Pravda Ha Ha: True Travels to the End of Europe

Rory MacLean

Bloomsbury £20

Review by Hugh MacDonald

IT may seem perverse to invoke the spirit of Ginger Rogers when reflecting on a work that takes the febrile, even dangerous temperature of 21st century Europe.

But Ginger and a continent in turmoil share one similarity. Rory MacLean’s Pravda Ha Ha is a re-run of his travels in Stalin’s Nose, his wondrous account of Europe in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Except he now does it in reverse, from Russia to England. It is a triumph, made all the more commendable by its inherent challenges. As Ginger said when people praised her dancing partner Fred Astaire: “I did everything he did, except backwards and in high heels.’’

MacLean’s journey could be summarised as a move from Stalin’s Nose to Putin’s Pecker. The latter is not an anatomical reference but a nod to a mushroom with the power to induce feelings of elation, even provoke a sense of unreality. It is much sought after and commands huge fees. It sprouts in chapter one. Its effects seems to endure for the entire narrative: from Russia to Transnistria, from Hungary to Germany, from Poland to Switzerland, from the turbulence of the Channel to the low-level but persistent hum of the disintegration of an English town.

This is, in essence, a book about truth. It takes its title, somewhat obviously from the Soviet propaganda organ Pravda, which ironically meant truth. It, though, was a persistent frontrunner in the race for fake news that shows no sign of reaching a finishing line.

Pravda Ha Ha challenges the reader to decide what is true, what is not. Can it really be true that MacLean saw a man in the underground in Moscow with a bird on his head and then spotted him later, without the bird, in the centre of a city where millions of people a day spill from metro stations? Can it be possible that a refugee from Africa can surface in Red Square, find an escape route through Siberia, and find salvation in a pool of hot chocolate? Can it be possible that dictatorships are flimsily disguised by democracies not fit for purpose? Can it be possible that people scrawl mobile numbers on their clothes to ease identification in the case of highly probable death on fragile craft in strong seas?

The answer, of course, is in the affirmative. The more an episode seems bizarre, the more it is mired in truth. MacLean chronicles the surreal while surveying the brutally real. There are dwarves tied to helium balloons rising into the sky, there is the search for an amber room deep in communist ruins, there is a possible meeting with Gorbachev, there is the hunting trip with a former Russian oligarch who finds solace in shooting his AK47 in the woods and seeks possible refuge as a sheep farmer in New Zealand.

It is an absurd world. It is also a dangerous one. Stalin’s Nose resounded with the ebullience, the sheer optimism of a writer encountering a wind of freedom and being intoxicated by the slightest whiff. There was a hope, an optimism then. But this is now. This is Europe in an existential crisis, perhaps even in its death throes.

The shift from Stalin’s Nose is thus dramatic in terms of subject and mood but MacLean retains his energy. His writing style, too, remains pure in its colour and profound in its conclusions. However, Pravda Ha Ha is deeply disturbing book. Once the troubles of Eastern Europe under communism could be viewed at a distance, as something peculiar created and sustained by the worst excesses of a perverse brand of communism. Once, too, the fall of the old order could be witnessed on 24-hour television and celebrated as the triumph of our way over their way, a simple tale of the goodies beating the baddies. No longer.

MacLean can wander the streets of Estonia, the old hill of Buda, the awful shanty towns of the dispossessed and the never possessed in any forlorn city and one immediately grasps the relevance to what could once be called Modern Europe, that chunk with democratic governments, functioning democracy, safety nets for the afflicted. Of course, this continent may have largely existed in the minds of the complacent, the comfortable.

Its existence now is fragmentary and fragile. MacLean paints a convincing portrait of a Europe in turmoil. He traces this unfolding disaster – and it seems it must be that – with an increasing urgency. The locations may seem singular, even exotic. The set-pieces of oligarchs spending and shooting with abandon, of drunks making their potions out of waste, of museums being changed to tell another story, may seem distant to what was once the New World.

Yet there is a disease that affects us all. It is not a new political theory, though it has the noxious element of the worst of that. It is not even the death of communism or the failure of capitalism, though both bear culpability.

It is, rather, the disintegration of truth. It is the shattering of any accepted standard of what might be valid and what is not only daft but dangerously wrong. MacLean encounters this virus repeatedly on his travels. He tries to explain some of the truths about Putin to a young woman and is treated with disdain. He views the ugly truth of Britain and is met with indifference. His fears of chaos and increasing poverty are brushed aside by banker.

She frankly states: “No nation has ever achieved – or maintained – greatness by giving its people an extra serving of gruel.’ This echoes, unwittingly, the views of an entrepreneur who cashed in and then was cashed out of the financial excesses that followed the fall of the USSR. He says in broken English but fully-formed wisdom: “Some people got bagel. Some people got bagel hole.’’

Both the financially opportunistic and those who lost out on any benefits accruing from regime change have formed a movement. It has swept to prominence and, in some cases, power in Europe. It has settled into our daily politics on these islands.

MacLean is brilliant at creating scenes. He can revisit the past, mixing warm nostalgia with cold distaste. He is, though, at his best when he states his personal truth that has been honed from surveying the landscape, talking to the victims and perpetrators and gauging what was once the reality of 30 years ago and what presents itself now.

His observations are distilled from both his travel and a life beyond that and sprinkle the text like red warning lights. The most extensive runs thus: “At the start of the 21st century, many Russians – and then many Westerners – lost their appetite for the truth. They chose not to ask questions, preferring the easy choice of falsehood, of being fed simplistic solutions to complicated problems, of championing leaders who had – who have – the power to reshape reality in line with their stories.”

Recognise this? Or what about the simply stated assertion: “Lies became the glue that held people together.”

Or how about this one, that comes near the end of a fine, passionate and deeply moving book? “I began to imagine a time – a society – without any agreed or verifiable forms of the truth.”

This horror is almost upon us. In the manner of Ginger Rogers we are dancing backwards. It is not movie posterity that awaits but the abyss.