Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia - Lisa Dickey

Summary: Lisa Dickey traveled across the whole of Russia three times—in 1995, 2005 and 2015—making friends in eleven different cities, then coming back again and again to see how their lives had changed. Like the acclaimed British documentary series Seven Up!, she traces the ups and downs of ordinary people’s lives, in the process painting a deeply nuanced portrait of modern Russia.

From the caretakers of a lighthouse in Vladivostok, to the Jewish community of Birobidzhan, to a farmer in Buryatia, to a group of gay friends in Novosibirsk, to a wealthy “New Russian” family in Chelyabinsk, to a rap star in Moscow, Dickey profiles a wide cross-section of people in one of the most fascinating, dynamic and important countries on Earth. Along the way, she explores dramatic changes in everything from technology to social norms, drinks copious amounts of vodka, and learns firsthand how the Russians really feel about Vladimir Putin.

Including powerful photographs of people and places over time, and filled with wacky travel stories, unexpected twists, and keen insights, Bears in the Streets offers an unprecedented on-the-ground view of Russia today. (Summary and pic from

I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

My Review: I’m sure you’re aware that there has been quite a bit about Russia in the news. U.S./Russia relations are not great right now, and so I found this to be a super interesting dive into people across Russia.

I really enjoyed how this book came about—a journalist who, initially, went on the trip with a photographer to escape a career that wasn’t quite happening yet. This does not come out of the blue, as her mother had also been to Russia and traveled as well, and Dickey was interested in seeing some sights her mother had described as well. The initial journey was not something she was actually prepared to do. The other two journeys were Dickey’s ideas, and were planned with the purpose of seeing the same people again and catching up with them. I really liked this. I thought it was a really cool way to experience people across Russia and learn about them—not just random people, but the same selection of people who had lived through 30 years of changes, both personally and culturally. It was fascinating to see what had happened, who was still alive, who wasn’t, and where things had landed in the wake of the modern world. Here is where pretty much only one of my complaints comes in—I wish this book could have been a little more organized. The book was divided into people (and therefore areas, because each person/set of people is in a different area in Russia), but I wish each chapter would have also been divided into years as well. I understand that that may not have made for as smooth a transition in the writing, but sometimes I was confused whether it was the second or third trip when events were happening. This is a minor thing in the great scheme of the book, but it is something that I thought of several times throughout.

I have mentioned before that I am an anthropology nerd. My undergrad degree is in sociocultural anthropology, and so this sort of book about studying culture and people is totally my jam. I love learning about other people and their lives, especially people in other places. It’s easy to get caught in my own little world, just living along, and either thinking that other people are probably pretty much just like me, or some variation on the same theme, but then I read anthropology books such as this one and it totally blows my mind. I love the diversity of the world, and because Russia is such a huge country covering a vast distance geographically as well as culturally, there is a very large diversity of people and cultures there as well. Many of the people in Dickey’s book are as far away from each others’ worlds in Russia as I am from their world here, both geographically and culturally.

One of the questions that Dickey brings with her is what the different people she meets think of America. I found that really interesting as well. I’m sure you’re aware (and if you’re not, well, this may come as a shock to you) but we don’t always hear both sides of the story from the news. Whether the news is intentionally biased or not, we don’t know the whole story of every person we hear from. I feel like Russia is just such a place. It’s so easy to get caught up in the politics of it all, and so easy to forget that underneath all the political drama and the leaders who make decisions at the top, are just people—people like us—who are doing their best to be happy and take care of their families and do what they can to live a fulfilled life. I think this book did a good job of highlighting this, and also bringing some perspective on people and culture as a whole, not just in the backdrop of Russia.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book has some language and some detailed description of an animal being harvested in a traditional way. There is also some discussion of homosexuality. 

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