‘If you have a few hours spare and are interested in great Russian writing, re-read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn instead’ – Born in Siberia by Tamara Astafieva

bisIf you ever bother to read the blurbs, this is what you would see on the inside cover of Born In Siberia: ‘Tamara Astafieva’s extraordinary story, which reads, at times, like one of the traditional fables from the beautiful but fearsome land in which she was born, is also the story of millions of other ordinary Russians and their families during this last, most troubled century in her vast country’s long and turbulent history.’  Expecting a fascinating and probably enlightening read, you would eagerly turn the first pages, only to find yourself getting more and more puzzled the further you go.

Astafieva is a pleasant, normal – if a tad too melodramatic, but that’s a common trait in many Russians; I am Russian myself so I should know – woman who meets Michael Darlow, the editor of the future book, during her work at a Soviet press agency APN Novosti in the late 60s. She is assigned to help him with day-to-day duties as he works on a documentary which will eventually be called Ten Days that Shook The World for Granada Television. They work together during Darlow’s several visits to the Soviet Union, and then Astafieva falls ‘out of favour’ with her Soviet bosses, is moved to another department and they lose touch. Forty years later, she sends Darlow some poems and essays she has been writing, and they begin a correspondence which leads him to a decision to publish this memoir.

As an idea, this could have worked. Some of Astafieva’s experiences could have been turned into fascinating stories, full of Russian flavour and uncanny events. Unfortunately, the actual result is a sort of a study book on modern Russian history based on the example of one person, complete with extensive footnotes offering detailed explanations of anything a typical Westerner (and often even a Russian) would not know. Luba Ioffe’s stiff translation does not help either, rendering the memoir cumbersome and often awkward to read. The assumptions made in the blurb are left unproven too. Whilst Astafieva is probably a perfectly pleasant lady, there does not seem to be anything particularly extraordinary about her life, especially if the other assumption that millions of ordinary Russians have had exactly the same lives is to be believed.

Some name dropping goes on, however, most names also have to be explained by the footnotes since they are unknown to anyone who does not have a particular interest in Soviet cinema of 1960s. We get to see some drama too – my favourite moment is when Astafieva’s father decides to get his wife back by sending her an imaginative telegram saying that their daughter has had both of her legs amputated. There is a glimpse of what Soviet life looked like to a Westerner when we read Darlow’s notes of his stay in Soviet Union. And then we get many mundane details of Astafieva’s everyday life which are presented as a demonstration of how life was for ‘millions of ordinary Russians’.

Any Cop?: Contemporary Russian literature has some brilliant names – it’s a pity that what gets translated and made available to the Western reader is Born in Siberia. If you have a few hours spare and are interested in great Russian writing, re-read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn instead.

Maia Nikitina


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