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Between the Hammer and the Sickle: Across Russia by Cycle.


Across Russia by Cycle. Simon Vickers. Sinclair-Stevenson. 16.95.[pounds]

On the eve of the French Revolution, Arthur Young, a well known agricultural writer, made a tour of France. His Travels in France was soon recognised as one of the best accounts of a country on the verge of revolution. Two centuries later this classic account was compulsory reading for history undergraduates at Oxford. Simon Vickers' book deserves a similar fate. When in that future students ask, |Why did Communism collapse?' the best answer would be to put Simon Vickers' book into their hands.

Readers of Contemporary Review may recall his article on his daunting ride across Russia. In April, 1990 three young Western cyclists, a Frenchman, an American and an Englishman, Simon Vickers, set out on a ride across Russia from Leningrad (as it still was called) to Vladivostock, which they reached in October. Most of the time they were accompanied by a Russian cyclist. In the course of this 7,500 mile journey they were able to see many parts and aspects of Russia that had been closed to Westerners for decades.

Simon Vickers provides a spirited and well-written account of Russian society on the verge of collapse. Like all good travel writers, he has the ability to make us identify with an existence that is, thankfully, different from anything we have known. There is no better guide to the realities of Russian life: a bankrupt system that could put men into space, but could not put food on the shelves. Anyone who still entertains any lingering admiration for the Soviet system should read this book as they will soon see how Communism spread a pall of misery, ugliness and boredom across that vast country. We have had several excellent recent accounts of the poverty and pollution of Soviet urban life. One of the great merits of Simon Vickers' book is that he takes us into the squalid villages of Russia with their ruined churches and battered lives. Like Archdeacon Coxe, who visited Russia in the late eighteenth century, Simon Vickers saw the constant effects of drunkenness on rural life. He gives an excellent portrait of the inefficiency and laziness that has destroyed the Russian economy.

The emphasis in this splendid book is not on politics, but rather on the way people live. Only one person he met in the course of the journey had a good word for Gorbachev. In spite of the misery of daily life, the Russian people proved to be friendly and generous. As one Russian friend told him at the end of the trip, |When you see with your own eyes, you come to realise that this world, turned upside down, still exists and people learn to live their lives in it ... and even learn to be happy.'

As with all good travel books, we soon identify with the traveller and share his struggles -- and they were many, from broken wheels to drab Soviet hotels. The endurance of these young men in their gruelling trip is admirable. Yet, as they would be the first to admit, the endurance of the Russian people is far greater. One hopes that Simon Vickers may make another trip through a free Russia in twenty years -- perhaps by a slightly less vigourous method -- and tell us how Russia has changed.
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Author:Mullen, Richard
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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