Review: Rory MacLean’s “Pravda Ha Ha: Truth, Lies and the End of Europe”

by J.R. Patterson
rory maclean pravda ha ha

Rory MacLean – Pravda Ha Ha: Truth, Lies and the End of Europe (Bloomsbury 2020). Paperback, pp 343.

Book review by J. R. Patterson.


Rory MacLean is one of travel literature’s unsung greats. His 1992 debut, Stalin’s Nose, gave him some measure of fame, though by then he was already palling around with Ken Russell and David Bowie. It was his time with the latter in Berlin that inspired that first book, a road trip beyond the recently demolished Berlin Wall into the newly opened Eastern Europe. Excited to see the shadow of World War II, Stalinism, and the Cold War recede before him, MacLean motored through the old Soviet boltholes, meeting people who had never met a foreigner before, had never heard a foreign language spoken. It was a celebration of a Europe to come, a coalition of progression and idealism, the end of history. 

Of course, history didn’t end, and things didn’t quite work out as MacLean and other idealists had hoped. Pravda (the title is a rebuke: Pravda is Russian for truth) is a journey to understand why, and what comes next. That sharpness of mission, and MacLean’s fine writing, are what elevate the book above the tepid water of a sequel. What MacLean has produced is far from a trip down memory lane, though there are plenty of memories to pull on. Part historical text, part gonzo-journalism, part exploration of aging and memory, it is MacLean’s tour de force, the best of his long career.  

Just as Pravda Ha Ha is a kind of Stalin’s Nose in reverse, so too does MacLean find that many of the countries he visited have done a political pirouette, and are now looking toward Moscow for everything from political guidance and cultural cues. As he travels from Russia to Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Germany, and beyond, it becomes apparent just how deep Russia’s historical influence is, and how dark the shadow of Putin’s outstretched hand makes the future of Europe. He adds on new, important destinations that address those changes, but cannot escape the new Russia which gazes on the vast number of disparate cultures that exist under its influence and sees them as mere “stones that should not be revered or given predominance over the legacy of Russian national culture.” In Estonia, Transnistria, and Crimea, he finds tired, famished husks of people, and predicts that “democracy may well be brought down for the price of a few lunches.” In describing Poland’s decade-long descent into autocracy, he writes: “Thirty years ago Poland had played a leading role in the collapse of the Soviet bloc…did most Poles no longer care about defending the principles and practices of a free society? Was the country making its own backwards journey, returning to an inward and illiberal past defined by family, church and home?”

While his stylistic choices–he understands far too much about his subject to treat feigned ignorance as an admirable quality–today flag MacLean as an adherent to an older school of travel writing, Pravda Ha Ha is a masterclass in the genre. He knows both his history and the area well enough to avoid falling into pitfalls of reverence. Not one sentence is wasted describing local “quirks;” there are no digressions into the sentimental; the multitude of foreign locales are never othered. Instead, he guides the story largely without interference, rarely placing himself at the fulcrum point. The result is a highly smooth path that, even with its gaps (the lead map does most of the heavy lifting in conveying the physical and practical elements of the journey), feels natural and obvious.  

That is not to say MacLean has no presence in the book. He’s argumentative, questioning the apathetic and the militant he encounters, and taking them to task on their inconsistencies. More often than not, he finds himself up against deaf ears and closed eyes, the hallmarks of political sycophancy that plague every country. He’s at his best when skeptical, whether shoveling reproach on Budapest’s Terrorhaza Museum, or taking on American right-wing opportunists in Poland. He also encounters other, less fortunate, foreigners whose lives have slipped under the umbra of Soviet-style politics. In Moscow, he aides (and almost abets) a Nigerian refugee. In Berlin, he meets with Yusra Mardini, the famed Syrian swimmer-turned-refugee, who made headlines when she swam in the 2016 Rio Olympics. 

Mercifully, MacLean finds alternate ways to detail the hackneyed tropes of Soviet oversights. Thus, rather than making everyone slog through an obligatory visit to Chernobyl, he attends a circus in Dnipro among whose performers are the sufferers of radiation poisoning. Instead of tramping through snowy Siberian gulags, we’re taken to the lesser known Solovetsky Islands. 

Undoubtedly, it can be desolate. Good travel writing is prophetic; anyone with enough knowledge and a desire to pay attention can usually tell where a country is going. It’s no surprise then that Pravda Ha Ha lends more sense to the fierce protests in Belarus, Poland, and Russia, knowledge which only makes them all the more tragic. Stories of crushed rebellions, suppressed voices, and assassinations pile up like out-of-date newspapers. Other complaints, such as the blame heaped on incoming Muslim and African refugees (despite the near total lack of them east of Germany), can hit worryingly close to home. The book’s finale in the United Kingdom, at the Camelot Theme Park in Lancashire, woefully dashes any ideas that the challenges to personal freedom witnessed in the east “can’t happen here.”

The bright points—and there are many—are MacLean’s joyous interludes, his reunions with old friends, and the little sparks of hope he seems to be able to find (almost) everywhere. Even as his hope for Europe wanes, one can sense the unyielding hope burning within him, a fire both lit by and warming the believers in democracy he meets. There is no purple prose, no wet wording, saturating the pages. It is his best writing, at all times lyrical and sharp-edged. Carpathian meadows are “carpets of green inwrought with snow and flecked with lilac-cupped crocuses.” Estonian islets are “scattered like plump cushions trimmed with jetties and boats.” A tired Russian folds a wax sandwich wrapper “in half, then half again, pinching the edges hard with her nails as if fixing time in origami.” 

The work of Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, from which MacLean quotes, pondered the question of national stupidity, pointing to how Europe’s “Spirit of History” had devastated the continent and by “instilling a profound understanding of impermanence.” A Hungarian acquaintance of MacLean’s is more direct, saying “Europe is dead,” while sucking back a jar of vodka. In the wannabe-Russian exclave of Transnistria, a man tells MacLean that he, a Westerner, cannot understand the importance of the land, of the soul to Russians. While such a sentiment may be true about Westerners writ large. Nothing, however, could be further from pravda about MacLean.


Rory MacLean – Pravda Ha Ha: Truth, Lies and the End of Europe (Bloomsbury 2020). Paperback, pp 343.

Book review by J. R. Patterson.

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Last Updated on 8 February 2021 by Travel Writing World

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