Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Charlotte Hobson's small book, Black Earth City: When Russia Ran Wild (And So Did We), is a gem. It captures the chaos and disorder (homage to Prince there, though that was surely his worst album) of the first post-Soviet moment. As a British student in Voronezh, Hobson found herself in a very ordinary Russian setting--a run-down college dorm in an unremarkable Russian city--but in the midst of one of the most remarkable transformations in the whole of Russian history.

As communism collapsed, and a strange blend of capitalism and criminal anarchy emerged in its wake, Charlotte experienced this modern Time of Troubles through the prism of college social life. Her peers embraced the radical changes with a mixture of survival strategies and coping mechanisms, including adaptation, optimism, denial, nostalgia, lethargy, emigration, and alcoholism.

The world outside of dorm life was disorientating and Hobson captures some of the challenges Russians faced. As the Soviet State collapsed, Veronezh suddenly became a border state; dormant ethnic rivalries re-emerged; organized crime erupted; the currency collapsed; pensions and jobs vanished; et cetera and so on. And Russians could not easily decide if life would get better eventually or much, much worse. On the one hand, Russians understood that communism had delivered shoddy good, overcrowded apartments, long lines, bureaucracy, party elitism, travel restrictions, monotony, and a whole host of spiritual ailments.

On the other hand, Russians benefited in some ways from the Soviet system: their country was a superpower, people had job security, travel was inexpensive, ideas circulated clandestinely, and the streets were safe at night. What was to come? In many ways, Hobson's exquisitely written book explains Putin and the Russian search for security. After Gorbachev and before Putin, Russia did seem to run wild.

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