RUSSIA SPEAKS is a bold attempt to capture “the flash of lightning” that has illuminated the Soviet cultural landscape since the October revolution of 1917 through correlation of the experiences of half-a-dozen Soviet citizens. Beginning at a social gathering in a communal apartment at No. 6 Sretensky Boulevard in Moscow in 1988, the reader is introduced to Alyosha Polshakova, his wife, Lusya, and their friend, Mark, who indicates that his uncle Ilya, the old Stalinist, has stories to tell and will be in town the following day. The drab and filthy apartment building, decorated with the graffiti of ethnic fury ("Death to Kikes and Tartars"), becomes the work’s leitmotif for society under communism.
In the following chapter Lourie introduces four Russians who entered the Soviet period from widely differing backgrounds: Ilya Jaffee, a Jewish boy from Vitebsk; Ivan Vrachov, son of Kuban peasants; Margarita Zarudny, from a professional family; and Ruth Bonner, whose ancestors had been exiled to Siberia in the eighteenth century. Chapters on Civil War, the Terror, World War II, and other major periods of Soviet history allow these and other characters to reveal their roles and attitudes toward the twisted circumstances of life under totalitarian domination, their reminiscences loosely linked with historical narrative.
Lourie has succeeded admirably in portraying the debilitating fear and drudgery which has hovered over Soviet citizens throughout the twentieth century, and thus provides a basis for appreciating the fortitude of the people. As a glimpse, it is successful. However, as the author admits, it is not a sociologically balanced account, because the millions of dead cannot speak for themselves, some of the living would not talk, and others lied. As with most oral histories, one must wonder whether men like Ilya Jaffee might not have lied themselves, or selectively remembered their glory days.