Publish date:

A World On Its Head

Reeling in Russia
by Fen Montaigne
St. Martin's Press, $24.95

Think of Fen Montaigne as a Tocqueville with a fly rod who
uncovers Russia in the raw. This graphic account of his
three-month, 7,000-mile journey across 10 time zones is not
simply about fishing, as in reeling in a fish. It's about
everyday life in that enormous, rich, desperately screwed-up
country as it is lived--if lived is the proper word--by its
multitudinous drunks (half the men in Russia seem to be either
bombed or hungover) and other folks, who range from benign to
brutal to corrupt.

Montaigne, a former Moscow correspondent for The Philadelphia
Inquirer, went back to Russia in 1996 because he missed its
people, its language and its countryside. Since the time he
lived there, regions of Russia as huge as Alaska had been opened
to "anyone foolhardy enough to ramble into them," Montaigne
writes. "From the start, I knew I wasn't so much after fish as I
was after a glimpse of Russia from the bottom up." He certainly
saw the bottom often as he roughed his way from the Kola
Peninsula in the west to Kamchatka in the east by truck, plane,
boat, car, bus and thumb.

"Although the fly rod opened more doors" than he could have
imagined, Montaigne says, the fishing was mostly lousy. He might
have thought that he would find virgin fishing in the remote
backcountry, but everywhere he went, he saw the ravages of
communism. The defunct regime had polluted like crazy. With no
law governing use of the fisheries, poaching was rampant. Then
again, as Russian anglers are fond of saying, "Fishing is
drinking with hip boots on."

Accommodations were usually far from accommodating. Getting off
a bus in Siberia, Montaigne recounts, "I saw men heading for a
low-slung concrete building, evidently the bathroom. The odor
hit me 50 yards away. As I approached, I could see piles of
feces and puddles of urine ringing the building. Conditions were
so appalling in the bathroom itself that travelers had taken to
relieving themselves all around it.... I wondered, Why do
Russians tolerate such squalor?"

In short, Montaigne found "a world turned on its head, inhabited
by people abandoned by their government, and fending for
themselves." Read the book, but don't make the trip.

--Robert H. Boyle

COLOR PHOTO: ST. MARTIN'S PRESS [Cover of book Reeling in Russia by Fen Montaigne]