Thursday, April 02, 2009

Book Review: Moscow Stories, by Loren R. Graham

Here's a great book: Moscow Stories, by Loren R. Graham. I saw this one sitting on a featured shelf at the library and decided to take it home, even though I had never heard of it before and didn't know anything about it.

It turns out that if I were more with it, I probably would have already known who Mr. Graham is. As it was, I thought he was just some random guy who had lived in Russia for a while and decided to write a book about it. Not so. He is one of the premiere (if not the premiere) historians of Soviet science in the world and in Moscow Stories, he has written an insightful, unique, and widely encompassing account of the mundane and the extraordinary in both Soviet and post-Soviet Moscow.

There are several features of Moscow Stories that set it apart from the rank and file memoir. First and foremost, it is not a memoir of the author's experiences in his specific field. So if you're not interested in the history of Soviet science, it's not a problem here. (If you are interested in Soviet science, however, I believe that Mr. Graham has written plenty of books in that field, too.) Rather, Moscow Stories is a collection of anecdotes about the everyday and amazing experiences of the author during his time in that city - in other words, it's about the things that happened to him while he was carrying out the work and research that brought him there in the first place.

Another unique aspect of Moscow Stories is its tone. Mr. Graham writes concisely and in an unassuming way; he tells stories of meetings with Soviet leaders in the same matter-of-fact manner as when writing about being a spectator at a parade. For this reason, the book seemed slightly dry to me at first. However, once I was into it, I appreciated the clarity and straightforwardness of his writing style.

Finally, Moscow Stories is exceptional on the basis of its content alone. I have only vague childhood memories of the existence of the USSR, which is why I find watching movies like Dr. Zhivago to be so instructive in learning about America's perception of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Having lived in Moscow after the fall of the Soviet Union, I find the Soviet days of that city to be something of a mysterious black box: I could see reminders and hints of it everywhere, but there seemed to be no way for me to put all the pieces together into a cohesive picture of the whole. Moscow Stories is a brilliantly illuminating account of exactly what I was looking for all that time. It is not a story of grand historic happenings with far-reaching consequences; rather, it is the story of the people who happened to be living in Russia while those events took place. Sometimes, those people were instrumental in bringing about those historic changes. However, that is not Mr. Graham's point in telling us about them.

For example, rather than tell us all the finer details of the circumstances and people that engineered the collapse of the Soviet Union, information that could be found in many other (interesting) books that have already been written, Mr. Graham tells us about how during that exact period of time, he fell deathly ill in Moscow and had to be rushed to the hospital to be saved by Soviet doctors. In doing so, he ended up being the first private patient of the Kremlin Hospital, and his experiences throughout that ordeal illustrate the effects of the breakdown of Communism.

Even though I think most anyone with even a cursory interest in travel, foreign cultures, or Soviet issues would really enjoy reading this book, I'll allow for the possibility that I loved it so much just for having lived in Moscow. So I'll recommend it to you on the basis of your interest in the following, in ascending order. I think you'll like Moscow Stories if you are interested in foreign countries, especially countries very different from America, stories of foreigners living abroad, stories about the Soviet Union, and finally, stories that take place specifically in Moscow. A bonus is if you're interested in the Russian language at all - Mr. Graham throws in a few Russian language phrase equivalents here and there, which I found to be a neat little bonus feature.

Whatever your interests are, Moscow Stories is a good read. It is often funny, sometimes sad, but always a fascinating and instructive account of both Soviet and post-Soviet Moscow.

3 comments:

Scotty P said...

Great review. You've articulated brilliantly the same feelings I have had about the inability to get an accurate feel for what living in Russia during Soviet times would have been like. I'm always on the lookout for bits of Soviet popular culture (among other things) to at least attempt to enhance my understanding of that life; I intend to read this book to further that effort.

Susanne said...

Sounds really interesting! Another book to add to my to-read list. Thanks!! I greatly enjoy your book reviews.

Sarah Rose Evans said...

I've read War and Peace a couple of times and always walk away with a resolution to learn more about Russia and its history; this looks like a good way to get a sense of modern Russia.

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