Non-Fiction

Post-post-glasnost

Russia Between Yesterday And Tomorrow
Marika Pruska-carroll

Vehicule Press
$22.95
paper
220pp
1-55065-173-0

In this revised and expanded edition of a book first published in 1995, Marika Pruska-Carroll presents a cross-section of Russian citizens speaking candidly, often passionately, about their lives in both the communist and post-communist eras.

Pruska-Carroll, who teaches Russian politics at Concordia University and is fluent in the language, made three trips to Russia in the early 1990s. Anxious for an update, she returned on several occasions in the past couple of years. Although she lined up appointments with a few prominent politicians and social activists, she spent most of her time wandering around cities, towns, and villages, picking out “faces that looked open to conversation.” She taped over 150 interviews, asking questions on subjects as varied as “politics, religion, sex, and America.”

Weaving excerpts from transcripts with statistics and personal observations, the book creates a vivid portrait of a nation in turmoil – economically, morally, politically, and socially. Accompanying photographs also show a country torn between its own traditions and Western values, between poverty and wealth. “Money emerges as the major topic of nearly every Russian’s conversation,” Pruska-Carroll points out. “Younger people particularly are becoming increasingly obsessed with money and with the ways and means to make it.”

In communist Russia, there was a small elite of apparatchiks, or communist party authorities. Today there is still a small elite – “the new rich” – which includes both legitimate and black market entrepreneurs. “Under the communists,” recalls an affluent businessman, “we were all drowning in mediocrity…The free-market system rewards ability, independence, creativity and hard work. I’m all for it.”

Most Russians, however, have seen their standard of living decline in the transition to capitalism. As one of Pruska-Carroll’s interviewees complained: “The working man got a kick in the head.” The working woman did, too. At one point during the communist regime, 93 per cent of all able-bodied females in Russia were either employed or studying; today unemployment is high and women constitute 72 per cent of the jobless. “Things were never so hard for women as they are now,” in the opinion of a former cafeteria cook. “Women pay for all these changes, with their health, with their time, with their endless suffering. Look at our stores. Everywhere women…waiting in lines, carrying heavy bags.”

According to one female lawyer, “It is no longer safe on the streets or on the subway. Men are angry and frustrated. They drink more and take their frustrations out on women.” Pruska-Carroll describes how, in reaction to their plight, “women, mostly between the ages of thirty-three and forty-six, are organizing on an unprecedented scale” and are gaining political power in the Duma, or legislative assembly.

Elderly Russians, on the other hand, feel utterly powerless. As one retiree put it, “We, the old people, are humiliated and cast aside…Our pensions condemn us to starvation.” Before the reforms, another retiree says, Russians “were strong, we were were important, and we lived decently. We had law and order. Communism was better. Anything would be better than what we have now.”

Young Russians, of course, have never experienced communism. They show minimal interest in politics and intense interest in Western clothes, movies, and music. Nonetheless, Pruska-Carroll agrees with the assertion of one respondent that “the West will never succeed in remaking Russia into its own image.” As it forges a new identity as a democracy and copes with the problems that confront it, Russia, she believes, will remain “uniquely Russian.” mRb

Louise Abbott is the director of the award-winning documentary Nunaaluk: A Forgotten Story and the author of Eeyou Istchee: Land of the Cree.

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