There are other excellent recent travelogues about Russia's deep, remote interior -- for example, Ian Frazier's Travels in Siberia and Anna Reid's The Shaman's Coat -- but Richards' book is different in two ways. First, she returned to the same places every year or two from the collapse of the Soviet Union to 2008, allowing her to gauge and color the picture of how the upheaval and confusion evolved over the intervening years. The color is gray, sometimes black, with eventually a bright splash of success here and there. Second, the core of her account revolves around deepening relationships with a half dozen individuals and couples mostly in Saratov and a godforsaken neighboring town named, yes, Marx. The ups and downs of their lives and their relationships with Richards mirrored the fate of much of the country. Richards' odyssey grew out of curiosity about the government's plans to create a modern homeland for the Volga Germans, ethnic Germans expelled by Stalin from the lands their eighteenth-century immigrant ancestors had settled, a prospect that soon withered. From there, she wandered into the world of Russian mysticism, traveling first to a community of Old Believers (Russian Orthodox traditionalists) deep in the forests of eastern Siberia and then to an odd, secretive Uzbek city obsessed with creatures from outer space. Eventually, she visited a scientific enterprise at the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences that, taking its inspiration from nineteenth-century Russian scientist-philosophers, is seeking to merge a spiritual cosmos with hard science.
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