Everything but Borscht: Exploring the Ambiguities of Russia with Sara Wheeler and Ethan Pollock

By Randy RosenthalNovember 5, 2019

Everything but Borscht: Exploring the Ambiguities of Russia with Sara Wheeler and Ethan Pollock

Mud and Stars by Sara Wheeler
Without the Banya We Would Perish by Ethan Pollock

WHEN DOSTOYEVSKY FIRST read Anna Karenina, he called the novel “boring.” Tolstoy, on the other hand, said he did not know “a better book in all modern literature” than Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead. Dostoyevsky was seven years older than Tolstoy, and three years younger than Ivan Turgenev, who thought Dostoyevsky’s ideas about mystical Russianness were nonsense. When Turgenev was dying, he wrote to Tolstoy “to say how glad I was to have been a contemporary of yours.” Nikolai Leskov went further in his admiration, becoming a devoted disciple of Tolstoy after meeting him in 1887. Decades earlier, Tolstoy was “in raptures” over Ivan Goncharov’s novel Oblomov, which he called “a truly great work” that he kept rereading. Chekhov was also fan, praising Goncharov as “ten heads above me in talent.” But Goncharov was jealous of Turgenev, and accused him of plagiarism. Once, Goncharov saw Turgenev at a park in St. Petersburg and ran away shouting, “A thief! A thief!”

With gossipy bits like these, Sara Wheeler’s delightful book Mud and Stars: Travels in Russia with Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Other Geniuses of the Golden Age reminds us that the giants of the Russian 19th century were indeed contemporaries, commenting on one another’s work as it came out, supporting and rivaling each other. Besides Alexander Pushkin and Tolstoy, the “other geniuses” of Wheeler’s subtitle include Nikolai Gogol, Mikhail Lermontov, Leskov, Turgenev, Goncharov, Chekhov, and, of course, Dostoyevsky. For her, these are the stars of Russia’s Golden Age, which she defines broadly as the period between 1800 and 1910, the year of Tolstoy’s death.

Each chapter focuses on one writer, but Wheeler is not very interested in biography. Yes, as she travels around their old stomping grounds, we learn where the authors lived, whom they married, how they died, and the various struggles they faced — each experienced censorship and, at times, serious oppression, a tradition that continued into the Soviet era and beyond. But the book reveals more about Wheeler herself. She first visited Russia when she was 11 and says she “has been looking over [her] shoulder at it ever since.” Boldly calling Russia a “kleptocracy” currently “in the grip of a murderous dictatorship,” she nevertheless feels the country “is lovable despite it all.” Mud and Stars seems to be Wheeler’s attempt to understand her own ambivalent Russophilia.


In the introduction, Wheeler claims there “is no such thing as the Russian soul, or perhaps even Russian culture.” By following in these authors’ footsteps, she aims to understand instead the emotional landscape of Russia. Generally avoiding Moscow and St. Petersburg, cities that she finds “so unrepresentative of Russia,” she travels along the Volga, the Oka, and the Velikaya rivers. She hikes around the Caucasus and the Black Sea. She even trains out to Lake Baikal in the midst of winter, stopping in the Siberian cities and outposts along the way.

Wheeler prefers homestays over hotels, and her characters are the Russian hosts and guides she meets during her trips. She includes entries from her journals, and describes her progress learning Russian (it’s never that good, but she can at least read Chekhov in the original). She is fond of Russian cuisine, and chapters are often paced by the dishes she learns to cook. She notes there are 86 kinds of food mentioned in Gogol’s Dead Souls, and highlights the author’s ode to kulebyaka, a traditional fish pie that also appears in Turgenev. Wheeler makes the dish at home in the United Kingdom with her family, using a recipe from Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, a book that “tells the story of post-Revolutionary Russia through the prism of one family’s meals.” She also relies on The Best of Russian Cooking, by Alexandra Kropotkin, who warns, when making pirozhki, that “your true Russian entertains a violent passion for dill — and dill is an herb that can permeate your life if you don’t watch it.” Often, Wheeler defines a locale’s culture with a casual list of dishes; at a restaurant in Siberia, she works her way through “cabbage soup, pickled herring, liver stroganoff with watery mashed potatoes, pork dumplings and doughy pelmeni packets.” And while watching TV with her host Tamara, Wheeler writes, “We ate bliny and a kind of stiff cottage cheese called tvorog with bilberry jam spooned onto the plate.” She includes everything but borscht.

Besides making your stomach growl with descriptions of rich food, Wheeler also causes eyebrows to rise with her stylistic flourishes. While studying Russian in Moscow, she notes: “Cherry trees outside the classroom window, foaming with blossoms, glowed in late afternoon sun.” Foaming? Very nice. Driving near Pskov, she writes, “Light the colour of an unripe lemon slanted through the birch forest.” It’s the unripe that made me blink. In the Siberian region of Chukotka, Wheeler enters a cathedral for an evening service and describes the scene:

Inside, candlelight flickered over painted faces, the tidal drone of a male choir rose and fell and ponytailed young monks strode around noiselessly, following the muttered instructions of the priest, a tall, broad figure whose stomach swelled tight against the black fabric of his robe. Puffs of incense smoke trailed woozily among the dozen worshippers, who shifted from foot to foot, touching their headscarves.

If you’ve never set foot in a Russian Orthodox Cathedral, you now know what it’s like to do so. What could be more Russian, you might ask? Perhaps the banya.

It might sound unpleasant to sweat in 200-degree heat while being thrashed by birch branches, but it’s rather exhilarating. Resting between steams at a banya in Mtsenk, Wheeler tells her host Natasha that “the banya reflects something immutable about Russian history, despite the cataclysm of events.” Natasha replies, with typical Russian resignation, that each cataclysm produces the same results, and nothing ever changes; be that as it may, Wheeler’s observation is true. As professor Ethan Pollock writes in Without the Banya We Would Perish, “Whenever and wherever there have been Russians, there have been banyas.”

In fact, banyas may date even earlier. In 440 BCE, Herodotus wrote in Histories that the Scythians (of present-day Ukraine and southern Russia) went under wool coverings and threw cannabis seeds onto blazing-hot stones, which produced a euphoric vapor in which they bathed. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone in Los Angeles opened up a Scythian banya, but traditional Russian ones don’t involve cannabis. What makes a banya distinct from, say, the dry Finnish sauna, is the steam — and also the birch branches (venik), which are used to bring heat to the body and open up the capillaries. And rather than one room, a banya usually has three components. There is an entrance and changing area (predbannik), where in between steams people snack and sip beer or kvas, a drink made from fermented bread. In the steam room (parnaya), stones are heated by a fire until they’re red hot, and then water is poured on the stones to create steam. Then there is also a washing room, which today often includes a shower, but historically was where people dumped buckets of cold or hot water over themselves. It’s also common for people to jump into icy pools or roll in the snow between steams.

For centuries, the banya was the primary way for Russians to bathe. An early description of banya activities is found in The Primary Chronicle — a 12th-century history of the founding of Kievan Rus, the state that gave rise both to Ukraine and to Muscovite Russia — suggesting, as Pollock writes, that “the banya was always inseparable from the very idea of Russia and Russians.” From the 16th century on, the banya was lauded as a medicinal cure-all, a place to become physically as well as spiritually clean. But it was also condemned on moral grounds; offering privacy and anonymity while allowing nudity, banyas are ideal places for prostitution and sexual liaisons of all sorts. Early tsars supported banyas because their fees brought in tax revenue, Catherine the Great championed them as evidence of Russian hygienic advancement, and Boris Yelstin treated them as secular sites of revelation. The banya perhaps reached its own golden age in the last years of the Russian Empire and its low point during the Civil War, when most were closed and, as a result, thousands of Russians died from typhus and relapsing fever. During the Soviet period the banya was “socialist in principle but capitalist in fact,” meaning that although it was ostensibly free to enter, fees were required for services, which were usually quite bad.

In Pollock’s account, the banya is an inarguably quintessential Russian institution, but also reveals perennial institutional dysfunction. This refrain is repeated so often that Without the Banya We Would Perish can feel somewhat repetitive; Pollock pushes through history, but it feels like we’re standing still. Perhaps Wheeler’s host Natasha was right after all? Ironically, it wasn’t until the prevalence of indoor plumbing and private showers, in the 1980s, that the banya, instead of going obsolete, secured its present status in Russian culture as a place for relaxation and socialization, not merely somewhere to get clean. In the early post-Soviet period, the banya may have been the only secular institution that provided Russians with a unifying tradition and a safe connection to the past.

By then, the banya played a prominent role in many of Russia’s most beloved films, but it had always captured the fascination of the nation’s best writers. Pollock mentions stories by Pushkin, Chekov, Dostoyevsky, and Teffi that take place in banyas. Vasily Rozanov, a popular and controversial writer of the late Imperial period, declared that “the banya remains,” having survived a millennium from Kievan Rus through the Revolution. And as for Dostoyevsky, he was “drawn to the ambiguity of the banya — as clean and dirty, as pure and corrupt, and as a potential gateway to both hell and salvation.” According to his confidant and biographer, Nikolai Strakhov, Dostoyevsky once raped an underage girl in a banya. No one knows if this rumor is true, but because of it, Pollack grandly writes that “[t]he banya was at the unknowable core of Dostoevsky, just as it was at the unknowable core of Russian identity more generally.”


This rumor of rape is deeply troubling, of course, as is the blatant antisemitism of Dostoyevsky’s columns and letters, which Sara Wheeler mentions in Mud and Stars. But I’m also troubled by Wheeler’s own take on Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, which she admits she found “almost unreadable — there is a kind of shattering dullness about it — and had little idea what it was about.” This confession hit me like a punch in the gut, because if you don’t understand Notes from Underground, you don’t understand one of the central trends in Russian thought. We enjoy a toothache, says the Underground Man, because we get to complain about it and elicit sympathy from others. And even though we know two plus two is four, we’ll fight against it, because we value freedom more than logic. We’ll make choices that devastate our lives, simply for the hell of it. Yes, there’s a strong current of irrationality in Russian culture, and Dostoyevsky captures it unforgettably in his slim proto-existentialist novel. Wheeler might think that there’s no such thing as the Russian soul, and many of us might agree, but I bet Dostoyevsky would argue otherwise.


Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard University, where he is also an Associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

LARB Contributor

Randy Rosenthal is the co-founding editor of the literary journals The Coffin Factory and Tweed’s Magazine of Literature & Art. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Washington Post, The New York Journal of Books, Paris Review Daily, Bookforum, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, The Daily Beast, and The Brooklyn Rail. He is a recent graduate of Harvard Divinity School, where he studied religion and literature, and currently teaches writing classes at Harvard.


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