On the one hand, the “expat’s eye” book has a long and sometimes-distinguished pedigree (heavens, one could even make the case that the tenth book of Pliny the Younger’s Epistulae could be considered an expat’s take on Bithynia-Pontus, first century Roman Turkey). On the other hand writing one means having to navigate a tricky route between blandly affirming “we’re all the same under the skin” banalities like a moralizing Disney special, and falling prey to the kind of patronizing Orientalism that ultimately brands Johnny Foreigner as being a splendid chap but not altogether civilized or grown-up because He’s Not One Of Us. The best of the genre, though, manage to highlight the genuine quirks, cultures and characteristics of its subjects without feeling to need to patronize and in the process not just entertain but also enlighten. George Mikes’s How To Be An Alien remains, in my mind, a classic study of the English which, even though it freely exaggerates and caricatures (“Continental people have sex lives; the English have hot-water bottles”) nonetheless is in so many ways spot-on about the, um, “English Condition.”
In this company, Lenin Lives Next Door, by 20-year-veteran US expat in Moscow Jennifer Eremeeva, is a an excellent addition to the canon that says much about the day-to-lives and aspirations of today’s Russians, still stranded between Soviet legacy and uncertain future, as well as the world of the expat in such a country. Everything from the art of constructive dismissal, Russian-style, to the invisible but iron-hard social hierarchies embedded within expat book clubs is rightly fair game.
Obviously it’s about drawing attention to the foibles and often excesses of both worlds. Indeed, it’s the kind of book crying out for the word “skewering” to appear somewhere in the review. Who or what is it really about, though?
It’s about Russians, including HRH, her various Handsome, Horrible, Helpful, etc Russian Husband, but a certain kind of middle-class-plus Muscovite. Expect no trolley-bus drivers from Tomsk or shelf-stackers from Shali. Likewise, it’s much more about the kind of expat who may or may not live in an actual gated community, but does exist in the informally gated ones of privilege, wealth and shared experiences. Eremeeva’s expat world is not the hand-to-mouth one of PhD students, English-language teachers and would-be journalism freelancers trying to scrape by in this expensive and unforgiving city.
Ultimately, though, it is about the encounter. It is about how Russians and foreigners meet, connect and collide, and through that, about how today’s Russia is still trying to negotiate its relationship with the West, the global market, the new age of world-spanning business, leisure and culture. In many ways one of the most entertaining and also most poignant chapters was Eremeeva’s dissection of the cult of the dacha, the primal ritual through which Russians feel closer to their Slavic peasant roots, even if the banya has an imported scent diffuser. The very primitivism of the dacha, even for people who at home would insist on a high-gloss psuedo-western remont—albeit with a cosmetic bent towards the aesthetics of the Parisian bordello or Ikea showroom—is a central part of the experience. They may live “po-zapadskii” but at least they can know that they dacha “po-Russkii.”
This, for me, was one of the most telling observations of this engaging and breezy book, how Russians themselves are torn between two worlds, and how foreigners seeking to engage with them meaningfully must themselves come to terms with the encounter. Even in Moscow, with enough resolution and money you can almost, almost pretend you are in the West. But Moscow is a jealous mistress and intrusive neighbor and at some point will insist on crossing those boundaries. Just ask any expat who has driven for a while in Russia whether they find themselves being more aggressive on the road when back home. What Eremeeva is describing, then—behind the fun tales of office Christmas parties and what distinguishes an Olga from an Irina—is the encounter, and the way Western influence is reshaping Russia, but only to a point; and Russia reshapes those Westerners who fall into its embrace.
Jennifer Eremeeva, Lenin Lives Next Door: Marriage, Martinis, and Mayhem in Moscow (Small Batch Books, 2014)