Black Earth: Russia after the fall by Andrew Meier

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The Independent Culture

If you're going to Russia for the first time, take this book. You won't find better. It's an up-to-date introduction to the pathos of a country utterly disoriented by the Soviet collapse. Andrew Meier, who lived in Moscow and travelled widely while working for Time magazine, is a sympathetic, Russian-speaking guide to late-night confessions, vodka binges and Moscow rebuilding programmes so unreal they are unholy. He listens to the parents of a soldier needlessly killed in Chechnya, to people who ended in the Gulag by mistake and to mafia types denying what they are. Occasionally, he meets someone who enjoins his fellow countrymen to face up to the Soviet past.

But the overwhelming comment on the totalitarian world which ended in December 1991 is that there wasn't much wrong with it. Why should we repent? For many, perhaps most, people over 50, their lives have been spoilt by the upheaval. Crime and poverty threaten them as never in the protected past; drugs menace their children. Even Moscow's former mayor admits to heading a mob city. Meier has a steel door on his flat. One floor down, armed heavies guard a banker 24/7.

Life is different in the provinces. Something of the old Party orderliness is visible in Siberia, where the children still perform folk dances. People like living inside the Arctic Circle in the mineral-rich city of Norilsk, built by Gulag labour. The harsh past has engendered such a sense of traditional community that, despite government bribery, older Noriltsy refuse to move. From the tears of its drunks to the sleaze of its rich, Russia remains a mystery - and a huge temptation for the interested foreigner to journey into emotional exotica.

You may want to weep reading the words of Viktor Chernomyrdin, Russian premier until 1998: "We wanted the best but it turned out as always." I found myself loathing the American bankers who pitched up in the early Nineties "for the buzz" and didn't realise that this passionately anti-Western and other-minded country was unlikely to fit their model of an emerging economy. If you harbour misgivings about President Putin's "controlled" dem- ocracy, think again. Anything else would be worse.

" Gore" is one word for the mess. It means grief. The only thing I didn't get from Meier's reportage was an answer to: why? Why is everyone so befuddled about truth? The campaigners for improved national memory of the Gulag also believe the Revolution was a Jewish conspiracy. The ex-prisoner with crimson hair disputes anyone's right to say what happened. The young man who befriends Meier on a boat confesses weepily that his mother worked for the KGB and Stasi, and he has lived a lie. He adds: "They were bad, weren't they?"

Communism wasn't just an economic system. It was the basis on which Russians evaluated the world. Knowledge itself has deserted them. What remains is to need each other. Meier shows that this is still Dostoevsky's world. The need to confess, curse, adore - the bottomless pit of emotion - takes the place of anything objectively certain. To substitute the one for the other is an old Russian habit. But still, why?

Lesley Chamberlain's 'Motherland: a philosophical history of Russia' will appear from Atlantic in July