Across much of Russia, hitchhiking is a part of everyday life. With few official taxi companies, inhabitants in any number of cities, from Voronezh to Vladivostok, simply hail a passing car and negotiate a price. As a result, hitchhiking longer distances is more socially acceptable and there are dedicated clubs for young people looking to travel on a limited budget. The Academy of Free Travel (AVP in Russian), for instance, sets up bases in different parts of the world. This summer they’re heading for Krasnodar in southwestern Russia and next year they plan to explore Madagascar.
One of the more high profile fans of hitchhiking in Russia is author Irina Bogatyreva. “I travel like this because I’m curious,” says Bogatyreva. “For me, it was not an ideology or way to save money on a ticket but a chance to learn more about my own country.” One memorable night, she says, “we covered 600km from Novosibirsk to Omsk with a totally drunk driver.” The journey involved being chased by the police and trying — and failing — to find another lift among the sleeping villages while the driver refuelled. “But we arrived safely,” she says.
“I travel like this because I’m curious. For me, it was not an ideology or way to save money on a ticket but a chance to learn more about my own country”
Bogatyreva’s novella, Off the Beaten Track, which draws on her experiences, was published in English last year as part of a collection of stories by young Russian hitchhikers. The influence of Jack Kerouac, probably the best-known advocate of hitchking, is evident throughout. Bogatyreva’s narrator dreams of going to the US and hitchhiking with Kerouac to the “warm, solitary, misty mountains of California.” She is devastated to discover her hero is dead and shocked to realise that his America has also disappeared — “It had become flabby and bourgeois, stuffed its cheeks with hamburgers and gone to Hollywood.”
Bogatyreva usually travels with her husband, whom she met while hitchhiking. “We went on a trip together when we hardly knew each other and fell in love on the road,” she says. “Travelling can bring people together or drive them apart.” Episodes like the drunk driver from Novosibirsk or pretending to be a witch to ward off unwanted sexual advantages — as described in Bogatyreva’s short story Seizure — are the exceptions to a generally safe subculture, she insists.
“You can see whether the person at the wheel is normal as soon as you open the door and talk to him. The real danger comes from traffic accidents on Russian roads”
This is a sentiment shared by fellow writer and hitcher, Igor Savelyev, feels similarly safe. “Outsiders think that the main risk is being picked up by a maniac, but that is the least of the problems,” he said in a recent interview. “You can see whether the person at the wheel is normal as soon as you open the door and talk to him. The real danger comes from traffic accidents on Russian roads.”
Freedom from sexual conventions is one of the escapes Bogatyreva relishes in her travels. “Summer was the road, tramping, mountains, sun, barbarity, solitude and hitchhiking,” she writes in Seizure, where the androgynous narrator is surprised by overtures from a driver because she says, “I was an unkempt, asexual freak, bearing a backpack as big as myself.”
“I was an unkempt, asexual freak, bearing a backpack as big as myself”
Seizure recently appeared in English in an anthology of contemporary short stories by women, along with Bogatyreva’s Universum. This intriguing short story about identity describes a lonely girl who takes over the living space and ultimately the life of a boy she is obsessed with. “As a woman you will adapt easily,” he tells her. “That’s nature’s gift to you.” For Bogatyreva, adaptability is an inherently female feature. “In the Nineties, when the crisis erupted in Russia, many middle-aged men just broke but women didn’t,” she explains. “They proved to be able to adapt to a new life much more easily and pull their men along with them. If the woman survives — society survives too.”
One reason for Kerouac’s resonance among Russians is a shared sense of distance. Bogatyreva writes about “our immense, immense country” and these new stories have their own sense of space. Savelyev’s novel Pale City observes that while many hitchhiking terms have been borrowed from English, “the roads, the solitude and the melancholy are quintessentially Russian”.
“As a woman you will adapt easily. That’s nature’s gift to you”
Bogatyreva’s love of the natural world is clear: her most haunting descriptions are of the forests and mountains she reaches on her journeys. Lake Baikal, the oldest and deepest of its kind in the world, and the Altai mountains, where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan converge, are her favourite places. “Places where you cannot just be alone, but can discover what is hidden inside you,” she says. Even when in urban settings, she seeks out green spaces: the orchards of hilly Kolomenskoye in Moscow or Central Park in New York. “Only in London do the parks evoke the feeling that this is a natural human environment,” she says enthusiastically, before adding, “Birds and squirrels … I even saw a fox!”
Bogatyreva was born in 1982 in Kazan but moved to Moscow as a student and remains based there. In her novella, Moscow is “greedy, gorging, stinking”; a map of the city with all its circles and radial roads is compared to “a spider’s web … we all fly here and get stuck like insects.” A few years ago, she revisited her childhood home when she was in Kazan for work. “I went to this street and managed to find our porch … The yard, which was huge then, seemed small and overgrown. And the kindergarten, which took so long to get to that so many things could happen to you on the way, was in fact, a few steps from the entrance.”
Bogatyreva is now writing about “music, musicians and creativity in general”. Last year, she won an award for teenage literature for a trilogy about the Altai Scythians. She feels that her generation lives at “the junction of eras” where “we can see clearly enough what used to be, but who can tell us what is coming next?”