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