From the Review section of the San Francisco Chronicle

Sunday, July 7, 1991


Encounters in a Changing Russia


Susan Richards

Reviewed by Jock O'Connell

In a revealing passage near the end of "Epics of Everyday Life," British author Susan Richards describes the "the bizarre ordeal of watching a version of myself, as seen through Russian eyes." The setting is a theatre in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk where a Soviet theatrical troupe she had met earlier in Moscow is staging a new play featuring a character modeled on Richards herself. One can only wonder whether the Soviet citizens who appear in Richards' book might feel similarly uncomfortable about the way in which she has depicted them.

Better known as a film producer -- her movies include "Cal" and "Stars and Bars" -- Richards does bring a keen eye for irony, some old-fashioned chutzpah, and, most importantly, a good command of the Russian language to this exploration of perestroika at the grassroots. Alas, as in many other books purporting to describe everyday life in foreign lands, this one occasionally suffers from the tendency of authors to find pretty much what they went looking for, which of course is not necessarily what is really there. Further clouding the picture is the impression that many of her characters have been transformed by the Heisenberg Effect -- the irritating proclivity of anyone being watched, especially by a foreigner taking copious notes, to act disingenuously.

As a result, Richards encounters more than a few poets, journalists, actors, artists and other "intellectuals" whose behavior seems inspired more by the protagonists of classic Russian literature than by any contemporary realities. But perhaps that is to be expected from someone who wrote a doctoral thesis on Solzhenitsyn.

Fortunately, she is on much firmer ground when describing the actual circumstances in which these people pursue their lives. Among the more interesting souls we meet are Andre, an erstwhile true-believer now undergoing ideological detoxification; Elena, the Cinema House employee who for thirty years kept out-of-favor film makers by arranging occasional bookings for them to show their work; Volodya, the actor, playwright and impresario who gradually became the victim of his own cynicism; and Slava, the home builder who had taken Gorbachev's reforms at face value and came to regret it.

Despite its handicaps, the book provides a surprisingly perceptive as well as entertaining series of vignettes and reflections gathered during four journeys Richards made to the Soviet Union between the autumn of 1988 and the summer of 1990. She got around during these visits, spending a substantial amount of time not only in Moscow but also in such disparate locations as Baku in strife-torn Azerbaijan, Dagestan in the Caucasian foothills, Novosibirsk, and Stavropol, where, as local party boss, Mikhail Gorbachev first established a reputation for innovative leadership.

Among her conclusions is that Moscow is largely unhinged from the rest of the country. People outside the capital generally regard the Kremlin as less relevant to their lives than the local officials who routinely resist new policy directions in favor of running things the old way.

Some of Richards' most trenchant observations involve the elaborate measures Soviet citizens have contrived simply to survive. For example, she discovers that the Russian equivalent of the verb `to buy' is being gradually replaced by the word which means `to procure,' implying that much more than a straightforward commercial transaction is involved in obtaining goods or services in today's Soviet economy.

Even more sagacious is her observation that the "economy that worked was subterranean, amenable neither to description nor, therefore, to reform." Because of this, as she points out, the sweeping economic reforms currently being demanded as the price of Western assistance threaten not merely those enjoying the privileges of power but almost everyone whose ability to supply their own needs is built upon a "complex house of cards."

Even though the lives Richards portrays are almost invariably grim, this is by no means a dreary volume. While some of the characters she encounters may seem a trifle too familiar to readers of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, the book is more frequently a delightful, amusing and insightful look into contemporary Soviet life. It is certainly a worthwhile complement to the flood of books now in print that examine today's USSR by focusing on the incessant jockeying for power in the Kremlin.

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