Lost and Found in Russia, By Susan Richards

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The Independent Culture

Ever since the national idea was invented, at the end of the 18th century, "the Russian people" has been a synonym for hope. A few years ago I asked a Moscow-based British journalist what she made of the people's well-documented support for then president Vladimir Putin, now prime minister, and his autocratic "sovereign democracy".

She didn't believe it, she said. She might take Susan Richards's wonderful work as support for her non-argument, but actually this book is an antidote to blind hope as ideology. Lost and Found in Russia is a fine attempt to understand Russia through real individuals and to love them as they are.

Rare is the serious book about Russia based on such close friendships. Richards, with a perfect command of the language, travelled backwards and forwards for 16 years, re-visiting the same friends as their fortunes changed and they moved about post-Communist Russia, subject to its economic and political upheavals.

From Saratov, the long-closed city on the Volga, to Novosibirsk, home to the Soviet Union's scientific supervillage Akademgorodok, and into the dense Siberian forest, she coped with a country in which things don't work and got irritated with an opinionated Brits who expected more. She took food poisoning and mystery headaches and shaman-induced paralysis in her stride. At times the murders, suicides and car crashes around her seem more common than the persistence of ordinary life.

Friends whom she re-encountered were now enjoying a meal with wine, now eating catfood in a hovel. They were with or without furniture and hot water. Now they were exuberant, now they were depressed and borderline-alcoholic.

A lesser writer would have made more of the symbolism of the grindingly god-awful town of Marx, companion town to Engels, both sitting unpretty on the Volga. The area was home for two centuries to the Volga Germans, who made an agricultural success of it, until Stalin deported a hapless ethnic minority east. A neglected place blighted by carelessness, Marx succumbed to corruption on such a lethal scale in the 21st century that Richards became nostalgic for the petty pilfering that held it together in 1992.

Misha and Tatiana are an attractive couple. He founded his small business on enterprise, not graft, and prospered. She, steady and level-headed, seemed to others to be a healer. Their friend though, the volatile, self-oppressed Anna, is a different story. The world of this brilliant journalist, whose only happiness now is the Church, is a dense weave of victimhood, misfortune and darkness.

Not for the first time this Russia is frankly mad, and Richards must have summoned up her courage to bear it. Yet she loves it, and returns freely.

The only area where I couldn't follow her tolerant example was the paranormal. Soviet Russians always loved the extraterrestrial. Now a top scientist believes in mind control and ordinary folk hang on the words of the shaman. Since a fascination with superstition also marked the revolutionary era a century ago, one feels that Russia has been terminally damaged by a persistent culture of disinformation and untruth.

For me, that rather does for the hope. But the sensitivity with which Richards is prepared to tolerate Russia's excesses and share its suffering will give the thoughtful reader much to ponder.

Lost and Found in Russia is beautifully written, with arresting images on almost every page. I loved the men lying stiffly on their wooden bunks in the train like toppled statues. It is a travelogue as rich and compelling as a novel and, quite rightly, without a happy ending.

Lesley Chamberlain is the author of 'Motherland: a philosophical history of Russia' (Granta)