Mud and Stars: Travels in Russia with Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Other Geniuses of the Golden Age

Mud and Stars: Travels in Russia with Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Other Geniuses of the Golden Age

by Sara Wheeler


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A witty and insightful tour of contemporary Russia, using its Golden Age writers, from Pushkin to Tolstoy, as guides: part history, part sociopolitical commentary, Mud and Stars reveals the heart of a country that never fails to surprise us.

"We sit in the mud, my friend, and reach for the stars." --Turgenev, Fathers and Sons

In her award-winning books, Sara Wheeler has transported readers from the Arctic Circle to Antarctica, from the Andean foothills of Chile to the pristine islands of Greece. Now, in Mud and Stars, Wheeler takes us into the heart of Russia. Bypassing the major cities as much as possible, she instead goes to the places that produced Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and other giants of Russia's Golden Age. We see the fabled Trigorskoye ("three hills") estate that Pushkin frequented during his exile, now preserved in his honor. We look for Dostoevsky along the waters of Lake Ilmen, site of the only house the restless writer ever owned. We pay tribute to the single stone that remains of Tolstoy's birthplace. The authors' lives and works are woven into Wheeler's descriptions of their historical homes, giving us full, rich portraits of the many diverse Russias from which these writers spoke.
As Wheeler travels, she follows local guides, boards with families in modest homestays, eats roe and pelmeni and cabbage soup, invokes recipes from Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, learns the language, and observes the weighty pattern of outcry and silence that characterizes life under Putin. Illustrated with both historic images and contemporary snapshots of the people and places that shaped Wheeler's journey, Mud and Stars gives us timely, stunning, deeply personal and wickedly funny insight into a country that has become more important than ever.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781524748012
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/05/2019
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 501,369
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

SARA WHEELER is the author of many works of nonfiction, including Terra Incognita, The Magnetic North (winner of the Banff Adventure Travel Prize), and Travels in a Thin Country. She contributes to a wide range of publications, including The New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, Vanity Fair, and The Daily Telegraph, and broadcasts regularly on BBC Radio. Wheeler lives in London.

Read an Excerpt

I. The People Stay Silent
“The people stay silent.”
“(Narod bezmolvstvuyet.)”
Pushkin, Boris Godunov

Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin was a lubricious, bawdy, impet­uous, whoring gambler who seldom missed an opportunity to pick a fight. He never had a proper job, even though he was for a while nominally at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a department of the Chancery. He lived mostly off his father. He had a tortured rela­tionship with both the civil service and the authorities. The govern­ment of Alexander I, the tsar who had defeated Napoleon and was by European standards a medieval figure, was becoming increasingly reactionary, and an incontinent loudmouth like Pushkin had no chance. One prince, a high-level civil servant, recorded in his diary after a dinner in January 1822, “Listened to Pushkin at table . . . he tries to convince everyone he meets . . . that only a scoundrel would not wish a change of government in Russia. His favorite conversa­tion is based on abuse and sarcasm and even when he tries to be polite there is a sardonic smile on his lips.” Pushkin was opposed to landowners, supported the abolition of serfdom, and indeed when he got going—according to the princely dinner companion—“began to pour abuse on all classes of the population.” He announced “that all noblemen should be hanged, and that he would tighten the noose round their necks with pleasure.” It is a testament to the respect in which literature was held that the government didn’t kill him. Of course, three generations later Pushkin’s dream of an egalitarian world came true in Russia. But they shot writers then.
Pushkin chose to write poems in Russian. Literary Russian had only evolved in the eighteenth century, stimulating a new school of poets from which Pushkin emerged. He turned to prose later. In his short story “The Queen of Spades” (“Pikovaya dama”), when the countess asks her grandson if he will bring her a novel, he replies with a ques­tion: Would she like a Russian one? “Are there any Russian novels?” the countess queries. (As a young woman in the middle of the eigh­teenth century, she read only in French.) Pushkin produced the first major Russian work in almost every literary genre. Just as Peter the Great, standing on the banks of the Neva, founded St. Petersburg “to open a window onto Europe,” so Pushkin both Russified literary Russian and made his nation’s books into something of Europe. And he is contemporary for all time.
The young Pushkin, “Sasha,” grew up with household serfs and then attended the prestigious Imperial Lycée, where pupils were not permit­ted to leave during their six-year term. They studied the humanities, following the English public school system, and cultivated the worship of male friendship. (“My friends, this brotherhood of ours will live. | United, like the soul, it cannot perish.”) Parents could visit on Sundays and feast days, but for two years, as a young teenager, Pushkin never saw his mother. While he was a pupil, Napoleon entered Moscow and for four days the city burned. This was the defining trauma of Pushkin’s generation. His uncle was one of many who lost everything. The man fled the city with only the clothes he stood up in.
In the summer of 1824 the tsar dismissed the poet from the civil service (besides his political leanings, Pushkin was having an affair with his boss’s wife, which can’t have helped). Alexander exiled him first to the south, and then to his ancestral estate in the northwest, where he remained under civil and church surveillance in the company of the serf Nikita Timofeyevich Kozlov, who had brought him up. Whenever a friend visited from Petersburg, the pair would hear the sleighbells of the abbot from the local monastery. The old man would shuffle in for a glass of rum, the three would drink and mumble in the candlelit room, and the abbot would ride off again to compose his report.

Table of Contents

Introduction xi
I. The People Stay Silent 1
II. A Heart’s Journey 29
III. The Heart Within the Tomb 65
IV. I Am Yours in Heart 91
V. We All Come Out from Under Gogol’s Overcoat 121
VI. We Shall Rest 147
VII. The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk 179
VIII. The Poetry of Procrastination 201
IX. Deep-Sea Fish 227
Envoi 257
Acknowledgments 259
Illustration Credits 261
Notes 265
Select Bibliography 277
Index 279

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