Review of Susan Richards’ Lost and Found in Russia: Encounters in the Deep Heartland. I. B. Tauris 2009.
"We thought we were different, that when the Party lost power it would be fine. We thought we’d spend our time being free! We had no idea how much we’d all become products of the Soviet system," Igor interrupted. "We knew what we wanted freedom from. But not what we wanted it for." (p. 72)
This is one of many heartbreaking moments in Susan Richards’ fascinating narrative of the Russian people’s struggle to cope with the post-Soviet world. Richards follows her Russian friends’ life from 1992 till 2008. She opens up for the reader a Russia which is not Moscow or St. Petersburg but something else, often something difficult to understand, often unbearably painful and miserable. Richards’ courageous travels take her from towns along the Volga river to Siberia where she visits religious sects’ colonies in the middle of nowhere, on to Crimea and then to other parts of European Russia. At times she encountered hostility caused by her foreign accent.
Often the impression is of a collapsed society where people struggle daily the best they can. Richards reads a journalist friend’s diary and is stunned: "There it was, the raw matter of Anna’s daily struggle with despair, and the measure of her achievement. I once thought Anna might be depressive. No, her despair was a rational response to the rottenness around her. Never once had she complained to me. But her days were spent chronicling the corruption of this city, the bottomless greed of its high officials at the expense of the powerless." (p. 245)
Anna found solace in religion like so many Russians. She is a strong woman but her calm could break down: "… she suffered from the vulnerability of a person determined to remain true in a society where everything around her was crooked." (249)
Richards met many well-educated people who had simply got fed up with the miseries and indignities of daily life and were now looking for something more satisfactory, often in the deep countryside, building their own houses and planning to cultivate their own food. Many of them had dreams of eternal happiness. They wanted to live in harmony with the natural world. They wanted to start thinking of the meaning of life, liberated from the anxieties of a consumer society and the routine of working life.
Russia’s problems run deep. When the new president Dmitri Medvedev declared a campaign against corruption, its efficiency was questioned. Richards writes: "It was a good objective: a third of the country’s annual budget was being eaten up by corrupt officials, according to one official source. But how could such a campaign be effective without incriminating the very elite to which he belonged, and without rolling back the centralisation of the last eight years?" (p. 263)
During the economic boom fuelled by high oil prices, there were no signs of resources being allocated to create a welfare state. Richards met people who explained how the so-called "boom" had lifted the oil elite and those who serviced it on to another planet, leaving the rest of Russia behind.
Resentment of the West often surfaces. Its free market ideology has been seen as having brought harm to the Russians. Western criticism of Russian politics often hurts. Proud nationalism manifests itself by people pointing out how Europe needs Russian oil and gas. One of Richards’ friends said to her: "We may not be in great shape domestically. But we’ve got what it takes. We don’t need the West! It’s going to take us a generation or two to sort ourselves out, but we’re smart people — we’re on our way now!" (pp. 278-279)
Yet, Russia’s future direction is hard to forecast. Dreams of more freedom mix with more authoritarian sentiments and a reverential attitude towards the country’s rulers. The latter might be strengthened by the international financial crisis which will probably cause havoc in Russia as well. The least one can say is that the mood in Russia is extremely volatile. Whatever road Russia will take, it will have repercussions for the rest of the world.