The moment I saw the title of this travelogue, I figured it was going to be either a subversion or full embrace of the “backwards Russia” trope. To my delight, it was the former – and Bears in the Streets proved a familiar but nonetheless enjoyable ride.
(“Bears in the streets”, it turns out, is “a ubiquitous shorthand for Russians’ feeling that that the West doesn’t take them seriously enough – that we think they’re primitive or backward” (p. 3).)
Author Lisa Dickey made three trips to Russia in all – in 1995, 2005, and 2015, following the Trans-Siberian line from Saint Petersburg to Vladivostok. On the first trip, accompanied by a photojournalist, she gathered material for articles, staying and making friends with Russian families along the way. She returned ten years later with a new photographer to the same towns to check up on her friends. In 2015, she returned again, this time alone and during the middle of the ruble crisis. Each chapter concerns a different city she visited on the journey, split into three parts dedicated to what Dickey learned during each trip. I rather like this narrative structure – it makes it easier to see how a city and the lives of its residents have changed over the 20-year period.
Dickey’s journey is amply diverse in locales and people. She visits Vladivostok, Birobidzhan, Chita, Ulan-Ude, Galtai, Baikal, Novosibirsk, Chelyabinsk, Kazan, Moscow, and Saint Petersburg. Dickey attempts to deliver a cross-section of the Russian people – something that’s been tried, failed, and done before in other travelogues. But unlike in earlier books (Lost and Found in Russia and Nothing is True immediately spring to mind), the Russians populating Dickey’s story don’t feel like caricatures, or figures hand-picked for maximum sensation, but real people. Readers meet, among others, a pair of middle-aged lighthouse keepers in Vladivostok, a humble Buryat farmer and his family in Galtai, freshwater malacologists studying Lake Baikal, a mother in Kazan who’d lost her son in the First Chechen War, and a small gay community in Novosibirsk. They candidly share their opinions, hopes, sorrows. Not all stories resonated emotionally with me, and some people proved more relatable than others, but it was still interesting to hear each of them.
Regarding the author’s perspective, a reviewer can appreciate several things. First, Dickey doesn’t subscribe to that annoying “mystical, unknowable Russia” or “mysterious Russian soul” trope that ruins many travelogues for me. She simply writes what she observes – including uncomfortable exchanges with Russians over her sexual orientation and the strain in U.S.-Russian relations. Bears in the Streets isn’t political either, aside from references to aforementioned tensions between the two countries and a few discussions about America’s role in the world/Ukraine. Most Russians Dickey meets are either apolitical or Putin supporters – no surprise there. For the most part, she doesn’t judge…but she does tend to elevate those who speak critically of the Russian government. One cosmopolitan woman whom Dickey meets in Chelyabinsk is staunchly “anti-American” despite never having been to the U.S., a nice reminder that one can find ignorance of the other on both sides.
On the whole I think Dickey does a decent job of investigating questions of minorities, economics, religion, heritage and views of her home country while acknowledging her own potential biases and limitations as an American tourist in fully grasping the Russian perspective. You hear that, Western travelogue writers? A little more humility, a little self-reflection is all I ask for…
If there’s any overarching narrative to this travelogue, then it’s that “people are people”. Don’t be fooled by the statement’s simplicity, or the fact that it’s been said before. It’s something that bears repeating. In the months leading up to her 2015 trip, Dickey was deeply concerned about traveling alone, visa trouble, homophobia, safety on trains, and anti-Americanism, but once in Russia, she encountered very little difficulty. People opened up their homes and lives to her, even when they had little, or when there was no personal gain involved. In most cases, Dickey was welcomed back enthusiastically, even when she gave no notice of her imminent visit. For as it turns out, despite U.S.-Russian relations being the s****iest they’ve been in years, and belligerence rippling across the airwaves, everyday Russians – shock horror – know how to separate the American people from their government. Though it might be obscured by officialdom, the media, and distance, bears don’t roam their streets, and limousines don’t crowd ours.
Bears in the Streets isn’t a perfect book by any means, but it’s one worth reading. The destination may not be new, but the journey is unique, its nuance appreciated, its message welcomed.
★ ★ ★ ★
(3.5 stars rounded up, as Russia Reviewed doesn’t do half-stars.)
Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia by Lisa Dickey. Pub. 2017 by St. Martin’s Press. Hardcover, 325 pages. ISBN13: 9781250092298.