Tuesday, July 8, 2014


Russians: they’re just like us, or probably desperately want to be us, don’t they? Gregory Feifer’s wide-ranging and deeply felt exegesis of all things Russian posits that a combination of history, repression, endemic corruption and even sheer land mass have molded an otherness that refutes this question as soon as it’s asked. Russians, in the aggregate, most certainly wish to be Russians more than anything else, warts and all. It’s these systemic and historical warts that “Russians: The People Behind The Power” wishes to illuminate. How does a country renown for centuries of contribution to literature and the arts, and a purported “world power” to boot, come to be a gauche, hideously corrupt cesspot of alcoholism, poverty, cronyism, inefficiency and bad taste? And why does it seem that the populace – again, in the aggregate - continue to bow down in meek subservience before its dictatorial leaders and say, “yes sir, we’d like more of that, please”?

A word of warning, though I don’t personally feel it to be a drawback in the least to this terrific book: some might deem this tome the “hatchet job” to end all hatchet jobs on Mother Russia. If you’re not a fan of Vladimir Putin, has Greg Feifer got a book for you. Lucky for Feifer, I think Putin and the Soviet culture he grew from and has brought back with a vengeance is odious and foul. It may not be ahistorical, however. Over twelve chapters, Feifer weaves a series of journalistic narratives on aspects of Russia and Russian culture that’s truly more sad than angry. He himself comes from Russian stock, and his well-told stories of his Russian-born and –bred mother and her family form part of the backbone of stories of Siberian exile, alcohol-soaked parties, secret police, KGB informers and tentative steps toward the west during Soviet times.

It’s that intense, all-encompassing 74-year Soviet experience, as well as previous heavy-handed repression under the tsar system, that Feifer (and virtually every other Russianologist) believes has stamped Russia’s culture for ill, and which he believes they’ll have a long, hard slog to crawl out from. It’s no accident that Putin is generally supported by the huddled masses of Russia, who aren’t yearning to be free so much as taken care of. The spasms of the early 1990s, when “capitalism” meant appropriating or stealing as much state property as humanly possible within a limited window, terrified much of the populace. Moscow, to say nothing of the rural regions wholly dependent on all-encompassing state support for decades, retreated into the comfort of the stage-managed modern tsar Putin, who has bullied and broken virtually every obstacle that has stood in his way since he entered the stage in the late 1990s, and who now enjoyed virtual dictatorial power over nearly every aspect of Russian politics and society, with the fortune of well-timed oil wealth giving him cover to plunder the country.

Feifer spares no vitriol in recounting the well-known incidents that have been reported in western media about Putin and his gang of oligarchs, as well as dozens that have barely registered outside of the country. He’s spent much of the last twenty years traveling to, living in and reporting from the country as a reporter for NPR and other publications. I like that he wears his venom on his sleeve, and it’s hard to find fault with his disgust with Russia’s squandered potential and the beaten-down people of the country. Naturally, he sympathizes with those who’ve attempted to shine democratic light into Russia’s dark corners, from Memorial, who are a brave voice attempting to document Stalinist abuses to a country that prefers to forget, to the more well-known political opposition figures such as Alexei Navalny, who tend to appear every couple of years before being imprisoned on trumped-up “bribery” or “forgery” charges before most of the West forgets about them.

Beyond the criminality and the horrific work ethic left over from Soviet sloth, it’s the country’s endemic alcoholism – a lament that also formed a large part of Oliver Bullough’s recent (quite complementary) nonfiction elegy for the country “The Last Man in Russia” – that is perhaps more troubling. I learned here that there’s a political-industrial-alcohol complex in Russia that feeds greater and greater tax revenue from vodka sales into state coffers, and drinking, already part of a much-revered macho culture in the country, is tacitly and often explicitly encouraged by the government. Alcoholism rates are the world’s worst (and are actually getting worse), and life expectancy is declining as a result. Feifer quotes the cynicism of many Russians he’s met and interviewed, who see alcohol as a much-needed escape from the tyranny of the state and the culture that surrounds it; there’s even an entire chapter about the country’s legendary cold, and how even that plays into the country’s many myths and sad realities, alcoholism included.

An uplifting tale about Russia’s imminent partnership with the west it’s not – and it was written and published before the 2014 Ukraine crisis. The book is edgy, funny in parts, and utterly bitter and sad. It completely ruined my long desire to visit St. Petersburg, while redoubling my support for the few flickers of civil society left in Russia. More than this, though, it’s helped me to understand and appreciate that Russia is not a part of Europe; never has been and never will be, and frankly – doesn’t want to be either. That’ll be something to chew on in every wonky Russia news article I read from this point forward.