Book Review: Bears in the Streets

Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia
Published By: St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: January 30, 2017
Page Count: 256
Source: Kindly Provided by Publisher
Adult - Nonfiction

You can't turn on any news channel these days without hearing something about Russia. Politics aside, Russia has always been an intriguing, exotic place in my mind. There is a rich history that flows deeply through the veins of the country. While I have learned about the Russia of the Czars, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Cold War Soviets, and the fall of the Iron Curtain, I don't know as much about modern Russia as I should. As the political climate of the world becomes more heated and unsure, I found myself drawn to this travel book when approached by the publisher. I wanted to understand what life is like beyond Moscow and how Russian culture has changed since the end of the Cold War. I love reading social histories that allow glimpses into real peoples' lives beyond what you can find in a typical textbook. I don't just want to know about the famous people who dominate the news.

Lisa Dickey has had the fabulous opportunity to travel throughout Russia on three separate occasions in 1995, 2005, and 2015. During her trips, she visited the same cities and interviewed the same people (for the most part) on each return visit to track how Russia was evolving from its weakened state after the Cold War to a stronger nation in more recent years. Dickey has also mentioned her desire to return in 2025 to follow up once again. I loved that she visited places I had heard of like Moscow and St. Petersburg, but that she also spent time in places I had never heard of that bordered Siberia or were located in the interior. Russia is far more vast and complex than I had ever imagined. I never expected there to be so many ethnicities in Russia such as the Buryat, which were a group I had never heard of before.

The trip in 1995 was fairly close to the end of the Cold War so life was certainly different than it was when she returned in 2015. Her last visit lined up with a time of economic downturn in which many of the people she spoke with missed the Soviet regime because it was predictable. Economic uncertainly is stressful and many Americans can relate to those feelings after we experienced our recession. 

While our cultures and languages may be vastly different, we do have some common experiences. I was fascinated by the Russian perception of Americans. It was often skewed by politicians and the media - just as the American view of Russians is influenced by politics and the media. In fact, the title of the novel comes from the fact that Russians believe that most Americans think of them as being an archaic nation that allows bears to roam the streets. While this was never in my mind before, I couldn't help but have a visual image stuck in my head of bears ambling through Red Square which was utter ridiculous.

While seeing Russia has been a dream of mine, I'm not sure it will ever happen due to the current state of world affairs. It was nice to live vicariously through Dickey and the Russians she interviewed.

One Last Gripe: I enjoyed reading about some of the locations more than others. 

Favorite Thing About This Book: Learning about real people living real lives - nothing was scripted or overly planned

First Sentence: I'm walking down Vladivostok's Admiral Fokin Street, a tidy, tree-lined pedestrian mall with a view of sparkling Sportivnaya Harbor in the distance.

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.