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As someone who has become mildly obsessed with the territories that comprise the former Soviet Union in recent years, it was a delight taking a quiet afternoon to burn through the delightful Destination Russia. Fabio Bertino and Roberta Melchiorre beautifully capture the essence of Russia in this short travelogue originally written in Italian. This book is perfect for anyone looking to teleport themselves abroad during a stint stuck at home or simply anyone looking for some inspiration to head East.
I received an advanced reader’s copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Over a year ago, I got on a train and traveled to Moscow to spend two delightful weeks in the Moscow Oblast with a dear friend and his family to celebrate New Year’s Eve and learn more about Russian culture. Since this time, I’ve tried to convey the magic in those small moments traveling in Russia to others with the hope that they’ll discover Russia for themselves. As with Fabio and Roberta’s spectacular trip through Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, the people left a lasting impression on me.
Destination Russia carefully picks small stories to elaborate about in great detail, giving one the feeling of sitting in a good friend’s house as they recount the highlights of their trip while showing you photos to make the vision even more real. Most importantly, the authors beautifully paint portraits of the characters (and cat!) that they meet along their journey. (I have a cat story of my own. I was even offered a Siberian kitten to bring home with me!)
Although I had some incredible experiences while in Russia due to my friend aiding us in translating conversations with his family while staying at a family member’s dacha, I was very keenly aware that these were privileged encounters that most travelers will not have. What I loved about Destination Russia is that it captures the sheer magic of those chance encounters with strangers, the ones that make you thankful to be on the road. Due to Roberta’s fluency in Russia, those chance encounters go deeper than the quick conversations that those with limited English can have and I smiled with nostalgia when I was reading about their encounters with locals. I especially loved their experience in Seyda involving the infamous cat (no spoilers!)
My own experience was that Russians are incredibly friendly and curious to find out what you’re doing in their country. In Moscow, it was no problem meeting locals happy to regale us with their stories and tell us about their experiences, however the language barrier was problematic at times. The fluency of one of the authors in Russian was a huge asset and although it’s not possible for every traveler to learn Russian, one of the strengths of this travel narrative, compared to many others about Russia, is that the authors were able to have deeper conversations with others to better explain Russian culture and history in all its intricacies. I also appreciated the small notes about Russian as a language.
While in Moscow, we met my friend’s neighbor in one of the typical Soviet buildings described by the authors who had never met a real American in the flesh before. Even after we traveled barely four hours from Moscow, people still were delighted and curious about us as foreigners experiencing their country for the first time. Although Russia often has a cold reputation, I was personally blown away by the kindness of ordinary Russians who befriended us, housed us, fed us, and even sang to us (in the case of one stranger in the Moscow train station!).
Roberta’s language knowledge helps the authors dig deeper beyond the touristic attractions and architecture to try to capture the Russian soul and the diversity inherent within this sprawling country. Each chapter touches on a different aspect of Russian history and regional differences, which is great for those intrigued by Russia, but intimidated by the complicated visa process!
If I had any notes on the book, I would have loved for the authors to have touched more on the unique history of Ukraine. Although you can certainly find remnants of the Soviet era in Ukraine and Chernobyl itself, Ukraine has often been at odds with the Soviet union culturally, and I personally felt the book held its own with so many lovely stories about Russia by itself. (I would have loved to read more stories about each stop!)
Many historians trace the decline of the Soviet Union to Chernobyl and the rise of Ukrainian nationalism, so I would have liked to see a more nuanced discussion of Chernobyl and Ukrainian history as one sees in Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe. Still, I feel confident that the authors, given the opportunity to travel more in Ukraine, would take care to explore Ukrainian culture deeply given the amount of time and research that went into their writing.
I absolutely loved every second of reading Destination Russia and I truly hope that this travelogue helps fellow travel lovers get inspired to visit Russia. I am soon traveling to Ukraine and this trip got me quite excited for the strangers that we’ll meet and the tales that I’ll hopefully be able to spin after our trip. If you’re looking for a fantastic read to immerse you into a new world or simply some inspiration further East, I highly recommend reading Destination Russia.