17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on 8 October 2003
This is a wonderful book, by a consummate journalist. Vanora Bennett opens with a touchingly honest description of how she first fell in love with faraway Russia, and her enduring desire to taste real caviar on the shores of the Caspian sea. But this was no romantic search for "the taste of dreams" as it might have been the days of Turgenev or Tolstoy. Bennett's years in Russia coincided with the implosion of the Soviet Union, when the mood was euphoric but highly volatile, where people partied through the night as gunshots re-echoed in the streets. And Bennett was right there at every party; making friends with rogues and gangsters, students and journalists, fishermen and peasant families, as they lived through great hope and terrible tragedy. The book reverberates with their voices, offering a brilliantly constructed mosaic, with perspectives from every stratum of society and every ethnic group. But in addition, threaded throughout, we are offered Bennett's own masterful expostions of Russian political history, which give a lucid context to the cultural turmoil she bore witness to.
This book is a must for anyone with an interest in foreign places, people and food and certainly anyone who wants a crash-course in recent Russian history. But above all, this is a book for anyone who likes to spend time listening to a brilliant, sensitive, funny and humane storyteller. That means you. Buy it.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 23 November 2014
I knew it. The girl in "The White Russian" and in "Midnight in St. Petersburg" is Vanora herself.
It's partly why, after reading those two books, I wanted to read the real story of her time in Russia.
The other reason was that, while she was in Russia watching the new nomenclatura stake their claim to the fruits of the people's labour, I was looking down the other end of the EBRD telescope from London and Dublin, watching capitalism and "democracy" take over from the centrally planned economy and the culture of widespread surveillance. Two very different perceptions of the same phenomenon - the micro and the macro.
The book might have been titled "A Sturgeon's View of the Fall of Communism" but it wouldn't have had the same romantic ring to it and it wouldn't have evoked the deep symbolism of caviar for Russians down the ages.
Another gripping read.
That's the order I read these books in. They were actually written the other way round.
I remember my French teacher once telling the class that the arabs came on holiday to Ireland for the rain. I thought, jaysus these guys must be off their heads. Here we are praying for sun the whole year round (unless you're a farmer) and here are these eejits chasing the rain. It finally dawned on me that you're always looking for what you haven't got and the bit of variety in life is essential.
However, when it comes to reporting from war zones, be they military or economic, you can get too much of a good thing. So, wisely in my view, Vanora finally pulled out of the vortex and settled for a more staid, but nonetheless rewarding, life in London.
This book is about the vortex. It whizzes along at breakneck speed, dragging you with it. You learn all about living on the edge in an environment that echoes the Russian revolution but going the other way.
In the midst of all the hubris "everyone was having a flutter with fate". Some won and others lost heavily. The smart guys were in there creaming it while the proles were even worse off than under the Soviets.
I remember a former senior EBRD official explaining to me at the time that while, unfortunately, all was then chaos, the oligarchs, who had snaffled all the wealth, would eventually develop an interest in law and order if only to protect their ill-gotten gains. Then would dawn the age of Aquarius.
The book is very interesting on the dollar bubble. Reminded me a bit of the celtic tiger. People living the high life like there was no tomorrow in the dollar zone while the ordinary folk struggled in rouble zone. The author tells it like it was and is very frank in her account of her own full participation in life in the dollar zone where the rouble folk were ignored. Fortunately for her it was a passing phase and she had returned to earth before she returned to London.
The story ends with her starting out on a new quest to trace her own family connections with Russia.
The book is a great read and I think I read the three books in the right order.
Check out my reviews of the other two on this site.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on 18 September 2003
Vanora Bennett's new book is truly one to savour. Her effortless, descriptive style is a joy. The powerful yet poignant imagery in the book is breathtaking. And it's just simply a fantastic read. Take it on holiday and enjoy - but it's so much more than that.
on 25 February 2013
I was recommended this book as I have links with Russia but have not actually been there myself. It lived up to its title! You really get the flavour of the country and its people at the time in which the writer lived there. I felt the fear, the longing for the real caviar, the longing for the real people and their stories. Vanora is a very good writer and has used her experience as a journalist to put into words the life of the people around her. If you want to know some of the stories that are not in history books or political journals but which reflect the society as it was lived around the 80s and 90s, then this book is a must.