Dedication

To the millions whose brilliance, kindness and energy are building a new Russia. 
May they have a chance to succeed. 


Introduction

Russia is big.  Not only is it the world’s largest country, but everything about it seems larger than life.  Its history is an epic, its tragedies are massive, and its culture is exceedingly rich.  It seems inscrutably eastern to most Europeans and starkly western to Asians.  Sometimes it seems incredibly strong, but at other times Russia seems to fall apart with surprising ease.  During much of the 20th century America’s Cold Warriors fretted that Russia was trying to conquer the world through proxy states.  But, in the end, the Soviet empire fell apart with barely a whimper.  What was once considered menacing superpower was really just a struggling middle income country with a really big army - and unique potential.

St. Basil Cathedral, Moscow, Russia
St Basil's Cathedral, Moscow, Russia

 

 

No matter how long I lived there, Russia was always full of surprises.  Just when I thought things were getting "normal", something odd would happen, causing mayhem and confusion for everyone.  Oddly enough, the reverse was also true.  Just when things looked their blackest and I wandered if the place really was doomed, Russia would grimly bounce back.  After a short but intense trip in 1990, I did not expect to return to Russia in the foreseeable future.  After the fall of the USSR in 1991, I believed the western media's hysterical view that Russia had become "too dangerous" to visit safely.  I felt a sense of sadness about the fall from grace, but also some satisfaction that I had managed to squeeze in a visit during the magic window between totalitarianism and chaos. 

I certainly did not expect to return to live in the "chaos", learn Russian or write a book on the place after moving there in July 1998.  What began as a childhood interest and an intense vacation in 1990 evolved beyond the familiar tourist circuit of churches, museums and quaint cultural experiences.  The longer I stayed, the more I drifted into another more unexpected world.  In fact, I wrote this book before I realized I was doing it -- it grew out of letters to family and friends written during my trips around the country.  During these trips, I met a wide variety of people and saw parts of Russia that few outsiders ever see.  I wanted to tell the story of ordinary people and their lives, instead of focusing on politics, although it inevitably creeps in. 

 

In telling the story of normal Russians, I focused on where most people live instead of more colorful hellholes that dominate western media stories about post-Soviet Russia.  For example, the former gulag city of Magadan in the Russian Far East has great historical importance but has little to do with ordinary people's lives today (thank god).  Although Russia is deeply troubled in many ways, there is much more to the place then urine soaked walls or drunks falling down in the streets.  From its ancient magical churches to its brilliant, warm and expressive people, to its infinite expanse of white birch forests, Russia becomes a peculiar addiction.  Vivid experiences abound:  Sublime Lake Baikal, the oldest and deepest lake in the world; flying nine hours on a DOMESTIC flight; experiencing -35F cold; getting whacked with a birch branch in a banya; hunting for mushrooms in August, riding around with Cossacks on the steppe; playing hide and seek with the secret police on the Chinese border; gawking at the stupendous treasures of the Moscow Kremlin and the Hermitage; going crazy in Moscow's ultra-wild night life and hearing from an 86 year old collective farm director about the difficulties of living through four to five economic systems, depending on who’s counting!

 

Manezh Plaza, Moscow, Russia
Fountain, Manezh, Moscow, Russia

Given the crazy changes in their lives in the last 50 years, it's not surprising that Russians still lack the most basic consensus on what sort of country they want to live in.  They are too busy grappling with daily survival.  Daily chores and worries sap most of their energy.  But, despite these problems, an incredible number of people overcome.  There are entrepreneurs who manage to start and run successful business, despite the very long odds.  There are the scientists who piece together ancient equipment, work in half-finished buildings -- and still manage to be brilliant.  Performers work for almost nothing and create some of the best theatre and music in the world.  There are the elementary school teachers who make only $40 a month -- and often spend part of their meager salaries to feed their even poorer students.  While these problems represent a gross failure of the Russian state and economy, these teachers and those like them are heroes.  Despite an awful ten years, it never fails to amaze me that the Russian soul still survives.  It is to these people I dedicate this book. 

 

 


 


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