Croatia / Central & Eastern Europe / History / Satellite Review / Literature / Travel

Journey to Russia

Miroslav Krleža’s masterpiece of mid-Twenties reportage is a compelling hybrid of travelogue, personal memoir and political essay

Cover design by Nikša Eršek

Krleža’s incendiary prose careers across the early twentieth-century like an express train. Indeed it’s this woozy feeling of hurtling across a continent that has lost its bearings that gives the book an air of immediacy in 2018.

It may have taken ninety years for Miroslav Krleža’s Journey to Russia (Izlet u Rusiju) to appear in the English language, but it was definitely worth the wait. Not just because Krleža is fairly under-translated for a major European writer, but also because it’s such an electrifying read. Describing a long sojourn in Russia spent by a 32-year-old Krleža in the winter of 1924-1925, it is far and away the best piece of travel writing in the Croatian language – indeed it is the only Croatian non-fiction book of any kind that you could safely place on the same shelf as a Kapuściński, Alexievich or a Chatwin.

It’s by no means a perfect book, made up of a sequence of essays (some of which were published in the periodical Književna Republika) that rather run out of creative steam towards the end. The first half is an innovative and compelling mixture of vivid travel reportage and extended riffs on contemporary culture, aesthetics, and personal recollections that range across several decades. It’s a tribute to the agility and perseverance of translator Will Firth that Krleža’s incendiary prose strikes home with such fluent power. The first chapter on Berlin is a case in point, containing one of the most lyrical descriptions of arriving in a city by train ever committed to paper, juxtaposed with Krleža’s childhood memories of Adolph von Menzel’s paintings of the Prussian court – the unlikely starting point for an involved rumination on the nature of militarism, World War I, and Croatia’s relationship with the Teutons.

An established writer and journalist well known for his left-wing views, Krleža was a supporter of the Bolshevik revolution who was keen to discover how it actually worked in practice. Reading between the lines we can sense that he was slightly disheartened by what he discovered - a shabby country exhausted by a decade of war and upheaval - although this in no way shook his conviction that the Soviet experiment was vitally necessary. On arrival in Moscow Krleža was almost afraid to look out of the window, aware that he might be disappointed by the reality of his dream-city, the “panorama of bright horizons” that had inspired him to make the journey in the first place.  “My hotel room smelled of burning and carbolic acid. Coarse rugs on a soldier’s cot, a bleak, whitewashed room with bare walls – it all looked more like an asylum than a hotel.”

There follows a symphonic description of the Kremlin that trumps any existing guidebook account with its rich prose and jarring historical associations. “The Kremlin remains a symbol of the last five centuries of Russian history, and its curious beauty and distinctiveness are so proverbial that it can scarcely be described without waxing verbose and lyrical. The dark red, baked massifs of brick… the golden Byzantine domes behind the Florentine fortification wall… the golden weather vanes and towers, the contours of heavy walls with the gracility of the golden onion domes - all of that is a musical motif, partly sweet like a Tchaikovsky minuet and partly dramatic like a severed dog’s head, that symbolic trophy of Ivan the Terrible...” Krleža stays in Moscow to report on daily life, the local theatre scene, and the emerging cult of Lenin one year after the leaders’ death; rich seams of eyewitness material that are yet to be mined by English-speaking historians of Russia in the Twenties.   

The closing chapters, dealing with Lenin, communism and imperialism, are illuminated by the occasional flash of political truth-telling, but also display the irritating certainty of an author who sees Leninism as the answer to just about everything.  Krleža’s hero-worship of Lenin (whom he describes as a “lighthouse beam over the shipwreck of international civilization”) is particularly difficult to swallow, knowing as we do now that the spade-bearded tribune bears much of the responsibility for turning the Soviet Union into a police state. 

Krleža was travelling at a time when the great civilizational rupture of World War I was still fresh in peoples’ minds (Krleža himself was a veteran of the Galician Front), and the ‘new’ Europe improvised in its wake didn’t seem to be much of an improvement on what had gone before it. As far as Krleža was concerned, the victory of the Entente Powers in 1918 had not resulted in any great improvements in the lives of ordinary Europeans, and the imperfect but essentially noble example of the Soviet Union was the only genuine alternative. Krleža is pretty contemptuous of those who are not fully behind the revolution, and criticisms of the GPU (forerunner of the KGB) are dismissed with a shrug.

In the early parts of the book at least, Krleža’s political obsessions are woven masterfully into an unorthodox travelogue that careers across the early twentieth-century like an express train. Indeed it’s this woozy feeling of hurtling across a continent that has lost its bearings that gives the book an air of compelling immediacy in 2018. Krleža’s choice of ultimate destination may no longer be convincing, but his conscience-pricking opinions and fizzing prose make him an ideal travelling companion for the journey ahead.

Krleža began his account with Berlin in order to show us the old decaying Europe he was leaving behind. Nowadays, it’s the passing of the wild, anything-goes Berlin of the 1920s that we mourn more sincerely than the demise of the Leninist state in which Krleža invested his future hopes. And one can’t help thinking that the most attractive destination in the book is the Berlin Krleža passed through on a snowy night at the beginning of his journey: “The asphalt shines… and a thick cream of slush melts in the torrent of automobile tires; red-green and golden advertisements flow, fiery ellipses whirl, seminude females shiver in the rainy February wind, draped with the fluffy plumes of exotic tropical birds. There are bars, lacquered Chinese boxes of debauchery, with balustrades and tempera nakedness (monkeys on blossoming cherry branches touch naked women in clusters of yellow mimosa), a swirling on the ballroom parquet to the wail of saxophones and bassoons.”  Even from a purely literary standpoint, one is tempted to say that it’s a shame that Krleža didn’t hang around in the German capital for a little bit longer.

Journey to Russia by Miroslav Krleža, translated by Will Firth. Published by Sandorf.

© Jonathan Bousfield