Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Biała gorączka by Jacek Hugo-Bader

Once again my daughter Moni put me onto a winner; books that she suggests I read always turn out to be good ones. Jacek Hugo-Bader is a name I know from the pages of Gazeta Wyborcza; his reportage engenders in me respect for his sheer courage. He writes from tight spots, often surrounded by dangerous and unpredictable people from society's lower depths. Comparisons with Ryszard Kapuściński often come up when discussing Hugo-Bader. More on this later.

Biała gorączka ('White Fever') is a lower-depths travelogue across the former USSR and comes in two parts; the first is an account of his 2007 journey by road across Russia, from Moscow to Vladivostok in 55 days, while the second is a collection of shorter reportages from Ukraine, Moldova, Transdniestria, Siberia and Moscow. The latter were written between 2004 and 2009.

Essentially, its about a world gone wrong, a world that went wrong centuries ago, so badly broken, that though it's not as bad as it was, is so exhausted by the wrong that it has become too indifferent to fix it. The book dives into a world of alcohol, drugs, prostitution, HIV, sale of human organs, of human bodies, entrenched corruption - a wretched catalogue of woes visited on Russia and upon the lands it touched.

Hugo-Bader sets off to cross Russia overland. In a four-wheel drive. He turns down the offer of a fully-loaded Audi Q7 from Polish billionaire Jan Kulczyk in favour of a 12 year-old UAZ-469 on Moscow plates, which would render him less conspicuous on the asphalt-free Siberian roads. The vehicle is suitably kitted out for a 13,000 km trans-Siberian voyage in mid-winter. And his guidebook for the journey is the 1957 popular-science text, Reportage from the 21st Century, in which Soviet scientists proclaim the fantastic country which the USSR will have become by 2007. Hugo-Bader contrasts the glowing visions of the future - electric vehicles gliding over ice-free roads, metre-long carrots, a nuclear sun lighting the dark Siberian winter, cancer a terrible memory of the past - with the current state of Russia.

Along the way, he describes the people he meets and the sheer awfulness of their lives. One exception is a religious commune he visits. "There are six people currently claiming to be Christ," he writes, "three of them live in Russia." The cooperative, alcohol- and drug-free villages inhabited by the disciples of Vissarion, the reincarnation of Christ, is in part strange, part uplifting (here there is no crime or other social evils that plague Russia) but ultimately depressing (yet another control-freak imposing his will on weak people), and yes, they believe that Jews control the world etc etc.

Hugo-Bader's heart of darkness lies in Siberia. He visits the Evenk people, an indigenous race being slowly wiped out by alcohol. Like Native Americans, the Evenk's diet of meat, fish, mushrooms and berries has left their bodies incapable of metabolising alcohol normally, so they get drunk very quickly. They will binge-drink for days, after which they get white fever, and when it takes them, they will do wild and life-threatening things, such as run naked in the snow for tens of kilometres.

He visits the village of Bamnak in the Amur region, and catalogues the deaths of 21 reindeer shepherds from a collective farm. Pretty much all of them. And all alcohol-related.

Like Ryszard Kapuściński in Africa, Jacek Hugo-Bader has some close shaves himself. This is a dangerous land. He is forced to drive hundreds of kilometres over icy roads in Siberia with no brakes, he witnesses a murder by car-thieves, his UAZ-469 crashes at night, it's -40C outside, no one will stop to help him...

Russia is a pitiless land, and fast becoming a trendy holiday destination for thrill-seekers who want to go somewhere 'authentic' so they can impress their friends at dinner parties in the rich world. Biała gorączka will show just how bestial a nation can get after centuries of a boot stamping down on its face.

Other reportages include accounts of life in a Ukrainian coal mining community, touched by frequent disasters; Yalta, where a corrupt elite is brazenly helping itself to Tsarist-era buildings, destroying them and building awful monuments to bad taste; Moldova - what people will do to quickly make a few hundred bucks - and the price they pay for it; Transdniestria - how a bunch of Soviet army officers managed to make off with a whole country; Tyumen - what became of the Soviet elite; and back to Moscow to spend a few days with homeless alcoholics.

Not a chink of hope, not a ray of sunlight. A country that's bad, bad, bad. Well, I won't be visiting in a hurry. Maybe when Russia joins the EU!

Why is Jacek Hugo-Bader not the Ryszard Kapuściński de nos jours? In a word, the internet. It has made any part of the world accessible, via Google Earth, Wikipedia and Panoramio - want to see what Ethopia or Iran or Guatemala or indeed Transdniestria or Yakutia look like - you don't need to spend more than a few minutes assuaging your curiosity. It's all there; a few taps on the keyboard are all that's necessary. Had Kapuściński been writing today, he'd have found his voice much harder to be heard. Having said that, White Fever: A Journey to the Frozen Heart of Siberia has appeared in English, and was indeed shortlisted for the Dolman Best Travel Book award 2012.

This time last year:
The world mourns the death of Kim Jong Il

This time two years ago:
Global warming or climate change?

This time three years ago:
Progress along the S79


Anonymous said...

I was the first person to reserve the English copy at the library.
The book is on order. It will take a few weeks to distribute copies once the order arrives.


Tomo1976 said...

Vision of Russia in this book is exaggerated. Author describes Russians almost like animals. I visit this country, went on Transsiberian Railway to Sibiria and i met so many nice, helpful and friendly people. Of course there are negative things too but i have to admit taht Russia is quite safe country. This is my relation from trip (in polish):