RUSSIANS: The People Behind the Power. By Gregory Feifer. Twelve. 384 pages. $28.
As a native of St. Petersburg, Russia, and now a citizen of the United States, I found "Russians" very interesting to read. Author Gregory Feifer begins by recalling the morning he arrived by train in Lithuania and learned about the 1991 coup in Moscow. He was on his way to Moscow but no tickets were being sold because of the coup, so he decided instead to go to St. Petersburg (Leningrad), where I happened to be after just arriving on a much-delayed train from Moscow. He and I were in nearly the same place at the same time, both of us unaware of the magnitude of events.
As I continued reading, however, my excitement faded because Feifer focuses so much on the oppressiveness of Russia's autocrats, politics, corruption and extreme aspects of life in Russia at the expense of unraveling the real character of ordinary Russian people. Admittedly, it is no easy task to convey Russia's complex history, culture and politics in one easy-to-understand package, which Winston Churchill observed when he said: "Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."
The title of Feifer's book, however, led me to think that that was what he was trying to do. And although the book provides a candid, first-hand account by an experienced journalist with blood ties to Russia (his mother is Russian and his American father worked in Russia), it paints a bleak picture that makes for consistently heavy reading that is best suited for readers already familiar with Russian history and wanting to dig deeper.
In that sense, Feifer makes a valuable contribution. He interviews hundreds of people from different levels of society and he uncovers harsh facts about life throughout the centuries, up to and including a still Soviet-tainted Russia. His 12 chapters, intended to reflect specific attributes that he thinks are intrinsic to being "Russian," include titles such as Extravagance, Poverty, Drinking, Indolence and Inefficiency, Cold and Punishment, Clan Rules, Grandiosity and Bombast. Not exactly a flattering list.
He does spin a positive note by praising Russian literature, art, ballet and theater, and by saying, "Despite the extravagant squalor, waste, greed and indifference, Russia remains full of life, inventiveness, and beauty." But for the most part, he dwells on the former without elucidating the latter.
It has never been easy for Americans and Russians to understand each other, and the difficulty is only further increased when they each try to measure the other with their own yardstick. In this case, many of the author's conclusions will only reinforce the suspicion, distrust and disparagement that many Americans generally feel toward Russians.
Meanwhile, many positives remain unstated. For example, that ordinary Russians are very friendly toward Americans and fascinated by life in America. Or that Russians are exceedingly hospitable and generous to their American guests. Or that Russians value friendship deeply, cultivate it carefully and honor it with integrity. Perhaps most importantly, that Russians, like Americans, don't like that they are caught up in a huge social/economic/political system that holds tremendous sway over their lives.
Although, we cannot deny that Russia's history is to a large extent turbulent and tragic, it is worth noting that Feifer's research relied heavily on the works of two scholars with distinctly pessimistic views. Edward Keen is considered an iconoclast and nihilist for some of his works, while Richard Pipes, who experienced the siege of Warsaw and lived one month under German occupation, has said: "My knowledge of Nazi totalitarianism has conditioned me to feel extreme hostility toward its Soviet variant." Clearly, these influences cast a gloomy shadow over Feifer's interpretation of Russian history.
Some facts are also open to discussion. For instance, Feifer states that Moscow was founded in northern Slavic forests when in fact it started as a village of Finno-Ugrian tribes in the early 12th century. In other places, he perpetuates the myth that Russians are Slavs, whereas Russia has been multicultural for centuries, just like the United States. He also claims that mercantile towns became important only in the 19th century, and yet Novgorod, which is near present-day St. Petersburg, was thriving almost 10 centuries before that.
This book certainly makes you think, and while the author's journalistic style does not make for an easy read, I do consider it a valuable book. Just because the truth can be dense and dark at times doesn't mean it shouldn't be told.
Reviewer Oksana Ingle is an adjunct instructor of Russian language and literature at the College of Charleston. She holds a masters in journalism from St. Petersburg State University.