Sometime in the mid-90s, Philip Marsden spends a winter in Moscow, researching the Cossacks and the Old Believers—dreaming, in other words, of the Caucasus.
When spring comes Marsden goes to Rostov. There he begins the meandering journey across the land between the Black and Caspian seas that is the subject of The Spirit-Wrestlers. Marsden describes the territory as “Russia’s Vendée, where serfs and schismatics fled to become Cossacks … where the perennial urge to conformity seems at its weakest—the place where the sea-like flatness of the steppe breaks against the Caucasus and all its scatterings of non-Russian peoples.”
Some of these people are long-vanished, like the Scythians, whom the Cossacks have styled as their forbearers (a claim Marsden dismisses as nonsense), and the Alans, another vanished Steppe group famous for its warrior temperament, and whose descendants are likely today’s Ossetians. In addition to sojourns among Cossacks, Ossetians, Georgians, and Armenians, Marsden also tracks down some more obscure peoples, like the Molokans (the milk drinkers, named after an epistle from Peter that describes believers desiring the Word as babies do milk), whose numbers at one point reached a million and were important in the movement to abolish serfdom in the 19th century, and one of whose subgroups were the first to call themselves “communists” after pooling their resources.
The people he’s most interested in, though, are the Doukhobors (the “spirit-wrestlers” of the title). Their origins—like those of pretty much every group in this book and, indeed, the world—are unclear, but they date to the late 18th century. The sect’s adherents distanced themselves from what they saw as the corruption of the Church; instead they “tried to live in the way most likely to release the spark that lives in each individual.” In the 19th Century their most famous leader was imprisoned in Siberia and the rest were exiled to the southern edge of the empire. Above all it was their pacifism that got them in trouble—they refused to serve in the army—but this was what brought them to the attention of Tolstoy, who donated the proceeds from his last novel, Resurrection, to them, which allowed many Doukhobors to emigrate to Canada in the early 20th century. (They settled in the prairies, and flitted on the periphery of my childhood, but only as a kind of joke: their reputation for espousing a kind of hippie millenarianism stemmed from their tendency to avow nudism. I remember them being portrayed to me as something like grubby Hutterites. It was useful—and not a little shaming—to learn the meaningful context for people and practices I’d only known as derisive.)
Yet as its division into parts named Steppe and Mountain suggests, The Spirit-Wrestlers is as much about landscape—sometimes verdant, sometimes stony, always seemingly inexhaustible—as about the stormy co-existence of religious and ethnic groups.
Last year I read Marsden’s The Bronski House, about a similarly contested border region in Eastern Europe, this time to the north-west of Russia (Poland, Lithuania, Belarus). I loved it. But I think I might like The Spirit-Wrestlers even more. Which surprises me, since the subject matter isn’t immediately appealing to me. I’m not really that religious a person, and non-Abrahamic religions interest me least of all. (Many of the people Marsden interacts with are Christians, but they are typically dissenters: the Doukhobors, for example, do not recognize the authority of the Church.) Yet despite its concern with spiritualism, Marsden’s true interest is ordinary material life, in all its pains and pleasures.
That dogma is his enemy is clear throughout. But in his final pages, Marsden allows himself to editorialize a little. In Armenia he goes looking the Yezidi, a group that recognizes evil as an integral part of creation. He concludes:
Our universe is naturally flawed, they say, and to deny it is to miss an elemental truth. I could not help being drawn to this idea. It was a riposte to all those dreamers—from Christians to Communists—who clog their thinking with the way things should be and ignore the way they are, who gaze for too long at their own glittering visions and fail to see the glories in the twists and bumps that make up the real world.
The Yezidi—the long history of whose suffering took a further, terrible turn a few years ago when they were genocidally persecuted by ISIS—don’t try to purge the world of evil. They just try to avoid it. In so doing, Marsden argues, “they sidestep one of the great paradoxes of our earthly existence. For as any dictator learns, it is precisely what you try to purge that becomes your downfall.”
These conclusions explain Marsden’s epigraph, attributed to Russian villagers, who, when camels were brought to their collective farms, exclaimed: “Look what the Bolsheviks have done to the horses!” The joke might at first seem to be on the villagers, rubes who can’t tell a horse from a camel. But really it’s on the Bolsheviks, and anyone who tries to mash square pegs into round holes. Or, more painfully, on those who take on the role of the pegs, who suffer the murderous grandiosity of conviction forced on life from on high. Can we even call it a joke? So much pain lies behind it: a classic if-you-don’t-laugh-you’ll-cry scenario.
Suffering also explains the importance of food in the book, for food, Marsden suggests, is the preeminent way of bringing people together peacefully. In the steppe and the mountains, food (and peace) has so often been in short supply. When Marsden talks to old people he hears terrible stories of starvation, mostly due to Stalin’s forced collectivism. They remember eating grass and birch bark, boiling leather shoes for a desperate soup, devouring the seed-corn. These stories are from long ago, but they resonate into the present. In Maikop, in the Russian Adygei Republic, a fraught conversation about ethnic nationalism is brought to a peaceful conclusion only when it’s time for lunch:
The whole subject was too serious to be taken seriously in public. They unpacked more food, and with the food the harmless chatter resumed; in Russia there is no anxiety so great that it cannot find relief in a full table.
As this passage suggests, food matters less for its own sake (the book is pre-Foodie, thank God) and more for its ability to bring people together.
Rather unusually for a travel writer, Marsden likes people. He’s curious about everyone and everything, without being credulous. He stays just the right side of folksy in his observations, some of which are quite funny:
I left Fyodor Mikhailovich sitting on a bench outside his gate. He was waiting for something to happen so that he could watch it. Nothing had happened yet and it probably wouldn’t that day.
In South Ossetia he meets a doctor nicknamed Pushkin, “a tireless walker, not fast, but who walked without really being aware he was walking.” They discuss the famously long-lived people of the Caucasus, people who lived not just into their 120s but, apparently, into their 170s. Why aren’t there such people anymore? We eat yeast, Pushkin says, adding, “Everything’s different now.”
The doctor, who visits tiny villages on foot, bringing only the comfort of his presence (he hasn’t had medicine since the fall of the Soviet Union), experiences change only as loss:
To Pushkin, these elongated lives were just one of the vanished riches of the Soviet past, like a full medicine cabinet, like the kolkhoz sheep, like peace between the peoples of the union.
But the Union brought pain, too. In Kidlovodsk, a spa town in the mountains, he rents a room from Natalya Petrovna, a “teacher of ideology” who is at first presented almost as a figure of fun, an eccentric anyway: “She was also an expert on local buses.” He sleeps on her balcony, under “a canopy of fresh walnut leaves.” In the morning he listens to Natalya toss “scraps of bread to the dogs in the yard: ‘Maronchik! Sobachka!’” She spends her days working in the garden at her dacha, which she reaches by taking the Number 52 to the post office, then changing to the Number 10. It’s all gentle and sweet. Then we learn about her two sons, who appear “loose-hipped and laughing” in a photo on the kitchen wall.
They had gone to Afghanistan together. They had written long letters home. They had sent photographs of themselves in uniform. Natalya’s sons had returned separately, each one in a box.
The tone darkens all in a moment. The life of the lonely woman suddenly seems different: the precision of the bus routes becomes a way of salvaging sense from senselessness. And her repeated lament “They’ve drunk Russia away…” becomes not a quixotic railing against the Russian national pastime but fury at the generals who stole her boys.
As these examples suggest, Marsden isn’t a showy writer. But he’s a good one. That “loose-hipped and laughing” is a fine example. “Loose-hipped”: I’d never have thought of it, but I can just see it. Or take this description of a sudden rainstorm: “Women scuttled into doorways with handbags over their heads; dogs ran flat-furred through the water.” I love that “flat-furred.” Marsden’s good with dogs. In Armenia, “warm Asiatic winds were blowing unchecked across [the land’s] grassy tracts, flicking the neck-fur of the dogs.”
Marsden is like his style: impressive but modest. He keeps to the edge of the story. We learn almost nothing about him. (By comparison The Bronski House is practically an autobiography.) He cuts an appealing figure: modest, uncomplaining, able to find a place for himself no matter where he goes. When things go wrong, as they always do, he doesn’t fuss. I especially wondered what language he speaks to the people he meets, many of whom have little formal education. (Which of course isn’t incompatible with the ability to speak several languages.) It’s clear his Russian is excellent, and that’s presumably the language of choice. But did that work in Ossetia, Georgia, and Armenia?
Similarly, I wondered what such a trip would be like now. Even more difficult to accomplish, I assume. Marsden is kicked off a bus by Russian security forces the first time he tries to get to Georgia, and he worries about being shot at night in Tbilisi. But I suspect these places are even more dangerous for Westerners now. I would imagine the rise of Islam in the area has changed things a lot (Marsden only meets one Muslim, a convert who is the source of bemused contempt by his family.) Wherever he goes, he records everyday examples of Islamophobia (plus the casual anti-Semitism you’d expect).
These changes notwithstanding The Spirit-Wrestlers didn’t seem dated, despite being written twenty years ago. Not that its concerns are timeless. But the battle between idealism and ordinary life (which I admit I am romanticizing, as, perhaps, does Marsden) is endless. And it’s clear Marsden has influenced later writers. The Spirit-Wrestlers, for example, reminded me of Kapka Kassabova’s Border, a similarly intelligent and sensuous investigation of a place where cultures collide, in that case Thrace and the Rhodope.
If I haven’t already enticed you to give The Spirit-Wrestlers a try, I’ll add two last notes. One, it’s got a great map. Who doesn’t love a map? Two, it’s a perfect summer book, filled with descriptions of people sitting outside late into the night eating and, especially, drinking. And with a new set of true believers causing trouble all across the world what’s not to like about that?