“The teller of stories,” says Fernando Savater, “has always just arrived from a long journey during which he has experienced both marvels and terrors.” Andrea Lee’s Russian Journal is a traveler’s tale, with an intrinsic appeal that has not changed since the beginnings of literature: 2,500 years ago, a Greek traveler reported that in Egypt men urinated in a squatting position, rather than standing up.
In the era of the global village, Russia is still terra incognita. In 1971, Hedrick Smith went to Russia for a three-year stint as The New York Times Bureau Chief in Moscow. He used the time to travel as widely as the prestige of his position would permit, and thus was able to write the most comprehensive account of contemporary Russia now available, The Russians (1976). Yet he frankly admitted that vast sections of the country—and particularly the countryside—were closed to him, and that much of what he was permitted to see was clearly doctored.
Because Russia, seen from the West, is still mysterious, new books appear every year offering glimpses of everyday life there. Most of these “Russia-books” are quite ephemeral, repeating one another shamelessly, but there have been some of more lasting achievement: among these are Laurens Van der Post’s A View of All the Russias (1964) and Mihajlo Mihajlov’s Moscow Summer (1965). Now Andrea Lee’s Russian Journal must be added to this select company.
Andrea Lee was twenty-five, a Harvard graduate student in English (“thinking of becoming a writer,” the blurb says), when she went to Russia in 1978 with her husband, Tom, a Harvard doctoral candidate in Russian history. They were to spend eight months in Moscow, at Moscow State University, and two months—sandwiched in the middle of their stay—in Leningrad.
In Andrea Lee’s hands, the marvels and terrors of the archetypal traveler’s tale undergo a sea-change. The marvels become incongruities. There is a towering incongruity in her very first sentence: the main dormitory of Moscow State University, the Lees’s residence during most of their time in Russia, is a titanic illustration of “Stalin Gothic,” with a “daft excess of decoration that is a strange twentieth-century mixture of Babylonian, Corinthian, and Slavic. . . .”
The Lees’s escort (and stukach, official stool pigeon) upon arrival in Moscow is Grigorii, a journalism student already well on his way to becoming a perfect Party man. Soon he is lecturing the Lees on American history, and in particular on “the Great Barbecue—the turning point of the Reconstruction period. Don’t tell me you haven’t heard of it!” Yet this Party kandidat, when not denouncing America, is smacking his lips over the underwear ads in Andrea Lee’s copies of Vogue, and playing incessantly his “incredibly grainy third-hand recording” of Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You, Baby.”
Instead of terrors there are menacing undertones, an oppressive atmosphere. One Russian friend of the Lees was denounced to the KGB by the parents of his divorced wife . . . simply because they coveted his Moscow apartment. “Seryozha’s life was not shattered,” Lee says—“it had only been disrupted in a particularly degrading way.” Another friend, Volodya, tells them how he was arrested in the 1960’s with a circle of dissident young men like himself, workers revolutionized by Russian literature. After a week in Lubyanka prison he was released, told to stay out of politics and away from...
(The entire section is 1477 words.)