Seal of Outdatedness.
Have Personality Disorder, Will Rule Russia is the slim companion book to Jennifer Eremeeva’s memoir Lenin Lives Next Door. When writing Lenin Lives, Eremeeva worried that readers wouldn’t be familiar with numerous historical references she dropped throughout the book. So she compiled notes on Russian history, which eventually became so numerous that she turned them into Have Personality Disorder. As hinted in the preface, it’s meant to be like the CliffsNotes of Russian history, covering all the bases needed to understand Lenin Lives and the grand sweep of Russian history.
It’s not every day that I must open a review with a disclaimer. Not mine, but Eremeeva’s:
I make no claims to be anything more than an enthusiastic amateur historian and eyewitness to events in Russia for the past twenty years. This work is not intended to be a comprehensive history of Russia nor a work of scholarly research, and it should not be read as such. (Loc 123)
All righty then. Should I review this as a personal passion project or pedagogical effort? Or neither one nor the other but some synthesis of both? I’ll figure out how to circumvent this disclaimer somehow.
Not much can be said about Have Personality Disorder, Will Rule Russia except that it’s definitely Lenin Lives Lite. It has the same strengths and weaknesses as its parent book, the only difference being that Have Personality Disorder is much shorter. Let’s address the positives first. Stylistically speaking, the history guide retains the readability and lively, witty writing style of the original. Eremeeva is enthusiastic about sharing her passion for Russian history with readers and it shows. Her familiar brand of humor also graces each page, and some jokes actually score. But also present is Eremeeva’s off-putting sarcasm:
This is a significant event for all kinds of reasons, but primarily because it is the first and last time anyone in the Russian government ever admitted to being at fault. (calling of the Varangians, Loc 190)
And condescension toward Russians’ interpretations of their history:
When you suffer from general backwardness, it’s nice to be able to blame your lack of achievement on external forces. Sort of like, “I could have gone to Harvard if my ninth-grade geometry teacher hadn’t hated me.” (Russia under Mongol rule, Loc 224)
(True to Columbia form. But you didn’t hear that from me.)
While the author’s sarcasm and condescension had a place in her original, personal, expat memoir¹, in a history lesson they simply make her seem judgmental. If one is trying to be educational, such comments as the above are counterproductive and end up alienating some readers – some learners – who come only for the factual information and not the author’s opinion.
Have Personality Disorder’s handling of history can also be categorized as “lite”. And that’s not just because this Kindle book is merely 135 pages. It’s superficial even for self-identified “CliffsNotes”. To the extent the book has a central thesis, it’s that Russia has had more than its fair share of aggressive, larger-than-life, alpha male leaders, and that Russia seems to progress only under their often heavy-handed rule. Eremeeva dedicates a chapter to each ruler..or at least each ruler who fits the thesis easily. Leaders not “exciting” or “alpha male” enough are glossed over in a few sentences. Important events occurring between or under the leaders who did make the cut – the Time of Troubles, Sputnik, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, to name a few – are mentioned only in passing. Because of Have Personality Disorder’s insistence on painting the big picture of Russian history, it presents few new facts. (However, I’m glad that, despite its brevity, the book managed to squeeze in the trope that the West represents all things enlightened and desirable while Russia is backwards and Asiatic² (Loc 362 and 441)!)
Never fear though; what the book lacks in substance the author makes up for in self-insertion and opinion. Eremeeva’s tone becomes more sympathetic when covering the monarchy, which is unsurprising given her tsarstruck background:
Peter and Catherine’s daughter, the empress Elizabeth, was very much daddy’s girl. Attractive and accomplished, she inherited her parents’ earthly appreciation of the pleasures of the flesh, and like her father, she managed to be thoroughly European in her tastes while remaining uniquely Russian in her soul…Elizabeth steered Russia competently through the next twenty years with skill and grace, choosing wise advisors and taking an active hand in the labyrinthine European diplomacy of the day… (Loc 394)
Compare that to coverage of Ivan III…
As the eldest son of the Moscow grand prince, he was the sole heir to the riches and the power base built up by his ancestor Ivan Moneybags, thanks to the Muscovite tradition of primogeniture […] Ivan III further consolidated Moscow’s power by making all the other Russian princes of the cities surrounding Moscow subordinate to his supreme rule. Ivan III’s model of ruling Russia can still be seen at work today during televised meetings of appointed regional governors and the prime minister or president of Russia (Loc 256)
…or of the Soviets, who “can always be counted on to screw things up”…
…And refer to my commentary in the “style” part of this review.
Several interjections from Eremeeva, HRH (representing the Russian POV, usually shown to be wrong), and her daughter Velvet pull the reader away from the history lesson. Here, Eremeeva’s self-insertion doesn’t necessarily enhance your understanding of Russian history – it merely demonstrates she was in the country during the ’80s and ’90s when things were happening and had/has far-reaching connections within the expat community. Forget discussing the precipitous decline in living standards for the average Russian during the nineties; we’ve got more important things to learn about – like how the author and her husband nearly got separated!
Well-written but underdeveloped, Have Personality Disorder, Will Rule Russia fulfills its primary function (tie-in to Lenin Lives Next Door), but doesn’t aspire to be much more than that. While I can’t say it’s as haphazard or blatantly political as Russia: Putin’s Playground, nor can I say it’s the right place to start for a reader curious about Russian history. There’s just not enough of it! For readers interested in a more solid grounding, I’d recommend Russian History: A Very Short Introduction by Geoffrey Hosking – only 176 pages, but packed tight with useful information and pictures. And thankfully featuring much less sarcasm.
Have Personality Disorder, Will Rule Russia: An Iconoclastic History by a Recovering Russophile by Jennifer Eremeeva. Pub. 2015. ebook.
- In no way am I condoning them!
- See Sergey Armeyskov’s site for more on that.