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Review 

  
“The Red Quest – Travels through 22 former Soviet Republics”,
by Jason Smart (self-published at Smart Travel Publishing, no place of publication given, 2013), 281 pages.
Reviewed in January 2019
  
  
--- NOTE: If you want to skip the details (and avoid any spoilers) you can go straight to the conclusion ---
   
  
REVIEW:
The subtitle of this book should strike anybody with a basic knowledge of the Soviet era as decidedly odd: “22 former Soviet Republics”?!? What? The ex-USSR only had 15!! But it doesn't take too much guesswork to assume (correctly) that the author simply lumps the other Warsaw Pact countries together with their master state … yet that still gives you only 21 states. Ah, but hang on, the ČSSR subsequently split into two countries, so if you count them separately you get it: 22! However, the book has 23 country chapters … ah, there's a separate chapter about Transnistria, which split away from Moldova, but, unlike the Czech Republic and Slovakia remains an unrecognized nation … so it doesn't count as a “Soviet republic” here, but still gets a chapter. Oh, and the author nearly forgot to include East Germany (GDR), but at the last minute included that too. So, fair enough, in some roundabout way it does add up in the end … but confusing it is, to say the least.
   
Even if the number can be justified, the word “travels to [x] republics” remains not strictly speaking correct. Not because these countries were not republics (they are, even if only in name, in some cases), but almost everywhere he goes the author only ever visits these countries' capital cities. And as we know, a country's capital city and the country as such can be very different things (e.g. going by London and the rest of Britain!). The only exceptions are Almaty in Kazakhstan, which is the country's former capital (since 1997 moved to Astana), and Krakow in Poland. And only twice does he briefly venture out of the city. Moreover, he only allocates between five hours (Prague) and a couple of days to each destination, so it's hardly in-depth explorations.
   
  
But let's look at the content of the book a bit closer:
   
The book splits roughly into two halves, and they are very different halves indeed. To give it away already, it is the second half that is the far better one, because that's where he travels solo and much further afield. On the trips covered in the first half, all in Europe, the author is accompanied either by his wife or some friends. And the general approach is: book a flight, get a taxi to a central mainstream hotel, then consult a guidebook and do the prescribed essentials. So there is often quite a degree of naivety and unpreparedness as well as common misunderstandings that form the the starting points. (Btw. this is also exemplified by the protagonists frequently referring to the whole Eastern Bloc, or any of its constituent countries, simply as “Russia(n)”. Typically Western!)
   
Granted, though, the author himself is otherwise very sympathetic to all these countries and his quest to get to see every single one of them seems to be driven by genuine interest (which cannot be said about most of his other English travel companions). And you can see this developing further as he goes along. At the start it's all typical English ignorance and stereotypes, and the motto seems to be “medieval old towns with spiky turrets = good – vs actual genuine Soviet things = bad”. So very mainstream in attitude. But then observe how that changes over the course of the book, especially once the author gets beyond Europe! But I'm getting ahead of myself.
   
I should have clarified why the book is relevant to dark tourism in the first place, so that a review of it features here. After all the book is not overtly about dark tourism, and nowhere in it do the words “dark” and “tourism” appear in the same phrase. Yet plenty of reference to chapters of dark history is made, and many of the places commemorating them are visited on the travels described.
   
In general, the book is part personal travelogue and part short history lessons. None is in great depth, so it is for those who, like the author initially, don't have much previous familiarity with the former Eastern Bloc and the histories of its countries. It is a good introduction, told with compassion and real-time insight-gathering, but the accounts of this are brief enough not to get lost in too much detail.
   
It all kicks off with Latvia, or rather Riga, Latvia's capital. The quaint prettiness of the Old Town is amply acknowledged, but some dark history is also briefly reported, including the massacres at Rumbula (though the author does not actually go to see the site and the memorial there). Similarly the second chapter's topic: Estonia – covered here is only the Old Town of Tallinn, and the only reference to a dark site is the former KGB building with its bricked-up basement cells. Similarly in the third chapter: in Slovakia's capital Bratislava, he and a few of his mates tick off the Old Town and some churches, but no dark sites, though some of the country's dark history is mentioned on the side. In the fourth chapter, devoted to Lithuania, the third of the Baltic countries, however, this changes: for once a genuine dark-tourism attraction does get a full page-and-a-half worth of attention: the Museum of Genocide Victims in Vilnius.
   
At this point the idea of the “quest” (to go and see all of the former Soviet/Eastern-Bloc countries) had developed in the author's head … yet he has to face the obstacle of his wife preferring to go to “normal” places such as Paris or Naples. Yet he manages to convince her to give a few more Eastern European cities a try. Next is Budapest, capital of Hungary. Again, amongst the travelogue, the ticking off of mainstream tourist sites and the interspersed history lessons (e.g. about the 1956 uprising), is a visit to one of the city's prime dark-tourism attractions: the House of Terror. A full two pages are given over to this and it is a very thoughtful coverage. The DT elements in this book seem to be finding their groove …
    
The next destination is Moscow … and here begin the typical hassles involved in travelling beyond the ease of almost-western former Eastern countries such as the Baltics or Slovakia. Russia for the first time involves some hard work: in particular the complicated visa application process and the unfamiliar alphabet (which – kudos for that – the author dutifully learns before setting off). Once in Moscow, the author and his wife stay within only a small central part of the city but this includes several sites of dark-tourism relevance: Red Square and the Kremlin, the Lenin Mausoleum and the Lubyanka.
    
After that the author ups the ante by proposing a combined trip to Romania (Bucharest), Moldova (Chisinau), and Ukraine (Kiev) in one go. With this he hits the wife's resistance, and instead goes with a friend of his. The Bucharest chapter is full of Ceaușescu stories, and several of the relevant sites are visited (such as Revolution Square). Next is Chisinau, Moldova, where they get off to a bad start due to the rainy weather, but things pick up later. The main bit of relevance to dark tourism is actually outside Chisinau – and in fact a separate “country”, given a separate chapter: a day trip to the breakaway “republic” of Transinstria. Now we are on full-on dark-tourism territory, and it is exotic and a bit adventurous … The coverage of it is very reminiscent of my own recollections of that bizarre little “Soviet-open-air-museum” country. The final leg of this trip is Kiev. At first it covers only the usual mainstream sights (various churches, Andrew's Descent, the Caves Monastery) plus some interspersed history (mainly about how Ukraine suffered under Stalin). In terms of dark tourism there's just a short two paragraphs about Rodina Mat, the Motherland Statue (which the author later erroneously refers to as “Mother Kiev”) – the war museum underneath her was closed at the time – and a more intense three paragraphs about the Chernobyl Museum, which clearly moved the two men. The fact that you could also go and visit Chernobyl itself does not get a mention (they were probably unaware of this). The “highlight” of this chapter is something altogether different anyway: they get lost in some back streets in the dark and suddenly find themselves confronted with, and nearly attacked by a pack of feral dogs. Eventually they manage to shoo them away though. Nobody got hurt. But that was the most “dangerous” situation of the whole set of adventures.
   
Next up, and again with the wife, is Bulgaria's capital Sofia, which the author persuaded his wife to accompany him to on the promise that on the way back they tag on the Czech Republic, or rather: Prague … or rather: a five-hour layover in Prague, which the author deems “ample time to flavour the highlights of the city” (p. 115) … maybe he meant “savour”, but still, five hours in Prague is hardly enough for even beginning to scratch the surface. But never mind. In Sofia they get ripped off big time by an airport taxi driver (I presume this is filed under 'adventure' too) but nothing especially dark-touristy is visited, except perhaps the Soviet Army Monument. Yet, as usual, some dark history is thrown in between the travelogue, in this case mainly about Bulgaria's double role in WWII and the communist time. In Prague, the couple only hit tourist central, i.e. the Castle, Charles Bridge, the Astronomical Clock …
   
But the main role of the chapter is something else: it's the turning point (as No. 12 it's also the pivotal chapter of the book's 23). It is here that the wife confronts the author about his insane “quest” to visit all those “Russian countries” (that annoying error again!). Up to this point the author had kept his mission quiet, but a friend's wife had blabbed, and now she declared that she won't have any more of it. However, she offered a deal: he can finish his quest but without her, and within one year (and on his own money). So, with the wife refusing, and none of the mates available to tag along, he'll have to do the final 9 countries on the list, including the “difficult” Central Asian ones, as a solo traveller.
    
Armenia is the first one he tackles as such, combined with Georgia tagged on. And it doesn't take long to realize that now, not only doing it solo, but also heading out of the comfort zone of Europe (even if it's Eastern) will make for far more exciting reading. It's here that the more interestingly adventurous travelogues begin. Armenia is a relatively soft start to this, though. Yet it does include a major dark-tourism site, namely the Armenian genocide memorial & museum. This evidently made a big and very dark impression, especially, as he admits, since he “didn't know any of this had happened” (p. 139). The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict also gets a mention but the author declares that with one breakaway country under his belt already (Transnistria – see above) he'll stay clear of that area. Still in Yerevan, the big Mother Armenia statue, the war museum underneath it and the open-air displays around it get covered, then it's off to Georgia.
   
With his flight to Tbilisi cancelled, the author is forced to transfer from one capital to the other overland, by car, and this turns out to be another adventure part … as the car hits a snowstorm on the mountain road north. This was clearly scary, but he makes it to his destination alive and well, and then embarks on an exploration of Georgia's capital city. The history lessons in between get a bit more substantial here, as Georgia's bumpy road towards post-Soviet democracy is recounted, with all the bloodshed in between. The most adventurous thing the author does in terms of sightseeing, though, is climbing all the way up to the Mother Georgia statue overlooking the city from a hillside. He'd clearly developed a taste for Soviet statuary by then.
    
And then come the biggies, the “difficult” ones, in particular the “Stans”. He first embarks on a demanding four-country trip taking in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and tagged on is the non-Stan Azerbaijan.
   
In Kazakhstan the author decides to go to the old capital city, Almaty, rather than the current one, Astana, and quickly realizes that everything is much more European than Asian and certainly a long way from Borat's depiction of alleged Kazakhstan (but he still couldn't resist the temptation of giving the chapter the title “Borat Land!” … was that really necessary?). He admires (by now for real) some Soviet monuments and architecture, but his main obsession in this part of the world seems to be the exoticness of the food & drink. He tries kumis (fermented mare's milk) and nearly vomits, and at a restaurant he orders horse meat. Despite being a dedicated carnivore (he seems to eat little else but meat – typical English male in that respect too ... and it's always washed down with pints of lager) and even though he states that the taste is basically the same as beef, he cannot bring himself to finish the horse steak, the cultural barrier clearly being too high.
   
In Uzbekistan, he's having a good time in the capital Tashkent, with its Soviet architecture, colourful mosques and general exoticness, but bureaucratically it gave him the hardest of times, both on entry and (especially) exit. The lengthy and unnerving encounters with border officials make for harrowing reading, but in a kind of way that's of course entertaining to read. The historical accounts in these more exotic parts of the ex-USSR get more elaborate and also more contemporary. And that adds extra suspense as well, so to speak.
   
Turkmenistan, well the capital Ashgabat, is predictably the wackiest of all the destinations covered in the book. (And obviously plenty of crazy stories about the Turkmenbashy are included!) Hence it's not surprising that it's also one of the most entertaining to read … but having been there at a similar time myself, maybe I'm a little biased. I enjoyed the familiar observations to mine, but there was also a big difference: I travelled in a group on an organized tour, and apparently that helped at many sights where the author of this book repeatedly gets questioned by the police or prevented from taking photos. (That said though, a trio of us venturing out without our guide one evening had a very similar experience with trying to photograph the Lenin monument in the city – see under Ashgabat!) Yet, at the bottom line, the author ultimately rates Ashgabat his favourite of all the cities he's been on his Red Quest! And that is clearly on the grounds of unusualness, exoticness, sheer craziness. Yet there was one thing I baulked at: he observes that one morning Ashgabat is cold “[D]espite being in the middle of a desert” (p. 190). Why the surprise? Deserts are cold at night. I thought that was common knowledge … But so what.
   
Azerbaijan's capital Baku therefore had a hard act to follow. The author observes with some surprise how affluent and non-Muslim the city looks but sightseeing-wise he mostly sticks to the predictable (Old Town, Maiden Tower, Bulvar, main square, etc.), except that he makes a trip to Martyrs' Lane and provides some background history about the violent final years of Soviet Azerbaijan, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the Aliyev dynasty. He's a bit disappointed not to see any signs of the oil industry that Baku is so (in)famous for – but doesn't make any effort to go and see this (which, after all, is possible, even just out of the city limits, see e.g. here).
   
The following chapter breaks the Asian leg of the quest. Even though he'd been before, the author accompanies a group of friends to Poland – on a stag do in fact. Thankfully, though, it's not just an account of a bunch of lager-lout Brits misbehaving abroad. Instead they even add an excursion to Auschwitz to their time in Krakow. (Perhaps less surprising as it sounds, given that tours to Auschwitz are top of the list of Krakow's tourist office's advertising.) In fact the Auschwitz part dominates the Poland chapter and is a very good account of a guided visit to both Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II Birkenau. This is easily the most relevant chapter from a point of view of dark tourism and thus a highlight of the book!
   
Two more Stans remain and need to be ticked off to complete the quest. Tajikistan is first. Again the bureaucratic hassle is immense, but the author's account of the capital Dushanbe is overall favourable. By this time he's clearly into his utterly-exotic-plus-Soviet-relics routine. It was here, though, that he has the episode that the blurb indicates as getting “mugged by a pensioner”. What really happened was much more harmless, but I won't give it away here. The sightseeing options in Dushanbe were obviously not enough for the author, though, because here for once he ventures out of the capital city to see a historical site in the countryside.
   
Kyrgyzstan then concludes the Stans quest part of the bigger mission. He flies in on an airline banned in the EU (another adventure tick, I guess), but the entry proceedings were a breeze compared with Tajikistan or Uzbekistan. Of his time in the capital Bishkek he reports Soviet monuments and architecture, provides some historical background of this far-away land that most people will hardly have heard of (that's an attribute the book gives to virtually all Eastern Bloc countries, but with regard to the smaller Stans it is probably in fact true). But the main story is his mishap-filled visit to a bazaar, where he first makes the mistake of giving kumis a second try (unsurprisingly he spits it out again – he should have known better after the first time in Kazakhstan!) and then has a really harrowing and humiliating encounter with some officials (but again, it makes for a gripping story!) … I won't go into details (get the book instead!). But this adventure ends well too, and now it's time for the home stretch.
   
The author left Belarus, well, only the capital Minsk, of course, for what he believed was the final jewel in his Red Quest crown (see next paragraph, though). A bit too predictably he gives the chapter the title “The Last Dictatorship in Europe” (the Belarusians really love this – NOT), but despite the rule of President Lukashenko and even though the architecture is decidedly Soviet, he quickly notes that the atmosphere is hardly 1980s USSR. It's too clean and too affluent and there's no indication of a police state (very much unlike in, say, Turkmenistan!). He undertakes some real dark tourism by visiting the Patriotic War Museum as well as “The Pit” monument and provides the relevant dark historical background to this haunting monument. But overall he finishes the quest elated and deciding that Minsk was his second-favourite city of the lot (after Ashgabat, remember). Mission accomplished … or not quite, as it soon turns out.
   
Back home a friend insists the author's still missed one country out: Germany. Even though he'd been to Germany before, he'd never been to East Germany. Indeed, if you include all the other Warsaw Pact states, why not the GDR, even though it was dissolved in 1990? So he has to confess to his wife that he's not quite finished yet, and has to go to East Berlin first, before the promised return to “normal places, where sun loungers and swimming pools featured” (p. 269) At this point I had to wonder whether it is possible for a traveller who's licked the blood of proper enlightening travelling to return to such boring holiday-making (I wouldn't know, because I never liked lying around in the sun doing nothing in the first place.) So he goes on a rushed, single-day trip to Berlin. Despite the time constraints he manages to squeeze in quite a few dark-tourism sites: Treptower Park, Checkpoint Charlie (which he finds too touristy – duh!), the Berlin Wall memorial at Bernauer Straße and Friedrichstraße Station, plus the Brandenburg Gate and Alexanderplatz. Not a bad count.
   
So what's the author's final word on having visited all the countries in his Red Quest: “And do you know what? I'd loved every single one of them.” (p. 280). If that can't convince you of the life-enriching, enlightening value of travel, I don't know what could.  
  
   
Overall appraisal and criticisms:
   
The book reads very well and the style is lucid and enjoyable with a good dash of humour here and there, as you would expect of an English travelogue. Yet some of the naivety, misconceptions and confusions are a bit painful. E.g. when he and his wife try to find “the entrance” to Red Square in Moscow (as if there was only one) and accidentally get in the queue for the Lenin Mausoleum instead. The inconsistent spelling of the Caucasus alternately as “caucuses” is a bit embarrassing as well. And when I saw the spelling of Zyklon B, the Nazis' poison gas used in the Holocaust at Auschwitz, as “cyclone B” I at first thought “ouch! What a clanger!”, but when I checked it back home I found that Wikipedia actually offers it as a translation – yet it shouldn't. It's just so evidently and embarrassingly wrong! Besides, it violates a key translators' principle: as a product name it should be kept in the original (imagine translating e.g. “Beefeater Gin” into German as 'Rindfleischesser Gin') … sorry for such translator's nitpicking.
   
Also a bit annoying I found the bits about the counties' national cuisines (see also above about the Kazakhstan chapter). Again, it's typically English (and not in a good way): first the clichés (“all they eat is turnips”), then the “dare” of trying local specialities, only to find them disgusting and complaining about them. One exception, real praise, goes to goulash in Hungary. Yet the goulash he describes isn't the genuine national dish of that name, which within Hungary is actually a comparatively thin soup, whereas the meat stew he describes (and that outside Hungary is taken to be goulash) is 'Pörkölt' or 'Paprikás' in Hungarian … OK, I'm being pernickety again. But this inaccuracy and indifference irked me a little. Yet it becomes clear that this side of the travel experience is far less important to the author of this book than it is to me… especially when he concedes that he found it liberating that as a solo traveller (i.e. without the wife stopping him) he could have KFC for lunch and McDonald's for dinner. And he makes that observation in Georgia of all places, the country with by far the most interesting national cuisine of any of the former Eastern Bloc countries. I found that quite sad.
   
I also take a bit of an issue with the promise the blurb on back cover makes: “high-octane adventure all the way” … OK, there is a bit of adventure included here and there, but it mostly revolved around wrestling with visa complications, border guard officials and police objecting to his photographing things. At one point he gets chased by a pack of feral dogs, but that's basically it in terms of adventure … unless you count the generally nerve-racking traffic conditions in many of those eastern countries. But all that isn't really what the promise of “high-octane adventure” suggests to me. Not that I'm looking for that sort of thing. I'm fine with travel lacking life-threatening dangers (see also here), but I'm not too fond of attention-grabbing advertising promises not being delivered.
   
Apart from the errors mentioned above, the book thankfully only has few orthographical or typographical mistakes and reads well and fluidly. It can be finished easily in a day.
   
  
Conclusion:
For those to whom the ex-USSR and the former Eastern Bloc countries are still a largely unknown, mystical part of the world, this book will be a good introduction, easy to read, with some fun in between, a dollop of adventure and a few history lessons interspersed, without getting too bogged down in details. So it is very worthwhile reading. And it can help eliminate some nasty stereotypes and clichés (and not just the turnip one).
   
However, for those already a little more familiar with Soviet history and the countries of the Eastern Bloc, the book may seem a little too autodidactic, with too many misconceptions, too much superficiality, even naivety, and with some historiographical inaccuracies remaining to make the book a bit disappointing and occasionally even a little annoying. The examples of “caucuses” (instead of Caucasus) and “cyclone B” have already been mentioned. Of the historiographical inaccuracies I'd like to pick out but one, just because as a German I can't be totally impartial here: in his account of how the Berlin Wall came down, he claims that it all began with Hungary opening its Iron Curtain border to Austria (granted, chronologically that came before the fall of the wall) and then a similar thing happening in Czechoslovakia (really? Where? … or does he mean the release of the Prague German embassy refugees?) and that only THAT then “kick-started protests in East Germany”. Wrong! The East German protests began way before that and the Czech Velvet Revolution only got going after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It's the East Germans that have to be given credit for their peaceful revolution from the spring of 1989 onwards. So if anything, the kick-starting happened the other way round. Or is that splitting hairs again?
   
Anyway, if accuracy in those matters is not a priority for you, but an entertaining travel read is, then the book can still be warmly recommended.
 
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
  

 

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