To write this book award-winning writer Sara Wheeler travelled across eight time zones in Russia, from rinsed north-western beetroot fields and far-eastern Arctic tundra where Chukchi still hunt walrus to the cauldron of ethnic soup that is the Caucasus. Her guides were the writers of the Golden Age, Pushkin to Tolstoy via Gogol and Turgenev (broadly, the period between 1800 and 1910).
Mostly, on her travels, she used homestays, spending many months in fourth-floor 1950s apartments with windowless bathrooms, sprawled on sofas with her hosts, watching television, her new friends bent over devices and moaning about Ukraine. She wrote Mud and Stars at a time of deteriorating relations between the West and Russia. Nationalism has besieged the country. People she stayed with or met on trains had no illusions about the kleptocracy under which they lived, but as they watched flickering images of Putin bending a piece of metal with his bare hands, the reprise was always, 'Yes, he's a monster. But he's our monster.'
In these pages Wheeler searches for a Russia not in the news - a Russia of common humanity and daily struggles. Her aim is to show how the writers of the Golden Age represent their country, then and now. In doing so she resolved to give the 'ordinary' people of Russia - a country that occupies one sixth of the earth's land surface - a voice. Wheeler followed nineteenth-century footsteps in order to make connections between then and now, between the places where flashing-epauletted Lermontov died in the aromatic air of Pyatigorsk and sheaves of corn still stand like soldiers on a blazing afternoon, just like they do in Gogol's stories. On the Trans-Siberian in winter she crunched across snowy platforms to buy dried fish from babushki, and in summer sailed the Black Sea where dolphins leapt in front of violet Abkhazian peaks. There is a Russian literal landscape, and its emotional counterpart. Mud and Stars explores both.