Writer, historian, radio host, and journalist Peter Aleshkovsky was announced winner of the 2016 Russian Booker Prize for Крепость (‘The Fortress’) last Thursday. We spoke via email about his win and his new novel, which follows a middle-class archeologist as he navigates an unforgiving modern Russia.
How did the idea for this novel come about?
Destinations Unlocked:Let our travel expert Stefano help you find your perfect Culture trip
Looking for an expert's perspective?Uncover my top 3 recommended places from each continent on the map.
1. GuatemalaAn express adventure for those with limited time off. Prepare yourself incredible experiences. You will hike a volcano, visit mayan temples and witness a ceremony and take in beautiful colonial Antigua.
2. BelizeA quick trip not too far away for those seeking a relaxing mini break. You will have plenty of free time to relax but also some awesome activities to experience the rainforest and the caribbean sea.
3. MexicoAn exciting mini trip exploring the lesser known colonial towns of central Mexico. This is hte perfect trip for someone with limited time off and still wants to turn on explorer mode and do something different.
1. EcuadorA remarkable 8 days adventure through the Andes and the Amazon rainforest. The best choice for adventure seekers wishing to visit the 2 most iconic areas of South America, in only 1 week and no flights.
2. PeruAn alternative itinerary to classic Peru, from Cusco to Arequipa. This itinerary is great combination of highlights Cusco and Machu Picchu with the lesser known Arequipa and Colca Canyon.
1. ItalyThe ultimate Italian experience from the vibrant streets of Naples to the breathtaking sceneries of the Amalfi Coast followed by Matera and down to Puglia with its golden beaches, intense flavours and fascinating destinations.
2. ScotlandEmbark on this great adventure starting from London all the way to Scotland with a true Scottish experience made of breathtaking sceneries, whisky tasting and ..lots of fun! Ideal for train lovers and explorers.
3. PortugalA wonderful train journey around Portugal, from the romantic city of Porto to the Douro Valley, to the beautiful Aveiro all the way to Lisbon and Sintra. The perfect trip to train, culinary and culture lovers.
1. South KoreaDiscover incredible temples, mountains and modern cities on this 10 day adventure. This trip is perfect for those seeking immersion in the cuisine, culture and natural wonders of South Korea.
2. ThailandFrom Bankgok to Angkor Wat to Ho Chi Minh City and everything in between - adventure through the heart of South-East Asia. Taste the delights, see history brought to life and unwind on a Mekong River cruise.
3. Sri LankaA fantastic adventure that showcases Sri Lanka's fantastic landscapes, wildlife and flavours. With 3 epic rail journeys, 3 UNESCO heritage sites and time to relax, this trip has loads to offer at a great price
1. MoroccoAn epic journey across Morocco: from Casablanca to Marrakech, through the blue city of Chefchaouen to the wonders of the desert and deep to the High Atlas Mountains - this trip has it all! Ideal for true explorers!
2. EgyptFrom Cairo to Aswan, this trip brings the land of the pharaohs to life. You'll visit the Pyramids, Valley of the Kings and Luxor Temple and cruise down the Nile in style. This is the perfect way to explore Egypt.
I used to be an archaeologist, plying my trade at a restoration workshop for old architectural monuments. I specialized in medieval studies, and dug at the Veliky Novgorod, Solovki and Kirillo-Belozersky monasteries [historic sites restored extensively in postwar USSR]. Since then I have closely followed the architects who worked on them, and who have now gone off to work in new architecture. But I don’t blame them for doing so; restoration has gone to pieces, and you have to feed your children somehow.
The great movement those architects followed, getting involved in restoration in the 1960s—or even earlier—was a kind of escapism: they didn’t want to build the inhospitable boxes typical of post-Stalinist construction. They looked for work and found it in restoration, creating a whole school in the process. Today we are losing this school very swiftly; so-called restorative works are often procured by people who are absolutely incompetent in ’scientific’ reconstruction, with builders only aspiring to warm their hands on fat commissions. As a result, monuments suffer. The only way to counter this uncultured approach is through scientific knowledge—always the fortune of a people who take possession of their internal culture. But now this all is rather dull; ‘new’ capitalism is still winning.
Can you explain the book’s title, Крепость (‘The Fortress’)?
The fortress (in the sense of a castle) is present in the novel. The protagonist, an archaeologist, is trying to save it from the predatory hands of false restorers. But there is another kind of fortress—a fortress of spirit that forever manifests itself in an honest and conscientious person. In the Russian language these concepts are transmitted in a single word.
In the novel there are many thoughts running in parallel; there is a parallel history of a Mongol soldier from Mongolia–a kind of ‘Way of the Samurai.’ It is a story about the Battle of Kulikovo, where Russian forces defeated the Mongols, and follows the flight of this hero to Samarkand and Timur [the fourteenth-century Turko-Mongol conqueror], and then his experience during a war, and another war, and another, with his own Mongols. He finally ends his journey in the service of the Russian prince, a liege ready to accept the fugitive. There were always many Mongols in the Russian feudal elite—starting from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries onwards—and one can find in surnames the trace of those from the steppes who flew and settled down in Rus’ [meaning Ruthenia, the medieval name for a region that roughly encompasses modern Russia]. The novel’s hero, from today, is a descendant of that Mongol soldier.
In Rus’ there always were many foreigners; they were brought there for various reasons, and tried to go unnoticed, but the Gulag evened out all conditions, surnames, and etched out from Russian blood the genetical best (about the worst there is no need to recall—the executioners got the torture chamber, too). Today all of us are still living in a post-Stalin time, so this history is worth remembering; we must appreciate culture and not bury it in the sand in a literal sense. Today, people are casually heading to the feeding trough, unaware and uncaring of everything else, when now, more than ever, they need a fortress.
You’ve been thrice nominated for this prize. Were you surprised by your win?
I wasn’t surprised, but I wasn’t expecting anything in particular. Over time, it’s more important to do what one should, and let be what will be. It’s a good principle formulated by Leo Tolstoy. He, truth be told, was always guided by it. That too is clear.
Who are some other Russian writers you hope to see get this same recognition?
Maria Galina, the author of the fantastic novel СЭС-2 [SES-2]; Andrei Dmitriev [winner of the 2012 Russian Booker], if he is writing a new novel; Narine Abgaryan, who wrote a lengthy and good saga on Armenian life; Sukhbat Aflatuni, who was on this year’s shortlist, and Nikolai Kononov, a subtle stylist who for some reason has yet to be honored by the Booker.
And while we wait for Крепость to be translated into English, we recommend catching up with the three works the author already has available in English: Stargorod, Fish, and Skunk!
[Aleshkovsky’s answers were translated from their original Russian with the invaluable help and expertise of Anthony Johnston.]
Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip
meet our Local Insider
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A GUIDE?
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR JOB?
It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.
WHAT DESTINATION IS ON YOUR TRAVEL BUCKET-LIST?
I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!
Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.
KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?
Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world
Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.
Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.
Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.
Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.
We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.