Russia: The People and the Power
A foreign visitor to Russia usually manages to see only the strange and fascinating façade of the Soviet Union. He is busy rushing from the Kremlin to the Bolshoi Theater, from restaurants specializing in la cuisine russe (here, at least, he will sit for hours, the unwilling prisoner of the Russian promise, “right away”) to “Beryozka” shops, in which only foreign currency is accepted.
He may get a glimpse behind that façade as he travels on a carefully planned schedule from one large urban center to another, always in the enveloping embrace of Intourist. But such glimpses are rare and are inevitably confined to meetings with that tiny minority of Russians who speak foreign languages well and who are willing to risk prolonged contacts with outsiders.
The books under review are full of solidly documented reporting on life in Russia and supply much information which no tourist can ever hope to learn. Anyone interested in Russia can read them with profit, although both books suffer from diffuseness, and sometimes strike the reader as collections of unrelated anecdotes. Robert Kaiser and Hedrick Smith tend to tell the same stories, the inevitable result not only of the foreign journalist’s relative isolation in the Soviet Union, where both lived for three years, but of the monotony of Soviet life as well. It is unfortunate, therefore, that they mirror rather than complement each other. The fundamental difference between the two is less in content than in style: Smith’s prose is chattier, more colorful and personal, while Kaiser’s is more academic and measured.
Everyone knows people who have returned from Russia certain that they have penetrated to the core of that mysterious entity “the Russian soul.” Russia bewitches outsiders, and the search for the “essence” of Russia continues long after many Russians and Western observers have realized that the myth of such an essence cripples any rational discussion of the Russian malaise. What a wonderful defense it is for Russians to say “foreigners can’t possibly understand us.” The Russian inferiority complex toward the West (documented by foreign visitors to Russia three centuries ago) has found the cliché enormously useful.
Kaiser and Smith both understand this danger, but they cannot resist looking for answers to the Russian situation in what they take to be the personality of the Russian people. Both were Moscow correspondents for American newspapers (The Washington Post and The New York Times respectively). They might more accurately have called their books “Moscow Correspondent” or “Three Years in Russia.” Both wanted the title The Russians (Kaiser had to settle for Russia), and the choice is revealing. Both writers know the limitations of their experience—which was largely confined to the urban cultural and technical intelligentsia, a very small part of the Soviet Union’s 250 million people—and the elusive nature of the inquiry. But their speculations, although rarely naïve, are very broad. They consider, for example, the…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.