I first heard about Lenin Lives Next Door while browsing the Literature section on Russia Beyond the Headlines, and the book really stood out to me not only because of its cover, but because of its premise. I love any good expat life story, especially those that have to do with 21st century* Russia.
However, the life that the author Jennifer Eremeeva leads while in Russia is very far removed from any life I would care to know. She lives very well – far better than her average Russian counterparts. She can afford a personal driver and a home in a gated community. She’s able to send her Russian-American daughter Velvet to an international school and horseback-riding lessons. Most of this book seems like a reality show: “Rich People’s Problems: Moscow”. Or maybe it’s Sex and the City? Eremeeva b*****s and moans about her first world problems; such as how to get the contractors to leave or arguing with her Handsome Russian Husband over glassing in the balcony at their apartment. Lots of brand-name-dropping too. She seems particularly determined to show how wealthy and privileged she is to the reader. I couldn’t relate to this lifestyle in the slightest, in particular because Eremeeva doesn’t seem to realize how out-of-the-ordinary her lifestyle is in comparison to that of the common person in Moscow (let alone to that of a lowly prole like me).
Hovering around the edge of writing is the author’s seemingly patronizing attitude toward ordinary Russians and their beliefs. Eremeeva’s sarcasm is at times off-putting and borders on nasty. And always she seems to hold her compatriots at arm’s length:
Russians pride themselves on their legendary hospitality, but whenever I stagger off the ten-hour flight from New York, I never seem to see the smiling, flaxen-haired Slavic beauty in national dress offering me the traditional symbol of welcome… instead, a thirteen-year-old passport control guy with pitted acne and a dull green uniform scrutinizes me unsmilingly from behind a smeared bulletproof window just long enough to make me feel like I actually might have leprosy.
The fact of the matter is, and no amount of Chekhov will convince me otherwise, the whole dacha thing is a well-oiled machine designed to keep indentured service for females alive and well in twenty-first-century Russia.
Really, absolutely nothing gets the juices flowing in Russia like a full-scale outside threat. Preferably military, but in a pinch the Eurovision song contest will do. Produce a clear and present danger to perceived Russian supremacy, and suddenly Russians go all organized, united and efficient. It’s bizarre. […] In the absence of modern-day Mongols, Napoleon, or the Third Reich, Russia can always fall back on her steadfast enemy, the United States of America. Every Russian knows that the Americans are hell-bent on staging democratic revolutions in Russia’s natural vassal states like Bosnia and Ukraine to ensure the global domination of its fast-food market.
Elenas are the Eeyores of Russian women. They moan and they groan and they almost never stop complaining. Tasks given to a Lena will be sloppy, of unacceptable quality […] Olgas are awful. A guttural name for the battering ram of Russian womanhood. Nothing good in my life ever came of an Olga with the possible exception of one very cool Pilates instructor […] Marina means “of the sea”, very apt for women who feel they inhabit a separate realm from the rest of us mere mortals.
I feel sorry for some of the Russians she “observed” and wrote about. Let’s hope they have a good sense of humor.
Okay, so I didn’t like the pretentious narrator, but maybe I’d bond with some of the side characters, right? Wrong. The supporting characters are more like over-the-top caricatures of people I don’t actually care about or wouldn’t actually want to know. There’s the author’s Russian husband and daughter (they’re…okay), a gay Venezuelan interior designer, a chain-smoking manager, American corporate wives, other expat employees, book club/embassy socialites, and Radio Magellan Dude, whoever he is. They all live, gossip and quarrel in their little expat bubble. I simply couldn’t relate to any of them or any of the other rich and powerful people in the book.
I wanted to hear about LIFE in post-Soviet Russia, not so much about the office politics and the socialites at the embassies and the expat ladies’ book club. There were many times in the book, especially in chapter three, where there was simply too much detail about the story within the expat community the author was a part of. While all the gossip may seem entertaining to some, for me it got tiresome.
Now, there were some things I liked about this book. The author has her own fluid, sarcastic and witty writing style. The writing itself is great, and once you remove the author and her over-the-top friends from from the equation, there were actually a few parts of the book I enjoyed. The chapters about the Russian approach to medicine and the discussion about Defenders of the Fatherland were fun and informative, and a welcome respite from the eye-rolling I was doing for much of the rest of the book.
But that’s just how I feel. This book certainly has an audience and an appeal, I just don’t fit into that group. I’ve read the author’s blog before and I think it’s pretty good (at least the pre-2014 writing). The posts there seem to be more like observations of everyday life in Russia than the stuff in this book, and I’m a little disappointed the book didn’t live up to the standard set by the blog.
Potential readers: if you ask me, and no one ever, ever does, I’d recommend skipping this one.
Lenin Lives Next Door: Marriage, Martinis and Mayhem in Moscow by Jennifer Eremeeva. Pub. 2014 by Small Batch Books. Hardcover, 320 pages. ISBN13:9781937650315
Final Note: I can only imagine how much better a book like this (expat story) would be if someone like the Moscow Exile had written it.
*I make this distinction because there are a plethora of books about expat adventures in 1990s Russia. Many of which are indistinguishable.