The Blizzard, by Vladimir Sorokin

Platon Ilich Garin has a mission. He must get a vaccine to Dolgoye to stop an epidemic. But there’s a blizzard. And he’s stuck in a town with no way to get to Dolgoye. And the epidemic is a zombie virus. This kind of set up is what I’ve come to expect from Vladimir Sorokin. The Blizzard (translated by Jamey Gambrell) just keeps piling on the weird until things get downright surreal.

Platon Ilich does eventually find a way out of town. He gets a ride on the bread deliverer’s sled—which is powered by horses so small it takes fifty of them to pull the sled. The rest of the book is a small saga, in which Platon Ilich and Crouper make their way to Dolgoye. As the blizzard gets worse and worse, they have numerous accidents in the sled, crash into a giant, encounter a foul-mouthed baker, and more. With each page, things get stranger and stranger.  Platon Ilich, however, keeps pushing on with his mission.

I’m not sure when The Blizzard is set except that its some time in the future and somewhere in Russia. The lack of details (apart from those about the tiny horses and such) gives the book a timeless, fable-like quality. The lack of details about the setting and world outside of the snow and epidemic also kept me grounded in what Platon Ilich and Crouper were up to as they battled the elements. This book is like the weirdest take on the on the serum run to Nome anyone has ever cooked up.

The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden

In The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden, creatures and characters from Russian folklore barge into ordinary life and wreak havoc for Vasilisa Petrovna. Fittingly, the novel opens with a story about Morozko, the winter-king, who rewards the brave with riches but allows the cowardly and selfish to freeze. Russian folklore pulls no punches.

After the story about Morozko that sets the tone for the rest of The Bear and the Nightingale, the narrative takes us back a set to learn about the hardscrabble life of a boyar family in the wilderness north of Moscow sometime during the reign of the Golden Horde. Vasilisa Petrovna has always been a bit odd—talking to people no one else can see, an uncanny ability to work with horses, general uppityness that drives her father nuts—but her strangeness starts to cause real trouble after her father remarries a deeply religious, but deeply fearful woman. Anna Ivanova can also see the domovoibannik, and the rest and it is starting to drive her mad. She uses religion to keep it away as much as possible, though she has a tough fight ahead of her since the rest of the household and village are still mostly pagan.

Events really come to a head when a new priest comes from Moscow to replace the older, more tolerant priest. Konstantin Nikonovich begins a crusade against the old ways, unwittingly destabilizing an ancient magic spell that is keeping everyone safe from a creature that wants to devour them all. In Konstantin’s first few weeks in the village, he’s a nuisance to Vasilisa Petrovna. But in the best fanatical fashion, Konstantin Nikonovich begins to put the fear into the villagers. Before long, it’s starting to look a lot like Salem in this place at the end of the great Russian forest.

The Bear and the Nightingale is a novel of many layers. At the top, we get a gripping story of a girl getting into adventures. Another layer is feminist, as Vasilisa Petrovna finds the will to defy the men in her life who would boss her around. Another layer addresses the conflict of beliefs: old animism versus new Christianity. The top layer of adventure keeps things interesting, while the others leave plenty to think about after the last page.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 10 January 2017.

Odessa Stories, by Isaac Babel

Russian literature has (deservedly) a reputation for being utterly depressing and heavy—which is why it’s always a delight to find comic writers like Teffi and Isaac Babel. The humor in these authors’ stories and feuilletons is caustic and sharply observed, but still makes me smile and chuckle. This week I read Isaac Babel’s classic collection, Odessa Stories (translated by Boris Dralyuk), about Jewish life in Odessa in the early twentieth century. The collection is night-and-day from his collection Red Cavalry, as one might expect, but it shares similar themes of violence and chaos without being as gutting as Red CavalryOdessa Stories is packed with gangsters, tsarist and communist officials, pigeons, and a lot of slapstick.

Most of the stories in this collection center on Benya Krik—Benya the King—and his extended family. Benya is a gangster. He’s twenty pounds of chutzpah in a ten pound sack and gets away with things that should have gotten him shot on the spot. Over the course of the stories, we see Benya rise and the old order fall as the Bolsheviks take control of the country. We see him face off against police and set up protection rackets on intractable rich men. The stories are almost always told secondhand by someone who claims they were present or heard it from a reliable source. The narrators invariably end up telling the story in a loopy, unfocused manner that mirrors the chaos of Benya and his family members’ lives. So, while the stories are ostensibly about Benya, we end up learning a lot about their friends, enemies, and the Jewish community of Odessa and its suburbs.

Odessa Stories also contains a long pair of semi-autobiographical stories about an unnamed boy who is an awful lot like the young Babel. The stories relate how the boy got caught in a pogrom before finding shelter with a friendly family. This story is a stark reminder of how dangerous life could be for Jewish Russians: most of the time, families got along but things could turn deadly in an instant. The other semi-autobiographical story contains my favorite part of the whole collection. The young narrator has been ingratiating himself with the wealthy son of an important family. They’re good friend, but the boy tells all sorts of lies to disguise his origins. Unfortunately, he gets caught up in his lies when he reciprocates an invitation to tea. The boy sends away his embarrassing uncle and grandfather and is praying that they don’t come back before his guest leaves. So, of course they come back. Hilariously, the narrator recites Marc Antony’s eulogy from Julius Caesar to distract his guest (at increasing volumes) while his uncle crows about an amazing deal he got for a huge piece of furniture and his grandfather tortures a violin outside.

Unlike Teffi’s comic stories, the darkness of Russian life is closer to the surface in Babel’s. A person more cynical than I probably would have laughed more at the characters’ antics. I did laugh, but not too much because I could always see how a lucky escape could have easily turned into an ignoble death.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 15 November 2016.

Orphans of the Carnival, by Carol Birch

Carol Birch’s novel, Orphans of the Carnival, follows the short, strange life of nineteenth century performer, Julia Pastrana. Pastrana sang and danced on stages from New Orleans to St. Petersburg, Russia, but she was most known for her appearance: Pastrana had hypertrichosis and gingival hyperplasia (diagnosed in the twentieth century). Birch puts us into the head of this lonely woman, showing us how alienated her appearance might have made her feel from the rest of humanity. This is an affecting but strange read.

We meet Julia as she is on her way from Sinaloa, Mexico to New Orleans. A stage manager has promised to make her a star, though he doesn’t explain quite how. Julia knows she is a very good singer and dancer and it isn’t until she reaches New Orleans that she realizes she will be exhibited (for lack of a better word) with other “curiosities.” Outside of performances and when she’s at the boarding house with her fellow performers, Julia wears an opaque view to avoid the gaze of others.

We follow Julia’s career as she becomes an international star in the 1850s, through various ups and downs. Later, we also get the perspective of her manager-turned-husband, Theo. These chapters are a sharp antidote to Julia’s persistent hope of love and friendship. Though he spends hours with Julia, he can never forget that her appearance is, to most people, monstrous. Birch also adds very short chapters set in modern London. The reason for these chapters is not revealed until the very end. To be honest, I didn’t think the payoff was worth the mystery.

The denouement of Orphans of the Carnival details the macabre end of Pastrana’s story. Even though Wikipedia will tell readers what happened, I don’t entirely want to give it away here. Suffice to say, Pastrana is even further dehumanized, just as she was in the early part of her career when her manager would take her to various doctors and scientists to learn just “what” she was. Given that this was before we understood genetics and evolution, some of the theories are horrifyingly callous.

I read most of Orphans of the Carnival without realizing that Julia Pastrana was an actual historical figure. Prior to this novel, I knew that people with hypertrichosis (a variety of genetic conditions that causes unusual hair growth) were sought out and exhibits in circuses and “freak shows” all through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Learning that Pastrana was real added a keen poignance to this book. I already sympathized with her because of her isolation, but knowing she was real just made my heart ache all the more for her.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 8 November 2016. 

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

Several times in Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow, Count Alexander Rostov claims or is declared by other characters to be the luckiest man in the Soviet Union. Given that Rostov lives through the most turbulent and deadly years of the Soviet regime, being under house arrest in the best hotel in Moscow is not the worst fate for the former aristocrat. Rostov escapes a death sentence for a popular, pro-Revolution poem he wrote years before. But the tribunal can’t just let a count go. So, on 21 June, 1922, Rostov is sentenced to life under house arrest at the Metropol Hotel. If he leaves, he will be arrested and executed. A Gentleman in Moscow takes us through the next thirty years of Rostov’s life at the Metropol.

For a novel set during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s in the Soviet Union, A Gentleman of Moscow is a surprisingly light and humorous tale, reflecting the gentility of its protagonist. Rostov was raised to be, above all, a gentleman. He has impeccable manners and taste. He is always willing to be of service to any who ask. He’s educated, multilingual, and used to the finer things in life. Rostov also has a gentle humor that never seems to fade. The narrative is packed with witty, trenchant observations of the hotel’s inhabitants and employees. Of course he drives the more fanatical member of the Communist Party insane. Rostov’s nemesis, a waiter-turned-manager who informs for the various iterations of the KGB, is just waiting for the aristocrat to slip up so that he can get Rostov out of the Metropol. They spar, more or less politely, for thirty years.

Nor is A Gentleman of Moscow particularly tense or fast paced (at least until the its conclusion). This novel is very much the story of a man who fined himself living out his life in one large building. Boredom is his chief enemy. At the beginning of his sentence, Rostov decides to get around to all his father’s philosophy books, which he has always been meaning to read, only to find they are deathly dull. Instead, Rostov strikes out for the common areas of the hotel, where he meets nine-year-old Nina. His friendship with Nina, which leads to other friendships, helps give Rostov’s curtailed existence purpose once more.

Throughout the novel, Rostov and his friends have meandering discussions about Russian culture, the American psyche, the finer things, literature, and a host of other topics. What unites these disparate topics is the tension between how Russia used to be and how it is in the first half of the Soviet regime. Is it possible to preserve the best of the old world? Must everything be remade in the Communist image? How does a cultured man live in an age of deprivation and betrayal? These conversations and questions keep the novel grounded. If it were only a comedy of manners that happened to be set between 1922 and 1954, I don’t think I could have taken the book seriously enough to finish it.

By the end, once I adjusted to the slow pace, I adored A Gentleman in Moscow, chiefly because of the protagonist. Rostov is utterly charming and genuine. It was a pleasure to see him preserve a little bit of the best of old Russia in the heart of the Soviet empire and match wits with his nemesis.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 6 September 2016.

The Twelve Chairs, by Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov

Almost ten years after the Russian Revolution, Ippolit Matveyevich Vorobryaninov has put his past as an aristocrat behind him. Unlike most of his class, he as managed to avoid the gulag or execution. He works as a low-level bureaucrat in a provincial town. He doesn’t have much to complain about other than his irritating mother-in-law, who lives with him. Ippolit Mateyevich might have gone on, content, if his mother-in-law hadn’t confessed that she’d hidden her jewels in one of twelve chairs from their pre-Revolutionary house. Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov’s The Twelve Chairs (translated by John H.C. Richardson) quickly becomes an anarchic tale of a trio of men seeking the chairs, conning everyone in sight as well as each other, and general mayhem.

The star of The Twelve Chairs is not Ippolit Matveyevich. (He thinks rather too much of himself, especially at the beginning of the novel.) Rather, Ostap Bender, a con man, completely steals the show. Vorobryaninov meets Bender early in his quest, while Bender is trying to work out whether he wants to become a career bigamist or art forger. Bender wrangles his way into Ippolit Matveyevich’s mission after convincing the former aristocrat that he needs someone wily to help him get the chairs back. Meanwhile, the mother-in-law also told her priest about the jewels in the chair. The priest’s journey ends up going in a completely different direction, but all three men end up traveling all over the Soviet Union looking for the chairs.

Originally published in Russian in 1927, The Twelve Chairs spends as much time (if not more) lampooning citizens high and low. We are treated to brief sketches of the various owners of the chairs (which were reallocated or sold after 1918) before Vorobryaninov and Bender show up. One of the owners lets his family sponge off funds that were supposed to support female pensioners. Another makes his living selling jokes to magazines. Yet another is a woman who can make herself understood with a vocabulary of about thirty words. Just as soon as we get to know them, Bender and Ippolit Matveyevich swoop in to steal or con the chairs.

The Twelve Chairs is not a story to rush through. Even though the premise of the book has its characters racing after treasure, the authors are leisurely as they set up their sketches. I’m sure there are jokes I missed, either because Ilf and Petrov were mocking people and concepts from Russia in 1927 as they do mocking the general human condition. That said, plenty of the characters and situations are ridiculous enough that I was chuckling through most of the book. But if you try to rush, I think you’ll get impatient with Ilf and Petrov. My advice is to just roll with whatever Ilf, Petrov, and The Twelve Chairs come up with.

Memories, by Teffi

Most of the leading lights of Russian literature—especially before the Russian Revolution—that most people know are men. Almost two years ago, I was delighted to learn that the work of one Russian woman was being translated and published in English. I had never heard of Teffi and was astonished to find that the literary world had seemingly forgotten Tsar Nicholas’s favorite author. In addition to Teffi’s collection, Subtly Worded and Other Stories, we now have Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea. Now that I’ve read Memories, I’m even more puzzled that this woman’s dazzling prose was ever lost.

As the subtitle indicates, Memories is Teffi’s recollections of her journey from Moscow to Novorossiysk, on the Black Sea. The subtitle does not reveal, however, that this journey is Teffi’s escape from the chaos of the Russian Revolution and the following Civil War. The way Teffi tells it, perhaps even she didn’t know that she was never going home again. Before she began her journey in 1919, Teffi wrote for a number of literary magazines. She wrote short stories, but was best known for writing pieces for the feuilleton section of magazines and newspapers. The feuilleton section was traditionally stocked with lighter pieces of gossip, opinion about things other than politics, literary and theatre criticism, and so on. It’s possible her choice of genre was what caused her to be overlooked. To me, the description of feuilleton sounds almost like ephemera. English publishers are still collecting Teffi’s articles, according to the notes included in this edition of Memories.

The scant facts available about Teffi’s life and writing did little to prepare me for what I found in Memories. I usually use “this will make you laugh and cry” as shorthand for books that run the emotional gamut from happy to sad, but Teffi really will make readers laugh and cry. Memories is full of sketches of the awful absurdity of the Bolshevik coup. Petty nobodies seized the chaos to become important, but still petty, Communist officials. Teffi and her party of authors and actresses were frequently waylaid to provide cultural edification for the masses by these new officials. Just south of Bolshevik territory, the elite of tsarist Russia were simultaneously trying to hold on to their vanishing world and taking advantage of the last bits of privilege and luxury as if the apocalypse were shortly to descend. (To be fair to these people, the apocalypse was on its way south, too.)

By the time Teffi sails from Odessa on a sabotaged ship, it’s clear that the glory days of tsarist Russia are never coming back. Teffi’s tone shifts from sarcastic and witty and occasionally frightened to ineffably sad. Writing from a remove of ten years and thousands of miles, Teffi writes about saying good-bye to Russia for the last time, after taking her last bow before a Russian audience in Yekaterinodar (now Krasnodar). She writes:

With my own eyes now open so wide that the cold penetrates deep into them, I keep on looking. And I shall not move away. I’ve broken my vow, I’ve looked back. And, like Lot’s wife, I am frozen. I have turned into a pillar of salt forever, and I shall forever go on looking, seeing my own land slip softly, slowly away from me. (n.p.*)

Teffi lived in Paris from 1920 through the end of her life, in 1952. She never got to go back. She was an exile for the rest of her days. Her words made me feel, just a little, what it was like to always be looking back to something gone forever.

Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry, Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, and the historical nonfiction I’ve read about the Russian Revolution have given me a sense of what life was like for Russians who got caught up in the violence and stayed in Soviet Russia. Teffi’s Memories has given me a keen sense of what life must have been like for the permanent exiles. I’m glad it was Teffi. Her writing is beautiful and affecting. It’s very deftly constructed, in spite of its seeming spontaneity. All of the vignettes and character studies and extended metaphors convey rich meaning about the lost world of tsarist Russia, the abrupt and radical changes in politics and governments, and the grotesque opportunism of the newly empowered proletariat. Readers will laugh, just like I did, at some of the people and events, but I suspect they will, like I am, remain unsettled by Teffi’s journey.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 3 May 2016.

__________
* Quote is from an advanced reader copy of Memories by the New York Review of Books and page numbers are not available.

The Big Green Tent, by Ludmila Ulitskaya

One of the reasons I read fiction is to learn history. Oh, I read historical non-fiction and took too many history classes in college and all that jazz, but sometimes novels make history really in a way that most non-fiction writers can’t. I’ve been reading about Ludmila Ulitskaya’s The Big Green Tent in book reviews all year long. Each review made a point of saying something to the effect of this book helping readers understand the life of dissidents during between Stalin’s death and the early 1980s. Ulitsakaya’s massive novel follows not only three main characters, but also provides tangents long and short about their wives, relatives, friends, and even friends of friends. I would call this book Dickensian because it seeks to provide an entire slice of life—but it’s not funny. I suppose I’ll have to call it Tolstoyan*.

Sanya, Mikha, and Ilya form the center of this sprawling book. The three met in school. They bonded because they were all targeted by bullies and because they all fell in love with Russian literature. The Big Green Tent begins gently compared to its later chapters. The narrative stays focused on the boys’ life at school and the travails of their literature teacher to create ethical, sensitive people. He is more or less successful with Sanya and Mikha—because they were already quite sensitive and empathetic. His results with Ilya a more equivocal.

After school, The Big Green Tent splinters into an unwieldy number of narratives. At nearly 600 pages, it’s impossible to read this book in on sitting. It took me a week to get through it. The problem with taking breaks while reading is that, when I did get back to the book, it took me some time to gain traction again. I needed a cheatsheet for the characters and their relationship to Sanya, Mikha, and Ilya. On top of the huge cast of characters, the narrative tracks back and forth through time. We visit and revisit the early days of the samizdat culture. We see the government attitude towards the dissidents thaw and freeze and thaw and freeze. Ulitskaya has given her readers a course on life in the Soviet Union in the guise of fiction.

To summarize the book is futile. Instead, I’ll tell you what I think about The Big Green Tent.

What I liked most about this book were the tangents. When the narrative turned down a road to tell me about the boys’ teacher or Ilya’s mother-in-law’s family or the woes of a cartoonist, Russian history came to life for me. The histories can’t quite explain what it would mean to be caught between one’s personal ethics, one’s family, and the dictates of a government that wants to radically transform society. Ulitskaya did this with the teacher and the priest’s daughter and the cartoonist.

What I liked least about this book was the way the ending kept getting further and further away. Without an overarching plot arc, there was no natural ending point for all the narratives. Just when I thought I had reached an end point, I would turn the page to find another chapter or an epilogue. I was done with this book before I got to the end. I suspect that I’d had enough because the last third of the book returns to tell Mikha and Sanya’s stories. By the time I got back to them, I was less interested in them than I had been in the secondary and tertiary characters I’d already met.

The Big Green Tent is a novel that one has to come to without expectations about what the book is going to be like. Ulitskaya’s book does not follow any conventions I’m aware of (because I clearly haven’t read enough Russian literature to pick up on any). Going in expecting an overall plot arc will lead to disappointment. The Big Green Tent is a book to wallow in. It is, like Sir Francis Bacon said, “to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”

* I haven’t read War and Peace. That’s why I’m hedging a bit.

Black Dragon River, by Dominic Ziegler

Between Russia, China, and Mongolia, there is a 4,000 mile long river that marks a contested boundary. In telling the history of the Amur River, Dominic Ziegler also relates the history of this part of the Russian Far East. Black Dragon River (the book is the river’s Chinese name) also serves as a travelogue. Ziegler began at the source of the river, the Onon River in Mongolia, and followed the river’s course down to where it meets the Sea of Okhotsk, in Nikolaevsk. The chapters in the book are named for towns and cities along the river’s course, which Ziegler uses as jumping off points to talk about Russian subjugation of the indigenous peoples, Chinese dynastic changes, and the numerous conflicts between the Russian and Chinese empires.

Though Ziegler’s book is nominally a travelogue (at least according to the subtitle), it is primarily a history. Unlike other Siberian travelogues I’ve read, the people mentioned in Black Dragon River have mostly been dead for a century or more. The history of the river, as Ziegler tells it, starts to get interesting in the late 1500s and 1600s. There had already been numerous groups living in the Amur River area: Buryats, Yakuts, Evenki, Nanai, Nivkh, and others. The Russian empire already had claims to territory on the other side of the Urals, but it wasn’t until the Siberian sable, gold, and other resources were discovered that the Russians got serious about pushing east. (They also found that Siberia was a very convenient place to dump troublemakers.) Russians—mostly Cossacks—made their presence felt among the indigenous people by demanding tribute in fur and food and women. I saw strong parallels in Russia’s conquering of Siberia in the United State’s conquering of the American west, but with the added complication that there were two major world powers interested in exploiting the people and resources.

A significant part of Black Dragon River is deep Siberian history. I learned about Yermak, the first Russian in Siberia; the Decembrists; the Jewish Autonomous Oblast; and much more. The history is pretty heavy going in places. Ziegler doesn’t do much to leaven the often heart-breaking history of the region. One of the few times Ziegler puts in a pop culture reference (reminding readers that Nurhaci, whose son and grandson founded the Manchu dynasty, had a cameo of sorts in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), he botches it. The error did make me wonder if there were others lurking in the text, but it it’s clear from the bibliography that Ziegler did a PhD’s worth of research for this book. Once I shifted my expectations from travelogue to history, I rather enjoyed learning about Siberia’s past.

At the end of Black Dragon River, Ziegler returns to his ostensible purpose: to report his travels on the river. The modern Amur region is well past its heyday. There seems to be a strong sense of malaise over the entire region and while Ziegler meets some very passionate scientists, most of the people feel forgotten by European Russia. The only time they get attention from the Russian government is when Vladimir Putin feels the need to, as Ziegler repeatedly puts it, “mark his territory” so that the Chinese don’t get any ideas. This is not a cheerful book.

Black Dragon River went on sale today and I read a review copy that was produced a few month’s ago. I hope that sometime between the production of the review copy and today that Black Dragon River got some more attention from an editor. There are a lot of repeated details, plus the Indiana Jones goof. Normally, the review copies I read a pretty clean. This one had me reaching for my imaginary red pencil.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Midnight in Siberia, by David Greene

After listening to David Greene’s Midnight in Siberia, I feel like Russia is a bit less inexplicable than Churchill’s riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Greene lived in Moscow for three years, working for NPR. Russia fascinates Greene. According to him Russians are a breed apart. While he worked on stories for NPR, Greene tried to understand Russians. In Midnight in Siberia, a travelogue of Greene’s farewell trip across Russia, the journalist delivers his thesis about what makes Russians so Russian.

The Trans-Siberian Railway, completed in 1916, is Greene’s frame for his story. He and Sergei, his translator from NPR, travel from Moscow to Vladivostock over a couple of weeks in the spring of 2013. They stop in cities and villages across Siberia to meet up with people Greene had previously interviewed for stories, catching up on what happened after the media spotlight moved on. They also make detours to meet up with the Buranovskyie Babushki and to ask people around Chelyabinsk about the meteor that landed that February. In addition to following up with past interviewees, Greene asks questions (mostly through Sergei) about what the average Russian thinks about Putin, life after the Soviet Union, and democracy.

Greene frequently quotes Mikhail Shishkin’s theory of there being two Russias. There’s urban Russia and there’s rural Russia. The Russia we in the West usually hear about is Moscow, the urban Russia. We rarely hear about the other. Midnight in Siberia takes place entirely inside the second Russia. In the second Russia, Greene finds people nostalgic about the Soviet Union. Many say that they think Stalin was a great leader (apart from the repressions, several add). Life in either of the Russias after 1991 has been incredibly unstable. Unemployment skyrocketed. Pay checks were dubious even for people who did have jobs. The government changed from an institution that (presumably) took care of people to something the people are incredibly wary of. (Skirmishes with police are a significant theme in Midnight in Siberia.) After more than 20 years of going it alone, many Russians have had enough with oligarchs and government lip service.

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Trans-Siberian Railway (Via Top Inspired)

After a while, I did get a little irritated with Greene for his preoccupation with democracy. I daresay it’s my own dissatisfaction with American government, but I don’t think the West is a particularly good model for government at the moment. Greene seems to present democracy as the best system for any country, no matter what. Greene keeps asking Russians about democracy. What about democracy? For most Russians that Greene talks to, democracy is less important than being able to take care of themselves and their family. Besides, sticking one’s neck out in Putin’s Russia is risky. Speaking up for individual civil rights is a good way to have the bureaucracy turn on people. It amazes me the way that Russians just carry on. In spite of all the chaos, Russians are surviving. More than that, a few of them have hope that life will get better, as long as they are patient.

Note on the narration: Greene narrates his own book. He speaks quickly, almost like an old-style newspaper man à la His Girl Friday. What I really liked about listening to this book instead of reading it was that I learned how to pronounce so many Russian place names. Usually when I read books set in or about Russia, the Russian words are like girders on the rails of my train of thought. Having Greene read his book to me just carried me away to Siberia.