In 1996 Ivan Petrov began telling this his "life story" to C. S. Walton, and what a story indeed it is. The events of his life with never a dull paragraph read like a novel. It is at once a story of a life of poverty in Russia during the time of the former Soviet Union (Petrov was born in 1935), a road memoir, a treatise on homelessness, an account of life in prison (Petrov was in and out of prison for petty crimes usually associated with drinking), and ultimately a sad but never self-pitying commentary on alcoholism. It is every bit as good as the best examples from these genres, notably Woody Guthrie's BOUND FOR GLORY, George Jackson's SOLEDAD BROTHER and Lars Eighner's TRAVELS WITH LISBETH.
As a youngster Petrov lived in Chapaevsk near a prison and a statute of Stalin and by the age of fifteen had been drunk on vodka twelve times. For the rest of his life, as he remembers it, he is never far from "hair-of-the-dog" and the possibility of prison is very real to him. As a child, Petrov is beaten by his stepfather Dobrinin (his father is in prison) but he remembers also his step-grandmother who loved gladioli and asters and French novels.
Petrov's tale is filled with appropriate imagery; and as horrific as some of the events he recounts are, he remembers them often with delightful humor. Midge-bites make mosquitoes "seem as harmless as butterflies." One morning after a night of hard drinking, Petrov feels as if a reindeer herd has spent the night in his mouth. And Soviet railway stations by their warmth and 24 hour beer stands attract tramps [like Petrov] "like wasps to a jamjar." His story of why the mourners at a wake could not identify the meat in dumplings made from a slaughtered cow (the poor, senile cook had gotten one of her breasts ground up in the meat mincer) will make you wince but smile; his account of why another drunk, one Klava, always told time as eight o'clock will make you laugh out loud.
Petrov, although he never completely gets sober-- at least in these pages-- ultimately attempts to find some meaning in his existence and accepts responsibility for the life he has lived. He concludes that you can neither love nor hate people, "when they are all so different." He understands (as do most thinking adults) that he will not set the world on fire. He accepts or becomes "less disturbed" by his physical disability (he has a "crippled leg") and learns that he "could live without a home, possessions or human companionship." Certainly for one who has seen and lived through all the horrors of poverty, alcoholism and homelessness as this man did, Petrov's world view could have been much bleaker. He reminds me of one of Robert Browning's characters who was comforted by what he could have been and did not become.
As I read this fine and thoughtful book, I wondered how Ms. Walton and Mr. Petrov met, did she tape his story, what was the Western country where they met, is he still alive-- he would have been sixty-one when they met-- did he ever get sober?
RUSSIA THROUGH A SHOT GLASS is as fine a memoir as I have read.