Visits to pre-glasnost Soviet Russia and occupied Afghanistan

Where Nights Are Longest: Travels by Car Through Western Russia by Colin Thubron. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press. 224 pp. Paperback. $7.95. Under a Sickle Moon: A Journey Through Afghanistan by Peregrine Hodson. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press. 224 pp. Paperback. $7.95.

``Nobody from the West enters the Soviet Union without prejudice,'' says Colin Thubron at the start of ``Where Nights Are Longest.'' ``But I think I wanted to know and embrace this enemy I had inherited.''

To a large degree, Thubron's journey through Russia is an exploration of attitudes, the Soviets' and his own. It would be nice to report that he discovered that his negative bias was without foundation. But this was not the case. Indeed, neither his book nor Peregrine Hodson's account of a journey through Soviet-occupied Afghanistan - two outstanding entries in the new Atlantic Monthly Traveler series - is likely to endear Soviet power to Western readers.

Thubron set off in the summer of 1980, traveling by car and staying mainly at campsites. His route took in Moscow, Leningrad, the Baltic states, the Caucasus, regions on the Turkish border and the Ukraine - in all, some 10,000 miles through a land whose vastness never ceased to impress him: ``Wherever you touch it, you are conscious of a giant, alienating hinterland. You are always, somehow, on the periphery.''

The very format of Thubron's trip posed a challenge to Russian tourism, which favors delegations (``Are you a group?'' he was asked repeatedly at campsites) and supervised sightseeing. His journey was solitary, individualistic.

Individualism - and its political counterpart, freedom - form the book's recurring theme. Not that Thubron omits description: He depicts countryside, architecture, people in beautiful prose made precise by close observation and deepened by a knowledge of Russia.

But if he is looking at everything, he is also looking for something, always moving beyond description to penetrate the texture of Russian life and compare it with his own ``world of private love and choice which communism sought to supersede.''

From this perspective, Thubron describes how Russia enshrines its authors in the writer's museum in Oryol, but also how in Oryol it is ``hard to find the works of Mandelshtam, let alone of Solzhenitsyn.'' He describes the churches, but also how the government has closed them in an effort to make communism the new religion - with scripture, prophets, and Lenin as saint, his mausoleum ``the Holy Sepulchre of atheism.''

In a telling scene, he describes some girls in a ``Park of Rest and Culture'' engaged in a drawing competition. Their pictures, on the subject of peace, were, he says, ``heartbreakingly similar....'' The girls ``had drawn nothing truly their own....'' Gazing at the ``taught phrases and symbols,'' Thubron feels ``as if a whole generation were being anesthetized'' before his eyes.

Clearly, Thubron's viewpoint is very Western, but his book is persuasive in its defense. Throughout Russia, he meets people who are dissatisfied with the government, with their inability to think, worship, read as they want, who drink to forget the ``emptiness of their lives.''

These people are at the heart of the book, and from their warmth, spontaneity, thoughtfulness - all in evidence on these pages - Thubron learns never to equate ``the Russian system with the Russian people.'' His book, written before glasnost - it first appeared in England in 1983 as ``Among the Russians'' - makes one hope all the more for the thaw's success.

Like Thubron's account, ``Under A Sickle Moon'' is concerned with the struggle between Soviet power and freedom, but here we move from the tension of uneasy peace to the nightmare of war. In 1979, according to Pravda, the Afghanistan government requested that the Soviet Union send ``immediate aid and support in the struggle against outside intervention.'' By 1984, a Soviet-backed government was in place; there were, Hodson reports, 120,000 Soviet troops in Afghanistan; aerial bombing was devastating the country.

In 1984, Hodson went to Afghanistan to report for the (London) Sunday Times on the ``people's war'' - the Afghan resistance to the Soviets - an issue that was receiving ``far less than one percent of world news coverage.'' Planning to focus his report on the northeast town of Nahrin - chosen, in part, because he knew the language of the region - he went first to Pakistan, where he joined a resistance group bringing weapons to Nahrin, and set out with them on their exhausting and dangerous journey.

``Under A Sickle Moon'' is an on-the-ground account of Hodson's journey and experience of the war, and it is both gripping and moving. His lean prose conveys the physical ordeal of his trip. With self-awareness, he confronts his guilt at being an observer of other people's suffering; with honesty, he conveys his frustration at being asked time and again to justify his allegiance to Christianity over Islam; and with astuteness, sympathy, and humor he depicts the men he meets and travels with. Most of all, he conveys a sense of what it is like to live in a country under siege, where at any moment a bomb may destroy your farm or kill your family.

As Hodson states at the outset, this is ``not an analysis of the war or the politics of the region.'' At times, more background information would be useful - an ambush of his own group by a rival faction seems to call for some explanation of these internal divisions. But though it is not analytical, the book helps define the nature of the war, which for the Afghans is a jihad - a holy war.

``In the West you think we are fighting because the Shuravi [the Soviet forces] have invaded our country and we want to be free,'' says one man. ``That is only half the truth. The Shuravi bomb our mosques and religious schools, they try to teach our children communism and tell us that Islam is a backward way of thinking. It is true that Afghanistan is a poor country, but the most precious thing we have is our faith; without it we have nothing. We are fighting to protect our religion.''

The Afghans' religious fervor is evident throughout this powerful account of a war that has often been described as ``forgotten'' and that, Hodson suggests in his opening citation from Ephesians, may be viewed as a struggle ``against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.''

Gail Pool reviews travel literature for the Monitor.

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