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Context (Moscow Times)
December 23-30, 2005
The Year in Books
When Westerners hear the word "Russia," certain associations come to mind.
This year's crop of Russia-related books stayed on message while making a crucial contribution.

By Rebecca Reich

What do Westerners think when they hear the word "Russia"? British journalist Julian Evans raised the question earlier this month in an online essay in Foreign Policy, referring to a 2003 Russian government survey that identified Americans' top four instant associations as communism, the KGB, snow and the mafia. Surveys of this sort have traditionally been used to point out how little the former Cold War adversaries really know about each other. But what about the non-Russians who do know a thing or two about Russia and who use that knowledge to write books that broaden our woefully narrow perspective?

A sweep of the 57 Russia-related books reviewed this year in The Moscow Times stays remarkably faithful to the survey's results, with more books about communism than any other subject, followed by Cold War histories starring undercover agents, submarines and the like. Even snow figured prominently among Russia-related books this year; ice floes and polar vistas were featured on at least three different dust jackets. For the most part, specialists and readers seem to be on the same page. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Much remains to be explored in all of these areas, and the best of this year's books made a crucial contribution.

Current Affairs: Fresh from a four-year assignment in Moscow, Washington Post correspondents Peter Baker and Susan Glasser sum up the experience in their essential and authoritative "Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin's Russia and the End of Revolution." The authors consider a wide range of issues, from the booming oil-fed economy and the emerging middle class to the AIDS epidemic and the war in Chechnya. They are at their best, however, when they turn to politics, providing what our reviewer, Robert C. Toth, called "the first comprehensive account by U.S. journalists of the Putin presidency so far."

History: Josef Stalin, who dominated the list in 2004, emerges as a human if unattractive figure in Robert Service's "Stalin: A Biography." According to our reviewer, Sheila Fitzpatrick, Service correctly emphasizes the dictator's intelligent -- even intellectual -- approach to governance and ideology, his jealous control of Party politics and his penchant for ruthlessness and cruelty, which predated the purges by several decades. Though Stalin the man still eludes his biographer, Service proves "well-equipped" to provide the historical context.

Memoir: Svetlana Alexievich's "Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster" opens a window on the experiences of those who were poisoned, displaced or forgotten in the wake of the 1986 nuclear power-plant accident. Sometimes proud, sometimes humiliated, and often angry, these testimonies of personal crisis eerily expose the weaknesses of Soviet society. Indeed, as our reviewer, Anna Reid, noted, Chernobyl may be "as much of a magnifying glass for the economic wreckage of the post-Soviet years as it was for the mendaciousness and brutality of communism in its time."

Fiction: The vast sweep of the "Russian" novel -- its historical panoramas, immense cast of characters and grandiose religious and philosophical preoccupations -- has been repeatedly invoked by reviewers of James Meek's "The People's Act of Love." Our reviewer, Oliver Ready, praised Meek's novel about a Siberian town during the Civil War as "an exhilarating story told with skill and invention." Yet can a novel written by a foreigner for a foreign audience ever be regarded as "truly Russian"? Noting Meek's "cultural ventriloquism," Ready observes: "It would seem ... that we need the semblance of a 'truly Russian' novel as much as, if not more than, the thing itself."

Biography: In his colorful biography of the Azeri writer Lev Nussimbaum, "The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life," Tom Reiss pieces together the essence of a man who specialized in self-reinvention. Born to a Jewish family in Baku, Nussimbaum dared to climb the social and literary ranks of interwar Germany and Austria, passing himself off as a Muslim. For our reviewer, Kim Iskyan, the intricate detective work that Reiss had to perform in order to reconstruct the details of Nussimbaum's life is part and parcel of the story's thrill.

Cultural Study: Anthropologist Piers Vitebsky has spent much of the last 17 years traveling with the Eveny, an ancient reindeer-herding tribe that makes its home in the frigid reaches of northeastern Siberia. In "Reindeer People: Living With Animals and Spirits in Siberia," he dwells in detail on the Eveny's dismal prospects as Soviet collectivization gives way to an aggressive new enterprise culture. Our reviewer, Roger Took, called Vitebsky's observations "unerring" and "moving," and praised his light, accessible touch: "This book is required reading for all foreigners who think they know something of Russia's rural soul."

Rebecca Reich is the books editor of The Moscow Times.