Casting About in Russia's Outskirts


Most Western books that inquire into the nature of modern Russia begin with the center of power in Moscow and make only occasional forays into the fringes of Russian society. But "Reeling in Russia" begins at the fringes and stays there.

Fen Montaigne, the former Moscow bureau chief of the Philadelphia Inquirer, conceived the novel idea of combining his interest in Russia and its people with his newfound sport of fly fishing. For one summer he fished for trout, salmon and char from the White Sea of the Northwest through Siberia (after a stop on the Volga River) to the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Far East.

What he found was a Russia mired in incompetence, soaked in corruption and drenched in alcohol. The bad pun of the title refers both to fishing and to alcohol. Montaigne quotes a Russian saying: "Fishing is drinking with hip boots on."

He plunged into the culture of vodka at the beginning of his trip, which opened in the islands of the White Sea, the birthplace of Stalin's Gulag Archipelago.

Montaigne writes that after a long and boozy night, "It was beginning to dawn on me why the country was functioning so poorly. At any given time, half the male population was either drunk or hungover."

He adds: "So widespread was the practice of curing a hangover by boozing it up again in the morning that the Russians had a special word for it, pokhmelitsa. It was a word, and a ritual, I would encounter repeatedly in the next three months."

Pretty soon Montaigne was acting like his Russian friends, going to blazingly hot baths and taking drunken rides in fast boats and beaten-up trucks.

Montaigne didn't catch as many fish as he had hoped. But the poor fishing was by no means all his fault. The Russians have despoiled their rivers and lakes, as they have so much else of their matchless landscape, with industrial pollution. There just aren't as many fish as there used to be, or should be now.

In some parts of Russia the law expressly protects fish from over-harvesting, but Montaigne found the law universally flouted. Where only limited fishing by hook was permitted, he found game wardens doing the poaching themselves--by net.

Montaigne's tone was more baffled than enlightened by the end of his trip. It was as if he had expected to like the Russians as a people more than he actually did.

He held fast to a few true Russian friends, men and women who were not corrupted by their surroundings, who had not succumbed to despair. But to the reader they seem only a leavening few in a sea of physical and moral misery.

Earlier in the trip, a friend, a kind of modest Russian hero fervent to learn and reveal the Gulag's foul secrets, takes Montaigne to a small village in the northwest.

On a "glorious Saturday morning" in early summer, Montaigne says, he saw "four young men weaving down the dirt main street, their faces assuming the crimson, contorted aspect of the hard-core alcoholic."

But the same morning he encountered "women in flowered housedresses and kerchiefs" working on their potato gardens, for "in rural Russia a larger garden meant the difference between a full stomach and a growling one."

"Reeling in Russia" suggests that the kind of hard work these women were doing, performed in the face of numbing adversity, will, if anything can, lift Russia from its ancient torpor into a more modern and perhaps happier state.

"Only a fool," Montaigne writes, "would predict the future of such a place, but I finished my journey with the same conviction I had when I started: There was no way back for Russia, and slowly, over the coming decades, it would continue to lurch forward."

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