Siberia Bound: Chasing the American Dream on Russia's Wild Frontier
By Alexander Blakely
Sourcebooks Inc. 2002. $22.95
The career path for American businessmen in Russia in the nineties was clear:
- Go to Moscow.
- Start a business.
- Fail because you know nothing about local conditions.
- Write a memoir blaming it all on the Russians.
Once you've reviewed as many of these memoirs as I have, you develop such a loathing for the genre that you can hardly look at another one. It'll just be more of the same: the initial shock at Moscow's "dreary, gray landscape," a few anecdotes illustrating Russians' ignorance of business practice, a boastful description of the sexual advances the native women make, and then the happy return to the West.
At first glance, Siberia Bound looks like yet another of these imbecilic memoirs. And that's a shame, because this is actually a fine book, the antithesis of the usual American-businessman-in-Russia book. Instead of landing in Moscow and hunkering down in the expat biospheres, Blakely lives in Novosibirsk. Instead of relying on a driver and interpreter, he walks to work and learns to speak Russian fluently. Instead of assuming his capitalist ideology will overpower all obstacles, he gets to know the locals, then goes into partnership with a Russian he knows he can trust.
By finding a reliable partner who knows the ground, Blakely avoids the mistakes that doomed most foreign entrepreneurs in Russia. For example, one of the first ideas Blakely and his partner Sasha consider is starting a liquor-importing business. Sasha rejects the idea instantly: "No, the liquor business is too tightly controlled by the mafia." It took the author of Moscow Madness, another American-in-Russia book I reviewed, several years and two hundred pages of whiny narrative to learn that simple lesson.
So instead of the usual failure, Blakely creates a successful business, and quits only because he's disgusted with the vicious face of capitalism as it roars over Siberia, and beginning to have doubts about the entire American way of life. It's an impressive ending.
The tough part is getting past the beginning. Blakely introduces himself as a young man "with a degree in economics and a surplus of idealism." Between that strange conjunction and a long, sentimental dedication to his Mom and Dad, I was nearly ready to give up on Blakely right at the start. Maybe it's because he's from Minnesota. Blakely seems, at first, like a poster boy for "Minnesota Nice": six foot three, blond, callow and smiling. But in spite of his self-stereotyping, Blakely soon reveals a good eye for the details of the Russian landscape, as in his account of a construction site:
"Wood in Russia smells the same as wood in America. The smell of Russian concrete, however, is very different from the smell of American concrete. Russian concrete smells of methane and sulfur, like a match-lit fart."
And unlike most Americans who wrote memoirs of their time in Russia, Blakely is capable of noticing details of Russian manners which are not used to demonize or glorify the place but are simply interesting in themselves:
"An old woman came out of the apartment building's door. Sasha moved to her, took her hand, and helped her down the icy steps. She didn't thank him, but simply mumbled her complaints about how they used to shovel the steps. Sasha agreed deferentially, At the bottom of the steps, she let go of Sasha's arm, turned, and trudged down the snow-covered sidewalk. She was still mumbling to herself as she rounded the corner of the building."
Some of his descriptions are almost too literary, as in this account of a scene at a bus stop outside Novosibirsk:
"By watching the bus stop carefully, I could determine not only the time of day but the day of the week as well. On Mondays, a middle-aged man stood with his friend. (Friend, brother-that I couldn't tell. Everybody looks related wearing those bulky jackets, dog-fur scarves, and fur hats.) The two men held shopping nets. Inside each net was a pig's head. As the men talked, the squinting pig heads, like morbid ventriloquist dolls, seemed to be smiling, waiting to deliver a punch line or a duet. Small children standing next to their mothers would stare eye-to-eye with the dead animal heads. Some kids buried their faces into their mothers' coats. Others laughed and pointed."
Along with his fine eye for detail, Blakely has a good healthy scorn for hypocrisy, represented in his account by the canting American missionaries who swarmed over Siberia once it opened up. Most of them are closet homosexuals who shout about Jesus to avoid confronting their own sexual orientation. A Russian friend tells Blakely about one of these Godfearing swine who liked to spend summer evenings watching young men swimming:
"Slava whispered as he told me how this painter had offered to perform oral sex on his friend.
'How do you know your friend wasn't making all of this up?' I asked.
'Because,' he said, 'I saw him do it.'
'Do what?' I asked, more than a little nervous about the answer.
'I saw that old man give my friend a minyet [blowjob].'
Slava gazed into the corner of the room. The expression on his face was something in between revulsion and total absorption, as if he were remembering the site of a gruesome car accident."
Unfortunately, Blakely can't manage to tell his own sexual history and examine his own attitudes toward the body as well as he does those of the wretched Bible-thumpers. He admits that it was his infatuation with a beautiful Russian woman which brought him to Novosibirsk in the first place, and does a good job of describing their chilly relationship and eventual breakup. But he claims that once he broke up with that first girlfriend, he avoided all sexual contact for several years, despite the fact that beautiful Siberian girls were all but clawing down his door. In fact, all through his years in Siberia Blakely kept (or pretends to have kept) the dismal prudishness which disfigures American life, as in this account of an otherwise well-observed Siberian scene:
"...a pair of young women walked on the side of the narrow, dusty road. They wore the standard Siberian fashion ensemble: dark leather jackets that barely covered their behinds but completely hid their mini-skirts. They strutted in leather boots that rose above their knees and flared just below their bare thighs.
They're not objects, my politically correct conscience whispered in one ear.
Look at those legs! My hormones screamed into the other."
Oh, come on -- "They're not objects"? Two beautiful Siberian girls in full leather kit, half-naked, taking advantage of the short summer to show off their legs...and they're not objects? Of course they're objects! They've spent the day getting ready to be objects! It's hard to believe that someone so astute in many ways could really be so stupid. What comes next is even more suspicious:
"Sergei tooted the horn and made the sound Russians use to call cats: 'Kssss, kssss, kssss.'
To my surprise, instead of the insulted frowns I expected to see, these girls smiled and giggled."
"To my surprise"? Are we supposed to believe that Blakely, by no means a stupid man, was really dumb enough to think the girls would be "insulted"? Even in fucking Berkeley, two beautiful girls walking down Telegraph in high boots and miniskirts would want and expect to be acknowledged! Is Blakely lying, then, about what he "expected"? It's an important question; travel memoirs are very much a matter of trust. If you don't trust the writer, it's hard to keep reading, let alone derive any pleasure from the book. If Blakely is lying about celibacy in Russia, then the whole manuscript is suspect.
But what if it IS true; wouldn't that be even more horrifying, if an intelligent young American can't even let go of his priggish training after years in Siberia? If Englishmen lived without tea in Ceylon, they'd be fools. If you spent four years in Vanuatu and didn't snorkel, you'd be crazy. If you were a young American living in Novosibirsk in the 90s and remained celibate for years...why? Dear God, just tell me why!
Maybe it is true. Blakely seems to have all the other strange American twitches, taboos and obsessions about bodily matters. Above all, he is obsessed with the fear of getting fat, and with examining those around him for excess pounds. Naturally, when he takes some Russian visitors on a tour of the US, fat is what he sees: "[Americans] were fat-car-sitting, junk-food-eating, TV-watching fat. Obese. Blubbery." When Blakely takes offense at the way beautiful women throw themselves at him in Novosibirsk, he contrasts his physical beauty with the horror of being fat:
"I could have been fat...and these women would still have been attracted to me....I wasn't fat. I had broad shoulders, well-defined arms, and a flat stomach (at least in the summertime)."
The narcissism implicit in this commentary, the mirror-flirting with one's own deltoids and abs, is apparently not a vice; the only vice is being fat. In all the misery and chaos which overwhelm Siberia in the 90s, Blakely seems to see the fattening of the locals as the most terrible consequence.
The trouble with fat-hating as ideology is demographic. It's the nobodies who are fat, at least in America. So hating fat people turns out-surprise, surprise-to be a new way to hate those who are already in misery.
But this is a quibble. Blakely's real task here is to describe what happened in Siberia when capitalism hit. And he does the job very well. The last chapters are the best, as the nastier byproducts of the American way start to show up. Blakely tells the story of the Voucher debacle with bitter precision, focusing on what actually happened to the poor suckers on the streets of Novosibirsk.
Then the horrors start happening very close to home. Lyuda, his Russian partner's wife, turns into an insane, anorexic Herbalife cultist. Blakely's account of the Herbalife virus's effect on his closest friends in Russia is worth quoting at length, as a perfect description in miniature of what the American way did to Russia in the 90s:
"As Lyuda recruited more and more people into the Herbalife family, she would receive the majority of their commissions, the fruit of other people's labor. This seemed only fair, since her sales commissions were being siphoned off by her sponsor, who had hooked her on this stuff in the first place. So now Siberians were not only hounded on the streets by missionaries eager to convert them into Baptists or Lutherans, they were now hounded in their own apartments by friends eager to convert them into Herbalifers or, at least, to buy some diet elixir."
As Lyuda becomes more and more desperate for commissions, she begins subsisting on Herbalife alone:
"Lyuda...stopped eating food except for a couple of glasses of water with this super potion stirred in....For a month, she was a venomous little bitch....Under her eyes, black bags oozed lower and lower down her face. Her hair thinned. All the while, she talked about how wonderful she felt. 'And it is all due to Herbalife,' she would say in a weak, but positive voice, just like the sales manual instructed her to do....Her body finally collapsed. She was taken to the hospital where, against her will, she was forced to start eating food again."
Blakely makes it clear that his Siberian friends were much, much happier before they were liberated by the free market. But he shies away from the bigger question: doesn't all this apply to America as well?
As far as I can remember, money ruled in California. Politics was something for millionaires and land developers. The rest of us were just suckers. The Herbalife anorexic, the exhausted middle manager who still expects to get rich-these are the ordinary characters of middle-class American life. The only difference is that in Siberia, Blakely was able to see the transformation in a matter of years. In California, the oligarchy has ruled so long that it blends softly into the landscape. In Siberia, Blakely saw it gouge its way like a fast-motion glacier. But most of us have spent our lives inside that ice.