Backing up in the USSR
Forty-one years after his journey through the Soviet Union, Dominique Lapierre still presents a lopsided view of his youth, writes Paramita Ghosh.Updated: Jan 07, 2008 14:50 IST
Once Upon a Time in the Soviet Union
FULL CIRCLE * RS 295 PP 221
Dominique lapierre gets it right and he gets it wrong. The pitch, for example, was perfect. The road trip by two French journalists and their wives, armed against Soviet Communism with little Eiffel Towers and perfume samples, was bound to tickle the finest voyeurism instincts of western Europe.
How the other half - eastern Europe - lived would make dream copy and colour for magazines ready to commission a travel project in order to lay out the worst.
Post-Stalin Soviet Union was indeed a place of immense fascination - a two-way fascination actually - for the West. It was the time of the Krushchev thaw when, for the first time, the Western media were allowed to drive through the Iron Curtain. And did they make the most of it! <b1>
Russia wanted to present a picture of 'growth' and peaceful co-existence with capitalism; Europe wanted a photo album. Lapierre says this so often that there's no question of reading it in any other way: "Our appetite was insatiable. We wanted to see Russians, laugh with Russians, sing with Russians. Quickly, Slava (the Russian journalist accompanying the French team), show us your compatriots."
And elsewhere: "A dazzling dinner enabled us to initiate Slava and Vera to the delights of foiegras, one dish that that their country's Sixth Agricultural Plan had not yet envisaged to provide..."
Once Upon a Time in the Soviet Union is clearly not the Lapierre of Is Paris Burning?, that wonderful witness to the twin stories (of the race to save Paris both from the Germans and itself) breaking simultaneously at the time of the Allied liberation of the French capital at the end of World War II.
On the other hand, this book's high-spirited, cowboy enthusiasm for the foreign and what is fashion- ably unfashionable - Soviet Russia was a dark, dank place devoid of culture, elegance and foie gras, if you please - shows that Lapierre is just a popular writer, writing not what people wanted to say, but what they wanted to hear What is most surprising is, however, the time of publication. <b2>
What curiosity does this book seek to satisfy 41 years after the undertaken journey? The pictures in Once Upon a Time give a clue.
Specimens of 'hardy' Russian life - the Minsk railway worker, the Moscow sales assistant, the Ukranian peasant, the Tiflis surgeon, the factory worker in Gorki, the 'dream car for people used to trayelling in trucks,' 'the unforgettable handshakes of the Kremlin leaders', 'the Russians enthusiasm for charming Parisian girls' are all a playing out of the same instincts that piloted the project, of museumisation.
What was once exotic, now in Putin's Russia make beautiful ruins, and how wonderful that here's a book that captures that! The Soviet Union was most certainly an unsuccessful project, but it is important to remember what this book does not - that the legacy of the Bolshevik revolution must be dit^ferentiated from the fate of the Soviet State.
What the revolution tried to do was to replace the Tsar and the Church and give power to the Soviet, the workers. Under Stalin, the Party became that Power The drawback of all communist governments to thus resolve the tensions of social equality with individual liberty has led to a degenerate State that today's Russia is a good example of.
Mr Lapierre should go to Russia now and write another book to re-evaluate the lopsided view of his youth.