The infernal smile of Moscow
Photo of Moscow by Anastasiy Safari used under a Creative Commons license.

Michael Frayn, The Russian Interpreter (Faber and Faber, 2005).
Originally published in 1966, a novel of intrigue that works as a sketch of the mental geography of Moscow during the Cold War for Western visitors. Paul Manning, an English graduate student at Moscow University, falls in with Raya, a mercurial Russian. Things grow more complicated when the object of her affections shifts from Manning to Gordon Proctor-Gould, a British businessman who employs Manning to work on the side as a translator, not least because Raya speaks no English and Proctor-Gould no Russian. Under these circumstances, things would be strained even with the pervasive sense that other agendas, perhaps related to national security interests, are at stake. The Moscow depicted here is now more than forty years old, but surely not all has changed. The novel won the Hawthornden Prize in 1967.

Here is Wikipedia’s page about Frayn. Here is more about Frayn. Via Google BookSearch, this excerpt of Merritt Mosely’s Understanding Michael Frayn discusses The Russian Interpreter. In 2005, Frayn described how he drew on his experiences as an exchange student in Moscow. Simon McLeish says it shows the influence of Evelyn Waugh.  Marcy Kahan, who says the novel summons up a comic yet hideously claustrophobic Moscow, interviewed Frayn for Bomb.

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Russia nr. 1
Photo by larksflem used under a Creative Commons license.

Colin Thubron, In Siberia (HarperCollins, 2000).
An account of Thubron’s travels across Siberia, from Yekaterinburg and Omsk in the west, to Lake Baikal and Irkutsk, and east to Khabarovsk, Irkutsk and Magadan — and many spots in between. Thubron traveled after the fall of Communism and before Putin’s rise, and again and again he finds himself searching in the mess left behind by the collapse of the Soviet Union for signs of a truer Siberia that came before it, and to remember its victims. It is clear that he did impressive research before he traveled, but Thubron uses this learning judiciously. He is also quite good at finding colorful characters, and sharing their stories.

Here is a short bio of Thubron. The Times picks him as one of the 50 greatest postwar writers. Anthony Campbell says combines acute observation with a deep historical awareness. George Scialabba (The Boston Globe) likes Thubron’s individual portraits, and deft, unobtrusive historical sketches. Ken Kalfus (The New York Times) says Thubron covered a lot of ground. Nicholas Harman (The Spectator) thinks Thubron plods along even when he is not keen for the trip. Shining Love Pig appreciates Thubron’s portrait on place rather than his own experience. Mary Loosemore calls it a gem of a travel book, and it’s Rob Miller’s favorite work of travel literature. Edinburgh’s Monthly Book Group liked it. Sheila O’Malley posts an excerpt. A decade later, Sam G found a different Siberia. Nicholas Wroe interviewed Thubron for The Guardian in 2000. Here is a recent podcast of Thubron on BBC Radio 3, upon the release of his most recent book.