Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lucid Sketches of an Elusive Russia

Ask your average foreigner here what draws him or her to Russia, and you are likely to see a cloud fall over his or her face. For although most outsiders would agree there is something special about this country, few can actually put it into words. Jo Durden-Smith is one who has succeeded. In his new book, "Russia: A Long Shot Romance," the British writer and filmmaker comes admirably close to defining the Russian soul. In a chronicle of his experiences first as a visitor and later as resident of this country (some of which have already been published in The Moscow Times in his weekly column, "Fate of a Land"), Durden-Smith ponders the laws and lurching rhythms of Russian society in an attempt to explain what it is that makes Russia both impenetrable and alluring. He does this in a narrative of some descriptive force, the kind that makes a reader pause in recognition and appreciation. "Everything imported into Russia has a tendency to turn into the opposite of itself," he warns of attempts to copy Western democracy and economics. At another point, he notes a "shining clarity" in some of the former dissidents he meets, "as if they've been burned clean by persecution." And on his first trip to Leningrad he notes the city as one of "excess born of insecurity: the gigantomania of a people who were making themselves up from scratch." It is observations like these that make Durden-Smith's book shine; the best parts, interestingly enough, are those that were probably toughest to write. Durden-Smith is at his finest describing the evolution of two films he worked on in the late 1980s, projects which led him to meet his future Russian wife. The first, a film on rock star Boris Grebenshchikov, fails miserably, he says, because its heavy-handed Hollywood proportions eclipse the singer's soulful, poetic, Russian side. Determined to define Russia for Western audiences, Durden-Smith fares better with his second project, a television film on Russian culture, but ultimately decides that to succeed he would need "a screen that was always split, two reels of film unfolding side by side: truth and lie, facade and background, past and present, morality and character." Durden-Smith's is the world of resurrected poets and lost painters, time-worn dachas and cozy book-lined apartments. Within two years of his first trip to Moscow as a curious filmmaker, he is immersed in Russian family and cultural life. Among his friends number pianist Nikolai Petrov and rock critic Artemy Troitsky. Durden-Smith not only painstakingly follows cultural developments in the waning years of perestroika, but is an avid participant. It is also with the air of a participant that he describes the struggles his friends and family face when they are confronted with shock therapy market reforms: his mother-in-law frets about her job and savings, while Mercedes-Benzes roll into Nikolina Gora, a dacha settlement where Durden-Smith, his wife, and baby daughter live among the cultural elite. While the detailed chronicle of his romance with his wife seems self-indulgent at first, later in the book it blends in nicely with his stories of societal change. Readers in Moscow will be delighted by Durden-Smith's tales, but perhaps distressed by an underlying tone which often promotes Durden-Smith as one of a very few who truly understands this country. The jacket cover emphasizes that Durden-Smith did not live in "one of the isolated city compounds to which most foreigners are assigned," a comment sure to bewilder that growing number of foreign residents who slog every day through dark urine-stenched entryways to their privately rented flats. Durden-Smith himself devotes the later pages of his book to a thorough condemnation of Western economists, whom he accuses of complicity in bankrupting Russian society and impoverishing average Russians. Some of his arguments are well-taken, to be sure, but he steps over the line by arguing that these economists "might have thought it was time to give a boost to the Mafias, since they were the only groups -- apart from the nomenklatura -- who understood the nature of capitalism." For a devoted student of Russian culture, the book also contains a startling number of misspelled Russian names and terms, whether by typographical or transliteration error. Durden-Smith refers several times to former dissident Len Karpinsky but consistently spells his first name Lem. He does no better with terms, using mnogo dietnaya semlya for mnogodyetnaya semya (family with multiple children). It's a shame, because such frequent mistakes detract from the authority of an otherwise fascinating book. "Russia: A Long Shot Romance" by Jo Durden-Smith is published in Britain by Century, London and in the United States by Knopf.