From Russia with Spite: reviewing Pravda Ha Ha by Rory MacLean3 min read
I wanted very badly to like Pravda Ha Ha, Rory MacLean’s travelogue-cum-treatise on the decline of truth and democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. I like Central and Eastern Europe. I like travel writing. I even don’t mind books about politics, if I’m in the right mood.
But I found myself groaning with disappointment at nearly every chapter of Pravda Ha Ha, which charts the author’s journey from Moscow to Berlin. The first time I groaned was when MacLean described a Nigerian migrant as sporting a “nest of hair – gathered, coiled and woven into a dense stack as if by a precise subtropical bird – tilted on his head like a living black turban”. Surely, I thought, mid-groan, that’s not how we write about the bodies of people of colour? About anyone? But it is how MacLean writes about people of colour and, it turns out, also about women, who can be expected to “chirp… in mischievous English.”
Is it chauvinism, I wondered, or ornithology?
The second time I groaned was when I realised how determined MacLean was to hate his experiences abroad. Not since giving my parakeet a bath have I seen such commitment to having a bad time. MacLean was upset by the “demonic air” of the Moscow Kremlin (yes, actually) and “shivered” at the sight of visitors. He disliked his apartment building because “Its raw concrete walls blocked out the sun”, evidently inadequate compared to the cellophane structures of London and New York. He called a fountain a “frothy confection”.
The fountain wasn’t good enough for him.
Of course there’s no need for a writer to like their subject, but it’s hard to imagine why MacLean, who is not Russian, is not a Russia specialist, and, by his own account, hardly speaks Russian, would travel to Russia to write a book about Russia. (The same can be said for Estonia, Hungary, and the other stops on his trip, although MacLean seems to like those countries a bit more.) Certainly there is no dearth of good, politically-minded travelogues about Russia and Eastern Europe, like Peter Pomerantzev’s Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible and Shaun Walker’s The Long Hangover. These books by no means applaud Putin’s Russia, but approach their subject with a degree of intellectual seriousness suggesting a base level of respect greater than “frothy confection”.
I think I groaned loadest each time I came across one of MacLean’s factual errors, of which there are, simply, too many in Pravda Ha Ha. MacLean claims that “Kaliningrad’s residents are sixty-five times poorer than the average EU citizen” (they aren’t), that Vladimir Putin “triggered or manipulated” the war in Syria (he didn’t), and that “In 1989, at the end of the Cold War, Russia wasn’t connected to the internet” (it was, if not to the World Wide Web – which didn’t exist yet).
I want you to understand – I read this book in a public park, and by the third groan, parents were shepherding their children away from me.
In all seriousness, Pravda Ha Ha is an interesting – at times exciting – travelogue, and a badly under-researched political text. It makes use of sources that are nearly 20 years old and wrong by orders of magnitude. It repeats without criticism the broad strokes and simplistic narratives that define and deteriorate popular conversations about civil society and politics in Central and Eastern Europe.
If MacLean had done his research, he might have understood how nuanced the political climate in the New Europe really is. If he had landed in Moscow with an open mind, he might have noticed the good with the bad, the hope with the despair. If he had chosen to interview teachers and doctors, artists and activists instead of oligarchs and tour guides, MacLean might have been able to tell new stories, instead of reiterating old cliches.
Rory MacLean’s Pravda Ha Ha was published by Bloomsbury in 2019.
The featured image for this article is adapted from a photo by Mikhail M. Falenkov (Qapla) and is used under license CC BY-SA 4.0.