Vianvi Podcast Book Review 17 of 2017 by Viga Boland, Author & Reviewer

Today, in Podcast book review #17 of 2016, I have been given the privilege of being one of the first to review this book which will be published in September 2017. It’s an honour to be asked by the author, Michelle A. Carter, a former news editor and journalist of over 30 years. You might be familiar with one of Michelle’s earlier books, THE CHILDREN OF CHERNOBYL. But today, we look at FROM UDER THE RUSSIAN SNOW.

From Under the Russian Snow offers an unexpected, first hand look at a Russia which with few readers are acquainted, but will not soon forget, thanks to this superb memoir by Michelle A. Carter.

It is fascinating that Carter, a professional journalist with over 30 years experience in daily newspapering, during which she also travelled in and wrote about Russia, chose memoir as the genre for this book. But it is that decision that makes From Under the Russian Snow such a memorable, and often, very entertaining read. While both journalism and memoir are based on truth, if properly written, memoir allows a writer more liberty with personal reflections. As a result, readers gain a much more up close and personal look at an author: facts matter, but it is the author’s feelings about what she experiences and learns to which readers best relate.

For Michelle A. Carter, her ten-month “adventure” across Russia, helping Russian editors and reporters design newspapers that would be more readable and relevant to their readers was rich with eye-opening situations and those practices that give Russians their uniqueness. When a fire breaks out in an elevator in the apartment building where Michelle resides, she finds out only after she calls the fire brigade that one shouldn’t have done that. Why?  Because “they will just come and look in your apartment to see what you have for them to steal.” And that goes for the police too: they will steal everything!

When Michelle goes on to describe how the Russian firemen were so mesmerized by her smoke detector, “they took turns setting the gizmo off by lighting matches under it and cheering it on”, the humour is in startling contrast to her story about a colleague’s meeting with Putin before he became the current head of the country. Her associate’s comments on that meeting are chilling, especially when contrasted to what George W.Bush said of Putin when he met with him in 2001. Bush found Putin “straightforward and trustworthy” and felt he got a “good sense of his soul”. Michelle’s colleague, on the other hand, remarked that all he saw when he looked into Putin’s eyes “was a blank wall.” Did President Trump recently see Putin’s soul or a blank wall?

Over her ten months in Russia, Michelle A Carter met some wonderful Russians and her memoir is full of delightful tales about their culture, and way of life. Her recounting of the role of the “babushkas” in their society is both sobering and funny. In one minute, a grand-child loving babushka can transform into a harpy telling a young woman in no uncertain terms to pull her skirt down and “stop dressing like a whore”. But if it weren’t for a group of babushkas who made it their business to help Michelle get off a jam-packed train at her station by shouting “Make way for the Amerikanka”, she might never had reached her next destination. And yet, while Michelle jokingly asserts that it’s the babas who really ran the show during the cold war, she also makes readers acutely aware of just how badly women are treated in Russia. In a series of questions Michelle suggests for Book Clubs at the end of From Under the Russian Snow, she asks how does this treatment differ from the way women are treated in the rest of the world? An excellent question that requires one read the book to answer. 

Fortunately for Michelle A. Carter, as a woman living alone in Russia, she didn’t have too many difficult encounters. Those occurred elsewhere in her memoir and when they did, her world, for a period of time, was torn apart by grief. But she had a job to do and returned to Russia to finish what she had started.

Her “adventure” as she referred to it, was by all accounts, a success and resulted, 20 years later in her bringing it all together in her informative but sensitive memoir. Like the little white flowers, the “podsnezhniki” that poke up From Under the Russian Snow and herald the coming of spring, Michelle’s book finishes as all good memoirs should, with the promise that, regardless of what happens in our lives, there will always be hope for a better tomorrow.

©Viga Boland

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