Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Smashed in the USSR - a brief review

I picked up a book over the weekend called Smashed in the USSR and felt obliged to write a short review, simply because it is very good but appears to have been largely ignored, if the lack of mentions on Google and its non-inclusion on Goodreads is a fair gauge.  Subtitled ‘Fear, Loathing and Vodka on the Steppes’ it tells the story of Ivan Petrov, a Russian tramp, as told to co-author, Caroline Walton.

Some research reveals that the book was previously published as Russia Through a Shot Glass and perhaps that title was better.  Smashed in the USSR is a little trite and it suggests a booze-fuelled, gonzo-style romp, whereas Petrov’s tale is actually a sad and thoughtful account of alcoholism, personal and national, against a broad sweep of the USSR’s history and an even broader sweep of Soviet geography.

His voice is captured particularly elegantly by Walton and it reveals a great deal of humour and a surprising lack of self-pity.  Petrov describes the crushing poverty of a wartime childhood in the industrial, Volga city of Chabaevsk, life as a vagrant – hopping trains across the Soviet empire – and the grim existence of a prisoner in a succession of lock-ups and work camps.

His life is varied and remarkable enough to read like a novel, but the memoir is also a considerable account of a seamy underbelly of the USSR.  There are failed collective farms, where everyone is too drunk to bother to take in the harvest, mental institutions filled with alcoholics undergoing courses of brutal drugs and a cast of drifters, conmen and criminals, living on the edge of society.

Petrov argues that, in the USSR, there are few differences between ‘those behind the wire and those looking in’.  Although he is an alcoholic he says he is no ‘white raven’.  The disease disfigures Soviet society, but while a majority pretends to work and have a family life in grim tenements, the ‘alkashi’ travel across the Union, eking out a few roubles to buy ‘a hair of the dog’.  Their lives are certainly bleak, violent and often brief, but the author also portrays glimpses of generosity, comradeship and even dignity.

Ultimately Petrov seeks asylum in the United Kingdom, after coming to these shores with a Georgian theatre company.  He is not impressed by the ‘freedom’ offered in ‘the West’, where he thinks people have become trapped by an endless pursuit of possessions.  In an epilogue written in her own voice Walton wonders doubtfully whether he could have pursued a similar existence in post-Soviet Russia, without coming to a premature end.

Smashed in the USSR is a fascinating story, gracefully told.  I’m at a loss as to why it is has not captured more attention.  The memoir is an impressive personal account of alcoholism, as well as an important historical description of life in the Soviet Union.

Hopefully many more people will read this republished version.