Little Tenement On The Volga
Reviewed by Bill Mithoefer
Wednesday, October 3 2001, 2:59 PM
"This book tells the stories of a handful of people who live in the Volga city of Samara. Their personal dramas are reflected countless times throughout Russia. For nearly half a century these people lived behind a double iron curtain, as their city was one of the many areas of the former Soviet Union closed to westerners..."
"Today cannibalism has returned in a metaphorical sense as former communists grow rich by dismantling and selling off the state's resources."
- From the Preface of Little Tenement On The Volga.
Anyone suspicious of neoliberal proclamations about the failure of communism in the former Soviet Union during the nineteen eighties should read Little Tenement. Lewis sketches the chaotic growth and absurd manifestations of post-Perestroika capitalism in the small town of Samara. She demonstrates the pitfalls of rapid economic restructuring through the eyes of young businessmen, young women and the downtrodden babushka population, older Russian women who toil long hours for very little renumeration. Best of all, the story told comes directly from the mouths of the people themselves.
Boris a local parvenu, enters Specialist Alley, accompanied at all times by the sounds of Rod Stewart emanating from the boombox on his shoulder. Boris is sure that he is in imitation of the English aristocracy. His entrepreneurial apprenticeship begins with the theft and sale of books from the library, where he works as a librarian. From there, Boris moved on to a toilet-cleaning business where he "employed the filthiest lush of a babushka as an attendant." He would eventually sack her without pay. Boris moved on to buying pharmaceuticals from vodka-swilling surgeons to supply a shortage in Vietnam. He eventually ended up in the electronics business, selling hand-held electric-shock machines, TV's and VCR's. The stun-guns were a popular and profitable substitute for real guns.
Other entrepreneurs regularly use former KGB goons to collect on bad debts. Wild and free-wheeling capitalism in the black market economy helps continue the scarcity common under communism.
For women, marriage is held as a desirable tradition. However, women end up working long hours and are expected to cook and clean for their usually alcoholic husbands. The women of Samara tend to see nothing wrong with this, completely resigned to their fate. The older women tend to enforce these ideals, moving in with their sons' families to take care of their overgrown "babies."
Many of the "babushkas," as the older women are called, grew up under Stalin. Walton details the "poverty mentality" resigning them to their fate. But the young capitalists continue to scoff at their parents who, "[r]emembering days of hunger and chaos, ...preferred the peace and relatively high living standards of the post-war years to the uncertainties of today." A retired professor remarked that "physical hardship was nothing compared to her despair when they threatened to change the red stars on the Kremlin towers for the double-headed Tsarist eagle." "[W]hat [were we] trying to achieve [?]"
In Chapaevsk, most of the youth spend their time drinking and doing drugs because there is nothing else. Teenage pregnancy is popular, for single mothers easily obtain apartments. The dislocation caused by the introduction of a market economy has caused massive social unrest. The scarcity of former times and despair under previous regimes still exists and rampant corruption has destroyed the well-being of the former republics. The author warns that this has created a mindset leading to the growing nationalism and unrest in the former Soviet Union.
For anyone interested in the dark side of post-Cold War Russia, Little Tenement is indeed an eye-opener. While much of the western press has focused on the growing discrepancy between rich and poor in the former Soviet Union, Little Tenement provides a compelling first-person account of everyday life in a nation sliding into market-induced anarchy.
Little Tenement On The Volga is available from Garrett County Press
Bill Mithoefer is a writer and jazz musician currently working in the Australian outback