Prosaic travels through the rubble of the Soviet Empire.
Former NPR Moscow bureau chief Sheets has been a longtime resident of Russia, having arrived there as a student in the late 1980s and been privileged to see firsthand the reforms of the Gorbachev era and, soon thereafter, the collapse of the Soviet Union. As he writes here, not everyone in Russia or its former satellites was glad to see the Soviets go. One old survivor of the siege of Leningrad, for instance, faults current leader Vladimir Putin, a former KGB stalwart, for not being tough enough, even if he “had made Russia respected in the world again—if not an empire, then certainly a country to be taken seriously.” Sheets travels through several post-Soviet landscapes, observing the war Chechnya as it was unfolding; he adds value to other accounts by being able to speak directly to the combatants in conversations that highlight, among other things, racism in the ranks. There are some revealing moments, as when former statesman Edvard Shevardnadze admits that he had not correctly foreseen the events that would sweep the Soviet state from power (“I was convinced the Soviet Union would disintegrate,” he says. “But to be honest, I was off by 10 or 15 years”), and when Sheets travels into the “Stans,” which he calls “some of the most quirky countries of earth.” The author’s accounts are evenhanded and trustworthy, but his prose limps along, pausing to remark on too man obvious points. Less of the expected nostrums and more on the gritty business of collecting news in dangerous places would have helped.
A latecomer to the field, not strong enough to displace better books that cover the same ground, such as Marq de Villiers’ Down the Volga (1992), Thomas Goltz’s Chechnya Diary (2003) and Andrew Jack’s Inside Putin’s Russia (2004).