Far Away from Moscow

Masha Karp
25 August 2009

In this book Susan Richards does something that foreigners in Russia hardly ever do: she looks for the effects of the latest political upheavals not in the capitals but in the provinces. She also sets out to explore uncharted waters in two other directions, following not just the fortunes of the state, but the fates of individuals and going to the roots of the Russian fascination with the irrational. Her book is so well written and so imbued with a deep and intimate understanding of Russian culture that it reads almost like a novel, but it also carefully documents how ordinary people's lives are affected by shifts in politics.

Crushed hopes

Richards' friends from the city of Saratov, on the Volga, and the nearby town of Marx  start off in 1992 with a belief in liberal democracy and in a new beginning for Russia  that would change  the lives of its people for the better. As she presents snapshots of their condition over the following 16 years the author is unflinchingly honest - even for the most persistent of them, the changes for the better, when they do come, come at a tremendous price and not with the support of the state, but rather despite the obstacles the state puts in their way. In 2008 the future looks bleak, and not just because of the world financial crisis. The question of why the country as a whole has yet again failed to transform itself, why the state is unwilling to shake off the legacy of its imperialist and oppressive past, which has been detrimental primarily for its own people, cannot be  answered within a single book.  The answer would probably require more detailed analysis of Russian politics in the last twenty years than the brief italicized summaries of events which preface the chapters in "Lost and Found in Russia", but this is not the task Susan Richards sets herself. Her way is to observe the hidden areas of Russian life and analyse what she sees as a friend and as a westerner.

Unfortunately, official Russian propaganda has done a lot in recent years to assure its citizens that for a westerner to be a friend is impossible in principle - "the West is against us".  Even more worrying is the fact that the Western press more often than not dismisses attempts by Western authors to see what's wrong with Russia as "anti-Russian".  In real life, of course, the popular assumption that an absence of democracy is only bad from a Western point of view, while Russians actually do not mind it at all, is much more anti-Russian than the shudder experienced by real friends of Russia at any fresh blow that the Russian state deals its citizens. Susan Richards shows as well as anybody that one can sympathise with ordinary Russians and feel that they deserve a better lot, and yet be critical of the policies of its decision-makers.  Moreover, her sympathy is not blind - visiting her friends regularly for more than a decade and a half she tries to make sense of their lives.

The price you pay

The book chronicles the fates of Anna, a brave and talented journalist who fights fraud and corruption; Misha, a budding manufacturer and later a farmer; Natasha, who tries to find her place in the world by moving across the vast country... These three have something in common - the memory of a suicide of a close relative.  In fact all the people in the book have some tragedy in their past, which casts its shadow on their present and makes the hardships and pressures of everyday life even harder to bear. And it is hard. The persecution of journalists scares Anna for some time into writing bland articles; overall corruption makes Misha waste energy on unnecessary legal battles; Natasha struggles with her alcoholism. Eventually Misha's efforts to become a businessman pay off and he becomes seriously rich, but his health suffers and he turns to drink. Anna's articles sparkle again, but her existence becomes more and more hand to mouth, and Natasha and her husband resume publishing an independent free newspaper, "The Messenger", while living in the Crimea, a potential hot spot since Russia would like to wrest it from Ukraine.  Susan Richards is dismayed at her friends' defeats and proud of their achievements... And it is being so close to them that enables her to see much more than foreigners usually would.

Behind the façade

Unlike many she is not duped, for example, by the outward prosperity of Putin's years. This is how she describes Saratov in 2004:

Although Russia's economy was growing steadily, Saratov had regressed to another century. Old wooden buildings were leaning at tipsy angles along the piss-reeking streets. Headscarved women sat begging, intoning interminable prayers. Homeless men with matted hair, faces burnished by alcohol, rummaged through overflowing rubbish bins. Yet every now and then an immaculately modern girl would emerge from one of the topsy-turvy houses and pick her way to work down the ruined road.

And this is 2008:

We were sitting in a traffic jam. These days there were traffic jams all day long in Saratov's city centre; 4x4s and gleaming jeeps like ours sat nose to nose as far as the eye could see. There was plenty of time to register the new dress shops, the Irish pub, the shopping malls, restaurants and the rash of stylish little cafes. Time enough to register that, with a few, dazzling, exceptions, these frontages had been attached to buildings that looked more derelict than ever.<...>The roads had improved. Clearly, this had been necessary to expedite the escape of the jeep-owners from the sight of the limbless war vets, lurching drunks, and piles of rubbish, bedraggled high-rise blocks, overloaded trams and hollow-eyed grannies begging beneath hoardings advertising holidays in Australia costing only $4.000.

This idea of a "frontage" and what's behind it has a much broader meaning in Russia than just the devastation behind the glitter of the buildings' facades. It is not exactly a "Potemkin village", as it would be untrue to say that the prosperity was all false and only erected to impress. Nevertheless this "frontage" is only a thin layer over the distorted and unreformed mass of the past. This becomes even more apparent when Susan Richards sets off on a journey to explore the minds of the people around her. In the heads of Russian citizens seemingly moving from their recent Soviet past to the new life that began with perestroika, she discovers to her surprise medieval or even pagan beliefs and prejudices hardly affected by decades of Soviet "militant atheism". The relentless Soviet system merely drove them inwards and people preserved them inside themselves, as hidden fragments of individualism beyond the control of the state. The new freedoms, chaos and uncertainty of the beginning of the 90s made these concealed and half-frozen convictions thaw and flourish - and they found plenty of fertile soil:

The Moscow metro was plastered with bright advertisements for the Bhagavadgita; smiling American missionaries were plying their trade in the street like hookers; in the bookshops, the long forbidden works of Gurdjieff and Madame Blavatsky were walking off the shelves; the Moonies and Scientology were thriving. Among the home-grown cults, there were six prophets in Moscow that summer who claimed to be the second coming. Vissarion was one of them.

Irrationality as freedom

One of the author's friends, the artistic Vera, goes to join the Vissarion cult in Siberia. Later, Anna, the brave journalist fighting corruption, finds refuge in the Orthodox Church. But the mysterious world of myths and strange creeds extends much further than that.  In 1992, in Zarafshan, near Tashkent, Susan Richards meets a Russian engineer, a former communist, who tells her about his encounters with UFOs. After this she misses no opportunity to explore the "collective unconscious" and travels widely in search of it. She spends several days in Burny, a remote Siberian village near the river Tunguska, with Old Believers, who broke with the official Orthodox Church after the schism in the 17th century,  listens to a talk about Cosmism and time-energy by a Novosibirsk professor, visits Vera among the followers of Vissarion  in the Sayan Mountains and even goes to Mordovia to see a local  healer, the hilarious Nina Stepanovna, who however punishes her  with a "curse", presumably for being too nosy. Not once does Susan Richards allow herself to mock the people she meets - she is obviously resolved to get as close to their beliefs as possible.  In an attempt to become less rational and western she keeps a record  of her dreams and once even hears cedars singing. And yet naturally she is unable to make a leap of faith - once she returns home the fascination of the mystery vanishes.   She has however to admit that it is very much alive for quite a few people in Russia.

Why? The explanation that springs immediately to my mind, as someone who lived in Russia for two thirds of my life, is the desire to escape. To escape the brutality of life, the determinism of Soviet ideology, the confusion of the post-Soviet years and more importantly, the helplessness of the individual being trodden down by the state. A society which has no room for protest or individual initiative has to turn to its imagination.  And of course this helplessness and confusion drives people to trust healers, hypnotists, "extrasensors", and to fear extraterrestrials. Far from dismissing it as backwardness, Susan Richards tries to find the rational reasons for behaviour that is often irrational.

More than once on my journey I had felt as if my sanity were under assault. Now gazing into the night I felt clear. At the moment, things were inside-out and back-to-front in Russia. But the craziness was not to be found in the obvious places. The people seeing those visions in Zarafshan were not the really crazy ones. Nor were the Old Believers, even if they did bury their televisions in the frozen earth. <...> The true insanity had been there in that awesome experiment which Russia and its colonies had undergone, that imperial mission to collectivise the human soul; to own and control everything, from the natural world to every last word printed in the empire.

Today this was the country doing cold turkey, drying out from that experiment, from an addiction to control, to secrets, secrets, secrets. Things might seem to be all over the place, but people were recovering. Before the country could start to develop the first vestiges of a civil society, or institutions which respected the concept of the individual, much more time was going to pass and many more of these toxic secrets were going to have to be drained out of the poisoned body of the state.

The recovery of the people then lies in their ability to make personal choices, no matter how bizarre these choices may seem.  Not much else is available. Turning to religious sects or to the Occult is tolerated, while joining a social or a political movement is bound to bring serious trouble, as these are likely to be either manipulated or suppressed,  as they have always been throughout Russia's history. Still, these are personal choices, and they ultimately mean freedom.

"Conventional wisdoms"

However, the chapter which ends with the above words is describing 1997-1998. Ten years later it's much more difficult to talk about a recovery.  It seems that the number of toxic secrets - like unresolved murder mysteries - has increased dramatically and the ability of people to make individual choices, at least where their judgements are concerned, has become seriously damaged by tighter controls over the press and ubiquitous state propaganda. Coming to Saratov after the Russo-Georgian war of August 2008, Susan Richards admits that for the first time in all those years she was apprehensive of her reception there. And some of her friends did indeed turn out to have swallowed the official line on the war.

Moreover, towards the end of the book it seems that the official line has rubbed off on the italicized summaries of Russian politics that begin each chapter. In the chapter on 2005-2007 it says: The president had not merely restored order; he had restored Russia's self-respect.  Whose words are those? On the next page we hear it said, "a shade defiantly", by another friend of Susan's, who has turned pro-Putin.  But is this double "restoration" a fact? Or in the chapter on 2008: For all the Cold War rhetoric, there was no ideological divide any more. Can the Susan Richards who writes in her last pages about the "aborted hopes for a new Russia, one which would at last come to prize its own people, rather than hoisting itself up on their bones" really believe that the divide between the Western liberal democracies and the Russian state on the value of a human life is not ideological?

Or are these "conventional wisdoms", as the author calls them when acknowledging that she and her friends have bowed to the accepted notion that their hope for Russia at the end of communism was naïve? Another one is the conviction, apparently sincerely shared by Susan Richards, that NATO should not expand right up to Russia's borders. In the general anti-American climate of the day many well-meaning people forget that the initiative to join NATO has always come from smaller countries, desperate for the protection of the West. The fear of annoying Russia's rulers might only lead to sacrificing these countries to them.

What remains?

Susan Richards is not afraid to think aloud and express contradictory views that reflect the feeling of the moment. On page 244 she writes "At the start of my travels Anna and I both hoped naively that the fall of communism would change something in Russia. In retrospect, of course, liberal democracy never stood a chance."  But fifty pages later, at the very end, she muses: "Surely what was wrong [with this hope'] was just that it was not stubborn enough. Hope is sacred, the fine point of the fulcrum of change".  And yet, the reason liberal democracy has not taken root in Russia is not the lack of hope, but the fact that those who held power and called themselves democrats did not in fact bother about the people, and an oppressive order survived under the guise of democracy.

That is, however, the subject of another book. This one ends with the author leaving Saratov intensely worried about her friends, whose prospects are fairly grim.  Apart from anything else it is a book about friendship - about its misunderstandings and tensions, about its compassion and love. This is how the deep heartland of the subtitle becomes the land of the heart.

Expose the ‘dark money’ bankrolling our politics

US Christian ‘fundamentalists’, some linked to Donald Trump and Steve Bannon, have poured at least $50m of ‘dark money’ into Europe over the past decade – boosting the far right.

That's just the tip of the iceberg: we've got many more leads to chase down. Find out more and support our work here.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram