- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 10, 2002

BLACK EARTH CITY: WHEN RUSSIA RAN WILD(AND SO DID WE)
By Charlotte Hobson
Metropolitan/Henry Holt, $23, 210 pages

ALL THE CLEAN ONES ARE MARRIED, AND OTHER EVERDAY CALAMITIES IN MOSCOW
By Lori Cidylo
Academy Chicago, $23.95, 252 pages

Two young women, one English and the other American of Ukrainian background, traveled to Russia at about the same time and witnessed the fall of the Soviet Union and the tumultuous Yeltsin years of hyperinflation and budding capitalism that followed. Charlotte Hobson, from Southampton (U.K.), spent a student year at university in Voronezh, a provincial city whose population went through 200 days of front-line fighting during World War II.
The soil in the Voronezh region is remarkably fertile, reflected in the title of Miss Hobson's book, "Black Earth City." Her year there mainly was one of dormitory culture, short on privacy but vibrant and rich in, though not confined to, the company of Russian students and so learning of and empathetic to their states of mind. Miss Hobson's writing is elegant; thus on New Year's Eve:
"… we turned on the TV at midnight and watched the huge red hammer-and-sickle flag on the Kremlin being lowered against the dark sky. There was a moment's pause, and then the Russian tricolor was slowly raised in its place.
"The tyrants' surrender! It should have been a great moment, and yet the hammer and sickle looked so brave and bold in comparison with the dreary red, white, and blue stripes. We cheered, and then a pang of nostalgia silenced everyone. The imagery of their childhood was being laid aside … no one felt any sadness at the end of Party hegemony. The vision, though, was different."
Lori Cidylo witnessed the same historic event. Having met some Russian exchange students from Vladivostok who reported how much easier it was to be a journalist in the Soviet Union with Mikhail Gorbachev in power, she gave up her job on a small newspaper in Binghamton, N.Y. one assignment entailed traveling to another town to watch a mule dive into a swimming pool and took the plunge herself, going to Moscow as a freelancer with characteristically minimal encouragement from American newspaper editors regarding picking up stringer assignments.
Miss Cidylo embarked on her journey in the spirit of Charles Baudelaire's "gout du gouffre" (taste for the abyss), and against the odds she made a go of it, arriving three months after the failed coup against Mr. Gorbachev, landing a job in the English-language department of Tass and not returning home until 1997. The title of her book, "All the Clean Ones are Married," refers to the tendency of Russian men, before market capitalism caught up with them in the mid-'90s with deodorant and cologne, to go dirty and be proud of it. One cited saw it as "a gender thing."
Her book's title gives a more domestic attitude to her experience in the country and the aspects of Russian life that Miss Cidylo has written about. She does a live radio interview in which one of the first questions is a blunt "vy zamuzhem?" (are you married?). Russian women were marryng very young, often at 17 or 18, and anyone still single at 25 was at hazard of being ridiculed. At the same time, the point was not to have stayed married, which many didn't, but to have been married in the first place. Either way, romance does not feature largely in Miss Cidylo's report on her Moscow years.
Miss Hobson, in contrast, falls in love with her Mitya, and their affair is lovely to read about, and for the reader to share. Miss Cidylo finds other personal pleasures, none of which are easy. She goes out and rents herself apartments from the first of which she is summarily expelled when the owners get divorced and she succeeds in making a home for herself.
In the Soviet years, Russians' homes, such as they were (the housing problem always was acute), provided what little feeling of haven and safety there was to be had. Miss Cidylo's lucky break was finding "my Russian mother," a seamstress and upholsterer, who took the young American woman under her capacious Russian wing. Impossible decor and even worse furniture were made beautiful.
Miss Cidylo dealt with a broken refrigerator. She found a place to buy a toaster, and even ventured to a remote locale that would have intimidated most of us to purchase a washing machine.
She asks the man selling the machine, "How can I be sure that it works?" And his answer, "You can't," reminds the reader of the scene in John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" when the Joad family is shopping for a beat-up old car for the long trip to California. One of them asks whether it is guaranteed and the salesman says, it's guaranteed to be an automobile.
Miss Cidylo's writing can be cutesy at times, but while her prose lacks the sustained stylishness of Miss Hobson's she is very good at describing what it was like to live in Russia during changing times when the price of a gallon of milk went from something like $1.50 to $300 and, until the stabilizionation of the mid-'90s, people without access to U.S. dollars had a horrendous time staying afloat. She also does well in depicting the residue of the Soviet period in Russians' lives, and her reportage of civil upheaval is vivid.
Both writers are good at giving the reader a sense of weather and place. Miss Cidylo, in Moscow: "Spring. the sky is flushed a soft, cotton-candy pink. Birds are twittering, and the sweet fragrance of lilacs fill the air. Maria, an American friend, and I are walking to the metro. We stop. In front of us is a traffic policeman in a long blue coat." At the policeman's feet, what the women at first take to be a dog turns out to be a man lying in a pool of blood. "The policeman kicks him in the ribs. 'Come on, you,' he sneers, 'Get up!'" In Russia, evidently, life still is cheap.
Now here is Miss Hobson on the Easter service in Voronezh, the city where Osip Mandelstam wrote much of his best poetry in the grim shadow of Joseph Stalin's imminent wrath: "The doors of the church were flung open. We passed through them and began to circle the church. Once, twice, three times. Hundreds of feet shuffled through the slush and pushed it back until the earth was revealed. Night air, the deep, slow voices of the choir and the rattling censer.
"At last we gathered in front of the doors, where the bishop stood silent, surrounded by priests. The babushka beside me was weeping into her scarf."
Russia's paradoxical appeal the passion and the coldness, the astonishing rudeness and contrasting warmth and hospitality shines through both of these young writers' books.
Overarching all is the language itself. "Learning Russian is like falling in love," Miss Hobson's friend Rita Yurievna says. "To fall in love: vlyubit'sya. You take the verb to love, lyubit', and add the prefix v, meaning in, into. Then make it reflexive, because it is happening to you, isn't it. Not to anyone else."
Thanks to these two books, the experience of the new Russia is not denied "anyone else." Miss Cidylo sometimes writes as if for a women's magazine, and Miss Hobson's more polished prose is haunted by the sex- and vodka-saturated quality of her student year in Voronezh to which her subtitle, "When Russia Ran Wild (and So Did We)" honestly admits. Nevertheless both writers are well worth the reading, as I have tried to show. Together, they paint a picture of life in Russia during the nation's first years of democracy and market capitalism that is not quickly forgotten.



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