Reeling In Russia: An American Angler In Russia

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9780312185954: Reeling In Russia: An American Angler In Russia
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In the summer of 1996, award-winning journalist Fen Montaigne embarked on a hundred-day, seven-thousand-mile journey across Russia. Traveling with his fly rod, he began his trek in northwestern Russia on the Solovetsky Islands, a remote archipelago that was the birthplace of Stalin's gulag. He ended half a world away as he fished for steelhead trout on the Kamchatka Peninsula, on the shores of the Pacific.

His tales of visiting these far-flung rivers are memorable, and at heart, Reeling in Russia is far more than a story of an angling journey. It is a humorous and moving account of his adventures in the madhouse that is Russia today, and a striking portrait that highlights the humanity and tribulations of its people.

In the end, the reader is left with the memory of haunted northern landscapes, of vivid sunsets over distant rivers, of the crumbling remains of pre-Revolutionary estates, and a cast of dogged Russians struggling to build a life amid the rubble of the Communist regime.

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Review:

"To some foreigners," writes American journalist Fen Montaigne, "Russia was anathema, a place grim beyond description. But to others, such as myself, Russia was an affliction, an incurable habit. From the very beginning, I was drawn to her dilapidated landscape, inhabited by people who knew hardship as intimately as we might a member of the family." After completing a stint as Moscow bureau chief for the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1996, Montaigne resolves to feed his habit in a somewhat unorthodox manner: a three-month fly-fishing expedition that will cross 10 time zones from west to east and cover 7,000 miles.

Traveling with a duffel bag bulging with state-of-the-art fishing gear is probably not the best way to journey through a largely impoverished land without arousing suspicion, but the neophyte fly-fisher is romanced by the vastness and anonymity of the place and simply cannot resist. Unknown rivers and lakes, after all, are the stuff of anglers' dreams, and so Montaigne blithely sets out with dancing trout and salmon in his head. All too soon, however, he is disabused of such gumdrop notions. Environmental degradation, bureaucratic hoops, unscrupulous "entrepreneurs," and a parade of vodka parties greet him at nearly every stop.

Montaigne's initial quest is swiftly superseded by a series of picaresque misadventures--some comic, others frightening--that serve to educate the innocent abroad as well as the reader. He tours centuries-old monasteries on the Solovetski archipelago that Stalin once turned into gulags, stumbles across a shallow grave near the Kolyma slave mines, narrowly escapes a pair of buxom highway robbers on the Trans-Siberian Railway, and breaks bread with fish-poaching apparatchiks on the Detrin River. Revealed along the way is a country in utter turmoil, trying to escape from its past without a destination in mind, almost childlike in its simplicity. Some of these East-meets-West scenes are strangely poignant in their squalor. At one vodka-soaked stop, the author obligingly gets drunk with the locals and caps the night by driving a brakeless Ural truck through town, much to the hoots and delight of his hosts: "'Second! Second!' the boys hollered as the engine whined, and I jammed the heavy stick into second gear. We hit a straightaway. I shifted into third and cranked the Ural up to about 25 miles an hour. Ashes from their cigarettes flitted about the cabin. I glanced over at the boys and saw that great, demented smiles had spread on their faces."

Eventually Montaigne overcomes his ineptitude with a flyrod and manages to hook into some nice fish, but his triumph hardly matters; the real catch of the day is the distillation of a moment in time, when a people and their nation drift helplessly in the current. --Langdon Cook

About the Author:

Former Moscow bureau chief for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Fen Montaigne writes for National Geographic and Audubon. He lives in Atlanta.

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Montaigne, Fen
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