Book: The White Birch: A Russian Reflection, by Tom Jeffreys

Somewhere between nature writing, cultural history and travel writing sits Tom Jeffreys’ companionable guide to Russia, The White Birch.

His point of departure is a single species of tree. There are white birches in palatial gardens, botanical gardens, and protected forest; in nineteenth century landscape paintings, realist novels, dissident poetry and contemporary artworks. It emerges as a very Russian tree, but the Ukraine and the Nordic lands also lay claim to it. This ramble across time and space in a distant land frequently finds itself in political territory.

The birch is a symbol of national identity, in a nation where so many millions died to protect the land from Nazi invasion. The narrative in which Communism defeated Fascism may offer hope. But Jeffreys disturbs this by recalling Stalin’s non-aggression pact with Hitler, Russia’s landgrabbing behaviour in the subsequent months, and labour camps in Siberia so vast and distant they didn’t even require barbed wire fences. A virulent anti-semitic strain to Russian cultural life in the previous century is also shocking.

So the patriotic birch is never neutral, at least its ownership remains in question. In 2011 Russians came together to defy government plans for a motorway to slice through Khimki birch forest outside Moscow. Protestors met with the police and at times the secret police. Leading voice for the resistance, journalist Mikhail Beketov, was particularly unfortunate; his dog was killed, his car was torched, and he was left with brain damage after a physical attack. These injuries finally killed him in 2013.

The author of this book is aware of the dangers of controversial opinions here; his travel adventures are tinged with paranoia. Near Krasnoyarsk, he gets anxious about the publication of his most recent art story, which describes a gallery visit against the backdrop of the Moscow mayoral elections. Bad dreams haunt his train ride. On Russky Island he totally loses his bearings, and wanders into equally spooky territory, and a feeling he does not belong. “I am not a brave person,” he claims, although he is brave enough to travel Russia and publish books.

But Jeffreys is a self-deprecating wit. In the Russian Forest Museum, Moscow he points out a hedgehog in a painting, and tries to impress a sombre curator by suddenly recalling the word “Yeshik!”, which is Russian for this creature. He says of an oft painted estate north of Moscow: “Abramtsevo feels sometimes like a place built for children – or even by children.” And he notes the “comic villainy” of another dog owner, who watches his pet chase a cat, while calmly peeling an apple with a knife.

He may not be fully fluent in Russian, but the author’s greatest strengths are observational. These pages abound with close descriptions of the Russian countryside, which chime with descriptions of nineteenth century landscape paintings. He cites a wonderful description of Ivan Shishkin, a realist painter so detailed he was called ‘the accountant of leaves’. And when Jeffreys encounters the Russian public’s favourite painting, The Rooks Have Returned, by Alexei Savrasov, he notes, a bit snippily, the poor behaviour of foreign tour parties in the Tretyakov Museum. One guide not only touches the art, she rubs the painted canvas to illustrate her spiel.

But in 1986 the Russian countryside changed, invisibly, forever, and Jeffreys’ descriptions of the flora and fauna come up against their limit when he visits Chernobyl. The explosion of a nuclear reactor, which shook the world, has been said to have led directly to Glasnost, then Perestroika, to the collapse of the Soviet Union, to the current mood of Russian nationalism. Visiting the site at the time, a newspaper editor reported a sensation of tingling on his face and a metallic taste in the mouth. Ants and bees were reported as retreating to their nests.

On his excursion to Chernobyl and visits to gardens like those at Gatchina Palace, Jeffreys is among tourists and this gives him pause. His book culminates with a very fun-sounding trip on the Trans-Siberian express. In places, Jeffreys seems aware he could stray into a tourist role. He is most at home talking about art and literature, yet this book takes several detours around history, international relations, architecture and folklore.

The White Birch may be an ostensible study of a single species of tree. But as shown, it’s a lot more ambitious. Jeffreys positions himself as an obsessive slavophile and a blundering botanist, rather than a world authority on Russia. Who could be such a thing!? As a result one is very happy to enjoy this self-reflexive journey, some most erudite travel writing about a most fascinating land.

The White Birch: A Russian Reflection is published by Corsair, pp. 337, ©2021. Available from the Portobello Bookshop among others.

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