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Book Review - Among The Russians

The Book In Three Sentences

British journalist writes about his impression of Russia in the late 1970s and early 1980s (the book was published in 1983 - the year I was born). His biggest challenge is to get through the stern exterior of the country and its people. His experience includes bureaucracy, vodka and all things inconsistent.


This is a list of key ideas that I recorded while reading the book. These notes include direct quotes from the book, and occasionally, my thoughts and observations. I had been afraid of Russia ever since I could remember. <…> Where other nations - Japan, Brazil, India - clamoured with imagined scents and colours, Russia gave out only silence, and was somehow incomplete. ‘Russia’, wrote the Marquis de Custine in 1839, ‘is a country where everyone is part of a conspiracy to mystify the foreigner’. Propaganda still hangs like a ground-mist over the already complicated truth. Newspapers, until you know how to read them, are organs of disinformation. The arts are conservative or silent. I found the language to be quite heavy. For example, here’s a description of Hermitage from p.95: After five hours I was washed up in stupefaction at the foot of the ceremonial stair. Circled by alabaster nymphs, its marble steps lifted in mountainous serenity towards painted ceilings where the ancient gods tumbled over Olympus. By now I was wandering in stunned anaesthesia. Around and above me, in room after room, there unfolded a panoply whose every square inch glittered with an insect’s toil of gilded appliqué, the whirl and shriek of stucco griffins and thunder of gold-entangled lions. Raphael, Rembrandt, Leonardo, Rubens - their masterworks swam by me in a pageant of indigestible glory. I simply stared at the ceilings, the columns, the floors under my senselessly trudging feet. I wandered by fantastic torcheres and caryatids sleepy with gold, and slithered over shining lakes of precious inlaid wood. The queues in GUM had the look of prehistoric insects. They moved with only the dimmest shufflings and heavings of their multiple feet; and like most insects they had no centralized nervous system so that the queue’s tail did not always know what its head was gorging on. “What am I here for?”, said the last vertebra of a sixty person centipede. “I don’t know. But it must be something… look at the queue!”. However much ordinary people might accept the general tenor of propaganda (and they did), and whatever ignorance of the West (and it was profound), they found it hard, on some deeper or emotional level, to hate the individual. The great gangling body - he was six foot, seven inches tall… For this awesome wild beast of a man could tolerate little court life, and no ceremonial at all. Impetuous, coarse, hugely physical, he surrounded himself with gifted foreigners and upstart Russians, shipwrights and proletarian mistresses, and mindless of their age or sex or rank, he would shower hugs, blows, kisses and tears in a blinding rainbow of emotions. Ungovernable fits of violence would set him smashing the faces of his advisers with a cudgel or bare hands, or hurling them to the floor and kicking them in a paroxysm of impatience. Vodka - that colourless innocence! It’s the curse and liberation of Russia, a self-obliterating escape from tedium and emptiness, from interminable winter nights, and the still longer, darker nights of the soul. It is drunk in furious, catatonic debauches, with the full intention of rendering its drinkers virtually insensible. Bottles are always tipped dry, glasses drained at a gulp. <…> As early as the ninth century, it is said, when the Russians were choosing which religion to embrace, they repudiated teetotal Islam with horror. “Drinking is the joy of Russia”, declared their prince, “we just cannot do without it”. Drunken oblivion was the end and purpose of all feasting. “For making people tipsy is here an honour and sign of esteem”, wrote the ambassador of the Holy Roman Empire ruefully. “The man who is not put under the table holds himself ill respected”. “The trouble with us Russians is that we’re hopelessly religious. Of course Communism’s a religion. It’s never existed, in any country, as anything else. It has its own dogma, its own prophets, and even - ugh! - it’s own embalmed saint. What else is that Lenin Mausoleum? It’s pure paganism, or a throw back to the relic worship of early Christians”. The analogies between Christianity and Communism, he said, were almost unending. Above all, Communism shared with medieval faith its conscience-seated power and completeness. It resolved the troubling greyness of the world into a puritan black and white. Its heaven was the future forged by man on earth. Its god was the Party, whose service defined morality. But doubt one verse of its scripture, and the whole structure flew into fragments; faith demands submission. Like medieval Christianity, Communism precluded any fundamental speculation; its faithful walked in a blinding eternity of gospel. It was complete, dead. He embodied the intrusive precepts of early Communism, whole zealots were encouraged to scrutinize, shrive and denounce each other. One of the blessings of bureaucracy is its aptitude for self-defeat. Huge and wakeful at her desk on each landing, the dezhurnaya held autocratic sway. With her sleepless stint of twenty-four hours on watch (followed by three days off) such a guardian seemed to incarnate the Russian mania for supervision. She was generally middle-aged or old, and always poor. Very likely her young womanhood had been engulfed by the Second World War, leaving her husbandless. She was only outwardly formidable. A joke or a kindness would split her granite face into a motherly smile. She would grow sentimental and indulgent, produce extra bulbs and blankets, offer to wash clothes. I went downstairs in the hope of supper. But of the hotel’s three restaurants, one was closed for repair, one had the day off, and the door of the third displayed a notice refusing entry to anybody not wearing a suit and tie. Such things no longer surprised me. I went back to my hotel and tried to penetrate its night-club. ‘You need a ticket’, I was told. ‘I’ll buy one’. ‘There aren’t any.' ‘But the club is almost empty,’ I said. ‘But there are no tickets.' Boris Pasternak remain in a limbo somewhere between canonization and disgrace. <…> he will eventually be rehabilitated through the perverse patriotism by which Russia embraces its choicest men after the embarrassment of their living truth is safely gone. The artist in Russia becomes either saint or sacrifice. Of course people were affected by Party propaganda, he said, but they were independent of it too. The system was simply a feature of life. People used it or ignored it or evaded it. They didn’t love or fight it. People’s Palace of Culture leisure centres run by trade unions My grandparents were considered kulak because they owned a horse, a plough and a patch of land. They were deported to Siberia. With each toast the little glasses of vodka were tossed back at a gulp, so that drunkenness advanced in dazed leaps and bounds, and faculties were amputated at a stroke. I remembered a sixteenth century ambassador to Moscow writing that he could only avoid stupor by feigning it already, otherwise he was forced to continue drinking. In the West he knew, countless small companies made for variety, but here in Russia, where all materials were prefabricated en masse, new forms could only be achieved by the wholesale changing of factory moulds. Hence, the stultifying uniformity of Soviet cities. I marvelled that this people, while fostering the world’s finest dancers and athletes, should yet be among the least co-ordinated and graceful on earth. It was hard to look at their worn-out bodies without a pang. When Russians praised him, I realized, it was of power that they spoke. He was more graspable than Lenin. Lenin preached an international workers’ brotherhood - but Stalin preached Russia. He was the demiurge of her greatness, the nation transcendent. And her people were his children. He answered their yearning for a god’s or parent’s rule, the power which would protect them from the terror of their own disorder and that of the world, the power of Ivan the Terrible whose hand you kissed as it executed you. For the Georgian is the Russian’s antithesis. He has a hugely heightened sense of self. He behaves not as a part, but as the epicentre of things. Driving became an act of bravado and opportunism. It’s not death that’s a shame. We all die. It’s the indignity of it... We Georgians are basically selfish. I suppose the Russians are more idealistic. “You know that?” Zahari asked. “It’s a song about Stalin”. 'What does it say?' 'It says that Stalin’s ours - ours.’ Suddenly his eyes were shining with a deep, atavistic fervour, almost with love. ‘It says Stalin was born here and belongs to us. Us!’. His hand groped for a glass and I guess that he was about to propose a toast to Stalin. I think I turned white. I made no move. I imagined the evening’s camaraderie, which was in any case built on transience - the traveller’s dishonesty - plummeting into wounded national pride and breached hospitality. Yet no, I could not toast Stalin. He seemed in love with his own martyrdom - a classic Armenian, condemned to the chauvinism of suffering. After the heartless sameness of most Soviet conurbations, Erevan elated me. The whole city was built in a rosy, laval stone peculiar to itself. You’ve seen one industrial Russian town, you’ve seen them all. … the guileless, personal questions which come naturally to many Russians. They’re cold, you know. If a man was dying in a ditch, a Russian would leave him alone, and a Turk would murder him - but an Armenian would lift him up (and take his wallet, a Russian later suggested). I think this is actually an accurate assessment - a Russian WOULD leave him alone, but not out of coldness, but rather out of concern for his own safety. Russians are brought up from childhood to be wary and suspicious. Everyone is lying, everyone is out to get you. And that guy who seems to be dying in a ditch may be only pretending, so HE can take your wallet and murder you as soon as you stoop down to help. Soviet circuses are like no other, and scarcely relate to the mendicant European bell-tents, with their friendly stench of dung and bruised grass. There are more than a hundred in the country, sixty of them working all the year. They take place in miniature palaces. Most big cities have a dome-shaped permanent structure, which is a circus. I felt as I had at the Kirov Ballet - that I was watching the spirit of a people unleashed under cover of make-believe. Occasionally an old feeling that I had never really touched this country would madden and depress me, and the urge physically to feel it - its tracks and unseen villages - became so intense that I would stop the car and tramp into he woods. It is said the Russian is like an onion: the more you peel him, the more you weep. “We have no Capitalism! No Capitalism! Tell your people back home that in Russia there’s no Capitalism!" Ever since crossing the Polish border I had privately resolved not to argue, but to listen. Now I was dimly aware that the tensions of this self-imposed silences were piling up dangerously inside me. Ten minutes later, while repairing a puncture, a garage mechanic said: “In the West you have tyres with tubes. In Russia we gave those up twenty years ago. We’re in advance”. Beneath such pronouncements, sometimes fibs, a rankling inferiority glares. Cruelly I asked him how long he had spent in the West, that he should know such things. At lunch, my grandfather asserts that English is a poor language. One word, many meanings, he explains. We have different words for each concept. Cruelly, I ask him how many books he has read in English to make such statements. Hundreds, he says, smiling. A squat Aeroflot pilot bounced down opposite me. “You’re drinking alone?”. His bulldog expression emanated eager goodwill. “Drink alone, and you’re an alcoholic! Better drink in pairs!”. “It’s hard to carve out your own way, isn’t it? Not to be subjected to a laid-down principle, only to be governed by what you find is so? It’s harder but… right”. It was utterly, consciously un-Communist. I could only say “Yes” as he pronounced this simple and absolute heresy against all he had ever been told. “Why”, he demanded incredulously, “do you Americans say you’re afraid of Russia? How can any country be afraid of Russia?" In the man’s doltish, puzzled face his country’s myth of innocence seemed incarnate and all at once maddening, and suddenly, with a distant, helpless dismay, I heard months of opinionated frustrations unlock themselves and barge out of my mouth. Why afraid? Because Russia, I began, dominated the last and hugest empire on earth. I invoked the invasion of Hungary in 1956, of Czechoslovakia in 1968, of Afghanistan in 1979. It was a country of evangelistic ruthlessness, of nationalism disguised as ethics; it was as materialistic and more cynical than America had ever been; yet its government was too frightened to permit a free vote or even a free poem, and was headed by a clutch of privileged autocrats. As we said goodbye, he clasped my hand and said: “If in some future time I see you in the sights of my rifle - I will miss”. “And I won’t fire at all”. We laughed, but with deep emotion. I’ve never felt so brief a friendship more. In him I loved the Russian people. It was my last healing. “I began to feel deeply, inherently guilty”. <…> I began to behave guiltily.” He describes burning the list of contacts and phone numbers he had on him, and then lying that he was smoking in his room to cover up the smoke. The tendency to both feel and behave guilty is one easily triggered by the Russian authorities. Treated like a criminal, you soon start to feel like on. “I began to feel terribly tired, as if some unnoticed strain from the past months were finally spilling over”. “If real peace comes, it’ll come because people are selfish. They’ll have too much to lose”.

Buy The Book: Among The Russians

*Books are my weakness, yet I strive to own less, rather than more. I have long been looking for a way to capture main ideas from the books I read without keeping the books themselves. My gratitude goes to Derek Sivers and James Clear for coming up with clean and straightforward formats for book summaries. My approach represents a blend of both.


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