The editor of openDemocracy Russia doggedly pursues the question: What does it mean to be Russian, now that communism has collapsed?
During many trips from 1992 to 1998, Richards (Epics of Everyday Life: Encounters in a Changing Russia, 1991) traveled to visit friends in Russia, particularly in the southwestern towns of Saratov and Marx, and at the very time that the dismantling of the Communist Party and President Boris Yeltsin’s “shock therapy” plunged Russian society into a tailspin of economic hardship. Ardently hoped-for democratic ideals were not achieved, but rather a reigning bitterness toward government as well as the West and a fear of incipient anarchy. The author, who spoke Russian, aimed to interview some Russian Germans, part of the community deported during World War II and promised another homeland more recently—speciously, it turned out. However, during her travels within a disintegrating Russia accustomed to periods of intense instability, Richards developed “a hunch that the character of its people was forged at such times.” She fashions the narrative around the friends she met and lived with closely. Vera, follower of the Vissarion cult, was an inhabitant of Saratov, once called the Athens of the Volga, now a forsaken place closed to foreigners because of its military industry (presently defunct). In Marx, once the nexus of the Russian Germans, Richards stayed with Anna, a tensely coiled journalist—a pravednik, or “truth bearer”—who had been punished for her honest writing; the volatile couple Natasha and Igor, lured to the dead-end town by Gorbachev’s promise of a German homeland, now mostly unemployed and alcoholic; and the couple Misha and Tatiana, marooned in Marx after their engineering training, who became thriving entrepreneurs and part of the rising Russian middle class. Among her new friends, Richards became a “connoisseur of silences,” gleaning their crushed hopes for change and general despair. Other trips took her through Siberia and the Crimea to view the residues of Russian Orthodoxy, the Old Believers and folksy spiritualism.
A patiently crafted glimpse “through a crack in the wardrobe” of the devastation wrought on Russian society during the turbulent post-Communist ’90s. See Daniel Treisman's The Return (2011) for a more comprehensive history of Russia from Gorbachev to Medvedev.