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There's more to Russian spirit than pure vodka

THE SPIRIT-WRESTLERS. By Philip Marsden. HarperCollins Pounds 17.99

At the beginning of this book the author observes: "Generations of force-fed ideology had not diminished that peculiarly Russian passion for belief. "

Passion and belief are almost understatements, as Marsden demonstrates in this account of his unprecedented journey through post-Soviet Russia and the new republics. The Russian spirit is as vast and indomitable as the country itself.

The author succeeds in conveying something of its scope in a series of strong, sometimes haunting vignettes of his encounters with religious or ritualised communities, many cut off from the rest of the world since before the 1917 Revolution. He does so with style, colour, wit, compassion and, most impressive of all, with patience.

That great virtue becomes a necessity when you're dealing with folk who live in the world of spirit. It's to Marsden's credit that he follows whims, instincts and passing suggestions that take him thousands of miles across this vast country, and that they appear to pay off.

Whether he's sitting in on all-night family gatherings under ancient vines or attending a collective farm meeting, listening to old ladies sing devotional songs or simply getting ensconced in the world of a sleepy, forgotten village, he comes away with glimmers of insight into how people who have known such adversity and persecution can still endure.

He gets on rickety old buses full of people carrying parcels of pig fat and gets off, hours later, not sure of what he is going to find. It could be the tractor-shaped Gorky Theatre in the steppes, the Molokan "milk drinkers" of the Transcaucasus or the 100-year-old-plus residents of the self-proclaimed Ossetian Republic.

People always seem to accommodate him, and love to tell him their stories.Like those of the widely scattered Doukhobors, literally "spirit-wrestlers". The members of this sect, dating back to the mid-18th century, are devout radicals who despise priests because they come between us and God. The many war-loving rulers of the past have made the spirit-wrestlers suffer for their lives of pacifism.

Then there are the Cossacks, the horse-loving "shaggy-haired steppe bandits" who have never had qualms about bloodying their hands. Nikolai, a Cossack born in 1917, tells of how they were used by the Reds and the Whites during the Civil War and then beheaded by Stalin's Cheka death squads in machines used to kill pigs. The old man sits at his table and weeps as he remembers the night 118 men in his village were butchered.

There are others, too, like the Old Believers, whose ancestors had their right arms severed for using two fingers to cross themselves instead of the three favoured by the reformists.

This book is more than a comprehensive digest of odd groups and sects and the atrocities that have befallen them. The reader is left with, as Philip Marsden put it to me, "a celebration of human diversity in the face of the Soviet conformity of the past and the increasingly conformist age in which we live today."


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