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Beyond the iron curtain

Russians value order and stability over democracy

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With the eyes of the world trained on Sochi for the Winter Olympics, Russia has been in the international spotlight more as of late than they have been for decades. The Winter Games have suffered from on-site infrastructure issues, billions in cost overruns (thought to be padding the pockets of a select few) and a handful of on-site protests.

As such, Gregory Feifer's Russians: The People Behind the Power is a timely text. Feifer's background makes him well-qualified to write a book on today's Russians. His father is American author and Soviet expert George Feifer, co-author of a controversial biography of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, while his mother, to whom this book is dedicated, was born and raised in Russia. The younger Feifer, meanwhile, is already an accomplished author, with two books on Russia's foreign entanglements to his credit.

After specializing on Russian history and literature at Harvard, Feifer lived and worked in Moscow for a decade as a correspondent for National Public Radio. During this time he travelled widely within Russia and interviewed many people -- both ordinary Russians and members of the elite in government, business and the media. The result is an enormous amount of name-dropping throughout the book.

The book consists of 12 chapters, each fronted by one to three epigrams and photographs. In each chapter Feifer digresses widely on Russian history and literature, with anecdotes about his Russian relatives and friends. When reaching back into history to explain characteristics of Russians today, Feifer largely depends on the often-revisionist interpretations of Edward Keenan, his history professor at Harvard.

One chapter deals with the problem of alcoholism in Russia. According to Russian government statistics, almost half of all adults there are alcoholics, with alcohol poisoning killing some 40,000 people a year (compared with 300 in the U.S.). Men account for about 90 per cent of Russia's alcohol consumption, a major reason for the large discrepancy in life expectancy between men and women in Russia (63 years for the former and 74 for the latter).

Earlier in the book, Feifer also informs us that Russia now has the highest number of HIV and AIDS cases in Eurasia. Registered cases of infection now number over 700,000, but Feifer guesses the real figure is likely more than double that.

Although fond of some Russian customs, such as the banja or steam bath, Feifer's depictions of many others are negative, obvious in the title of one of the book's chapters: Indolence and Inefficiency.

He is especially negative when it comes to Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he describes as corrupt and authoritarian, accusing him of fostering Russian nationalism. Feifer fears this will exacerbate the xenophobia and racism already prevalent in Russia.

Feifer realizes, however, that most Russians support Putin and agree that Russia should follow its own path, separate from that of the West. Polls show most Russians value order and stability over democracy, and while Feifer sees such Russian "exceptionalism" as wrong, the impartial reader might ask why it's so wrong when applied to Russia but praise-worthy when applied to the United States.

Feifer points to a number of other distinctly Russian traits: fatalism, the willingness to endure suffering, as well as the greater dependence on family and friends as opposed to individualism.

And then there's the prevalence of corruption, including pervasive bribery and stealing from the state.

Are the origins of these traits traceable deep into Russian history, or are they the result of 70 years of communism? This question is left largely unanswered in this text. The latter is thought to have left most Russians in a state of perpetual adolescence, dependent on the government and lacking the initiative to do things for themselves.

A few Russians became enormously rich during the years of "wild capitalism" that followed the fall of communism in the early 1990s. Most Russians agree that these oligarchs and "minigarchs" have come to their wealth dishonestly, essentially by theft from the state. Unlike in the West, there is therefore little sympathy in Russia for people like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a businessman charged with fraud in 2003 (and later embezzlement and money laundering) and recently released.

For those who have followed life and politics in Russia, there is probably little that is totally new or surprising in Feifer's book. New and surprising to this reviewer is Feifer's report that "60 per cent of Tajikistan's working population is believed to live in Russia." Such labour migration from Muslim central Asia was totally unforeseen only a few decades ago.

Likewise new is Feifer's report on North Korean labour camps in eastern Siberia, enclosed by barbed wire but flying the North Korean flag.

Feifer concludes the book on the hopeful note that Russians "will sustain the possibility that its fundamental values may one day adapt to the post-industrial world."

With Russia in the greater news cycle for more than just international sportsmanship and goodwill as of late, this well-written book should interest readers curious about this remarkable country and its people -- as long as they're not deterred by excessive name-dropping and a pro-Western bias.


Born in the Soviet Union, Alvin Kienetz is a retired geography and history teacher living in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 22, 2014 G5

History

Updated on Saturday, February 22, 2014 at 10:57 AM CST: Tweaks formatting.

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