INSIDE RUSSIA TODAY: A SERF’S A SERF, FOR ALL THAT
INSIDE RUSSIA TODAY: A SERF’S A SERF, FOR ALL THAT
“Let it be clearly understood,” Rudyard Kipling wrote, “that the Russian is a delightful person till he tucks in his shirt.” Sadly, most visitors to the Soviet Union never get past the tucked-in shirt brigade: the opaque and sanitized official Russians who are cleared to deal with foreigners. Hedrick Smith outflanked them all. Sent to Moscow as the New York Times Bureau Chief from 1971-74 he mounted a relentless assault on what he called the cordon sanitaire placed around Moscow’s foreign community. Aided by a decent command of Russian and a card-file memory, he set out to discover how ordinary people get by in the workers’ paradise.
Not very happily. “Before going to Russia,” writes Smith, “I had set aside the myth of the classless society but I was still taken aback the first time I heard Russians talking about rich Communists.” The classless society turns out to have refined the perquisites of rank and privilege with an ingenuity that the Romanovs might have envied. Country homes, cars, guesthouses and servants are distributed by a department of the Party Central Committee. The better hospitals are reserved for the chosen as is one lane of Moscow’s broad streets down which their large limousines can be driven unimpeded by tiresome traffic regulations. Moscow motorists keep valuable windshield wipers locked in glove compartments when they leave their cars unattended. If most doctors in the USSR are female, it’s not women’s lib but the fact that doctors are surprisingly low on the pecking order of status and salary. Soviet physicists get news of Western scientific breakthroughs only if the censor finds nothing subversive in psi-meson particles.
What saves the book from unrelenting grimness is Smith’s evident love of Russia and her people. As he chronicles the dayto-day problems facing a Russian family, he makes it possible for North American readers to identify with the lives of a people as different from us as a rubachka is from a drip-dry shirt. His book is rich in anecdote and detail, filled with remarkable glimpses of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Nadezhda Mandelshtam, Leonid Brezhnev and other winners and losers in today’s Russian roulette.
What is most striking about Smith’s excellent account of life in the Soviet Union is that it describes a society that has kept all of the vices of Czarist Russia while retaining hardly any of its virtues. Power and wealth remain concentrated in the hands
of a few, but literature and art, which flourished under the monarchy, have been sterilized. There is no country in the world with Russia’s natural resources and industrialization in which the wealth of the land has done so little for the living standards of the people. The new Russia that has emerged from the forge of Stalin’s terror resembles nothing so much as ancient Russia. The people seem to accept privilege, corruption, autocracy and inefficiency with the same patience today as they did under the Czars. The Kremlin may be lit by electricity and defended by missiles, but the spirit within belongs to the old Muscovite princes. BARBARA AMIEL
The guerrilla’s cuckold’s tale
MY SEARCH FOR PATTY HEARST by Steven Weed (General Publishing, $10)
The Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped Patty Hearst, robbed banks and took to spraying cyanide bullets around. But one of their sins was unintentional. They gave us Steven Weed as an author. Weed was the fiance Patty left behind when the SLA dragged her from the Berkeley, California, apartment they shared. His book covers the months he spent looking for explanations of (1) Patty’s apparent conversion to terrorism and (2) her subsequent rejection of him. Readers who plough through its 343 pages may be able to help him with question number two.
Weed, as his book reveals, was a somewhat limp youth. His undistinguished career at Princeton was highlighted by crosscountry drug-dealing trips and the painting of his room with Day-Glo. After graduation he chose to teach math at a fashionable private school for girls. The under-17 set was mad for him: a week after his first tutorial with Patty they went to bed. (First tutorial but not first love: even then Patty had a weakness for the proletariat, having bedded the school janitor at 14.) By the time of the kidnapping Patty and Steve were enrolled at UCLA. Their minds were a confused scramble of current ideas and Middle America clichés. Responsibility meant smoking marijuana once a week and taking LSD only with mature caution.
In fact Weed had not a single idea or consistent plan of action to understand or help Patty after her abduction. His “search” consisted of lounging around her parents’ home and devising new ways to give Hearst money to radical groups. The ■ book’s value lies in its description of the incredible subculture that surfaced when Randolph Hearst decided to bargain for
his daughter with food and cash. People were drawn to money and notoriety with an alacrity that was truly American: bureaucrats from Washington, convicts’ committees, ministers, social workers and even Sara Jane Moore. Like flies round a garbage heap they all wanted their piece of rotting meat. Even listless Steven Weed started buzzing around the compost. Four months after the kidnapping he signed a six-figure contract that called for Weed and professional journalist Roger Rapoport to write a book on the abduction. After Rapoport turned in nine chapters Weed checked out of the project and launched complicated legal proceedings to prevent publication of the material. According to Rapoport the manuscript was “too personal” for Weed’s taste.
Now Weed has the book which (he thinks) puts him in a better light. It’s worth nothing that he dedicates it to a long list of radicals (without whose muddled ideas there might have been no Symbionese Liberation Army) and to his three attorneys “without whom,” Weed writes, “this book could never have been written.” Unlike the radicals, they turned a muddled idea into a commercial property. BARBARA AMIEL
Sons of toil and trouble
THE LOST SALT GIFT OF BLOOD
by Alistair MacLeod (McClelland and Stewart, $8.95)
A Nova Scotian grandmother has just been lecturing her son who has come to visit from Montreal. “It seems,” she concludes, “that we can only stay forever if we stay right here .. . because in the end that’s all there is—just staying.” This gloomy homily hovers over Alistair MacLeod’s short stories like an Atlantic fog. His people are the victims of depressed fishing and
mining communities in the Maritimes condemned to playing Russian roulette with nature. Of the seven stories that make up The Last Salt Gift Of Blood, all but one is recounted in the first person by sons trying to sort out their feelings for their parents and their plans for the future (an occupation that gives the younger narrators a rather pietistic, even Victorian air). They resent their practical mothers and identify strongly with their fathers, men who have been castrated in their struggle to wrest a livelihood from exhausted coal seams and the unpredictable ocean.
Although MacLeod’s sons are prepared to renounce their own dreams to help out their dads, they inevitably leave home to seek a better life. Those who venture onto the mainland are twice cursed: not only wrenched from their families but thrust into the plastic urban nightmare of “adjusted thermostats and methodic Musak.” One becomes a henpecked lawyer in Montreal, another teaches in the “over-urbanized high schools” of Burlington and Don Mills, Ontario; yet another practises upward mobility as a professor at a “great Midwestern university”—in the tradition of MacLeod himself whose career spans both mining and teaching English at the University of Windsor.
Given MacLeod’s sanctimonious contempt for life in the big cities it is not surprising that his vision worked itself out in a circle. It is left to the third generation to attempt to return to their rocky birthplace and, like salmon swimming upstream, a few grandsons manage to make it back to Nova Scotia where they reunite with their grandparents. But to MacLeod’s credit the return is always seen as fraught with ambivalence and pain. This at least frees his writing from sentimentality if not from depression. ADELE FREEDMAN
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