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For my Canberra book group we once read Absurdistan by Gary Steyngart but one member of the group confused the author and read a book with the same title but by Australian journalist, Eric Campbell. When I saw the book by Eric Campbell “Absurdistan; A bumpy ride through some of the world’s scariest, weirdest places” for sale at an excellent English language second hand book shop in Riga, I bought it.
On our Christmas family vacation to Poland and Germany I enjoyed reading Campbell’s book. Campbell was a foreign correspondent for the ABC (Australia’s government funded TV station). His first posting was to Russia for 4 years and this quote resonated with me, not that Trondheim is like Moscow but I can understand what he was saying.
It wasn’t a dream destination… My wife Meredith was so thrilled by the prospect that she planned to stop off indefinitely in London on the way. But I didn’t care… I was now 35 and bored rigid with life in Australia. If the price of escape was living somewhere cold, hard and mean, I was happy to pay it.
Campbell was living in Russia when President Yeltsin’s health was in decline and four times he appointed then fired new prime ministers and cabinets while the economy went into difficulties. Finally, Yeltsin named Vladimir Putin as prime minister of Russia. Putin was head of the secret police and
appeared to have the charisma of an undertaker. Fellow spooks had named him the Grey Cardinal.
With a confidence and wisdom honed by nearly four years in Moscow, I sent a report back to Australia declaring that Putin could never be elected president
A few weeks later, 5 different horrific bomb blasts killed and injured hundreds of Russians and suddenly the Russian people were convinced (thanks to the media, Yeltsin and Putin) that Chechen terrorists were to blame.
Overnight, Moscow went on virtual war footing… Fear now spread across the country.
Putin announced that Chechens were responsible and ordered Russian troops to mass at the border.
We must act decisively, grit our teeth and crush the vermin at the root
Three days after Putin declared war and a 6th bomb attack was foiled by police, it was reported that the terrorists were actually secret agents from the FSB agency that Putin one month earlier was running. Campbell doesn’t explicitly say it but he implies that Putin arranged the terrible bombings of Russians to foment nationalism so that he could lead his country to war and gain the approval of his people. If that’s true, then Putin is a genius and Europe, and Central Asia (especially Poland and Turkey) need to be prepared.
During Campbell’s time in Moscow he visited the hot-spots in Europe and central Asia and wrote anecdotes into this book. Some of the anecdotes are funny, some are strange and many are seriously disturbing, for example his experiences in Kosovo and later at the edge of the refugee holding camp on the Macedonian border, where more than 45,000 refugees were trapped without water or sanitation.
I have friends who were in Kosovo at around the time of the war, Albanian and Serb, and it was interesting and awful to read Campbell’s account of being in Kosovo as the NATO troops entered after the bombings. He passed through Albanian areas with smashed windows, shops and homes looted, walls covered with graffiti. As the Serbs left he witnessed reprisals as Serb villages went up in flames and he filmed an Albanian civilian looting a Serb home taking the fridge, lounge suite and washing machine and saying
The Serbs destroyed my home so I take this from theirs
One assignment was to Belarus to report on the would be dictator Lukashenko who compared himself to Hitler and fantasized about being a new tsar. While there Campbell visited a bar named the Palace that had the most beautiful women in the former USSR, decor, music and clothes that could have been transplanted from New York and everyone spoke English and it was incredibly cheap. He met two students who he thought introduced themselves as nasty and nastier but eventually figured out that their names where Nastya. The next night he met one Nastya for dinner at a restaurant. It was a drab room with stodgy food and a couple of noisy families with small children.
Suddenly, for no apparent reason, a woman came out to the dance floor and began taking her clothes off. Grinding music started thumping from a tinny sound system. The children at the next table giggled. During the next half hour, four different women came out and gyrated naked in front of me… Perhaps striptease was a fashionable new phenomenon and it was unsophisticated to be embarrassed.
Campbell visited a small Russian republic on the shore of the Caspian Sea that I’ve never heard of called Kalmykia. It was settled by Buddhist Oirat Mongols and in 1998 was run by a megalomaniac named Ilyumzhinov who was a millionaire in a country of abject poverty and was obsessed with chess.
Campbell went from Russia to China and didn’t enjoy that. In Russia he was frustrated and faced many difficulties but he also had fun and was free to report whatever he wanted. In China he had no freedom as a reporter at all and instead was constantly under close scrutiny and censor. Judging from the article in The Economist on December 5th 2015 This article is guilty of spreading panic and disorder, it seems that things are getting worse under China’s president Xi Jinping. The article describes the insistence on ideological conformity and the latest crackdowns on self expression.
Campbell spent part of 2001/2 in Afghanistan after the bombings in the USA and had some interesting anecdotes to share from that time. Finally, he went to northern Iraq as the Allied forces invaded and he and his cameraman were hit by a car bomb that killed his cameraman Paul Moran and left Campbell with PSD.
It was an interesting book and I learnt a lot from it. I’m definitely glad that I read it. What did you think of it?