Review by John Harrison
Written by Helen Womack, a well know journalist who spent some 20 years of her life working for Reuters and The Independent in Russia. The book has a political context, as all books about Russia do, which you may or may not agree with, however it provides a wealth of rare primary source material about the traumatic transition from the Soviet Union to the Russian Federation, a process which can be said to be continuing today. The real power of the book is that this process is mostly conveyed through events in the author’s personal life. Helen literally married into Russia which provides a bridge for us readers, and one also has to pay tribute to Helen’s style – the book is made up of hundreds of conversations, everyday situations and interviews with both tremendously important people and ‘ordinary’ people, with the latter being treated as being as important as the former. The result is a readable, ethnographic, chronological record of contemporary Russian history.
Helen is an extremely good interviewer. The downside of this is that many international readers simply do not want too many details, they want the ‘brass tacks’ approach only but fail to see, or want to see that when you are trying to understand countries by comparing them with others, that facts are relative, and that countries, particularly Russia, cannot be understood without understanding the people.
The book begins in a ‘Palace of Weddings’ when she marries Costya. Costya’s consequent trip to England in 1988 and his first encounters with pubs, computers and contemporary western life provides an interesting double take on our own society from the eyes of Russians who discovered the West in the late 1908s. Back in Moscow, it is Costya who reveals the real Russia, beyond the foreign correspondents’ ghettos, and it is these experiences which perhaps made the articles that she wrote for the western press, and which many of us read, so fascinating. The book ends with an excerpt from the I-Ching about the importance of treading lightly over thin ice.
This is a foreign correspondent’s job book, it describes what it is actually like being a roving international scribe, about what you feel when you are sent to various parts of the world – then closed to everybody else – on short notice. She helps the reader bridge the gap between our reality and what are sometimes completely cliff hanging situations, impossible for us to understand, by making fun of situations. For example, she poses the question as to what exactly does a girl do when riding on top of a Soviet tank withdrawing from Kabul in 1988 and wants to go to the toilet? What do you do when your husband crashes your brand new red Volvo into another car in the middle of Moscow, when he hasn’t even got a driving licence? This is a sort of verbal picture painting, and one chapter painted with situational experiences is perhaps the same as a 100 chapters of facts.
Being a foreign correspondent, means that you are exposed to a source of inspiration – the people and what is actually going on, and at the same time, you are at the receiving end of your editor’s wishes, and your editor may not always understand or want to understand that what is happening is different from what public opinion back home wants to hear. Helen brings this point up on a number of occasions thoughout the book, and provides examples, such as in her chapter called ‘Lemon Pie’, when she admits that western readers wanted to read articles about how badly ordinary Soviet people lived. In 1990, when her employer at the time — The Independent printed misleading information about the food situation, she recalls how readers sent parcels of food to the Independent Office in Moscow to give to the supposedly starving people, and she did not know what to do with them. Times were bad, but they weren’t anything like as bad as the general picture portrayed by the western press at the time.
The themes of how Russians did adapted to their changing environment is perhaps a dominating theme in this book. The chapters: ‘Free Market Madness’, ‘What About The Workers’ and ‘The Factory’, for example, tell this story. We are taken to the Donbass, where the miners’ working lives were hell, Helen reports. The miners returned home after work “to two-room cottages without indoor toilets or running hot water; to tables laid with the meagre fruits of their wives’ queuing…” In the following passage Helen talks about the real purchasing power of the disenfranchised under Yeltsin: ‘Cosmonaut Anatoly Artsebarsky, who earned 15,000 roubles (£60) for a five-month stint in space, could on returning to Earth have blown it all on a leather jacket brought back by a chelnok (shuttle trader) from a buying trip to Turkey. But a surgeon earning 1,200 roubles (£4.80) a month would still not have had enough after two month’s work to afford a dildo at 2,500 roubles (10 quid)…’
Writing a review about this book is difficult as it contains so very many interesting insights which are of relevance today. Why are they relevant today? Because many of the processes and customs described in the book are still there today.
For anybody researching Russia, thinking of living there, or who now lives there and wants to understand the all-important recent past, this book, published by Melrose is a must.
Publishers: Melrose Publishers, UK