I’ve always seen Eastern Europe as an unpredictable place. But today, when many of the countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain market themselves as Nordic (Estonia) or “Central European” (Poland) or “Northern European” (Lithuania) and lean towards the West in their imagination, if not always in principle, Russia seems like the standout player in the region of the world where the unexpected happens. And anyone who has been to Russia, particularly in the decade or so after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has encountered the colorful personalities, jovial warmth, quick witticisms, sarcastic philosophizing, resourcefulness, and hospitality of Russians who charm the pants off you even if, at the same time you feel confusion, trepidation, and dismay at the situation you find yourself in, which, in Russia is often a combination of awkward, uncertain, dangerous, and funny (even if only later) all at once. Lisa Dickey, in her book Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia has many such experiences, which she retells with a sense of humor and plenty of gratitude for those who help her on her journey.
As Dickey discovers, Russians will: open their doors to foreign strangers and have them stay for dinner; welcome them to a Hare Krishna or Jewish worship service; kill a sheep for them; invite them on a research expedition on Lake Baikal; give them gifts on the first (and perhaps only) meeting; put on a private drag show; and give up the only bed in the house for them. And then, this same foreigner can come back ten years and then twenty years later, sometimes showing up without notice, and be greeted like she never left. This is the essence of Russian hospitality. As an American, for all our stereotypical cheerfulness, this welcome, trust of, and openness to random strangers feels very foreign. It’s probably one of the main reasons that I was drawn to Russian culture in the first place: this is how you greet guests, this is how you express and accept vulnerability to connect human to human.
Russia also calls for doing things in an unusual way. In Bears in the Streets, Dickey recounts her journey from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg three times in twenty years, with ten-year gaps in between. She visits the same cities and tries to meet as many of the same people as she can. This journey is certainly remarkable, but ultimately it is fitting for someone covering Russia. Russia needs to be covered remarkably because it is a remarkable place.
Those who are still living, and those still in the same place, mostly welcome her warmly. The reunions are moving and revealing: she shows how places, people and attitudes have changed over the decades, even when she is startled at how familiar the people she meets still are. As a reader, I felt I knew these people she met. Not only because of her studied descriptions of them, but because she captures some essence, some spirit that I’ve discovered in Russian friends and acquaintances over the years. And following her story, and theirs, I felt truly sad to learn of the deaths of some of those people who had helped her on her way in the past.
Dickey explores not only people’s attitudes towards Putin and Americans but their attitude toward homosexuality. From her account, and possibly because she is both a guest and a woman, she is told by individuals that they personally aren’t concerned about her orientation it but suggest to her, “maybe don’t tell anyone else.” The chapter in which she spends time with gay Russians in Novosibirsk is telling given how the people she talks to interpret how vociferous they should be about their own homosexuality. The story of Grisha, a young gay man she meets early in her travels, is one of the most difficult parts of the book to read.
If you’ve been to Russia and truly loved it, a little piece of you stayed there, as it always will, no matter what the media says, no matter what Putin does, no matter how the population may have turned (or been turned through years of propaganda) against your nationality. You’ll still feel a little sting of pleasure at seeing a kokhloma spoon, at smelling the whiff of fresh dill, or hearing some moody Russian folk song. I still experience instances when I’m transported back to scenes that made such an impression on a younger me as to steer my course in life, sending me east again and again (and now for a good, long while). And so this book was a little like a surrogate visit for my soul, a little happy-sad reminder of a Russia that’s well in the past but of memories well made.