LIFE IN RUSSIA by Michael Binyon
Kirkus Star


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Simply as an introduction to Russian life, London Times correspondent Binyon's text easily surpasses New York Times correspondent Shipler's (p. 1166). It doesn't dwell on the frustrations of a foreign reporter, nor is it so fixated on the deficiencies of the Soviet system. Far fuller and more richly detailed, it attempts to explain those deficiencies--the chronic shortage of consumer goods, their shoddiness, the indifference and lack of incentives (no one values state property, no one can be sacked, everyone can shift responsibility--ultimately, to the Plan)--and to bring them up to date: people have money now, but little to spend it on. On the national disaster of alcoholism, Binyon adds word of increasing female consumption, and the resultant birth of retarded children, to the statistics of absenteeism and crime. Apropos of women's hard lot, and the virtual impossibility of having more than one child, he comments on the selfishness of those spoiled only children--manifest in the quick breakup of marriages, as well as in the waning of the socialist ""collective"" outlook. He discusses the declining standard of medical care in some detail--the susceptibility to ""unscientific panaceas,"" along with the system's shortcomings. He tackles the concern over crime head-on--""the deep-seated fear of anarchy"" among rulers and ruled; the disrespect for law and, with today's materialism, the frustration of ""unfulfilled expectations."" This litany of social ills is tempered, moreover, by Binyon's feeling for the ""intensity and sharpness"" of Russian life, the paramount importance of personal relations, the sheer size and heterogeneity of the realm that the Soviets (like their predecessors) struggle to hold together. His brief glimpses of diversity--from Estonia to Uzbekistan to Armenia--well illustrate the pushes and pulls. Where the book disappoints, correspondingly, is in discussion of ""the Russian character."" Though the nostalgia for the pre-revolutionary (and Stalinist) past is worth noting, Binyon's comments on Eternal Russia cannot fail to be hackneyed. He takes up religion, usefully to a point (""atheism is very dull,"" Soviet Islam is an imponderable)--then speaks tritely of the ""lifetime of struggle and suffering"" in the faces of old, church-going women and (inconsistently) of two such preserving form without spirit or substance. Like so many observers, he sometimes generalizes from a single example. But on balance, and weighing in Binyon's presence at the shift from late-Brezhnev apathy to early-Andropov candor and rigor, this is a worthwhile, readable appraisal--though not nearly so informative, still, as Hedrick Smith's comprehensive and factual treatment. And the reader who prefers intimate contact to analysis will want to see Andrea Lee's Russian Journal or even Jay Higginbotham's modest, ingenuous Fast Train Russia.

Pub Date: Feb. 28th, 1983
Publisher: Pantheon