An eye-opening tour of post-Soviet Russia by a young but well-seasoned Time correspondent.
Years spent in Moscow and environs have given debut author Meier a decent command of Russian and plenty of insight into the way things work there. Yet, as he slyly remarks, “Longevity in Russia does not always yield understanding. Neither does intimacy guarantee knowledge.” Perhaps depressed by years of living in a building where the light bulbs kept disappearing, ten of them being worth a bottle of vodka on the black market, and apparently stricken by the thought that Moscow, though with a population exceeding that of many European nations, might not be representative of the country as a whole, Meier undertook a journey in all cardinal directions that brought him to some hellish locales and introduced him to some iffy cuisine (“plates of glabrous chicken and half-fried potatoes” being among the finer offerings). One was Chechnya, where he found Russian soldiers playing backgammon with the rebels whom they would later be killing, yet one of the strange scenes out of what those soldiers have taken to calling “Putin’s War.” Another was the fantastically remote Siberian city of Norilsk, “a severed world,” Meier memorably writes, “a Pompeii of Stalinism that the trapped heirs of the gulag still called home.” Yet another destination on Meier’s itinerary was Sakhalin Island, where Chekhov once documented the broken lives of prisoners and exiles whose descendants seem to be doing only marginally better. Meier writes with a fine, literate style that sometimes turns to bare-chested bravado, but that thrives on pointing out ironies: the fact that most of those gulag denizens wanted nothing more than to be seen as loyal comrades of the monster Stalin, the fact that Boris Yeltsin, then a Communist functionary, was so drunk on a visit to Sakhalin that he failed to notice that the island’s governor had replaced the obligatory portrait of Lenin with one of Adam Smith.
A superb work of travel and reportage, and must reading for Russia hands.