READER BEWARE: Sharon Hudgins tells you up front that much of her memoir, The Other Side of Russia, might seem negative. She is not kidding. Hudgins chronicles, at times in excruciating detail, some 3,000 miles of life as I saw it across Russian Asia from August of 1993 to December of 1994. And what she saw, frankly, doesnt sound all that much fun. This is not the kind of travelogue that is going to pry the unadventurous from their sofas.
Hudgins and her husband Tom, teachers in a U.S.-Russian joint undergraduate business program at the Far Eastern State University in Vladivostok and the State University in Irkutsk, endure power outages, picnic with the Mafia, eat stuffed sheeps stomach, and live in poorly-built high-rises with no working elevator. They are spied on, suffer loud neighbors, are frustrated by their students and discover that water in Russia can range in color from clear to amber to orange to purple to black, with accompanying aromas of petroleum, sewer gas, ham, rotten eggs, or fish.
In between, the Hudgins find their silver lining in friendships and food. In fact, food quickly emerges as one of the most interesting themes of the book. The menu for their first dinner party spans three pages and the chapter on the Market Economy is almost exclusively dedicated to hunting and gathering in the food markets. It is only near the end of the book that it becomes clear why Hudgins reveals she is a food writer. (More astute readers would have learned this earlier by reading her bio on the back cover.)
She is also a scholar of Soviet-U.S. relations, and her knowledge of the history and people of Russian Asia bolsters her experiences with an authority and understanding that most current travel guides of the area lack.
Hudgins account of her seventeen months in a country emerging from authoritarianism is highly readable but never becomes a good story. Memories, anecdotes and amusing asides about life in strange land are difficult to package into a compelling plot that engages the reader. You know what Sharon and Tom did and endured in Russia, but never quite understand why they did it. The numerous, and entirely positive, reader reviews on Amazon.com laud the book for its humor, rich detail and sense of adventure in a place few Americans have gone. But none report a desire to follow in their footsteps. One reviewer writes:
Siberia is a cruel place, one must conclude from reading this book, yet a place where people survive in a hardtack economy buffeted with long cold winters and brief, sometimes sweltering summers, away from the dependable comforts of our world, a place pitifully short on glamour and indoor plumbing, a place I would rather read about than experience first hand.
When Sharon and Tom board their plane home, the reader shares their sense of joy that they are leaving Absurdistan, Toms name for his new home at the outset of the story.
Hudgins did, indeed, capture the absurdities of life in Russia beyond the Urals. In 1995, I myself followed in a few of her footsteps as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Vladivostok. Her descriptions of battling babushkas on public transport and the surly salesgirls in the stores rang very true. As did her stories of long, soulful nights of vodka-drinking and zakuski-eating in the homes of new friends. It is a country of amazing contrasts, none less so than between the public and private spheres.
What is not reflected in her stories, though, is recognition that she and Tom were equally absurd. Two Americans gallivanting across Siberia and the Russian Far East in a period of intense economic and social change had to appear a bit odd to the natives. One of the most common questions I and every other Peace Corps Volunteer would get from Russians is what did you do wrong that they sent you here? The fact that we would voluntarily work and live in a place undergoing so much upheaval was as inexplicable to our hosts as much of the their way of life was to us. This would have been even more the case with Tom and Sharon, who arrived in the region two years earlier.
Unfortunately, Hudgins never exploits this mutual absurdity in her stories. We never have a chance to really get to know the Russians that she encounters. They seem to only have bit parts in her excursions, shopping expeditions and dinner parties. With a few exceptions, we never discover much about them, and we never find out what they really think about these two Americans who fell from the sky to teach them how to survive and prosper in their new world.
What you get, instead, is just life as she saw it. She has some terrific adventures, and for the uninitiated, she provides a real taste of life in Russia. Her chapter on the Buryat, an indigenous people who live on the edge of Siberia, is especially noteworthy. But, in the end, this is her way of saying that she was there.
Robert Greenan was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Russian Far East and is currently a Special Assistant in the Department of States Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.