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Russia: A People Viewed From A Different Angle

By Julie Corwin

Prague, 8 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- While Moscow is riveted by the Kremlin's current political gyrations, one suspects after reading Fen Montaigne's "Reeling in Russia" (St. Martin's Press; New York, 1998) that the Russian countryside may be paying only scant attention.

Montaigne, a former Moscow-based correspondent for the "Philadelphia Inquirer," journeyed over 6,000 miles from Murmansk to Kamchatka with fly-fishing rod in one hand and notepad in the other. The book that results is part travelogue, part reflection on Russia--a kind of contemporary Marquis de Custine goes fishing. By skipping Moscow altogether, Montaigne provides a useful antidote to most Western media coverage of Russia, which rarely ventures out of one time zone, let alone covers all 11.

The portrait of the people that emerges is one of a populace anesthetized by alcohol, deeply mistrustful of political institutions, and reduced by economic upheavals to eking out little more than a subsistence-level income. The few individuals with energy and initiative face constant setbacks.

For example, Victor Chumak, one of Russia's first private farmers living in Rtysheva, in Saratov Oblast watched the foundation of his small agricultural empire erode overnight. Interest rates on bank loans hit 200 percent, and the bank repossessed his 12 tractors, two harvesters, and three trucks.

In the village of Umba on the Kola Peninsula, Victor Shmelyov, a former highly paid truck driver now unable to find work, has been reduced to taking whatever odd jobs he can find, such as ushering foreigners around in his broken-down van.

And then there are the individuals who don't participate in the economy any differently than their forebears might have 100 years ago: Vasily Volkov and his daughter Yelena pick berries on Kola Peninsula during the high season and spend the rest of their time fishing on the lakes and rivers in the forests of Karelia. The berries they sell for 14 dollars a bucket; the fish they trade for bread and cured pork. Their only source of steady income is Volkov's monthly pension, worth about 60 dollars a month.

The Volkov's relationship is similar to that of most of people Montaigne encounters. They don't just live on the land, they live off it. They see the forests, rivers, lakes as vast basins of inexhaustible resources that exist to be exploited. Poaching is the rule, enforcement of fishing regulations the exception.

On the Kola River, biologists estimate that poachers kill up to 50 percent of the salmon run. Some poachers catch enough fish merely to feed their families, while others string large nets across the mouths of rivers and make hundreds of thousands of dollars a season. Inspectors are routinely bribed to look the other way; those who won't are transferred.

At one point, an American naturalist tries to persuade his listeners in Kamchatka that efforts must be made to preserve Russia's unique steelhead trout before it disappears from the local Utkholok, Tigil, Kvachina, and Snatolveyem Rivers, as it did in the American Pacific Northwest.

Against the background of these individual struggles and on almost every page of the book is vodka. Consumed in vast quantities late into the evening as well as early in the morning, it appears to function as the social/political/economic lubricant, numbing the population to unnecessary indignities while at the same time making everything run less evenly.

At Kem on the Karelian coast, Montaigne encounters Yevgeny Nikonov, the owner of a small lumber mill, who argues that he must keep a cap on wages in order to preserve a minimum level of sobriety at his business. Nikonov says, "'The average worker wants to earn only enough for a bottle of vodka a day, two packs of cigarettes, and a little food. If you pay him more, he'll drink a second bottle and not come to work the next day."

Nikonov claims that the workers he fired for drunkenness on the job have vandalized his house and boat and robbed the store run by his sister several times.

When reporting his experiences directly, Montaigne is an engaging writer. He can make a character and a place come to life quickly. His zest for adventure, quiet sense of humor, and a profound love for Russia make him an entertaining guide. His attempts, however, to wrap up the Russian national character every five pages or so become tiresome, and at times the long fishing interludes distributed over longer intervals feel like a device--or, even perhaps, a ploy by a publishing company eager to find a way to market a book about rural Russia to group of consumers who routinely pay 60 to 100 dollars for new graphite rods.

Perhaps for his next book, Montaigne should leave the rods at home and stay in one place--possibly a struggling former collective farm. He writes with feeling and obvious enthusiasm about agriculture, and a longer stay with the people he writes about might enable him to make them seem less stereotypical: less Vasily the Peasant and Andrei the New Russian and more like vivid, unique individuals.