Erika Fatland’s “The Border” is subtitled “A Journey Around Russia,” to which she has added the explanatory phrase “Through North Korea, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Belorussia, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Norway and the Northeast Passage.” Over the course of eight months in 2017, she traveled to all these places, seeking answers to one unspoken question: What is life like when you live next door to an aggressive bully?
To begin with, every one of these countries, except for Norway, has suffered some kind of invasion by Russia, whether long ago or all too recently. They have also been torn apart by innumerable regional conflicts. Again and again, this young Norwegian journalist listens to weary-hearted accounts of survival and loss in the midst of war, displacement, ethnic and racial enmity, famine, and genocide.
Fatland opens her book by describing a voyage along the Arctic coast of Russia, the once-ice-bound Northeast Passage now increasingly littered with rusting oil drums and other trash. But starting with North Korea and then working her way west, she mixes brief histories of the 14 nations she visits with descriptions of their major cities and accounts of excursions into their backlands or to leading cultural sites. Her linguistic abilities — she speaks English, Russian, French and several other languages — often allow her to talk with, or sometimes eavesdrop on, ordinary people. Despite sometimes considerable privation, nearly everyone she meets is welcoming, though often cautiously guarded in what they say.
Not so Fatland. When a North Korean tour guide covertly asks what the world thinks of Kim Jong Un and his country, she answers, “Do you want to know the truth?” He nods yes. “We say it is the world’s worst dictatorship.” After crossing into China, Fatland first stops in Dalian, a city of 7 million inhabitants that — hangs head in shame — I’d never even heard of. To travel to Mongolia’ s Ulan Bator, she scrupulously avoids taking any train continuing on to Moscow: “If there was one thing I had learnt on my previous travels . . . it was to avoid Russian trains at all cost.” Those previous travels, by the way, are recounted in her much-lauded 2019 book, “Sovietistan: A Journey through Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan,” all those “stans” being nations that emerged after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Ulan Bator, it turns out, “is not only the world’s coldest capital, it is also the most polluted.” Half the residents live in tents or yurts. Fatland is both admiring and appalled at the sheer grandiosity of “the world’s largest statue of a horseman, a stainless steel monstrosity that stands 40 metres high and weighs 250 metric tons. The statue was financed by Mongolia’s then newly elected president, businessman and judo champion, Khaltmaagiin Battulga.” Unsurprisingly, it represents the country’s founding warlord, Genghis Khan, whose armies “conquered a seventh of the world’s surface. On horseback.”
Before heading into the Mongolian taiga, Fatland is strenuously warned: “ Whatever you do, don’t eat anything that looks suspect. The reindeer people cast spells and have their own way of making girls fall in love with them. . . . It’s the truth. I have seen it myself!” In fact, the reindeer herders turn out to be quite courtly to the fair-haired Norwegian.
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In the Kazakhstan city of Almaty, Fatland spends a tipsy afternoon at the Arasan Baths, “the largest and best spa in Central Asia.” Promised a tour of Baikonur’s Cosmodrome, the old launch site of the Soviet space program, she is met by a pathetic tour guide who can’t bear to tell her that the place is locked and deserted. He suggests they go bowling instead. For Fatland, nearly all government-sponsored tours verge on absurdist bureaucratic comedy, often culminating in a worshipful visit to some Great Leader’s kitschy monument or memorial.
Border crossings, however, are never laughing matters. Some customs officials don’t know what contact lenses are. While on board the Caspian Sea ferry to Baku, Fatland ends up locking herself in a room to escape drunken truck drivers. Once on land again, she encounters two conspiracy theorists who are convinced that Vladimir Putin is actually dead. “Everyone know that. The real Putin died of cancer many years ago. The person who says he is Putin now is his look-alike.” The proof? “The real Putin could speak fluent German,” but “the lookalike always has to use an interpreter when he is talking to Angela Merkel.”
Fatland loves Georgia for its beautiful scenery, delicious cuisine and its party-animal ways. “Were it not for their neighbours, the Georgians would probably be the world’s happiest people.” Her guide there is a blond 28-year-old named Julia, who dresses in “a body-hugging black top and leather miniskirt.” At meals, Julia chugs down glass after glass of Chacha — a kind of vodka — and in between recites her own sad love poems. She is already on her third husband and wants to be rid of him.
After crossing the Black Sea, the intrepid Fatland pauses in Odessa, Kyiv and Sevastopol, meets with Ukrainian nationalists still fighting against Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and chats with a youthful soldier who shows off his new baby and his new Kalashnikov. She even takes a tourist bus to the ghost town of Chernobyl.
At this point, “The Border” — so well translated by Kari Dickson that you’d think it was written in English — still has much of Eastern and Northern Europe to cover. In Belarus, Fatland alights in Vitebsk, birthplace of the artist Marc Chagall, then later hears sickening accounts of Nazi atrocities in the former Minsk ghetto. Finally heading north toward home, she quietly closes the circle by kayaking along the periphery between Norway and Russia.
Like other long information-packed books, “The Border” should be enjoyed in small chunks, if only because of a certain sameness in the kind of stories it contains. All in all, though, Erika Fatland deserves both applause and thanks for this impressive mix of history, reportage and travel memoir.
Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.
The Border: A Journey Around Russia
By Erika Fatland. Translated from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson
Pegasus. 600 pp. $35
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