THE TITLE FASCINATED ME , Assumptions and Misunderstandings, Memoir of an Unwitting Spy. Had the Peace Corps changed so much since I was in it that the CIA was now using PCVs as sources of information? Was I about to find out the truth behind the Bush administration? To be honest, I’m still trying to figure out why the book has such a title. The only spying going on was not by the author, Anne Bates Linden, but by her interpreter who was in the employ of the Ukraine government as the Peace Corps first enters the former Communist nation.
Unfortunately, the title is the most intriguing part of this book. Though Linden stayed in Ukraine for almost three years, this book covers only from Thanksgiving of 1992 to Christmas of 1993, a mere thirteen months. By the end of the book, you would love to know why she stayed so long since all she does is tell the reader how bad things are and how much she hates the weather, the long lines, and the general incompetence.
The book begins with nine pages devoted to the great effort the author put into helping to fix a Thanksgiving dinner for the Peace Corps Volunteers who had just arrived for in country training. I thought this was a rather strange beginning until I realized that at least three more times her only feelings of accomplishment during this first year were concerned with fixing food for others. Remembering my own first impressions of Ethiopia in 1964, I was rather startled by her constant criticism of everything Ukraine as she receives her “in country” training.
The reader quickly becomes aware that this is one situation that the Peace Corps did not accurately assess. As the USSR broke into separate states and turned from socialism to private enterprise, Ukraine and other newly independent nations asked for assistance from the business community. Congress had agreed to fund the project provided the Volunteers were in place by Christmas of 1992. Thus Linden, and many of the others with her, has a background in business, but no sense of the Peace Corps. They have been whisked off to a nation about which they know nothing and put into a haphazard training program that is totally inadequate to the situation.
Anyone interested in learning how bad things were as these nations moved from a state controlled economy to one with private enterprise may find this book fascinating. The author gives one example after another of how hard it is to find things, how bad the public facilities are, how dangerous it is, and how long the lines are. I assume from the introduction by Sheila Kowal that there is an attempt at humor here, but I must admit that I missed it. I look back on my memories of getting to know a culture, a people, and my fellow Volunteers with fondness. Linden does it with anger and frustration. In addition, the book does not flow particularly well as she wanders from place to place without giving the reader an overview to make it all sensible.
Finally, after two hundred pages, she crosses the border (after waiting in line for fifteen hours again) on the way to Christmas in Vienna. You have the feeling that this is the end of the story, a final joyful moment of leaving a desolate and discouraging experience, never to return. Except that there is one more page, an “Afterward” that describes a return in January. She has no office, no workable stove, no job, and her letters for the next three months never arrive at their destinations. That is the end of her story except for an appendix with letters praising what a wonderful job she did. I guess those letters got through.