[14 February 2011]
““As the future ripens into the past so the past rots in the future.”
—Anna Akhmatova, “Poem without a Hero” (1963)
Susan Richards concludes her account of 16 years in Russia from 1992 to 2008 with that bit of poetry from Anna Akhmatova. She begins her perceptive and sympathetic account of everyday life in Russia with some hope for the blessings of Western style democracy in that fascinating and unruly country. The tail end of the euphoria of the late-‘80s and early-‘90s with glasnost and a new market economy and “freedom” all exploding into the “the former Soviet Union” still lingers. By the end of Lost and Found in Russia: Encounters in a Deep Heartland, Richards (who edits the website openDemocracy Russia, and has written a previous book on life in the Soviet Union, Epics of Everyday Life: Encounters in a Changing Russia), such hopes are largely dimmed if not lost altogether. The mysterious place that is Russia easily swallows such progressive visions.
What Richards discovers is a much harder and more interesting reality. It is Russia, in all its mystery and depth, not the former Soviet Union, that finally stands at the center of her time there.
The journey Richards makes is a powerfully told one. Its power lies not in statistics or political narrative (which Richards dabbles in but largely ignores), but in the lives of individuals. Many Western observers saw in post Soviet Russia the possibility for a great American-style rags to riches story. Freedom would come to Russia, both political and economic, and transform a repressed, victimized people into a freedom loving successful partner of the West. What Richards shows us through the stories of individual Russians far from the seat of power and wealth is a Russia still deeply connected to the patterns of the past, even unconsciously so. The narrative displays a Russia still straddling the fence, as it has always done, between Western style enlightenment and progress and Eastern mysticism and Asian impenetrability.
In the lives that the Russian people live, straightforward success stories are hard to find. Richards’ journey is one where the strange and heartbreaking aspects of the Russian experience of the last decades comes to the fore. She details the experiences of ordinary folk from outlying provinces. They live in a strange towns like the one named Marx (so small that a telephone operator tells her that “Marx does not exist, but Engels does”). She spends time in a tiny village of “Old Believers” (an ancient breakaway sect of the Orthodox church) in Siberia. She goes to the middle of the Uzbek wilderness with a fake passport.
Time and again the resiliency of the Russian people emerges. The list of challenges is staggering: heartbreak and alcoholism and despair and pessimism and poverty and economic collapse. Yet somehow the individuals Richards chronicles move forward. There is a hardness and a resolve to them that one cannot perceive in news of elections or economics or even tales of success and achievement. The characters in this book don’t achieve—they survive. At times this survival is extreme as when a female companion of Richards is propositioned by a customs official: sleep with him and Richards can continue her travels. Richards is incredulous but the Russian Ira consents and replies, “ I’ll manage. He’s not a bad man.”
The characters in this book subsist in the face of what Natasha, one of the most engaging figures in the book calls the reality of Russia: “There are no new beginnings, only long terrible endings.” The past lives on in Russia. The Soviets tried to remake the country, wipe the past away along with religious superstition and forge a new way. The advent of freedom and western democracy and economics offered the same. But Russia refuses to shape itself easily into new molds; its romance and profound ‘otherness’ survives. Richards finds herself confronted with academically educated people who place much stock in UFOs and “places of energy”. She is stalked on a cruise by a healer and spiritual advisor to a Mafia boss. She agrees to climb into a “shamanic cylinder”. In a forest she hears strange, puzzling music seemingly from nowhere. It is this strangeness coupled with the nicely drawn portraits of those she meets which makes this portrait of contemporary Russia distinctive.
Richards’ book has its weaknesses. There is lack of a strong narrative drive. It can seem like a batch of disparate stories knitted together. The writing is at times clichéd. Nevertheless, Lost and Found in Russia remains a fascinating look at country at once becoming altogether new and yet remaining true to roots that are centuries old. This very paradox itself is one that has faced Russia repeatedly over the ages. The gift of this volume is that we can see into the lives those going through yet another agonizing transformation of this always mysterious nation.