An unusual personal narrative that captures a human portrait of one of the former Soviet Union’s castoff satellites.
New London Writers Award winner Walton (Ivan Petrov, not reviewed) moved in 1993 to a communal apartment block (kommunalnii) in Russian Samara, which she depicts here as a Soviet armaments stronghold known for its semi-barbarism in pre-Soviet times (such as the 1920s famine, when the region’s residents reverted to cannibalism). Walton now finds a place “rooted in a time warp” that’s untouched by glasnost: a petty bureaucracy rules one’s every move, residents are crammed into 1970s concrete tower blocks, and everywhere can be glimpsed “skeletons of the Soviet past” (sometimes literally, as when Stalin-era victims’ bones are unearthed in public-works projects). The author paints a colorful if bizarre portrait of kommunalnii life, with residents accepting an utter lack of privacy in exchange for the vanishing security of state-subsidized housing. She also observes contrasts between older residents, who embody Russian stoicism, and the new generation of youthful entrepreneurs (who, in her view, are “plundering the state”). She sees this avaricious impulse as universal, though, and even necessary to survival for ordinary Russians, noting that “Nothing had prepared me for the senseless tedium and hardship of Russian daily life.” A number of Walton’s roommates are quoted in running monologues that do arouse sympathy. Yet the writer’s delight in the earthiness of Samara is outweighed by concern over such thorny issues as the Russian dependency on drink (and the “infantilism” it engenders in Russian men), and the recessionary upsurge in nihilistic violence and Mafia heavy-handedness. She is indignant about the embattled position of women, whom she views as the backbone of a hypocritical society, and about the rumblings of a resurgent, xenophobic, racially based nationalism.
Maintaining a detailed, personal view, Walton captures much that’s vivid about the hardships, ironies, and small victories of life in the far-flung territories of contemporary Russia.