Book review: Bears in the Streets, by Lisa Dickey
No fewer than six people in six different cities (and four different time zones) had informed me that this is what Americans think. “Bears in the streets,” I realized, was the apparently ubiquitous shorthand for the Russians’ feeling that the West doesn’t take them seriously enough – that we think they’re primitive or backward.
Lifelong Russophile Lisa Dickey has made three trips in three different years, each ten years apart, across roughly 5,000 miles of Russia – starting in Vladivostok in the East and ending in St. Petersburg, with many stops in between, like industrial Chelyabinsk, former Jewish homeland Birobidzhan, and the impressive wonder of Lake Baikal. These trips were in addition to stints living in Russia’s biggest cities, working as a nanny for an American embassy family in Moscow and as a journalist in Petersburg, beginning her writing career.
It was during that time in St. Petersburg that she answered an ad from an American photographer, who sought someone with good Russian language skills to accompany him on a photojournalism project to Siberia. Eager for the travel, cultural immersion and story potential, Lisa applied and got the gig. Together they travel through Russia in 1995, where many regions are still smarting from wounds created by the Soviet Union, yet yearning for that other government.
During that trip, she made friendships that would last decades, so affectionate that when she would reappear on their doorsteps a decade later, they welcomed her with open arms. That first trip whet her appetite for the stories of ordinary Russians and how they felt about their changing nation. Being privy to their problems, personal and economic, she was naturally curious about how fate had treated them in the intervening years. So she makes the trip again in 2005, tracing her own footsteps and with a different accompanying photographer.
In 2015, she makes the now-familiar trek again, this time alone, comparing memories of landscapes, city centers, and of course the people she’s grown close to during her trips. And she explains the significance of this story of bears in the streets, and the way Americans and Russians view each other, whether deserved or imagined.
This comparison between the cultures was so revealing. She shows how attitudes towards Americans changed over twenty years, noting: “This felt like a tricky time to be an American in Russia.”
But there are adorable moments of how acquaintances or friends of friends tried to make her feel at home, like asking her to teach them Texas hold ’em poker, or my favorite: “…in Chita, a quaint city on the eastern fringe of Siberia…I stayed with a couple named Natasha and Sergei, who met us at 3 a.m. at the train station waving an American flag.”
It’s a smartly, sensitively written travelogue with impacting and understandable explanations of complicated political and economic situations. Dickey has a fantastic appreciation for cultural nuances, and she’s careful to acknowledge her own limits in the complex academics of Russian history and economics, while still supplying fair and helpful commentary as context to the stories her subjects tell.
She does good work presenting Russian history in a microcosmic form. When she describes these intricate historical elements, it’s in a pared-down but still intelligent and graceful way. I emphasize that because it’s not so easy to do. Here’s a great example as she sums up the love-fest many Russians have for Putin, and why that was inevitable considering their history:
Russians were obviously tired of not being taken seriously. The Soviet Union had been a superpower, respected and feared, but post-Soviet Russia was a weakened country that, particularly under the unpredictable Boris Yeltsin, struggled to be taken seriously on the world stage. Russian pride had taken a beating, and it was only in recent years that it had started to recover. Part of Putin’s appeal to Russians was, clearly, that he was making their country matter again. His actions, words, and very bearing conveyed the message that Russia was strong, and his provocative political moves guaranteed that the rest of the world had to pay attention.
One ongoing issue she encounters is the distrust Russians feel for American government, which, fine. Americans feel that too, surely. But there’s an aggression from “9/11 truthers,” and these encounters hit home, because having lived in Europe I’ve faced it endlessly too. It’s not only Russians. And it’s alarming and insulting. As Dickey says, in response to a Moscow-based rapper who tells her he saw a documentary (obviously an expert, I always hear the documentary defense too), “This 9/11 truther stuff simply unhinged me.” Me too, girl.
Or maddening encounters like this one:
“When Masha noted that in Italy, where she often vacationed, many people believed the U.S. government had purposely knocked down the Twin Towers to boost the stock market, it was all I could do not to hurl the remains of my sandwich across the table.”
But, whereas some cultures or nations can’t seem to find the humanity in those they disagree or are sparring with, or are unable to separate government from civilians, Dickey says Russians ultimately see it differently, in her experience:
“Even if we disagree with your government, we respect you.” This was another comment I’d heard consistently on the trip: every time someone criticized the American government, they were quick to clarify that they liked the American people. I couldn’t help but think of my mother’s trip to the Soviet Union…when I was a child, it seemed extraordinary to me that she was able to separate her feelings about Russian people from feelings about their government. Now, I finally realized that that’s what Russians had been doing with me all along.
And despite negatives seen in her honest anecdotes about living and economic conditions, the peoples’ overwhelming support for Putin, suspicion of foreign governments and visiting foreigners, even maddening 9/11 trutherism, in the end the positive was overwhelming.
In all those weeks of travel, I’d encountered very little difficulty, and a great deal of generosity. People who had nothing to gain by talking to an American writer nonetheless willingly opened their lives to me, even when it was clear they weren’t fans of the nation I call home…while it appears to be true that overall, relations between Russia and America are at their worst since the Stalin era, it’s also true – at least in my experience – that most Russians bear no ill will toward us. ‘People are people’ was a phrase I heard again and again, whether in the hills of Buryatia, on the waters of Lake Baikal, or sitting in any of the innumerable kitchens where Russians fed me and we toasted our friendship.
Amazing insights into lives across the spectrum and ways of thinking in a varied sampling of Russian cities. Reading it feels like meeting these often remarkable individuals, whose tales are very much worth knowing.
Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia
by Lisa Dickey
published January 31, 2017 by St. Martin’s Press