Red Express

Cordell’s first-person account of his train journey across almost a third of the earth’s circumference is beautifully written. Weaving historical facts into a narrative of his encounters with people made extremely vulnerable by the changes brought about through the slow, apparently inevitable disintegration of communism, Cordell’s personal journal not only records his perceptions of the myriad ways communism’s death is affecting people in the Eastern Bloc countries but also presents the personal testimony of many of those people whom he met. “I encountered much that was difficult and depressing, and for all the changes, too little joy,” Cordell writes. He expected “a sense of exuberance from Berlin to Vladivostok as people shed their shackles, but instead there was the trauma of uncertainty.”

One of the remarkable things about this book is the way the beautiful color photographs of Solness serve as counterpoints to Cordell’s text. Solness consistently captures the enduring cultural wealth apparent on this journey through one of the great epochs of modern history, despite the huge uncertainties overshadowing the numerous cultures Cordell portrays as suffering world history in the making.

The beginning, middle, and end of this beautiful book are made to serve the authors’ thematic purpose: The beginning is represented by the crumbling Berlin Wall; the middle is represented by the embalmed corpse of Vladimir Lenin on view in Moscow; and the end is represented by the embalmed corpse of Mao Tse-tung on view in Beijing—two hours away by train from the Great Wall of China, itself a massive vestige of a moribund ideology.