Early in his political ascent, Russian president Vladimir Putin floated the idea of giving his New Year’s Eve address live at midnight in each of Russia’s 11 time zones. Despite his obvious energy and the rapidity of air flight, the stunt never happened. But it did give authors Nina Khrushcheva and Jeffrey Tayler the idea for this book. Could they discover the “soul” of this massive nation by visiting cities in each zone, zigzagging leisurely from Kaliningrad on Russia’s western edge to the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Far East? Both writers bring a good deal of useful background to their journey. Khrushcheva is the great-granddaughter of former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Tayler lives in Moscow, is married to a Russian and has written of his earlier travels across the country.
If Russia has a soul—an irreducible essence—it may well be its ambivalence about its place in the world, its simultaneous admiration and resentment of the more developed (and more decadent) West. It often mimics what it publicly deplores. In spite of Russia’s much-touted embrace of capitalism, vestiges of its communist past are everywhere. Virtually every town has a Lenin statue. A more sanitized version of Stalin also surfaces here and there. Russians, the authors contend, subscribe to the “great man” theory of history, believing that strong rulers, rather than changing circumstances, “determine the course of events.”
Throughout this chronicle, there are vivid descriptions of the climate, monuments and apparent public mood in each place the authors visit, along with interviews. Oddly, however, there is no discussion of the media—what the newspapers and magazines are saying (or not saying), what’s popular on television or how local and national news is conveyed and received. Despite Russia’s rough spots, the authors conclude, “People are, as a rule, living better than ever before, freer than ever before.”