Book Club: Russian Journal

Hey, I’m really sorry, but we’re not going to do The Black Swan this week like I promised. I hadn’t quite finished it when our things were stolen, so I’ve ordered a new copy and now we wait. I hope that’s okay. I promise to come back to it. We’re going to skip ahead to the next week’s book, Andrea Lee’s excellent Russian Journal.

Out of print, so get it used!

I fell in love with Andrea Lee‘s work via the New Yorker fiction podcast— she’s very funny, very smart, and has a lot of interesting life experiences. Russian Journal is a collection of journal entries from the year she spent behind the Iron Curtain in 1978 with her former husband, a scholar of Russian politics. 

I’m a little too young to remember the Cold War much at all, but I feel like I don’t know much about what life was like in the Soviet Union during those years, and there are precious few accounts of it available to Americans. I was surprised to learn that things were at once much better and much worse than I thought there, but that’s not really the reason you should read this book. 

Lee captures her day-to-day experiences as they happen, without an agenda or to prove something specific about what the USSR was like. She made friends in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, she got a lot of weird looks from peasants unaccustomed to seeing Americans (much less black Americans), and she ate and drank and slept and lived among unremarkable people. That’s really…rare. Memoirs during times of strife sometimes fall victim to editing– when remembering these times later, everything seems more urgent and more personal, like your own experience must surely have been touched by the hands that shaped the history unfolding around you.

But really, they didn’t. You didn’t know what was going on or when it was going to end, and you probably weren’t palling around with the president or anything. It’s refreshing to see a memoir that’s about eating terrible cafeteria food and sitting in your friends’ living rooms drinking brandy rather than about the time your grandmother hung out with Jenny Lind. 

If this sounds like I’m saying this book is boring, I’m not. It’s anything but. I don’t know anything about Georgian peasants or the “party stores” or American-style Communist rock music. It was great to get a peak into that world. As foreigners, the Lees got preferential treatment, to be clear, but they were a lot closer than you and I will ever be to “getting it.”

So pick it up! Let me know what you think. Do I have any Russian readers? Do you have interesting stories from behind the Iron Curtain? 

Next week, in honor of National Poetry Month, I’m going to be reading this. Want to join me? 


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