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3.3 out of 5 stars
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3.3 out of 5 stars
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on 6 April 2017
This is a very personal account of a journey, but Jonathan Dimbleby gives us a clear-sighted view of Russia today, with all the complexities that that involves. He talks to people from all walks of life with an ability to empathise without being blind to the realities. The book is exceptionally readable and covers history, politics, social commentary and much else. I highly recommend it.
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on 1 June 2012
Let me comment on it from Russian perspective: I think it is an exceptionally good book on the matter. One can only wonder where does this vitriol of the reviewers seep from?

First, to me the book feels absolutely objective. I unlike other foreign reviewers haven't sensed any bad feelings toward my country and its people or at least the ones that significantly affects his ability to perceive reality objectively and I was never offended. I had a luxury of traveling to many same destinations the author visited (even that bar in Murmansk) and thus know what I am speaking. The vastness of the country is nicely captured in his strategically placed visits to its most nodal and/or characteristic points.

Yes, he confesses his downbeat emotional state at times, but it's Ok. We're all humans. What is important is that his emotional state does not influence the speakers he interviews. And the speakers...you may not like their opinions, but they speak what they think. And there's a great array of opinions, just like it is in reality in Russia. His interlocutors are Stalinists, yuppies, dissidents, common folks or in general from all walks of life and layers of Russian societies. I heard those opinions thousands of times and can confirm their genuineness. They are all grounded in reality unlike Orlando Figes's stretching, wishful thinking and outright fraud. Such array of views should be very sobering to those of you who has your own pet-theory of Russia or who thinks it is monotone and monochrome.

The author sheds light onto many pages of Russian history and does it timely, appropriately, not boring and with verve. I immensely enjoyed the book, it is not shallow, it is not glossing over or vilifying Russia. The man just tries hard to understand the country, which at times is incomprehensible to its own citizens, who often can only mumble something fatalistic like "This is Russia".

I may myself not like some things he sees and reports, but it's not his fault. He conveys the actual reality, which currently is not a solacing view. Don't attribute society's and state's ills to the author's ill-deposed attitude to Russia. Don't pick on him for extolling virtues of true democracy and always contemplating what he sees in Russia ....Of course a book that reports only niceties is vastly more pleasant to read. But switch on or tune to Russian State Channel news and you'll get this rosy view in spades. That is why Russians are NOT watching their television. You may not need such disturbing depictions of our country, but we certainly do. In fact, the reality and corruption are even uglier and less conceivable. From time to time he also makes comparisons between Russia and his native UK with such comparisons not always in favor of the latter.

And after all, he is not that downbeat all the time - there are multiple moments and encounters in which he experiences generosity, wit and good humor or Russian people (not only ethnical Russians). To summarize: it is an enlightening, thought-provoking and realistic work that reads well.

P.s. it is not unavoidable to drink as much vodka as he did during his trips. I managed to stay within reasonable limits (I hate the taste of vodka) while visiting pretty much the same places and simultaneously was able not to offend my genuinely well-meaning hosts :)
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on 18 June 2009
I have just finished reading the book and have to say am a bit bewildered by the poor reviews. Jonathan Dimbleby is an old man may be and his take is flavoured by the cold war etc, but he is sincere, respectful and sympathetic to people he meets. On his journey through this supercountry he tries to bring things together and I welcome his references to the past: Russia's present is as much rooted in its past as that of his native England's.
This book creates images and his personal views help to get the feel of the place and time... which may or may not be spot on: you guys make up your minds.
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on 9 November 2011
I did enjoy this book,especially as I had just returned from a visit to Moscow and St Petersburg.I found his travels interesting,and his conversations with the Russian people revealing, but the whole tone was somewhat supercillious and arrogant,you had the feeling all the time that Jonathan did not really want to be there,as he appeared to have much more important business to deal with elsewhere.I am surprised he was welcomed by so many people,and given their honest views about life in Russia,I think if he had butted into peoples conversations,and asked somewhat impertinent questions in England,he might have received some rather stronger responses that he did in Russia.He constantly made comparisons between the West and Russia,which I felt was unnecessary.I felt that the book in certain respects was an ego trip for him, much of the language he used was over the top and verbose. His thoughts about his divorce from Bel Mooney,I felt was somewhat simple,everyone still loved Jonathan Dimbleby, and he needed all their support.I should not be including statements like that in a review,but he felt it necessary to include them in the book,so they warrant comment.
A good over-view of life in Russia in the twenty first century, but perhaps the BBC could have sent someone who was a little more open in his views, and less hung up about himself
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on 5 October 2011
As others have pointed out, Dimbleby's manifest lack of enthusiasm for the subject matter (and overwhelming enthusiasm for himself) contaminates the book. I really don't think that someone who is not even prepared to learn Cyrillic is the ideal choice for a trip across Russia, and this really does show.

That does not mean that the book is a complete waste of time, but I'm not convinced that its occasional redeeming features are enough to offset the constant whining and navel-gazing by its author. Russia is a passionate country and it needs to be addressed by a passionate writer.

And spare a thought for Dimbleby's (no doubt long suffering) interpreter, who doesn't get a mention in the entire book!
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on 18 July 2008
Jonathan Dimbleby is not a name you associate with travel writing. Having read this book all the way through, and watched all episodes of the series, it's not likely to become a name with such an association.

By his own admission, Dimbleby does not like travelling, does not like having to be away from home, and has a phobia about flying. He also speaks virtually no Russian and cannot read Cyrillic (yet was somehow able to function as a Moscow reporter during the Soviet Union days).

One thing comes across very clearly within the first few pages of this book (and remains evident throughout). Dimbleby's mindset vis-a-vis Russia is stuck in the Soviet era of the 1970s. He makes constant references to the Soviet era throughout the book, and when that doesn't provide him with sufficient material, resorts to harping back even further to the excesses of the Tsars. At almost every point, he quizzed people about their political views and looked deeply into Russia's social problems, rather than focussing on the kinds of everyday matters that a tourist would want to know about. Yet, despite his repeated references to the way ordinary people in Russia live, his main points of contact throughout the book were people of high status (company owners, local community leaders, Tolstoy's descendents, and so on). So much for seeking the hearts and minds of the people.

This book is presents a very negative impression of the world's largest country. (Yet, oddly, Dimbleby doesn't mention the negative impressions that most travellers there would find: the almost complete absence of the concept of "customer service", and bureaucrats who are unhelpful to the point of being downright obstructive. I guess not being able to speak the language does have its advantages - you don't need to face these real-world annoyances.)

This is not so much a journey to the hearts and minds of the Russian people, as a journey to one man's mid-20th-century political prejudices. The only positive thing I can say about it, is that it offers quite a lot of interesting historical background to Russia.
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on 17 May 2010
This is a long book - over 500 pages - but the author's remit does cover the largest country in the world and the correspondingly rich and varied mixture of its inhabitants. If you want an insight into what Russia is today, how it got there and what the future holds for it, then I can think of no better single account.

Jonathan Dimbleby travels through this vast country from top to bottom, from West to East. En route he paints pastiches of the country's history, its climate, its landscape and much else besides. But coursing throughout the entire journey are his portraits of a kaleidoscope of colourful characters. His encounters with young and old, rich and poor, selfless and selfish, ambitious and contented are skillfully crafted and are what really provide the flesh around the bones which Russia's geographical location, its historical, political and cultural development make up. His rendering of the people he meets along the way provide the real insight into the question: "What makes an inhabitant of this place a RUSSIAN? What makes them different, so distinct?" And the clues that emerge represent a sobering picture - some 20 years after the collapse of the authoritarian deadweight of Soviet central planning and social direction. In the minds of a generation born or raised in the enlightened years after the great Russian communist experiment, 'old habits', it would seem, die hard.

One minor criticism of the book is its reference to the CCCP as the Central Committee of the Communist Party. I am surprised that a work that would have had so much research and scrutiny in its production let so elementary an error slip through. But that is a minor flaw in an otherwise enthralling, inspiring and illuminating account.
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on 5 February 2011
This is my kind of book - informative, wide-ranging, engaging and beautifully written. You are on the journey with him, learning about the history, geography, the politics and the peoples of this vast area of the Earth.

You meet people from all walks of life and all shades of beliefs and opinions and on the way you learn, though Mr. Dimbleby's interpretations of what he sees, hears, and reads, about his beliefs and opinions.

This is more than a travel book - it is canvas which tries to capture the soul of the huge and enigmatic conglomoration that is Russia. I think it succeeds.
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on 29 October 2010
I read the last page of this on the train last night, and - much to the amusement of my fellow passengers - swore out loud. Never before has a book annoyed me so much that I've been moved to criticise it in public - I was absolutely furious. Not wishing to rant, here's some bullets as to why you SHOULD NOT buy this utter nonsense -

1. It's utterly xenophobic
2. The factual information (which is the only tiny redeeming factor) is tainted by the author's amorphous prejudices, which manifest themselves in an unwillingness to even TRY to consider viewpoints other than his own (which, incidentally, are lazily informed by some naive obsession with Western 'democracy' as the answer to the World's ills. Has he ever considered US foreign policy, or the horrors of the British Empire?)
3. It's apparent from the outset that the subject matter is of no interest to him whatsoever, and the whole project has been carried out under protest. He makes no attempt to understand even basic cyrillic or the Russian language. His lack of engagement with the culture of Russia is exemplified in his trite and completely misplaced references to Wagnerian operatic imagery when he tries to describe various landscapes and vistas. He never once references Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Borodin, Glinka - not even Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky (surely he's at least listened to Tchaikovsky?) - and so what if he's read Tolstoy - who hasn't? The point is that it's all about him and his very blinkered, middle-class experience of...life in general, and NOTHING whatsoever to do with Russia - he just happens to be passing through it!
4. Crypto-fascist state? Could he have picked less appropriate terminology?

I could go on and on with this - I'm so angry - but you get the picture. I'm surprised that it ever got published, it's so negative and poorly informed. Oh - and I wanted to read a book about Russia, not some anchronistic, 'terribly English' diatribe of one self-obsessed man's miserable little journey through it. Honestly, if you thought the TV programme was depressing - this is a hundred times worse.

Grrrr....
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on 9 February 2010
I would agree with the other reviewers. As a highly personal account of his journey, the book is quite well written. However factually he is prone to quite a few errors.

For example Igor Stravinsky is mentioned in the Leningrad section as a prominent Soviet composer, whereas in fact he spent almost all of his life in exile. Dimbleby's comment about the Birobidjan Jews praying from the Talmud is absurd. The Talmud is not a prayer book, but basically a compendium of religious law. There is no such chemical as hexachlorine.

It is obvious Jonathan did not trouble too much to have his highly subjective book checked out. This would not have mattered if he had not stuffed it full with his non observed "facts" about the country.
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