Russia today seems very far from the country I grew up with as an international ogre on the TV news, the Soviet Union or USSR. After all, the Wall fell in 1989, already 23 years ago. The Soviet Union
dissolved in 1991, 21 years ago. It is mostly in the memories of those over 40 years old that crossing behind the Iron Curtain was an exotic, even inexplicable adventure.
In the spring of 1971 I left my high school teaching job several weeks early to join the second Lawrence University Slavic Trip. This three month long camping trip through the Soviet Union, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Yugoslavia (I left to go to graduate school at Cornell before the trip concluded in Hungary and Czechoslovakia) has stood as a formative event in my life. For the first time I was outside of the US and definitively in foreign cultures.
Now we have Russia in Private (Amazon link) by Richard Yatzeck. Professor Yatzeck suffered through my presence in his Russian literature courses at Lawrence University for four years. More importantly here he also participated in 9 visits between 1961 and 1997. He calculates that cumulatively he has spent three years in the Soviet Union then Russia.
The structure of the book is loosely chronological from his 1961-62 years of study at Moscow State University (the Harvard of Russia) through camping trips with undergraduates to a final stint at semesters abroad in 1997 in Krasnodar. The central content is really the particular world views of Russians in their public and private lives.
Since there is more continuity in human affairs than not, this book is an excellent introduction to some of the driving elements in the current Russia. It is not a psycho-sociological academic exercise. Whatever didactic goals there might be, the book moves forward with many well told anecdotes and observations of the personal and the private as well as the day-to-day.
One of the treats of Yatzeck’s book for me is the opportunity to revisit George Smalley. George was passionate, sometimes about matters that seemed a bit mysterious to a college-age student. He worked phenomenally hard. He demanded hard work in return and it was difficult not to reciprocate. His language teaching methodology, based in Prague school linguistics (think Russian linguist Nikolay Trubetskoy and the Russian-born American linguist Roman Jakobson), was a miracle of clarity and power. Above all George was a wild and crazy guy.
Who else would invite you in for your private tutorials in Russian with cigarettes burning in both hands, wave you to your seat across from the over flowing ash trays and announce, “You have parachuted into Karaganda. You’ve been arrested and are now being interrogated by the local police.”
Dick Yatzeck’s book inspired a flood of memories and comments from me. The 6,000 word letter I tapped out is available for download here (PDF).