Be­yond the IRON CUR­TAIN

Rus­sians value or­der and sta­bil­ity over democ­racy

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Alvin Kienetz

WITH the eyes of the world trained on Sochi for the Win­ter Olympics, Rus­sia has been in the in­ter­na­tional spot­light more as of late than they have been for decades. The Win­ter Games’ have suf­fered from on-site in­fra­struc­ture is­sues, bil­lions in cost over­runs (thought to be pad­ding the pock­ets of a se­lect few) and a hand­ful of on-site protests. As such, Gre­gory Feifer’s

is a timely text. Feifer’s back­ground makes him wellqual­i­fied to write a book on to­day’s Rus­sians. His fa­ther is Amer­i­can au­thor and Soviet ex­pert Ge­orge Feifer, co-au­thor of a con­tro­ver­sial bi­og­ra­phy of Alexan­der Solzhen­it­syn, while his mother, to whom this book is ded­i­cated, was born and raised in Rus­sia. The younger Feifer, mean­while, is al­ready an ac­com­plished au­thor, with two books on Rus­sia’s for­eign en­tan­gle­ments to his credit. Af­ter spe­cial­iz­ing on Rus­sian his­tory and lit­er­a­ture at Har­vard, Feifer lived and worked in Moscow for a decade as a cor­re­spon­dent for Na­tional Pub­lic Ra­dio. Dur­ing this time he trav­elled widely within Rus­sia and in­ter­viewed many people — both or­di­nary Rus­sians and mem­bers of the elite in govern­ment, busi­ness and the me­dia. The re­sult is an enor­mous amount of name-drop­ping through­out the book. The book con­sists of 12 chap­ters, each fronted by one to three epi­grams and pho­to­graphs. In each chap­ter Feifer di­gresses widely on Rus­sian his­tory and lit­er­a­ture, with anec­dotes about his Rus­sian rel­a­tives and friends. When reach­ing back into his­tory to ex­plain char­ac­ter­is­tics of Rus­sians to­day, Feifer largely de­pends on the of­ten-re­vi­sion­ist in­ter­pre­ta­tions of Ed­ward Keenan, his his­tory pro­fes­sor at Har­vard. One chap­ter deals with the prob­lem of al­co­holism in Rus­sia. Ac­cord­ing to Rus­sian govern­ment sta­tis­tics, al­most half of all adults there are al­co­holics, with al­co­hol poi­son­ing killing some 40,000 people a year (com­pared with 300 in the U.S.). Men ac­count for about 90 per cent of Rus­sia’s al­co­hol con­sump­tion, a ma­jor rea­son for the large dis­crep­ancy in life ex­pectancy be­tween men and women in Rus­sia (63 years for the for­mer and 74 for the lat­ter). Ear­lier in the book, Feifer also in­forms us that Rus­sia now has the high­est num­ber of HIV and AIDS cases in Eura­sia. Reg­is­tered cases of in­fec­tion now num­ber over 700,000, but Feifer guesses the real fig­ure is likely more than dou­ble that. Al­though fond of some Rus­sian cus­toms, such as the banja or steam bath, Feifer’s de­pic­tions of many oth­ers are neg­a­tive, ob­vi­ous in the ti­tle of one of the book’s chap­ters: In­do­lence and In­ef­fi­ciency. He is es­pe­cially neg­a­tive when it comes to Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, whom he de­scribes as cor­rupt and author­i­tar­ian, ac­cus­ing him of fos­ter­ing Rus­sian na­tion­al­ism. Feifer fears this will ex­ac­er­bate the xeno­pho­bia and racism al­ready preva­lent in Rus­sia. Feifer re­al­izes, how­ever, that most Rus­sians sup­port Putin and agree that Rus­sia should fol­low its own path, sep­a­rate from that of the West. Polls show most Rus­sians value or­der and sta­bil­ity over democ­racy, and while Feifer sees such Rus­sian “ex­cep­tion­al­ism” as wrong, the im­par­tial reader might ask why it’s so wrong when ap­plied to Rus­sia but praise-wor­thy when ap­plied to the United States. Feifer points to a num­ber of other dis­tinctly Rus­sian traits: fa­tal­ism, the will­ing­ness to en­dure suf­fer­ing, as well as the greater de­pen­dence on fam­ily and friends as op­posed to in­di­vid­u­al­ism. And then there’s the preva­lence of cor­rup­tion, in­clud­ing per­va­sive bribery and steal­ing from the state. Are the ori­gins of these traits trace­able deep into Rus­sian his­tory, or are they the re­sult of 70 years of com­mu­nism? This ques­tion is left largely unan­swered in this text. The lat­ter is thought to have left most Rus­sians in a state of per­pet­ual ado­les­cence, de­pen­dent on the govern­ment and lack­ing the ini­tia­tive to do things for them­selves. A few Rus­sians be­came enor­mously rich dur­ing the years of “wild cap­i­tal­ism” that fol­lowed the fall of com­mu­nism in the early 1990s. Most Rus­sians agree that these oli­garchs and “mini­garchs” have come to their wealth dis­hon­estly, es­sen­tially by theft from the state. Un­like in the West, there is there­fore lit­tle sym­pa­thy in Rus­sia for people like Mikhail Khodor­kovsky, a busi­ness­man charged with fraud in 2003 (and later em­bez­zle­ment and money laun­der­ing) and re­cently re­leased. For those who have fol­lowed life and pol­i­tics in Rus­sia, there is prob­a­bly lit­tle that is to­tally new or sur­pris­ing in Feifer’s book. New and sur­pris­ing to this re­viewer is Feifer’s re­port that “60 per cent of Ta­jik­istan’s work­ing pop­u­la­tion is be­lieved to live in Rus­sia.” Such labour mi­gra­tion from Mus­lim cen­tral Asia was to­tally un­fore­seen only a few decades ago. Like­wise new is Feifer’s re­port on North Korean labour camps in east­ern Siberia, en­closed by barbed wire but fly­ing the North Korean flag. Feifer con­cludes the book on the hope­ful note that Rus­sians “will sus­tain the pos­si­bil­ity that its fun­da­men­tal val­ues may one day adapt to the post-in­dus­trial world.” With Rus­sia in the greater news cy­cle for more than just in­ter­na­tional sports­man­ship and good­will as of late, this well-writ­ten book should in­ter­est read­ers cu­ri­ous about this re­mark­able coun­try and its people — as long as they’re not de­terred by ex­ces­sive name-drop­ping and a pro-Western bias. Born in the Soviet Union, Alvin Kienetz is a re­tired ge­og­ra­phy and his­tory

teacher liv­ing in Win­nipeg.

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