Monday, October 20, 2014

Book Notes: Lost and Found in Russia by Susan Richards

Studying Soviet and Eastern European Politics and History in the early 1990s was exciting stuff. A whole chunk of the "politics" course was removed from the curriculum and the study of things such as Kremlinology, The Politburo, The CPSU, The Nomenklatura, the planned economy and relationships within the Warsaw Pact moved across the to History Department. The tumultuous days in the East certainly kept academics on their toes in the West, as lecture series' on Russia Today dragged out with annual repetition were (to use a ironically appropriate expression), consigned to the 'dustbin of history'.

It was during this time that I first read one of Susan Richards' books. Her first work entitled "Epics of Everyday Life: Encounters in a Changing Russia" was a fascinating and brilliant account of life in The Soviet Union during the Gorbachev years, when Soviet-Communism went through its final spasms of attempted self-preservation. What set Richards' work apart then, as now, is that her focus is not on the powerful and elites, but on the lives of citizens caught up within the shifting patterns of history. This is an important re-balancing of historical writing, as the political, military, economic and ideological changes of that era were well-documented; but the effects of these shifts on the people themselves somewhat neglected. We knew that Prime Minister Thatcher felt that she could do business with Gorbachev, we knew that the arms raced had slowed in its escalation, we knew that The Russian Empire was fragmenting and were told to anticipate a 'New World Order'; but in this top-down version of history we only knew about the struggles of ordinary people as they appeared as statistics in charts about unpaid wages, unemployment or of rising inflation. In her first book Susan Richards charted in detail the lives of a few people caught up in those years - adding huge colour and an added dimension to our understanding of the realities of those times.

Having so appreciated "Epics..." at University, I was intrigued to see that Richards' had followed it up with "Lost and Found" about the Post-Soviet Era, and bought it as soon as I was aware of its existence. The times have changed enormously since Gorbachev, Thatcher, Reagan and Mitterand bestrode the world stage and Richards was chronicling the lives of ordinary Russians. What hasn't changed much is Richards' purpose or method of research and writing about Russia: or the immense value of her work in seeking to understand Russia. 

"Lost and Found in Russia" has been subtitled on the cover as "encounters in a deep heartland" and elsewhere as "encounters in a post-Soviet landscape" - enigmatic book descriptions to say the least. One of the joys of this book is that it is almost impossible to categorise into any particular genre. On one hand it is history, and cultural and political analysis. On the the other it is brilliantly observed travel-writing. On still a third hand it is the diary of an academic in her field, doing her research. The format of the book is straightforward, each section begins with a historical-political introduction to the year(s) in which the proceeding narrative occurs. Yeltsin, Gaidar, De-regulation, privatisation, the rise of the Mafia's and Oligarch's, the rise and fall of the free-press, Putin and the re-assertion of control, and the economic context are all mapped out here in nice pithy summaries. They however, are but the canvass for Richards pen-portraits of her Russian friends as they seek to negotiate post-Soviet life.

Like her travels and adventures, Richards' characters are well drawn. They all, like the country itself, are struggling to survive the worst of the economic slumps; but more significantly all trying to work out what Russia is; and what it means to be Russian. For the whole of their highly propagandised lives they had a concept of their identity and nationhood as intrinsically tied to the Marxist-Leninist model; and their leadership of it in the world. With extraordinary rapidity all of this collapsed, leaving a cultural vacuum. It is in this context that Richards' various friends embrace capitalism, religion, fight for press freedom, suffer nervous breakdowns, take to the bottle or battle through. The video clip at the end of this review features the author discussing all her characters in more detail, which I won't repeat here. One though is worth mentioning. Natasha a journalist was the daughter of a Soviet boss, who rebelled against the party. Her initial enthusiasm and Westward-leaning optimism at the fall of communism led her to a town called Marx (!) on the Volga. This was an old German-Russian region decimated by Stalin by promised as a centre of renewal by Gorbachev and the Germans. The Russian love-affair with The West did not last however, as the first rush of market economics into the planned economy failed to deliver much but eye-watering price rises and hardship. Natasha shares this journey in the book, and we find her moving in search of a better life; drinking to numb the shock, and finally trying to defend press-freedom against Putin's re-assertion of central control.

Richards' very short, and beautifully written chapters tell the stories of a small cast of characters like Natasha whose lives are entwined with the fall, and rise of Russia. Workers, writers, playboys, businessmen and writers, all wrestling with big-questions and day-to-day survival. Some of her narratives (running from the KGB in Uzbekistan) are astonishing; but the most memorable thing about this book are the people whose lives she shared on her remarkable journeys through this vast, complex and (to Westerners at least) almost inexplicable country. I can still picture the Old Believers meeting deep in the heart of Russia's great forests, with their rituals and community structures, of the bizarre messianic cults which flourished in the chaos of the collapse of the USSR, of the UFO and paranormal obsessions of people bewildered by their times.

This is stunning writing, and a salutory reminder to historians and commentators alike that the dispassionate recording of policies and the rise of politicians; might be the headline-grabbing stories; but real lives go on below the radar. 

Here's a short video (3mins) about the book, narrated by the author.

Here is a 35 minute lecture by Richards in which she says a lot more about the characters who form the substance of her book. After the somewhat ponderous introduction, Richards' talk starts at 3mins 20 seconds in.

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