Back(roads) in the U.S.S.R.

July 26, 1992|By Myron Beckenstein


Marat Akchurin.


406 pages. $25.

7/8 "I . . . made a death mask of what was formerly the Soviet Union," writes Marat Akchurin of what he accomplished in "Red Odyssey." "That country no longer exists and never will again."

That was the result, not what he set out to do, because when he left on his backwater tour in 1990 the Soviet Union still was sputtering along and the unimaginable events of August 1991 were still unimaginable.

Most of the news westerners got about the Soviet republics dealt with Moscow and the major Russian cities. Most of the news the Soviets got dealt with these places, too.

But, as shown by the sudden appearance of 16 countries where one had been, there is much more. Mr. Akchurin wanted to find out what was happening out back, especially if Gorbachev was as disliked in the hinterlands as he was in Moscow.

So he headed off for the area he was most interested in, the four Central Asian republics -- Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan -- with Azerbaijan completing the loop.

As an observer, Mr. Akchurin carried good credentials. Though he lived in Moscow, he is a Tatar from Uzbekistan and has a master's degree in Muslim cultures. He also was the rare Soviet who had traveled and lived outside the country.

Thus he had the broad perspective to see the lands as an outsider would see them and also the knowledge to judge properly what he saw. He could avoid the twin pitfalls of such books -- inconsequentiality and superficiality.

Mr. Akchurin also chose to make the trip mainly by road. In the United States, you wake up in the morning, decide you want to go to California, hop in your car and in a few days you are there.

In the Soviet lands, things are not that easy. Cars are few; roads are primitive and as much a hazard as a conveyor. Repair facilities are hard to come by, and overnight accommodations for travelers range between nonexistent and all-but-nonexistent.

Even such taken-for-granteds as road numbers are a challenge: "The atlas designated it M-8, but according to the road signs it was M-7. A discrepancy of just one is not bad for the U.S.S.R."

The reason the trip was possible, and one of the reasons the book works so well, is that Mr. Akchurin had family, friends or acquaintances scattered strategically along his route. Not only did they give him places to stay and other assistances, but they offered the insights he wanted.

It is these discussions that Mr. Akchurin, a poet and songwriter, fTC seems most intent on. He calls his book a "wandering of the spirit."

But the physical challenges can't be overlooked, and shouldn't be. After his first driver turned back to Moscow when Mr. Akchurin damaged the car on a bad road (remember how precious cars are and how few repair facilities are), Mr. Akchurin completed the journey by hitchhiking, intercity taxi (sometimes hundreds of miles at a clip), riding with new or old friends, or traveling by truck, boat and plane. Plane is a common long-distance mode of travel, but trying to get a ticket quickly is the catch.

Then there is the problem of crime and thuggery. Several times Mr. Akchurin had to use his fists and/or wits to get away from people who wished him no good. Once he jumped from a slowly moving train to escape.

"Red Odyssey" -- which was written in English, not translated -- is a mixture of universal truths ("Other people's children always grow quickly"), universal Soviet truths ("One characteristic of Soviet culture is that Soviet people are used to distrusting any kind of polite behavior, and they react to it with some suspicion") and localized truths (most of the book).

Also not to be overlooked is his observation: "Everyone has the right to his own point of view. The main thing is not to be shot for it."

A portfolio of pictures at first looks like second-rate home snapshots. But when looking at the pictures as you read about the people, they become a collection of fascinating faces, which also show the diversity of Soviet Man.

Fortunately, there is a map giving the rough outline of Mr. Akchurin's journey. Unfortunately, the map could have been better.

Mr. Akchurin's low opinion of his country was reinforced by his trip. He continued his travels later by emigrating to California.

Mr. Beckenstein is assistant foreign editor of The Sun.

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