Review: Where Bears Roam the Streets

I’ve done it. I’ve finally done it. I’ve found a five-star 2000s Russia travel memoir.

It took a while to get here. Regular readers of this blog may recall long ago when I chastised One Steppe Beyond for its blandness and insensitivity, made mincemeat of Midnight in Siberia for its “holier-than-thou” attitude, and sighed at Lost and Found in Russia‘s appeal to the ages-old “irrational, Wild East”. Thankfully, none of those irritating travelogue tropes are present in Jeff Parker’s Where Bears Roam the Streets.

Where Bears Roam the Streets chronicles Parker’s experiences living in and traveling through Russia in 2008 and 2009. Alongside his close Russian friend, a draft-dodging barkeep named Igor, Parker shows a country in transition, with many of its younger citizens without a clear sense of direction, or even hope of finding one in their lifetimes. Colorful characters, remarkable scenery and hilarious encounters with locals all serve as foils to the more serious themes of people left struggling to survive in a society mired in corruption, economic trouble and uncertainty about the future.

Against such a backdrop of crisis and current Western animosity toward the Russian leadership, it’s easy for a Russia travelogue to take on a patronizing tone toward Russians, as David Greene ostensibly did in the aforementioned Midnight in Siberia. However, Parker treats his Russian characters with respect, curiosity and even admiration. He comes to Russia with an open mind, a genuine desire to find out what makes Russians tick. He beats neither the reader nor the people he meets in Russia over the head with his Western values. Parker’s friendship with Igor, unlike Greene’s friendship with Sergei in Midnight in Siberia, is strong and genuine. While Parker’s observations on Russian culture and politics only scratch the surface, it’s his adventures with Igor that make the book enjoyable. They include a long train ride from Moscow to Lake Baikal, shooting paintball with strangers in the middle of nowhere, conversations with former military men about the Chechen War, trips to the banya, and copious amounts of beer. Parker demonstrates his skill as a teacher, explaining love, conflicts, crises, and moving forward in Russia in way that is both hilarious and heartbreaking.

While the story is great, the book’s structure isn’t exactly on par. It seems that Parker attempted to explore/explain so much about post-Soviet Russia in this relatively short book at the expense of the writing. Often the writing gets in the way of his ideas. I had to go back and reread a few sentences to get their meaning. The overall structure of the story is disjointed and jumps back and forth between times and places, which may be confusing for some readers. I believe Where Bears Roam could have benefited from a stronger structure or some more editing. However, its flaws still don’t undermine what is otherwise a superb travel memoir.

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In a long-ago review, I argued that not only do travelogues have the power to expose us to the diversity of world culture, but the power to foster greater understanding between nations and peoples. Sometimes the task falls to the everymen, the travelers, to succeed where blinkered scholars and journalists have failed. I feel this is especially the case during the current conflict with Russia.  What we need isn’t a book that tells us what we want to hear, or affirms that all our worst nightmares are 100 percent true; that assures us our current policy is the right one, or claims that there is absolutely nothing redeeming about That Country. We’ve had enough of those. What we need is a book written with respect and a true will to understand, that accepts Russia for what it is but is still unafraid to ask ugly questions; that shows post-Soviet life in both its simplicity and complexity, and reminds us that our “sworn enemies” are human too, as much as our policymakers pretend it’s not so. In that regard, Where Bears Roam the Streets is as good a travelogue as they come.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Where Bears Roam the Streets by Jeff Parker. Pub. 2014 by HarperCollins Publishers. Hardcover, 350 pages. ISBN13: 9781554683819

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8 comments

  1. So, the proverbial riddle wrapped in a mystery etc, whatever, is solved at last and we can breathe a sigh of relief?
    But seriously, in my opinion, “a lack of understanding who you’re up against” is not all incidental, but is a legitimate consequence of the original goal setting.
    Since when your goal is to impose your will on others, you may not be inclined to ask yourself about what they think, until you get into a real trouble.
    From a psychological point of view a desire to destroy others rather than understand is a simple solution to gnoseological problem caused by the very existence of “others”, different than you, not sharing your “values” etc thus posing a possible threat to your well-being.
    This is a very straightforward strategy which does not work against a sophisticated opponent. However if you use a more nuanced approach, and take the trouble to comprehend his deep motives, that becomes risky, because deep understanding requires self-identification with the object. Imagine a sniper observing an enemy through the optical sight. If he will think about the target as a human, a man who has a wife and kids, he probably won’t be able to kill him. So isn’t it safer to just ignore those subtleties? Because if you start thinking what you are fighting for, it may turn out that those lofty ideals and values are mere someone’s greed, egoism and ignorance.

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    • ‘So, the proverbial riddle wrapped in a mystery etc, whatever, is solved at last and we can breathe a sigh of relief?’
      Exactly where in the review did I suggest this book was the IT resource to understanding Russia? Please do tell, since it seems I need to revise the review and make my argument more clear. I wasn’t claiming that Where Bears Roam solved the aforementioned riddle wrapped inside a mystery. I don’t think any single book will. But when you compare Where Bears Roam to other recent Western travelogues, in which the authors go on the same search for the “Real Russia” but are never able to step outside their superiority complex/ideological bounds, this book’s pretty good. I was relieved to find that someone was still trying.
      Other than that, I can agree with pretty much everything you said. In this review I’m operating under the assumption – right or wrong – that we, the people, don’t (and shouldn’t) always support the policies of our government, even when it claims to act in our name. It’s possible that the start of such antagonistic Russia policy would’ve been met with more resistance if had been greater understanding of Russia among the general public.
      It’s the phrasing of that one sentence – the “who you’re up against”. I need to fix it.

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  2. J.T.

    I should apologize for the first paragraph. I admit it was too strongly worded. Probably that was the reason why you took it so seriously. My point is that there is no riddle at all. And all the talk of mysteries is just a cheap excuse intended to disguise a simple lack of interest or deliberate policy. It is obvious that neither you nor the author of the book can be blamed for this. From your review I just have an impression that the author emphasizes too much the enigmatic and mystic character of things related to Russia. In my opinion this is a wrong direction. I have not read the book yet, that is just my impression.

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    • It’s okay. I should apologize too for the response. There’s actually very little of the “mystical, unknowable Russia” in this book, in my opinion. Most of it is just a dude traveling around Russia with his friend, doing and seeing relatively mundane things. If you want to read a modern book that really wants you to believe in Enigmatic Russia, see Lost and Found in Russia.

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  3. OK.
    How are your troubles with the computer? Did you find the missing files? I’m asking because I’m worried about the fate of your review of Vadim Smolensky’s Gaijin Notes and your other reviews.

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    • Funny you asked – I started up my laptop this morning and found that Gaijin Notes review and Fardwor Russia notes are back. All the other files are still missing. It’s okay though. New Cold War and Russia’s Unfinished Revolution were lousy reviews anyway and I can just rewrite them.

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  4. As for the missing files my guess is that you accidentally moved them to a wrong place. Anyway that looks strange. Viruses sometimes can perform such tricks.

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