Book Review - Pravda Ha Ha

Thirty years ago, Rory Maclean wrote Stalin’s Nose, an account of his travels from Berlin to Moscow just after the fall of the wall. There was a great sense of euphoria at the time. Maclean described meeting “people who hadn’t spoken to a foreigner in decades, who opened their hearts and told me stories of lost years, ruined lives and secret policeman.” In Pravda Ha Ha, Maclean retraces the route in reverse on a more sombre journey: “I wanted to learn how refugees, the dispossessed and cyberhackers had been used by the nationalists. I needed to understand why Europe’s unspeakable past couldn’t be kept at bay.” 

In Russia, Maclean seeks out Dmitri, a chicken tsar, (“magnetic,” “mercurial,” “seriously shady,”) and enjoys a sliver of “Putin’s pecker,” an hallucinogenic mushroom. Dmitri made his first fortune selling chicken, now he sends his nephew to Eton. In Moscow, Maclean meets Sami, a Nigerian refugee and moonwalking fan of Michael Jackson, who is confined in a hellish limbo. Sami had arrived via Mexico and Madrid, hoping to travel on to the UK where he’d heard: “The English were tolerant and welcoming.” Sami tells Maclean how he was struck by a minibus belonging to a convent. After the accident, he was taken in by nuns who proceeded to exploit him and treat him like a slave. He finally managed to escape but was left with a permanent limp, no money and no papers.  

In St Petersburg, Maclean tracks down a cyber hacker who worked in a “troll factory” during the UK elections. She explains why. After the collapse of the Soviet economy, both her parents had lost their jobs: “I hated being hungry. I hated standing in queues for bread, wearing hand me downs.” She trained to be an IT engineer and joined the dubious “Internet Research Agency.” Here she was paid to advocate for groups who were polarising British politics and promoting anti-immigrant “independence parties.” Maclean makes the connection that “[i]n Soviet times, survival often meant lying… ideology was used, not believed. The regime had to lie to survive.” Now Putin targets the West and social media allows the easy dissemination of fake news and “a toxic nihilism, undermining objectivity, deepening splits in our societies and even changing the way we think.”   

Sami, meanwhile, has made an unsuccessful bid to reach Europe via a refrigerated lorry. An air vent had become blocked, and the internees started to suffocate; one woman died. The driver finally let them out in a forest in Belarus and Sami made his sorry way back to Moscow.  He travels north with Maclean aiming to try the new refugee Arctic route via Murmansk and the Norwegian frontier. Maclean leaves him in Kem, on the White Sea, and resumes his journey through the Baltic states. He embarks on a wild goose chase to find the lost Amber Room in Kaliningrad and visits Transnistria’s vast football stadiums. In this small republic, Maclean observes: “Beyond the offices of the rich and powerful, fear remains a habit.”

Maclean is passionate and knowledgeable about the countries he visits. Time and again, he encounters people confronting old terrors and fresh challenges, divided again by xenophobia. As his title suggests, Maclean is interested in the collapse of truth in the modern era, which, he believes, took root at the start of this century: “[M]any 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.”

Throughout Pravda Ha Ha, one senses Maclean’s frustration with the corruption, greed and immorality that have destroyed ordinary people’s dreams of a better life. He describes how nostalgia has been manipulated by those wanting to gain power, how they peddle half-truths and lies to consolidate their positions and retain their wealth. Now many in Russia and the former Soviet satellite states believe in a golden age that can be reclaimed. Lies, he realises, have become the glue that bind people together.

In this terrific combination of reportage, travel writing and polemic, Sami’s journey provides the book’s narrative arc as Maclean records his attempts to reach safety (he eventually gets to Europe via Finland). They finally meet again in Brexit Britain. Here, as elsewhere, Maclean is saddened by the rise of nationalism, the pervasive inequality, the demonisation of the poor and of immigrants: “the collapse of a European dream.”  

Originally published by New Humanist