Paul Robinson reviews two books on the Soviet Union, as a way of saying studying USSR is more useful for understanding what today’s Russia is not, than what it is
This article originally appeared at Irrussianality
It’s hard to think of books saying what a great place Russia is. Occasionally an author makes a real effort to understand and empathize with the Russian people (Hedrick Smith’s 1976 tome The Russians stood out as a Cold War example), but in general anybody who gets information about the country from what’s in the local branch of Chapters, Barnes and Noble, or Waterstones will most likely decide that Russia is an absolute dump which just keeps getting worse.
Two books which I have just finished reading are no exception: Oliver Bullough’s The Last Man in Russia: The Struggle to Save a Dying Nation, published in 2013, and Lev Golinkin’s A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka, which came out at the end of last year.
Bullough intertwines a biography of Soviet dissident priest Dmitry Dudko with descriptions of Stalin’s Siberian labour camps and the later, more subtle, repressive techniques of the KGB, along with an analysis of Russians’ predilection for alcohol. He paints a picture of a nation suffering from a severe psychological illness, which has manifested itself in mass drunkenness, a low fertility rate, and early deaths.
In contrast, Golinkin’s book is an amusing and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny description of his emigration from the Soviet Union in 1989. By his own account, Golinkin seems to have been traumatized for life by the anti-Semitism he and his family experienced in their home town of Kharkov. As a young boy, he skipped school and stayed at home, so afraid was he of leaving his apartment. His youth in the Soviet Union left him with a pervasive sense of fear and self-loathing. This perpetual anxiety comes across as almost a perfect model of the psychological trauma which Bullough claims was the product of communist rule. Golinkin describes the corruption required to navigate the complex process of obtaining a Soviet exit visa, and the tyranny imposed on emigrating Soviet Jews by the guards on the Soviet-Czechoslovak border. Golinkin makes it absolutely clear that he was delighted to leave ‘Russia’ (as he insists on calling it, even though Kharkov is in Ukraine), and shares his opinion that the United States, where he eventually settled, is a glorious bastion of freedom and opportunity compared to the ghastly country he left behind.
Both books are well worth a read. Bullough’s book, written in a journalistic style, is often as much about him as about his ostensible subject, but it is well researched and tells an interesting, important, and original story. Golinkin’s, meanwhile, is quite deliberately about the author, but also informative about the history of Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union.
The subject of both works is very much the Soviet Union. However, it would be all too easy to read them and come away with the impression that contemporary Russia is the same. In particular, Bullough’s talk of impending demographic catastrophe may induce some readers to believe that rampant alcoholism and a declining population are still crisis issues. Yet, in fact, the situation has been improving since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Figures out this week, for instance, say that, ‘Alcohol consumption has decreased on average, plunging from 16.2 liters per capita annually in 2008, to 11.6 liters in 2013. The death rate from alcohol poisoning has dived to 8.9 people per 100,000 in 2014, down from 9.7 people one year earlier.’ Suicides have also declined. All of this is having a knock-on effect on Russian demographics. As Mark Adomanis has regularly pointed out, Russian fertility has increased markedly in recent years, as has Russian life expectancy. Russians are living longer than ever before. Surveys suggest that Russians are also happier than ever before. In short, the spiritual malaise Bullough describes is gradually being fixed. These two books, therefore, should serve not to reinforce prejudice about Russia but rather to remind us of the appalling legacy of communism and thus to put the problems of today’s Russia in the correct context.
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