'It has been hand-planted by Tsarinas and felled by foresters. It has been celebrated by peasants, worshipped by pagans and painted by artists. It has self-seeded across mountains and rivers and train tracks and steppe and right through the ruined modernity of a nuclear fall-out site. And like all symbols, the story of the birch has its share of horrors (white, straight, native, pure: how could it not?). But, maybe in the end, what I'm really in search of is a birch that means nothing: stripped of symbolism, bereft of use-value . . . A birch that is simply a tree in a land that couldn't give a shit.'
The birch, genus Betula, is one of the northern hemisphere's most widespread and easily recognisable trees. A pioneer species, the birch is also Russia's unofficial national emblem, and in The White Birch art critic Tom Jeffreys sets out to grapple with the riddle of Russianness through numerous journeys, encounters, histories and artworks that all share one thing in common: the humble birch tree.
We visit Catherine the Great's garden follies and Tolstoy's favourite chair; walk through the Chernobyl exclusion zone and among overgrown concrete bunkers in Vladivostok; explore the world of online Russian brides and spend a drunken night in Moscow with art-activists Pussy Riot, all the time questioning the role played by Russia's vastly diverse landscapes in forming and imposing national identity. And vice-versa: how has Russia's dramatically shifting self-image informed the way its people think about nature, land and belonging?
Curious, resonant and idiosyncratic, The White Birch is a unique collection of journeys into Russia and among Russian people.
Tom Jeffreys is a writer and critic with a particular interest in art that engages with environmental questions. His writing has appeared in publications including ArtReview, Frieze, the Independent, Monocle, New Scientist and The World of Interiors. He is the author of Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on Foot (Influx Press, 2017) and editor of online magazine The Learned Pig. He lives in Edinburgh and is obsessed with cricket.
"A natural-political exploration of Russian relationships with the birch tree across past, present, and future. Moving from the Tsarina's garden to the Soviet Gulag, from Chernobyl to Lake Baikal, The White Birch is elegant and intrepid, like its subject"
– Daisy Hildyard, author of The Second Body and Hunters in the Snow
"The White Birch may be an ostensible study of a single species of tree. But as shown, it's a lot more ambitious. Jeffreys positions himself as an obsessive slavophile and a blundering botanist, rather than a world authority on Russia. Who could be such a thing!? As a result one is very happy to enjoy this self-reflexive journey, some most erudite travel writing about a most fascinating land."
– criticismism ii
"I love the kind of book that The White Birch is. Not just for what it says and how it says it, but for the fields it unrools in order to find those things and for the journey across the unravelling plains [...] Symbols do plenty of work in Tom Jeffreys' book and he is expert in understanding them, tracking down how they dodge and change. The White Birch is an adventure story that combines the thrills of an intellectual howdunnit with visceral ordeals."
– Phil Smith, Mythogeography
"Fascinating [...] The White Birch was a welcome surprise of a book, not just exploring nature but also this vast and complex country that so few of us in the west only glimpse from the outside and a must for anyone with an interest in Russian history"
– Ian Tatum, Pilgrim House