For more than seventy years, one-sixth of the globe and almost a quarter-billion people were cordoned off and stamped TOP SECRET by Big Brother. After reading RED ODYSSEY, the reasons for the black-out are pathetically clear. The litany of woe is of biblical proportions: predatory youth gangs in the Volga region; irradiated and dioxin-contaminated farmland in Kazakhstan; bubonic plague near the shrinking Aral Sea; and savage ethnic clashes and civil war in Kirghizia and Azerbaijan. RED ODYSSEY reads like a war story with man against man and man against nature.
Throughout the perilous four-thousand-mile journey, Akchurin, fluent in the European and Asian crosscurrents of exasperating Soviet life, depends upon the kindness and generosity of strangers and friends alike. The special gifts his friends bring to the story are in fact one of the book’s great strengths. Characters all, they ease the pain and suffering inherent in Soviet life, while lending a Chaucerian quality to the fast-paced narrative. Diverse trades and professions are represented, among them—auto mechanic, poet, folk singer, politician, and archpriest. Many are included in the personal photographs that the author uses to illustrate the “islands of goodness” that provide shelter from the storm.
To Akchurin the book is a “death mask of what was formerly the Soviet Union.” Perhaps. Although some concepts were inevitably lost in translation and issues such as the interpretation of Omar Khayyam’s work and philosophy debatable, RED ODYSSEY reveals to an American a wealth of information on lands as foreign and distant in time and space as, say, the moon. After all, we were authorized to travel there.