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Read Orrin's interview with Sharon Hudgins.

God is high in his heaven, and the tsar is far away.
    -Siberian adage

It's no reason to regret those days are gone, but it seems unlikely that anyone who didn't live through the Cold War can fully comprehend the fascination the Soviet Union held for so many in the West. It wasn't simply that they threatened us, were the "Enemy", but that they were otherwise like us, in a way that the Islamicists we face now are not. How then could folks who were essentially Western have adopted a system and beliefs so antithetical to ours? Winston Churchill probably summed our quandary up best when he referred to Russia as "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma". And, of the mysteries of the USSR, none was more forbidding than that of Siberia, home to the gulag archipelago, the very essence of what was most frightening about the Communist state. We read Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak and Robert Conquest and even popular thrillers and still could not fathom this place of evil.

For me, personally, the most perplexing moment came in a college class called Soviet State and Society. We were lucky enough to have a professor who wasn't enamored of the Soviet Union -- more rare than folks now like to admit -- and one day he put up a map of the USSR and a map of the United States with their respective grain belts -- regions of similar climate and geology -- colored in and then numbers showing their comparative productivity. Obviously the Soviet region produced only a fraction of what ours did and he made no bones about the fact that if Americans farmed the Soviet Union they'd duplicate their production here, while if the USSR took over our fields they'd quickly destroy their yields. From this geographic counterpoint it occurred to me how strange it was that Siberia and the Russian East developed (or underdeveloped) in such a different fashion than the American West, its mirror image. Why was it that the American West became the emblem of our freedom, the safety valve relieving development pressure in more settled areas, our Manifest Destiny to fill and make productive, but the Soviet East remained a backwater, became a symbol of first authoritarian and then totalitarian oppression? Why do we romanticize our West, while the Russian despise their East?

Sharon Hudgins would appear to be a few years older than I, but grew up reading the same books and immersed in the same Cold War culture (actually, it was even more intense in the '50s of her childhood). In addition, she had an older cousin who traveled in the USSR during the Khrushchev era and he brought home intriguing stories that suggested that beneath the surface of official Communism were a Russian people who were endlessly complex and interesting. She, in turn, specialized in Soviet and East European Studies at the University of Texas and then the University of Michigan and worked at the U.S. Information Agency before going into teaching in the University of Maryland's overseas education program, which took her and her husband all over western Europe and parts of East Asia. Then, in 1993, just after the USSR had finally come a cropper, she got a chance to satisfy her lifelong curiosity about Russia with an offer to teach in the Russian Far East.

Recognizing that she was one of the first Americans to get such an opportunity, and cognizant of the dramatic changes underway, she determined to write about the region, the people, and the social conditions she found. The resulting book is outstanding, on a par with the work of another author we all read back in the day, John Gunther. Besides explaining much about this mysterious corner of the globe, she presents an important and troublesome picture of the enduring effects of seven decades of totalitarianism, which raises questions --at a time when we entertain visions of liberalizing the Islamic world --- about how likely democratic/capitalist reform is to succeed when few, if any, of the preconditions, institutions, or attitudes it requires exist.

One could hardly ask for a more opportune and significant moment to observe a society, than Ms Hudgins enjoyed, arriving in the Summer of 1993:
[D]uring the following sixteen months I lived through a time of rapid social, political, and economic change in Russia's early period of transition from an authoritarian to a democratic government, from a state-owned to a market economy, from a closed society to a more open one.

In the first half of the 1990s those processes of change were still in their initial stages. From the summer of 1993 through December, 1994, Russia--which had already seen the dissolution of its empire, the Soviet Union, and its collective security alliance, the Warsaw Pact--experienced a number of changes whose effects are still being felt today: the privatization of part, but not all, of the state-owned economy; a sharp decline in industrial production and a sudden increase in the importation of foods and other consumer goods; hyperinflation; the collapse of the ruble's value, and an enormous flight of capital from Russia; a rapid rise in unemployment and a significant reduction in social services; including health care; a substantial increase in crime, overt corruption, and mafiya activities; a bloody confrontation between Boris Yeltsin, the first democratically elected president of Russia, and members of the Russian parliament in Moscow, culminating in the storming of the parliamentary building by troops loyal to Yeltsin and the loss of more than 140 lives during that two-week political crisis; parliamentary elections, which brought contingents of Communists and ultranationalists into the Duma, the lower house of parliament; the adoption of a new constitution which increased the power of the presidency; and the Russian invasion of the breakaway republic of Chechnya, the beginning of a bitter and bloody war there. During that same period, the number of foreigners traveling to Russia--which had begun to increase in the early 1990s--declined significantly, as a result of negative news stories coming out of Russia about crime, living conditions, and the economy, as well as several Aeroflot plane crashes in 1993 and 1994.
Given this extraordinary confluence of events and a decline of Westerners on the scene to explain them to us, we're really fortunate to have had so observant and literate an observer as Ms Hudgins on site.

Much of the book is memoir, with details of day to day life. The myriad challenges that folks face -- from petty corruption and seemingly random regulations of things like money changing at the airport, to regular power failures and non potable water, to shortages and exorbitant prices of even staple items -- combined with the chaotic political/economic/social background described above are so daunting that Ms Hudgins refers to Russia as "Absurdistan" and they've given rise among the Russians to the, hopefully sardonic, saying: "It was better when it was worse."

There's also a travelogue, much of the travel being by train, that includes a visit to Lake Baikal, a geographic feature worthy of a study all its own. There's a panoramic history of Siberia and Far East Russia and its native peoples. You can get a taste of this in the chapter on the Buryats, which is available on-line, and, by itself, is probably enough to get you to read the whole book. The thing that really stands out here is just how psychologically distant -- even more so than geographically distant -- the region is from Western Russia. The more Europeanized people of Russia proper seem to find their own East just as mysterious as the rest of us do and look down upon its residents with no small condescension. In turn, the Eastern Russian who Ms Hudgins introduces us to quite often have an almost frontiering outlook and a prickly independent streak reminiscent of her own Texas. Each side of the nation has an "us vs. them" attitude. What still seems odd, at least to me, though is that the East is apparently not viewed with that romantic aura that we here in America perceive around our own West, nor do the Easterners themselves maintain a heroic history of their settlement of the East. Here's what she found in Irkutsk:
They seemed to think of themselves solely as modern Sibiryaki, settled in Siberia and uninterested in where came from or in going anywhere else. Siberia was their world, their present and their future, and the past was a place to be forgotten.

At first I was surprised by this attitude on the part of my Siberian students, colleagues, and friends, particularly given their pride in Siberia as a land inhabited and energized by a people with a special, pioneering spirit, different from that of European Russia. As a child in Texas, I had grown up listening to my own family's stories about my maternal great-grandmother who had emigrated to New York from a village in Prussia in 1867, when she was only four years old. In 1883 she and her new husband had traveled west in two covered wagons to the Dakota Territory, where they built a ranch near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation and befriended Sitting Bull and his band of Lakota Sioux during the last years of Sitting Bull's life. But the Siberians I spoke with had no similar stories of how or why their European ancestors came to Irkutsk Oblast', how they interacted with the indigenous Buryats and Evenks, or how they survived to bear the children whose descendants live in that part of Siberia today. Not only had much of Russia's national history been revised, distorted, or suppressed under the Communist regime--even many individual family histories, in this very family-centered society, were also a blank.
It doesn't sound like there'll be a Russian counterpart to John Wayne anytime soon.

At first blush this lack of a history, and the distortion of what history does exist, may not seem that great an issue. But consider that what it means that these people do not feel themselves and their ancestors to be intimately intertwined with the place where they live. Consider trying to create a society where folks feel unrooted. Consider too the rapid change that's been occurring in Russia, change so quick and so extensive that the society of today must be in some fundamental ways different from the one of just a few years ago. How do you go about getting the new society to cohere? Consider the older Russians who Ms Hudgins meets who still belong to a cult of Stalin, believing that what Russia needs most is to go backwards and find another iron-fisted leader. Finally, consider one of the points that Ms Hudgins makes several times over the course of the book, that there is practically no notion of, and certainly no reliable protection for, the sanctity of private property. This seems to effectively discourage people from talking ownership of and responsibility for their surroundings. In the chapter on the apartment building she lived in, she describes how depressingly little care residents take of the facility, how run down and drab the place is and how fatalistically accepting people are of the situation. The corrosive fatalism is summed up in one amusing anecdote:
A Russian who worked at our university inadvertently supplied another slogan that provided an overarching explanation for all the absurdities we encountered in Siberia. The American faculty used our department's photocopy machine every day, but we were constantly frustrated by the paper's jamming in the machine. We knew why the paper jammed: Instead of purchasing reams of standard-size photocopy paper, the university had obtained huge rolls of blank paper, like newsprint--one meter wide and hundreds of meters long--which the Russian departmental staff had to cut by hand, with the office's single pair of scissors, into thousands of individual sheets supposedly the correct size for the photocopy machine. At least one-third of those hand-cut sheets would not even feed into the photocopier, and many of the pieces of paper that did go into it caused the machine to malfunction immediately. I finally asked one of the Russian staff why our department insisted on using this labor-intensive, misshapen, hand-cut paper that obviously caused everyone so much trouble. Was it because standard photocopy paper was not available in Irkutsk? Or was it because they had no money to buy anything else? Or was it simply because someone had donated those huge rolls of paper to our department? With a look of intense concentration on his face, the man considered my questions for a long time before he answered. Then--as if a light bulb had suddenly switched on above his head--he smiled broadly and replied: "It is because we live in Russia!"
Funny, yes, but this kind of complaisance in the face of absurd inefficiency is also rather disturbing. We may be able to understand and even sympathize with the Russians, who have been beaten down by seventy years of Bolshevism and then a decade of basic chaos, but at some point the question arises of how, or even whether, a healthy social fabric can be knit out of these tatters. How will cronyism, corruption, criminality, bureaucracy, etc. ever be reformed out of the system if the people of Russia are resigned to their conditions rather than outraged? The brutality of life, the absence of any sense of shared responsibility, the lack of roots in a common culture result in a strange dichotomy where Ms Hudgins interactions with strangers are often unpleasant, but then when she becomes friends with various Russians they turn out to be rather decent. But if people are so atomized, how will they be brought together to work for change, to improve their unsatisfactory lives? Ultimately, the Eastern Russia that Ms Hudgins empathetically portrays here -- and presumably many of these problems pertain to European Russia too -- is so damaged, not just in terms of its decaying physical structures, but in terms of the moral and psychological sinews that bind a body politic together, that it's very difficult to be optimistic about its future or the personal futures of the many intriguing Russians we meet along the way.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

Sharon Hudgins Links:

    -BOOK SITE: The Other Side of Russia by Sharon Hudgins (Texas A&M University Press)
    -ESSAY: One Writer's Historic Odyssey for UMUC (Sharon Hudgins, Spring 2000, UMUC Alumni Magazine)
    -ESSAY: Cookoff starts with a bang (Sharon Hudgins, October 1, 2003, The Dallas Morning News )
    -ESSAY: Patricia Wells delivers true taste of Paris (SHARON HUDGINS, December 5, 2001, The Dallas Morning News)
    -ESSAY: A Magical New YearÕs Eve in Rothenburg (Sharon Hudgins, Dec 2002/Jan 2003, German Life)
    -Recipe: Millionaire's Shortbread: First Place, Nontraditional Category, Texas Scottish Festival and Highland Games, 2000 and 2001 (Sharon Hudgins, October 1, 2003, The Dallas Morning News)
    -REVIEW: of Mediterranean Grains and Greens by Paula Wolfert (Sharon Hudgins, August 1998, Chile Pepper Magazine)
    -INTERVIEW: To Russia With Love: Texas author Sharon Hudgins talks about living -- and cooking a Tex-Mex meal -- in Russia. (Interview by Laura Buchanan, August 2003, Texas Monthly)
    -PROFILE: A Texas style in Siberia (JOYCE SAENZ HARRIS, September 26, 2003, The Dallas Morning News)
    -REVIEW: of The Other Side of Russia (Arthur Mason, Soyuz)

Book-related and General Links:

    -ESSAY: Taking the 'Russia' out of Asia (Stephen Blank, 12/09/03, Asia Times)
    -INTERVIEW: ANDREW MEIER: SCENES FROM RUSSIAN LIFE: "Once Russia bites you it never lets go. That's a beautiful thing on the one hand. But on the other hand it sure would be nice to learn and experience a different place." Andrew Meier, who spent most of the past decade in Russia, talks about his travels through a country both damaged and vital. (Atlantic Monthly, December 2003)