Beyond the IRON CURTAIN

Winnipeg Free Press, February 22, 2014 | Go to article overview

Beyond the IRON CURTAIN


Russians value order and stability over democracy

With the eyes of the world trained on Sochi for the Winter Olympics, Russia has been in the international spotlight more as of late than they have been for decades. The Winter Games' have suffered from on-site infrastructure issues, billions in cost overruns (thought to be padding the pockets of a select few) and a handful of on-site protests.

As such, Gregory Feifer's Russians: The People Behind the Power is a timely text. Feifer's background makes him well-qualified to write a book on today's Russians. His father is American author and Soviet expert George Feifer, co-author of a controversial biography of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, while his mother, to whom this book is dedicated, was born and raised in Russia. The younger Feifer, meanwhile, is already an accomplished author, with two books on Russia's foreign entanglements to his credit.

After specializing on Russian history and literature at Harvard, Feifer lived and worked in Moscow for a decade as a correspondent for National Public Radio. During this time he travelled widely within Russia and interviewed many people -- both ordinary Russians and members of the elite in government, business and the media. The result is an enormous amount of name-dropping throughout the book.

The book consists of 12 chapters, each fronted by one to three epigrams and photographs. In each chapter Feifer digresses widely on Russian history and literature, with anecdotes about his Russian relatives and friends. When reaching back into history to explain characteristics of Russians today, Feifer largely depends on the often-revisionist interpretations of Edward Keenan, his history professor at Harvard.

One chapter deals with the problem of alcoholism in Russia. According to Russian government statistics, almost half of all adults there are alcoholics, with alcohol poisoning killing some 40,000 people a year (compared with 300 in the U.S.). Men account for about 90 per cent of Russia's alcohol consumption, a major reason for the large discrepancy in life expectancy between men and women in Russia (63 years for the former and 74 for the latter).

Earlier in the book, Feifer also informs us that Russia now has the highest number of HIV and AIDS cases in Eurasia. Registered cases of infection now number over 700,000, but Feifer guesses the real figure is likely more than double that.

Although fond of some Russian customs, such as the banja or steam bath, Feifer's depictions of many others are negative, obvious in the title of one of the book's chapters: Indolence and Inefficiency.

He is especially negative when it comes to Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he describes as corrupt and authoritarian, accusing him of fostering Russian nationalism. Feifer fears this will exacerbate the xenophobia and racism already prevalent in Russia. …

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