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Logan Robinson is a young American lawyer who spent the 1976-77 academic year as a law student at Leningrad State University--bucking the routine frustrations of Soviet life, coming under automatic KGB surveillance, seeing the renowned perils of nonconformity strike Russian friends. He may be right in noting that most exchange students are aspiring Sovietologists constrained from writing frankly about the USSR by fear of not getting another visa; he may be justified in highlighting friend Slava's praise of rock performer John McKuen for not leaving ""his American values on the doorstep"" (and refusing to accept police ""protection""/obstruction), of Robinson himself for his assertiveness. His one bull's-eye, however, comes in the aftermath of his brief, 1980 return to Leningrad--when we learn that Olympiad Solomonovich Ioffe, met early-on as the distinguished head of Leningrad's civil-law faculty and a jesting, side-stepping lecturer (""Classes were nothing like Harvard""), lost his position after signing his daughter's petition to emigrate. . . and is now teaching at Harvard. What we never learn is why Robinson--headed for corporate-law practice--took up the study of the Russian language; what he expected to gain from his year at Leningrad; or even the contents of the ""scientific plan"" for his year's activities whose helter-skelter adoption serves as a prime example of Soviet pretenses and realities. At year's end, when he reports pretty much what we have read here (conversations with his Party-line advisor, frustrated attempts at first-hand observation), Ioffe's rejoinder--""that I should have done what was available instead of worrying about what was not available""--seems quite to the point. Similarly, Robinson's strictures on American ""open-mindedness"" are undercut by his general belittlement of things Russian. (""Few Russian girls are attractive by American standards""; the USSR ""is one big banana republic without any bananas."") Otherwise, the book is heterogeneous: a chapter encapsulating Leningrad history from the birth of Peter through the 900-day German siege; another on the KGB, featuring its attempted ""homosexual entrapment"" of Westerners; a couple of 1980 chapters speculating on the new ""open toleration of a 'second economy'"" (vis-à-vis the American, tax-avoiding ""underground economy"") and on life-after-Brezhnev. No stardust about the USSR, certainly--but as an entrÉe (and for insight), a poor second to Andrea Lee's Russian Journal.

Pub Date: July 26th, 1982
Publisher: Norton