Issue #05/86, March 18 - 30, 2000  smlogo.gif

Book Review

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By John Dolan

The Baron, the Wench, and the Bummer

Open Lands: Travels Through Russia's Once Forbidden Places
by Mark Taplan
Steerforth Press 1998, $18

Open Lands is the story of an American's tour of the formerly closed regions of Russia: Kamchatka, Velikii Ustyug, Vladivostok. Mark Taplin, the author, is an American propagandist. I mean, he did it for a living; Taplin is a former "cultural attache" at the US Embassy in Moscow. His job was to prove to Russians the superiority of American culture. This book is a logical extension of his former job: a triumphal progress through the private parts of the old USSR, penetrating the forbidden zones. This, in other words, is travel-porn.

It has to be; why else would it get published? Ask yourself: why do so many of these first-person accounts of travel in Russia make it into print? Nobody in the English-speaking world is particularly concerned with what's going on in remote Soviet garrison towns like Petropavlosk-Kamchatksky. In fact, the whole huge territory of Kamchatka exists for most of us only as a border country on the RISK board. Yet accounts of travels to the remote areas of the former USSR keep selling - bought by people who can't even pronounce the names of the cities described, and would never dream of visiting them. So what's the thrill?

It's simple, really: this is S&M for those too cowardly to admit that they like such things. The thrill is in the unveiling, the stripping of a captive. When a western author describes the misery, poverty and debasement of a former Soviet base, the ostensibly compassionate tone hides pure sadistic joy. These books are meant to be read one-handed.

A century ago it was the Europeans who wrote accounts like this, savoring the pleasure of being treated as Barons by the wretched, starving, groveling aborigines of Killarney, Calcutta, or Hubei. Men who were only middle-ranking clerks in London grew in stature the more deeply they traveled into the Empire's conquered territory, striding through Africa or Asia to savor the freedom their gunships had purchased them, above all the sexual power they had, as proxy Barons, over all the local females. Middle-class boys who would be mere clerks in Paris could go to Algiers and play the lordling, hiring or simply taking the best girls the locals could offer.

And now it's the Americans who make the triumphal tours, strolling around the former Soviet bases, describing the decay of the Russian fleet with surface regret and a deep underlying satisfaction. In an American office, a man like Mark Taplin is nobody; but when he appears among the debased, impoverished inhabitants of a formerly closed Kamchatka port, he's the local representative of the conqueror. Mel Brooks had one good line: "It's good to be the King." And in Kamchatka, Mark Taplin is king.

Don't think I'm objecting on moral grounds. My God, no! What I wouldn't give to be ten years younger and rich enough to set myself up as foreign lordling in some quiet Belarussian town! The objectionable thing about travel accounts by contemporary would-be lordlings like Taplin is that they won't admit that their texts, and the trips they describe, are pure S&M. They think they're being compassionate when they write about the emmiseration of the Russians - and then they take ten pages describing the way the local starving women hit on them in Velikii Ustyug!

Taplin's chapter on his visit to Velikii Ustyug is a good sample of his work. Take it apart, and you get a good sense of the rhetoric of these ubiquitous travelers' tales. He begins with the obligatory sketch of post-Soviet squalor:

"The Yadrikha stationhouse cowered in the threadbare light. Behind it squatted a row of ragtag log cabins. Acrid coal smoke spun over the tracks. Travelers in dull dun overcoats struggled down the icy platform, hauling bags of supplies brought from Moscow."

This is the sort of prose you always get in the introductory paragraphs of these accounts. Its primary objective is to amplify the grimness of the landscape and suggest via contrast the delicate soul of the traveler condemned to ride these dirty rails. To this end, any degree of overwriting is permitted. In Taplin's paragraph, this means that no building can be allowed to do anything so dull as stand. His stationhouse "cowers"; the nearby cabins "squat." Every item in this landscape contributes its mite to the misery-en-scene. While the buildings are doing their cowering and squatting the coal smoke "spins" and travelers "struggle." This is the James Brown of landscapes: the hardest-working landscape in Show Business.

The well-trained S&M traveler inevitably follows this sort of description by placing himself (more rarely "herself") in the landscape, as Taplin does:

"…Wistfully recalling the warm compartment I had just vacated, I watched the cars slowly squeak and clack out of the station. I struggled to work the straps of my backpack over my down jacket, painfully aware that among the other disembarking passengers, I looked as out of place as a cosmonaut."

Ah, what a wonderfully disingenuous paragraph this is! Taplin's surface claim is that he is the unlucky one, the ugly duckling who feels "out of place" among the natives. Yes, he's out of place; he's out of place the way Dr Livingston was out of place among his native bearers. Every poor-mouthed mark of distinction named in Taplin's account marks him as a Baron among peasants. His "down jacket" which cost more than the Russians around him will make in years; his backpack which is to their luggage as a Mac is to a KayPro; these are tedious only in the way a carriage is tedious: a necessary device for lifting oneself above the mire, away from the peasants.

Taplin's account of his visit to Velikii Ustyug isn't as badly overwritten as those first paragraphs might suggest; but it is every bit as dishonest. From beginning to end, it's a story which could be subtitled "The Tiresomeness of Being A Baron." Putting on the North Face backpack is a minor "struggle" compared to the tedium of being waited on, groveled to, admired and feared by all the wretched inhabitants of this colorful has-been of a city: "Sasha was utterly solicitous toward me, his new American friend… He motioned for someone to carry our bags." Yessir, gimme a pith helmet and call me Bwana. Taplin sighs over the terror his appearance inspires in the locals: "The museum director met my arrival with undisguised handwringing. One would have thought that a meteorite had crashed through the roof and landed on her desk." Maybe we should amend the Mel Brooks line: "It's good to be the King, but it's not bad being a meteorite either." Did I say "Call me Bwana?" Maybe "Revizor" would be closer: the man from the center, come to judge the sleepy locals. One of the nastier habits that Imperial tourists, whether 19th-century Brits or 20th-century Americans, seem to pick up is that of seeing the scurrying locals as animals. Having compared himself to a meteorite, Taplin describes the museum director he has terrified as a mouse: "Her brunette hair had the cast and texture of mouse fur." The mouse is immobilized with fear: "Had she not tried to keep them immobile, her features might have been pleasant." A pity, that - she might almost be worthy of our consumption, poor wee sleekit cowering mousie.

Taplin's account of his visit to this old Russian town buried in the Northern forests abounds in sadistic delight in terrorizing and despising the local peasants, but it's always done with this damned false modesty and compassion which ruins all the fun. This is the lesson of Empire which our fellow Americans have yet to learn: ENJOY IT! If you're going to jerk off to images of cowering terrified peasants - and what could be more natural? - then at least admit you're doing it, savor it, strive to increase the pure sadistic joy of it! In the immortal words of one of our more distinguished compatriots, "Bitch, stop lyin'!"

Taplin's lies take the form of extended descriptions of the fear and submission he inspires in the peasants, followed by disclaimers full of a false and self-indulgent modesty. The figure of his guide, Yuri, takes the place of the buffoon manservant in these stories, and is endlessly caught between the aloof master and angry peasant woman, as here:

"'Hello, Maria Ivanovna,' Yuri began, 'You wouldn't mind if I showed this American visitor around for a few minutes, would you?' The woman scowled. 'Petrovich,' she said, as she swung around, 'you know you aren't permitted to come in here. Now get out.' 'I just thought… in view of the fact that we have such a distinguished foreign guest…' Yuri stammered. He already sounded a bit desperate; in no way did I look distinguished."

Did you catch that last line, "…in no way did I look distinguished"? Now that, my friends, is the voice of a deeply disingenuous, killjoy American excuse for a Baron. This mealymouthed, non-inhaling travesty of a Baron, unlike his British or French or Roman or Mongol or Greek counterparts, won't even have the decency to admit he shone like Lucifer in that crowd of "dull, drab" Helots. Such is the trickiness of his American uniform that it can claim to be modest even as it sets him far above the crowd; the down jacket is, after all, casual wear, and the backpack downright hippieish. But you have to be very, very rich and proud to wear those marks of the casual, among "travelers in dull dun overcoats." Did Taplin forget, perhaps, that that was the way he described the people on the train platform? Did he forget that his undistinguished garb distinguished him very clearly, by his own account, from them?

If you know how Imperial literature works - that is, if you have ever read any British literature from the eighteenth or nineteenth century - you know how this episode is going to climax: in a sexual encounter with a loose native wench. And that's what happens to our Taplin in his visit to Velikii Ustyug. But once again, the bastard won't inhale - or, er, "exhale." He won't touch the wench, or at least that's the way he tells it! To her frustration and the reader's, he merely lets her grovel before him in full sexual display, then hits the station for the next forbidden zone.

His native manservant, Yuri, takes the traditional role of pimp for his new master: "Yuri wanted me to meet someone. 'Irya works at the City archive,' he explained." The old "come up and see my archives" line, huh? So Yuri leads his master to Irya's apartment, where her husband does what peasant husbands are supposed to do when the Baron shows up in a randy mood:

"Right away, I was drawn to Irya. She was petite, pretty, engaging....A small, quiet man with greying hair appeared at the entrance to the kitchen. "I'm going out," he said pleasantly. Only later did I realize that he was her husband."

So far, this makes Graham Greene look like Frantz Fanon, right? It's all going according to the Imperial Plan: boot the cuckold out of the hut and fuck the wench in front of her cowering brood and Yuri the drooling manservant (who, Taplin informs us, "....was hopelessly in love with [Irya]."

Nothing much in the way of droit-de-seigneur gets off the ground in this first visit, but they go back to Irya's place. This time, you think, the bastard will finally start behaving like a proper Baron. Everything starts off well. The cuckold vanishes on cue: "Her husband appeared from a darkened room and headed toward the entrance." So far so good; haven't even had to use the riding crop yet. And the wench is properly receptive: "She hugged me; her embroidered blouse [Oooh! Peasant blouses! Yeah! The easy-ripping kind! Yeah!], her hair faintly scented."

But, in a scene destined to become a classic of Colonial non-fiction, two cops show up - two mere locals! - and try to beat the Baron in the race to bed the wench! Taplin spits fury at these two slapstick native auxiliaries; "lean as a weasel" is his kindest description. And that's fine. After all, he's the Baron and they're not and that's the way it s'poze to be! But this Baron gives up so easily that you have to suspect that he either never intended to rip off the wench's blouse or (more likely) is never going to tell us if he did. The cops spoil the fun just at the crucial moment, and this pitiful pseudo-Baron concludes, "It was time to head back to the hotel."

It's so hard to get good Barons nowadays. One would like to think that he lashed the cops out of Irya's apartment, then ripped off her blouse (giving her a few lashes just on general principles) and ravished her on the table, scattering borsch and brats with proper lordly abandon. But I fear we don't produce Barons of that sort of quality, and that this sheep-in-wolf's-down actually DID go back to his hotel to finish the job one-handed.

And then he wrote it all down, in a one-handed, wretchedly dishonest Baronial progress, and called it Open Lands - because he didn't have the courage to say what it is that was to be opened.

Check out Dr. Dolan’s new book, "Poetic Occasion From Milton To Wordsworth" published by St. Martin’s Press, or order it on amazon.com .

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