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Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia After the Fall Paperback – January 17, 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
"How do you explain a state in decay?" the author of this engrossing, beautifully written book asks about a country where "the death of an ideology has displaced millions," a third of the households are poor, and epidemics of HIV, TB, suicide, drug abuse and alcoholism are rife. Meier, a Moscow correspondent for Time magazine from 1996 to 2001, attempted to answer the question by traveling to the four corners of Russia so he could report on the suffering of the people as they struggle to survive in the ruins of the Soviet experiment. He began in 2000 by going south to war-devastated Chechnya, particularly the town of Aldy, a district of Grozny, which earlier that year had endured the massacre of at least 60 of its citizens by Russian soldiers. He then traveled north, above the Arctic Circle, to the heavily polluted industrial city of Norilsk, originally a labor camp and now "a showcase for the ravages of unbridled capitalism," where descendants of the prisoners still mine for precious metals. Finally, he went west to St. Petersburg, "a den of thieves and compromised politicians" whose much-heralded revival is largely unrealized and where the people are still haunted by the assassination in 1998 of Galina Vasilievna Starovoitova, the country's leading liberal. After talking to scores of people-from survivors of the Aldy massacre to a harrowed Russian lieutenant colonel who runs the body-collection point closest to the Chechen battleground-Meier paints in this heartbreaking book a devastating picture of contemporary life in a country where, as one man put it, people have "lived like the lowest dogs for more than eighty years." Maps and photos not seen by PW.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Meier reported on Russia in the late 1990s for the newsweekly Time and ventured to the geographical limits of the gigantic country. His destinations frame the reflective reportage he offers here. His narrative contains a considerable amount of literary allusion, and in the case of Chekhov, he overtly retraces that writer's famed trip to the island of Sakhalin. What Meier encounters there, as well as in his voyage down the Yenisei River to the forbidding Arctic city of Norilsk ("a Pompeii of Stalinism"), is the legacy of the gulag. Meier spares no detail of the country's physical dilapidation and also probes the attitudes of Russians toward the tough conditions of their lives. Nostalgia for the communist system remains prominent, even among some victimized by it, a recurring paradox among the author's many insights about contemporary Russia. These emerge, too, in his chronicle of Chechnya (where he investigated a massacre) and in his accounts of mobsters and liberals in St. Petersburg. In Meier, Russophiles have a kindred spirit who mirrors their own fascination with the vast and troubled country. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top customer reviews
The chapters on Norilsk and Saint Petersburg I felt were overall the best: The description of the river cruise to Norilsk was probably the best writing altogether in the book and is not to be missed, but most of the book really shines. The chapter on Chechnya is expectedly depressing and spends too much time and effort rehashing just how brutal the conflict there was—a valid point but not one that needs to be drilled in so constantly—and not quite enough time looking at the roots of the conflict and the aspects of various battles. It's clear the author wishes to command our attention to the violence, but once that's been done, he could have spent more effort on getting further into the nuances of the war because he does obviously have the understanding of the topic to do so. I also would have liked more description of place—especially in the case of Norilsk. He does this very well in speaking of the river cruise, but doesn't furnish Norilsk itself with the same benefit despite a stated desire to see its industrial landscape. The chapter on Saint Petersburg however contains both fine descriptions of the city and great exploration of the woes of contemporary Russian politics and corruption woven into the examination of the city itself. Very fine writing there and a great understanding of Russia at the early years of Putin's tenure.
Again, there are some flaws but overall it's five stars, maybe six if I could give it an extra one. I write mainly about Russia and the Balkans myself, I read fluent Russian, and I know what's going on in Russian politics and yet I learned plenty from this book. I also gained a lot of insight of how to construct narratives of place tied into explorations of politics from Meier's efforts here. If you want to understand Russia better, I can think of no better a place to start.
The book chronicles his journey's through the "four corners" or Russia, Chechnya, Norilsk in Siberia, Vladivostok in the far East and St. Petersburg, while he uses Moscow as a sort of base from where his travels start. Meier highlights a Russia in decay, a Russia asking itself why it can't be great like Western countries, and a Russia mired in organized crimed and trafficking of all kinds. Thankfully while chronicling the miseries around him, Meier keeps the tone from getting too miserable by highlighting the few acts of kindness and generosity he comes across.
While the book is a travelogue of sorts, it has an undercurrent of trying to explain what created the atmosphere the allowed the slaughter of innocent civilians by Russian contract soldiers in the town of Aldy in Chechnya. Meier uses this event as a sort of way to frame Russia's ills and as a possible way to understand the country. As a result, while engaging, this aspect of the book doesn't gel with the Norilsk or Vladivostok sections of the books, making it seem like its two books combined as one.
To further compound issues, numerous anecdotes make keeping track of (already long and similar) Russian names hard, and acronyms are often introduced without being clearly defined. Ultimately, I had to abandon keeping track of individual people and instead just looked at their general experiences to understand Russia. Perhaps its telling that I don't feel it too greatly detracted from the book.
This is an engaging read, with great content, but the uneven writing keeps what could have been an amazing book just a good one. As an introduction to the new Russia this book gets the job done, but perhaps there are better ones out there.