Writings / Reviews: Reid McCarter

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Nonfiction Review

Where Bears Roam the Streets: A Russian Journal
by Jeff Parker
Toronto, ON: HarperCollins, 2014
272 pp. $29.99

“Every Russia story tends to fall into the stereotype of Russians are crazy! or Russians are scary! Once you’d spent time there, you could feel that these stereotypes were inadequate, but it was harder to say what it was about the place that made it so singular, that had fascinated centuries of Westerners, that had defined us in the West by being the opposite of whatever idea we had of ourselves.”

It seems important, especially amidst the continuing violence raging in Eastern Ukraine, to understand modern Russia. This is no easy task. Russia is a constantly changing nation, both politically and culturally, and filled with contradictions. It is a country with deeply embedded traditions that have managed to weather countless changes—the transition from proud empire to communist superpower to democratic federation within a single century. Throughout these decades of tremendous upheaval Russia has, paradoxically, maintained a basic national character while everything else about the country has changed shape dramatically. Trying to describe what this national character is, is of course, incredibly difficult. It’s the sort of work that historians, sociologists, and political theorists exhaust themselves hoping to accomplish. Where Bears Roam the Streets: A Russian Journal is Jeff Parker’s attempt to help Western readers make sense of an ever-changing nation the only way that is possible: by focusing on its people.

The autobiographical account of Parker’s years of travel within Russia is anchored by the author’s constant companion Igor, a man he spots drunkenly swimming the Griboyedov canal one evening in St. Petersburg and later shoots Russian billiards with. Their chance encounter forms the basis of a friendship that centres every one of Parker’s returns to the nation. Through Igor—a larger-than-life character whose often feels like a microcosm of the nation as a whole—Parker learns Russian customs, travels the land, and watches first-hand the effect that the country’s recent history has had on a single one of its citizens.

The book is composed of vignettes of post-perestroika Russian life, framed by the overarching story of Parker and Igor’s 2009 vacation across an unravelling nation. The global economic recession hit Russia hard and, as Where Bears Roam the Streets traces Igor’s transformation from successful cafe manager to yet another chronically underemployed adult, the reader is given glimpses into the plight of an entire generation of young Russians. Parker wisely spends as much time detailing the lack of financial opportunity plaguing modern Russia as he does in tracking the blight of endemic political corruption that is partly to blame for its severity. The book is set in the interstitial period between Vladimir Putin’s presidential terms, when the nation’s current leader acted as Prime Minister to his former campaign manager and First Deputy Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev. Putin and Medvedev’s Russia comes off as an even more chaotic place than Boris Yeltsin’s—a country where the scramble for newly privatized assets has been replaced with resurgent, militant nationalism and a system of bureaucratic corruption that appears completely unable to cope with economic disaster.

As Parker travels the country he spends time chronicling the victims of this era. Illuminating interviews with common people across the nation highlight the most pressing problems facing a population struggling to adjust to new government policies and old, long-enduring social issues. Where Bears Roam the Streets’ accounts of the precious few institutions dedicated to assisting men recovering from the brutality of Russia’s compulsory military service give valuable context to the human cost of the country’s frequent wars. Interviews with the administrators of the scarce women’s centres hoping to assist those suffering from the nation’s domestic abuse epidemic paint a similarly vital picture of a culture where modern law has failed to adequately address deeply rooted cultural misogyny. Parker’s depictions of these issues is as compelling as it is grim, recognizing that even as Russia takes new shapes on a grander, political scale, tragedy continues on a personal level. Things are continuing to change, sure, but whether these changes will result in a positive outcome for the most badly affected of the nation is impossible to tell.

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