Jo Durden-Smith went to Leningrad in 1989 to do an article for a travel magazine. He become involved in the heady first days of glasnost. He captures the exciting, sometimes frightening period of a totalitarian culture that is gradually opening up. The KGB is till actively following foreigners and intimidating Soviet citizens who consort with them, but people are becoming bolder. One of Durden- Smith’s Russian friends actually tells off a KGB agent, who is making the lives of Swedish filmmakers in the city troublesome.
Durden-Smith evokes the sense of an inquisitive visitor tentatively negotiating the labyrinth of a mysterious and forbidding but vibrant society. He admirably conveys his shock at the way people have to live and how often he is caught off-guard, not realizing how intricately people have to plan in order to garner some modicum of freedom. He is properly modest about what he can learn from each incident but also bracingly honest in expressing his feelings—such as his outrage that Soviet men do so little to help their women, who stand in long lines for food and do innumerable tasks that make daily life tolerable.
Perhaps it is the intensity of his learning experience that stimulates Durden-Smith to stay in Russia, settling in Leningrad with a lover and a baby daughter. Leningrad is a city that has almost too much history; its architecture is like a museum piece. It’s people bear the terrible burden of a bloody past, but that is also what makes their struggle so precious to him. It is why he dedicates a good part of his life to witnessing their revival, which is at once so problematic and so inevitable.