To write Mud and Stars: Travels with Pushkin and Other Geniuses of the Golden Age 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.
Mostly, on her travels, she used homestays, spending many months in fourth-floor apartments with windowless bathrooms, sprawled on sofas with her hosts, watching television, her new friends bent over devices and moaning about Ukraine. In Mud and Stars 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 voice.. Wheeler will talk about what she saw and heard. She 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 table-tennis-bats of 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.