Reeling in Russia
by Fen Montaigne
St. Martin's Press, $24.95
Think of Fen Montaigne as a Tocqueville with a fly rod who uncovers Russia in the raw. This graphic account of his three-month, 7,000-mile journey across 10 time zones is not simply about fishing, as in reeling in a fish. It's about everyday life in that enormous, rich, desperately screwed-up country as it is lived—if lived is the proper word—by its multitudinous drunks (half the men in Russia seem to be either bombed or hungover) and other folks, who range from benign to brutal to corrupt.
Montaigne, a former Moscow correspondent for Vie Philadelphia Inquirer, went back to Russia in 1996 because he missed its people, its language and its countryside. Since the time he lived there, regions of Russia as huge as Alaska had been opened to "anyone foolhardy enough to ramble into them," Montaigne writes. "From the start, I knew I wasn't so much after fish as I was after a glimpse of Russia from the bottom up." He certainly saw the bottom often as he roughed his way from the Kola Peninsula in the west to Kamchatka in the east by truck, plane, boat, car, bus and thumb.
"Although the fly rod opened more doors" than he could have imagined, Montaigne says, the fishing was mostly lousy. He might have thought that he would find virgin fishing in the remote back-country, but everywhere he went, he saw the ravages of communism. The defunct regime had polluted like crazy. With no law governing use of the fisheries, poaching was rampant. Then again, as Russian anglers are fond of saying, "Fishing is drinking with hip boots on."
Accommodations were usually far from accommodating. Getting off a bus in Siberia, Montaigne recounts, "I saw men heading for a low-slung concrete building, evidently the bathroom. The odor hit me 50 yards away. As I approached, I could see piles of feces and puddles of urine ringing the building. Conditions were so appalling in the bathroom itself that travelers had taken to relieving themselves all around it.... I wondered, Why do Russians tolerate such squalor?"
In short, Montaigne found "a world turned on its head, inhabited by people abandoned by their government, and fending for themselves." Read the book, but don't make the trip.