Volume 91, Issue 20

Wednesday, October 1, 1997



Taking a stiff shot of Russia

Vodka, Tears and Lenin's Angel
Jennifer Gould
Alfred A. Knopf Publisher
$31.95 / 390 pages

Why would anybody want to go to Russia? Everybody left in the country wants out. The economy is in ruins, the unemployment rate is rising and living conditions for the general public are atrocious (often coinciding with industrial areas).

Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Jennifer Gould went to Russia for the news, adventure and opportunity to succeed – or fall hard. She discovered the twisted world of collapsed economy and confused citizens in a place much like Terry Gilliam's film Brazil. The former Soviet Republics (FSR) are Kafka-esque lands of smoke, filth and fantastic beauty. Crossed cultures and white-skinned, blue-eyed people with traces of Mongol blood mark the land where Gould notes "East (really) meets West."

The FSR is littered with multitudes of different people: Scandinavians, Slavs, Mongolians, Middle Easterners and thousands of precise idealistic ethnic groups. The re-enstatement of pre-Soviet borders yields upset, drastic governmental change, linguistic puritanism, ethnic factionalism and war. Gould notices the permanent refugees in Moscow. Some came to visit relatives but cannot afford to return to their homes, thanks to rapid inflation. Others bribed their way into Russia, as a passage to the west, to escape dictatorship or war. These people are also stranded by inflation. The FSR is full of the forsaken who were guarded by communism.

With the USSR's demise, the underground rules the street. The mafia controls prices on as many "services" as possible. Sixty dollar minimum fares on taxis and mandatory "protection fees" for small businesses are only some examples.

There is a twisted irony surrounding the Americans living in Russia. They run to Russia to liberate themselves from the chains of materialism, yet they advise others to bring a plethora of consumer products for gifts or sale. Shampoo, tampons, stockings, peanut butter, candy and cosmetics are impossible to buy in the FSR due to inflation. Other westerners see the FSR as a gold mine of realty and future tourist attractions and shops. These business-types also aid the cancerous expansion of underground economies and Slavic mafia control. Frutki i Ovoschi (fruit and vegetable shops) sell pickled or preserved objects of dubious origin and the only produce available to Moscovites is badly bruised or rotten.

Gould is a decendant of a minority group which faced horrible discrimination – a society forced to arm itself against Russian guards and police. The Jewish network paid for Gould as she traveled, so she could always find a moderate level of comfort with respect to the Russian majority. She lived low, but saw a bigger picture than most tourists, traders and temporary media.

Gould's version of the FSR seems bizarre to the western world. But on the same token, what is to be expected of a place where the government and economy has collapsed? Of course life is strange and dismal and it's easy to moralize about a culture in which you are not confined. Yes, Ms. Gould. The FSR is corrupt. It's a dark, strange land where there are no rules and nothing but extremes. Historical remnants are a fantastic dream and social reality is living nightmare. But that's the least to be expected in a land of perpetual chaos, frayed nerves and perverse opportunism.

–Victoria Barkley

To Contact The Entertainment Department: gazent@julian.uwo.ca

Copyright The Gazette 1997