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The Russians by Hedrick Smith

Preamble

The Cover

I have to admit I fell in love when I saw this book in my friend’s shop. I purchased it almost immediately. Why? The reason is simple: This is a book that tells the normal life in Soviet Russia from an outsider’s perspective. It is not about history, it is not about ideology (I mean its main point is NOT ideology), and it is not about military. It’s about how and why the queues were important, how did the youth entertain themselves or how did the students get an education in Soviet Russia.

It tells all of these and more in a language that doesn’t bore you. The book, at least my copy, is more than 600 pages long. I couldn’t leave it aside. I’ve read it on my lunch breaks, when I was returning home, in the home with a cuppa and so on.

Contents

The book’s contents are as follows:

  • Foreword
  • Introduction
  1. Part One: The People
    1. The Privileged Class: Dachas and Zils
    2. Consumers: The Art of Queueing
    3. Corruption: Living na levo
    4. Private Life: Russians as People
    5. Women: Liberated but not emancipated
    6. Children: Between Parent and Teacher
    7. Youth: Rock without roll
  2. Part Two: The System
    1. Rural Life: Why They Won’t Stay Down on the Farm
    2. Industrial Life: Skoro Budet - It’ll be here soon
    3. Leaders and Led: Nostalgia for a Strong Boss
    4. The Party: Communist Rituals and Communist Jokes
    5. Patriotism: World War II Was Only Yesterday
    6. Siberia: High Rises on the Permafrost
    7. Information: White Tass and Letters to the Editor
  3. Part Three: Issues
    1. Culture: Cat and Mouse
    2. Intellectual Life: The Archipelago of Private Culture
    3. Religion: Solzhenitsyn and the Russianness of Russia
    4. Dissent: The Modern Technology of Repression
    5. The Outside World: Province of the Privileged and the Pariahs
    6. Convergence: Are They Becoming More Like Us?

Commentary

As I’ve said, I liked the book. But does it show its age, it surely does. This book is about a society that’s long past gone. Also when reading I can’t help but feel the air of superiority from the author. He, for example, mocks the Russian sense of “Ours is better” while, subconsciously, doing the same implicitly.

Another thing I noticed is, Mr. Smith gives Solzhenitsyn and Gulag Archipelago a fair amount of underlining. I am not arguing about its importance but reading the same point over and over again gets a little bit old in the long run.

Apart from that it is surprising to see some of the issues Soviet Russia faced and Turkey was and maybe still is facing are similar. The educational system, the rural migration from village to cities and other things stroke a similar chord I can’t help but notice.

What else… I felt the third part is not as tight as the other sections. The book begins to tire then and there. Or maybe I wasn’t that interested in the topics he discussed in this part.

Do I recommend it? Of course. I think to understand a society you need to understand its past from a human perspective. Knowing about wars and agreements and other major events gets you so far. Knowing about censures and why Strugatsky brothers wrote their books in such a way that they bypass this issue is more relevant in understanding modern Russia if such a thing is possible of course.

Resources

  • Image from: https://www.amazon.com/Russians-Hedrick-SMITH/dp/B001ZQU0AI
This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.