Thursday 20 August 2020

Orth, Stephan "Couchsurfing in Russia"

Orth, Stephan "Couchsurfing in Russia: Friendships and Misadventures Behind Putin’s Curtain" (German: Couchsurfing in Russland. Wie ich fast zum Putin-Versteher wurde) - 2017

I have read two books by Stephan Orth (so far) and this was the first one of those that has been translated.
Initially, for my list, I had translated the title from German into English: "Couchsurfing in Russia. How I almost started to understand Putin".
But, the publishers have decided to give it another title: "Behind Putin's Curtain: Friendships and Misadventures Inside Russia". In the meantime, the author regrets having chosen that original German subtitle because he fears it might lead to misunderstandings.

The author did what thousands of young people do every year (or used to before Covid put a stop to almost anything), he traveled the world through CouchSurfing. It gives people the opportunity to stay at other private homes and get to know the people in the country a lot better than if they went to a hotel. And, of course, it's a lot cheaper. The host also gets his reward, he can learn about other countries without having to travel. I have known this concept since the 1970s when I started to learn Esperanto. We call it Pasporta Servo (Passport Service). I've been hosting many people from different countries that way. It's always a lot of fun.

Anyway, Stephan Orth travels through countries where it isn't easy to travel alone and/or privately, usually both. In this book, he went through Russia, but he's also been to China and Iran.
"Couchsurfing im Iran: Meine Reise hinter verschlossenen Türen" (Couchsurfing in Iran: Revealing a Hidden World/Couchsurfing in Iran: My journey behind closed doors) - 2015
"Couchsurfing in China. Durch die Wohnzimmer der neuen Supermacht" (Couchsurfing in China. Through the living rooms of the new super power) - 2019

This is a brilliant book. It's not the usual travel book where someone lists all the attractions a country can offer. No, it does a lot more, it shows us how ordinary people live in these countries, how they study, earn their money, live. We get to know their lives and their customs. He doesn't just visit the big cities that everyone talks about, he goes to the "outbacks", he visits unusual sites that are still very interesting, even if (or maybe because) they don't attract millions of people.

He has a great writing style. Humorous, witty, informative. It's lovely to follow him around the country in his investigative and unprejudiced way and thereby learning more about this big country than in many history or political books.

From the back cover:

"'In the late summer of 2016,’ writes award-winning travel writer Stephan Orth, ‘a journey to Russia feels like visiting enemy territory. In this humorous and thought-provoking book, Orth ventures through that vast and mysterious territory to uncover the real, unfiltered Russia not seen in today’s headlines: authentic, bizarre, dangerous, and beautiful. Sidestepping the well-trod tourist path, he travels the country from Moscow to Vladivostok - across seven time zones and almost 9,500 kilometres i making stops in Chechnya, Saint Petersburg, Siberia, and beyond. Staying with an eclectic array of hosts, he bumps into gun nuts, internet conspiracy theorists, faux shamans, and Putin fans; learns to drive in death-defying Russian style; and discovers how to cure hangovers by sniffing rye bread. But he also sees a darker side of the country, witnessing firsthand the effects of Putin’s influence in the run-up to the 2016 American election and the power of propaganda in this ‘post-fact’ era. Weaving everything together with thoughtfulness and warmth, Orth follows the acclaimed Couchsurfing in Iran with another complex, funny, and personal travelogue - a colourful portrait of a fascinating and misunderstood country."


  1. The Chinese one has not been translated and I haven't read his first one, about Iran, yet. But I will soon and I'm sure it's just as great as the others.

    He just gives so much insight into the lives of the people he visited. Nothing you hear about in big politics.