A then newly minted journalist recounts her sojourn in the one-time Soviet Union, a tumultuous empire desperately searching for its identity.
"The year is 1998, and newspapers are still being read,” writes California-based freelancer Cengel (Exiled: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to California and Back, 2018, etc.). Looking for a job, the author answered an ad and found herself reporting from the ashes of the former Soviet Union. It was a confusing but compelling place, as her lively narrative reveals. Cengel begins in the once-occupied Baltic republic of Latvia. She made her way to the Ukraine just in time to witness a number of historical events and their aftermaths. Latvia was a particularly unknown spot on the map, or at least in the author’s geography, and moving there was a rare and risky move that came at a time when “communication with far-off countries was less common than it is now.” She quickly made herself at home at a Riga newspaper; soon after that, with her “lurid fascination” for fraught human-interest stories, she became features editor. Among the stories she recounts is that of a gulag survivor who was determined to see the international community recognize and condemn the evils of the totalitarian system that packed him off to Siberia in a railroad car. Another is of a Ukrainian woman who, a slave laborer in Germany during World War II, returned there as a tourist: “It had happened; apologies would now mean nothing." Throughout, Cengel demonstrates a knack for finding compelling stories, including an on-the-ground report from Chernobyl at a time when engineers were still working to cap off the reactor with a cement sarcophagus, “an imperfect and semi-temporary solution” that all these years later remains in place. More than her stories, the author has a fine eye for the details of newsroom politics back when newspapers were read and newsrooms were packed with offbeat characters.
Sometimes gonzo, sometimes hard-charging—a welcome report from the front lines in a time of torment and hope.