Is it cold where you are? Egads, it’s freezing in New York City right now.
A good excuse to round up some of my long-overdue reviews of books I’d love to share but haven’t managed to writing reviews for. That’s been a pattern the last year plus.
And when is the best time to read about Russia? The middle of coldest winter. Let’s go to there.
I love a good story from Siberia. The Polish reportage genre is also a major favorite, one that gets a decent amount of translation into English but a non-decent amount of attention. If you like a sort of travel writing combined with investigative reporting and set in unique locales, or the digging up of uncomfortable historical areas long ignored, Polish reportage is for you.
So Polish reportage from Siberia sounded massively appealing. Jacek Hugo-Bader has written several books of reportage now in English, and in White Fever: A Journey to the Frozen Heart of Siberia (2012, translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones), he travels in a modified Russian jeep across the frozen region in the middle of winter. Not my idea of a vacation, but one I like reading about nevertheless.
This is a fascinating look at the post-Communist landscape, in the same vein of personal stories from a post-Soviet landscape as in The Future is History, but with Hugo-Bader’s outsider’s eye. I’ve read a lot from this region so felt well-prepared, but this is unusually bleak. It has its humorous moments for sure, but the reality of the region is not a pretty one. It’s economically imperiled, plagued by HIV/AIDS, drug use, and heavy alcoholism, as well as an almost endemic depression, not to mention the deaths associated with this combination of factors, including murder and suicide.
I know I’m not exactly selling this as something upbeat, but it’s very worth reading. Ignoring problematic parts of the world because they aren’t pretty isn’t the right thing to do, and Russia is long misunderstood. There are those in the US, including among our former (feels so good to write that!) dipstick president’s crowd who think Putin is doing a bang-up job. Here’s a magnified look at why that’s not true, as well as what ignoring HIV epidemics and rampant addiction can do. Need I remind you that’s what Mike Pence did in Indiana?
The title itself refers to an illness, the “drunken insanity” following a drinking binge. This should set the tone for what to expect in the author’s encounters.
Hugo-Bader also looks sensitively at other coping mechanisms arising in a difficult land under bad policies and ignored social needs — namely, a proliferation of strange and culty religious figures, shamans and healers. Among many other colorful and intriguing figures, again helping to put faces to the landscape.
Parts did read a bit slowly or overly focused on travel details, which hampered my enjoyment — I just don’t care that much about the mechanics of the car he traveled in — but overall it’s effective and takes a hard look at an area that’s badly suffering and ignored by its own government and much of the population.
Bonus: the photos were fabulous. I still laugh when I think of one of a little girl side-eyeing while watching village men moving a piano (again with pianos in Siberia!) Some complaints aside, this remains the kind of work I love seeing get translated: a spotlight trained on people, culture, and problems that don’t get as much attention in the English-speaking world.
Black Square: Adventures in in Post-Soviet Ukraine, by Sophie Pinkham (2016)
Pinkham, a scholar who spent 10 years traveling in Russia and Ukraine, writes impressionistic looks at pre- and post-Maidan Ukraine, with plenty of readable history and context.
It’s interwoven with memoir, but the author mostly stays out of the story and only shares impressions, however when it becomes too personal it’s somewhat uncomfortable and I could’ve done without it entirely.
She comes across, although I don’t think she means to, as incredibly privileged. Which, fine, your privilege is what you have and I don’t think it’s worth jumping down anyone’s throat over unless it’s wielded egregiously. But the problem is that she seems unaware that the professional trajectory she describes herself as being on — and unsatisfied with — is one that a lot of people would love to be on.
After college, working for George Soros’ Open Society Institute, she laments being just like every other dark-haired, petite, pashmina-wearing girl in her office, just working until it’s time for grad school. WHAT. So much about that professional opportunity is out of reach of others that her attitude is bothersome (yes, this is coming from my bitter place of graduating from a public university and for years when I applied to jobs and internships, it felt like every door slammed in my face and opened to someone from an Ivy, so I definitely didn’t want to hear it. But I think it’s somewhat tone-deaf in general even if you’re not extra-bitter like me). Of course you can be bored with your work and want something that feels more meaningful, or hands-on, or whatever, but emphasizing the ennui only feels out of touch.
The parts I found most interesting were around her work in Ukraine in HIV outreach and harm reduction NGOs, work carried out to varying degrees of success and sustainability. I knew that the HIV rates in Ukraine were extremely high, but Pinkham excellently highlights the reasons for this and some of the locations where it’s especially prevalent. Learning about this was the book’s most worthwhile element to me, along with some vibrant portraits of Ukrainians she interacted with, those who are trying to shape their nation’s future for the better despite difficult political and social structures and unforgiving Russian influence.
It’s also harmed a bit by the fact that she wasn’t actually in Ukraine when the Maidan protests began in Kiev, so it lacks any kind of on-the-ground view from these pivotal events and rather summarizes them, albeit with useful context. It’s a decent read overall, but I wanted something more.