Geographical review: ‘Pravda Ha Ha: True Travels To The End Of Europe’, Rory MacLean (Bloomsbury, 2019)

In returning, nearly 30 years on, to the territories he last explored in his 1992 Trabant travelogue Stalin’s Nose, Rory MacLean sheds some bleak light on the manoeuvres of post-Soviet Russia and populist, post-truth Europe in the decades since the Wall came down – but, as we might expect given his book’s ironical title and subtitle, he plays his own curious games with truth and fiction.

We begin with the volatile Dmitri, an oligarch on the skids, and a search for a psychoactive fungus known colloquially as ‘Putin’s Pecker’. From here, the lens opens out on to the cordite-clouded vista of Moscow’s Patriot Park, ‘Russia’s military Disneyland’, where crowds gather for a live-fire army show, and celebrate ‘the glorious memory of the Great Patriotic War’. It’s our first introduction to one of MacLean’s key themes: the re-purposing of history for political ends. We find it here both in the bogus sanctification of Stalin’s victory over the Nazis and in Vladimir Putin’s malign manipulation of more recent history (MacLean is admirably matter-of-fact in explaining how false-flag bombings were used by the FSB to win support for a ‘patriotic’ war on Chechnya); later, and no less disturbingly, we are shown the same practices at work in shaping popular conceptions of history at museums in Budapest and Gdansk (‘We will find new facts,’ snaps a revisionist apparatchik at Gdansk’s museum of the Second World War).

Putin and his Russia are at the heart of Pravda Ha Ha, blackly symbolic of untruth, propaganda, Newspeak, dezinformatsiya, a ‘troll state’ weaponising its teeming bot farms to polarise and destabilise, poisoning the global discourse. ‘At the start of the 21st century,’ MacLean writes, ‘many Russians – and then many Westerners – lost their appetite for the truth. Lies became the glue that held people together.’

Appropriately, then, it’s through ‘Putin’s Pecker’ that MacLean first confronts truth and its obverse in his own work. ‘A writer promises to tell a reader what he or she believes to be true,’ he philosophises through a hallucinatory mushroom haze. ‘But what to do when one’s senses are all aflutter? And isn’t every account of the past … eventually revealed to be a story, written as all histories, of and for their time?’

It’s not clear if this kind of thing constitutes a sort of experimental immersive engagement with the post-truth world view, or if it’s more in the way of exculpation for a storyteller’s liberty-taking. This is reportage hammered into the shape of a novel, into the rhythms and cadences of fiction. The story of the Michael Jackson-loving African migrant Sami, at one point close to being smuggled out of Russia aboard a cruise ship courtesy of MacLean’s connections on a newspaper travel desk, is used as a framing device; Sami resurfaces, as we expect, at the end of the book, in a bizarre scene where he confronts a jingoistic chip-shop baron in a Preston sitting room decked out with Union Jacks and Daily Mail clippings.

This is also a deeply macho book, full of large men bellowing about black markets and the Russian soul over glasses of vodka, in steam rooms, at oil drum barbecues, through mouthfuls of meat. Women are often ‘petite’, and totter on high heels; of Nina Shtanski, foreign minister in the shadow state of Transnistria, MacLean writes: ‘Male diplomats from Brussels, Geneva and London had queued up to stare at her across the ministry’s broad boardroom table.’ MacLean’s worked-at prose doesn’t always help in this regard; one woman on a plane ‘cupped her in-flight sandwich as if it were a timid bird’.

The broader picture presented, though, is by turns fascinating and chilling, as a chronically insecure Russia rehearses war games in the Baltic, entrepreneurs on the post-Soviet fringe hawk dismantled nuclear subs and looted Caesium-137 to the highest bidder, and the states in Putin’s firing line – Ukraine, Estonia, et al – brace for conflict (‘We do not kid ourselves,’ says a former Estonian defence attaché. ‘We know war is coming’). These hard realities butt through the storyteller’s surface gloss, impossible to ignore, even as again and again MacLean and his interlocutors rehash the maxim of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s O’Brien, given as the book’s epigraph: ‘Reality is not external … Whatever the Party holds to be the truth, is truth.’

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