I picked this book on a whim, judging books by their covers as one does in a bookstore, and really thoroughly enjoyed it. The concept is simple: journalist Lisa Dickey travelled across Russia in 1995, shortly after the collapse of the old Soviet Union, in the company of a photographer who planned the trip and was looking for a writer to accompany him. Ten years later, she went back with a different photographer, to visit the same places and the same people. Then, in 2015, she made a third journey, this time alone. In each chapter she talks about one of the places she visited and the people she met there, comparing her 1995, 2005, and 2015 journeys.
Things change, but it’s hard to draw generalizations. Most of the places Dickey visited were more prosperous and much more connected to the outside world in 2015 than they had been in 1995. Most individuals, but by no means all, were more prosperous than they had been 20 years earlier. Almost everybody loved Vladimir Putin. Some people were optimistic about the future of their country and the world; others were less sanguine.
Mostly, though, what made this book so readable was not just the birds’-eye view of 20 years of Russian history, but the personal element — Dickey’s relationships with the people she visited, and how those people’s lives had changed over the intervening years. The encounters were thought-provoking, funny, and sometimes deeply moving, especially in the chapter where Dickey (herself a lesbian, who worried about keeping her marital status secret in Putin’s anti-gay Russia in 2015) spends time with a group of mostly closeted gay Russians.
If Lisa Dickey goes back to Russia in 2025, I definitely want to read about it.