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A hybrid of history, travel and journalism.

A hybrid of history, travel and journalism.

Kurt has long been captivated by 'the communists' from his immigrant grandparents' past, transfixed by stories of the Soviet Union, the place where history happened. In the West, the Soviet universe has long been consigned to the dustbin of history, no longer relevant to a world where the Golden Arches have supplanted the Hammer and Sickle. But what about those still living in the shadow of the USSR?

The language and symbols of the Soviet Union have become a nostalgic brand, but after travels to the Balkans, Romania and Bulgaria, Kurt begins to suspect that for some they have retained their former sanctity. He quickly realises he must journey from these outlying countries and visit socialism's giant red heart.

Spurred on by a growing obsession to find what remains of this old Red World, Kurt visits the far reaches of the former USSR. From frozen corners of Kyrgyzstan still rocked by ethnic riots, to the ex-KGB headquarters in Moscow; from a rocket launch on the Kazakh Steppe, to an unrecognised gangster state in Moldova; through the irradiated ruins of Chernobyl, to a gulag in Siberia.

Staying one step ahead of the secret police, Kurt meets the people cast adrift by the collapse of the Soviet system, and the disappearance of the only world they knew. Far from lying dormant, he discovers the legacy of the Soviet Union is alive, its history shaped to serve the political ends of the Kremlin in this new Cold War.


Kurt Johnson's debut is a fantastic hybrid of journalism and travel-writing through atrophying Soviet satellite states.

Gleebooks Gleaner

The Red Wake blends travel and history in Johnson’s own journalistic style. His careful balance gives readers enough context to appreciate the significance of the sites and cities he visits, and enables him to create a portrait of the both the historic USSR and its long shadow. Johnson uses descriptive, inventive language (he compares one building to a ‘giant, repressive cake’) to take readers to places that are more challenging or radioactive than the average traveller might be inclined to visit. In the process he provides a fascinating account of the unsettled fallout of the Soviet social and political experiment.

Ashley Kalagian Blunt, Newtown Review of Books

Kurt Johnson's extensive journey through contemporary Russia and its old satellites is a vivid portrait of how the ghost of that order still haunts the present. But it is also underpinned by a strong family tale, his grandparents having fled communist Czechoslovakia, part of the story taking place in the family's substantial old summer house with the Kafka-esque name, the Castle. He visits the last existing gulag and the ex-KGB headquarters in Moscow. The writing ... has an evocative immediacy, is historically informed and nuanced, ideologically alert and alive to Western narratives and Russian revisionist nostalgia.

Steven Carroll, The Age

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Formats & editions

  • Trade Paperback


    June 27, 2016

    Vintage Australia

    352 pages

    RRP $34.99

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  • EBook


    June 27, 2016

    Random House Australia

    320 pages

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Enter the Red Wake

Join Kurt Johnson on his travels through the former Eastern Bloc.

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