Russia. It is a story told with humor and with the insight derived from the author’s three decades of intimate interactions with Russia.
Among the many interesting stories in the book:
- An expedition to “The Well to Hell”
- A music school in one of the most polluted towns on earth
- An energetic youth activist branded as a foreign agent
- Russia’s largest manufacturer of barbells (who also makes cloudberry preserves)
- A roadside berry seller recently paroled from prison
- A blacksmith who is a Jehovah’s Witness
- A bone-chilling trip to the foundation place of the Russian state
- The slightly off-kilter leader of St. Petersburg’s Cossack community
- A retired village doctor who can’t stop working, because he won’t be replaced
- A piece of Nebraska transplanted into the middle of Russia’s Black Earth region
There were also craft beer makers, ballroom dancers, policemen, restaurant owners, an opera student, a priest, a single mother, an accessibility activist, teachers, docents, a best-selling author, soap makers, journalists, a sailor, a winemaker, and a woman taking on the male-dominated world of Russian hockey. And no trip to Russia would be complete without a run-in with security officials in leather jackets. So there is also that.
Taken together, the stories from this epic road trip create a compelling portrait of Russia and its people. The book could not be more timely; recent events show how vital it is for Americans to continue working to understand Russia.
Includes no photos (for that, see The Spine of Russia), but it does include a map of the journey for reference.
Also available as an ebook.
"Richardson’s observations and conversations are profound and pragmatic, nuanced and varied. He probes Russia’s unknowable mystery... Richardson’s colloquial style makes him an easy-going companion... His historical asides are entertaining and his digressions range from potato farming to the building of the White Sea canal... a rich and varied portrait of life in Russia..."
Phoeby Taplin, RBTH
"Richardson... knows his Russian history and relies on it in presenting a unique perspective on this fascinating country. Encounters with colorful Russians of all stripes enliven his engaging read."
– Ethan De Seife, Seven Days
PAUL E. RICHARDSON is a journalist and publisher. Editor of Russian Life magazine, he has authored and edited numerous books of fiction and nonfiction focused on Russia. He lives in Vermont.