4 out of 5 stars
Most countries seem to have a national tree; we have the oak along with a lot of other European countries, the Canadians have the Maple, the Greeks have the olive and New Zealand has the ponga! These trees supposedly have characteristics such as strength, that people have alluded to as the national character of their country. In Russia though, their unofficial national tree is the silver birch.
It seems a strange choice in some ways, it is very prevalent across the northern hemisphere and as a pioneer species, it is almost always one of the first trees to colonise areas. It can be found from the steppe, alongside rivers and railway lines and even thrives in the toxic landscape of Chernobyl. Its symbolism has nasty echoes of nationalism: white, straight, native, pure. It has permeated the consciousness of the country and revealed itself in the art.
I look out over the hills of Russia: fir trees, patches of yellow larch, and those spiny white birches, leafless in later September. Clouds leave map-like marks across the forests. The distance is a blue-grey far-away place. China lies beyond.
To discover for himself the significance that it has he explores both the country and the art that it has inspired. He begins with the images that Maria Kapajeva has collected showing various Russian women posing by birch trees as a form of collective national identity. They have been taken from a dating site where these women have uploaded their images in the hope of finding a partner. They are not always successful in this aim. To get a greater understanding though he needs to travel to Russia and his routes will take him along the Siberian railway, to the Saint Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod and to some of the countries that border this huge country. But he is there for the art, in particular the painting titled, The Rooks Have Returned by Alexei Savrasov, where he expands the significance of it for Russian culture.
The birch is nonetheless beloved – not only as a symbol, but as a living being. And that is important, maybe now more than ever.
I have read a few travel books set in Russia in my time. I think that because the place is so vast, different authors have sometimes struggled to get a grip on what exactly makes the country and the people Russian. I think though, in this book, Jeffreys has got to the very essence of what and how they define themselves and he does that through their art, their landscapes and mostly their love for this slender tree. For me, I thought that the book concentrated a little too much on art, but that is his primary career to be fair. I did really like the travel parts and the way that he interacted with the people that he encounters in Russia and outside the country on his travels. I liked the insight that he got from this perspective on the people of Russia, it is good to have a different angle on them.