An octogenarian aristocrat cooped up in a decrepit Soviet madhouse, doctors requiring bribes before even considering treating patients, the wife of a Russian president touring Amsterdam's red-light district, lust-driven physicists embezzling foreign aid programs, the mad monk Rasputin. These are just a handful of the memorable characters Pieter Waterdrinker draws in his idiosyncratic, darkly humorous, captivating blend of memoir, history, and reportage that spans Russia's last century.
It's a terrific read that will engage and inform in equal measure. The book's publication is timely for readers seeking an understanding as to what makes the world's largest country tick.
The book begins in the late 80s. Cracks in the Soviet Union are emerging when a young Waterdrinker is asked to ferry 7000 Bibles from his native Netherlands to Leningrad, the city that is now St Petersburg. The plan goes awry immediately. Few Russians are interested, apart from those who see the books as useful kindling.
He sticks around, involving himself in tourism and various dubious import-export schemes as the country emerges anarchically from Soviet rule. He is flabbergasted by the poverty in which his wife-to be, like so many others under Communism, live.
The communal bathroom she shares resembles a "nuclear disaster with damp stains, paint pockmarks, and orange fungi". Waterdrinker eventually falls into journalism after his business partner duds him out of a fortune.
The book toggles between three distinct time periods: Waterdrinker's observations from present-day Russia; recollections of those tumultuous early years in the country; and a potted history of the revolutions of 1917 which took place on the streets of St. Petersburg, where he still lives, on the Tchaikovsky Street of the title. As a structure, it shouldn't work but somehow it does.
Russia emerges as a place the author loves but does not always like. The reader is left with the impression of a rough, hard country, its people battered down by whatever awful ruler happens to be in power irrespective of political persuasion.
While Vladimir Putin is not a central character, the atmospherics of his rule are palpable. "He's God - the 'czar' who can steal left and right... and hand out punishments," Waterdrinker's father-in-law tells him.
Three cheers also (or maybe three slugs of quality vodka) for translators, those most unheralded workhorses of the publishing industry. The book was written in Dutch and translated by Paul Evans, a Welsh poet.
Evans has done the most amazing job in rendering the exuberant and inventive prose for English-reading audiences.
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