It has been many years since I have been to Russia, but my interest in that fascinating country has never dimmed. When I visited in 1986 and again in 1991, it was still the Soviet Union, though the U.S.S.R. collapsed a few months after my second trip. (This was not my fault.)
While I saw significant societal change between those two visits – one on the cusp of glasnost, the other on the cusp of collapse – they weren’t as profound as the changes that Lisa Dickey has seen: She has visited the country three times in 20 years, which she writes about in “Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia.”
In 1995, Dickey, an American, was living in Russia when an opportunity dropped into her lap: Photographer Gary Matoso was looking for a writer to pair up with for a journey from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok. He would take pictures, she would report and write, and the whole thing would be posted on this new thing called the internet.
She found the journey so interesting that she’s done it twice since – in 2005 and in 2015. Same route, same cities, and as many of the same people as she could find.
Dickey drops in on lighthouse keepers, rabbis, cabdrivers, farmers, bankers and drag queens. The changes she observes are both superficial and profound: A country that once struggled to emerge from 70 years of isolation and communism is now rich in consumer goods – automobiles, internet access, cellphones, color TVs. Electronic billboards have replaced the old propaganda posters. Everyone is on Facebook. (Honestly, I cannot picture this.)
Dickey is a flippant writer, more a storyteller than a scholar, and while her book is amusing it does not delve into politics or even very deeply into anyone’s life. But her observations are keen, and it is poignant to read how swiftly and profoundly this fascinating country has changed.
A darker, deeper read is “The Girl From the Metropol Hotel,” a powerful memoir by Russian writer Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.
Petrushevskaya is perhaps Russia’s most famous living writer, though it is only recently that her books have been published in the United States. They include the dark story collections, “There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby” and “There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In.”
In her memoir, Petrushevskaya writes plainly yet movingly about growing up in Stalin’s Russia as the granddaughter of an “enemy of the people.”
“I was lucky,” she writes. “I wasn’t left behind in a sealed apartment, as often happened to the infants of the arrested.”
But her “lucky” life meant a childhood of near-starvation (“like stray puppies, we rooted around everywhere, looking for something to eat”), scavenging for food from the neighbors’ garbage and begging on the streets. For years, she missed school because she had neither shoes nor clothes; she and her mother lived, for a while, under someone’s dining room table.
But there is also lightness: sneaking into circus tents, befriending a stray cat, playing cops and robbers with shards of broken glass for treasure. One night she climbs a fire escape to the fifth floor of the opera house and is allowed inside during a performance of “The Barber of Seville.” She returns the next night, but the door remains shut. “I crawled back home like a punished dog,” she writes. “My whole life I remembered that duet between Rosina and Count Almaviva.”
The contrast between Dickey’s book and Petrushevskaya’s is stunning. You want a feeling for life in Russia? Read both.