Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Eight Pieces of Empire

Eight Pieces of Empire: a 20-year Journey Through the Soviet Collapse, by Lawrence Scott Sheets


I finally made it to the 90s in my quest through Soviet history!  I've had this book on my TBR pile since late last year, but I wanted to read more about the USSR itself before I read about its collapse.  This memoir contains some things that I remember--but mostly makes it clear just how much I was not paying attention to world news, at all, in the 1990s (during which I went to college, mostly did not have a TV, got married, and went to grad school; lots of studying and working, not a whole lot else).

Lawrence Scott Sheets, on the other hand, spent the 90s and 00s working as a reporter in the former USSR.  He sort of defaulted to being a war reporter, despite not actually planning to specialize in war.  Here he writes about what he saw and experienced during those years.

We start in 1989, with a student Sheets trekking to Russia to work on his language skills.  And gets questioned by a KGB agent who sort of offers him a job, maybe?  Memoirs of the USSR by Westerners usually seem to have this atmosphere that is a mixture of the awful and the absurd, and that's certainly happening here as Sheets wanders around, befriending everyone from shady watch dealers to elderly survivors of Leningrad.

After the USSR gives way to...some republics, Sheets heads to Georgia, which is (or was) a beautiful tiny country famed for resorts, wine, and hospitality.  It accidentally falls into civil war as ethnic groups clash and warlords emerge.  This will be a theme of the whole memoir.  (Sheets notes that one major leader is popular largely because of his father, a renowned Georgian writer.  Now I've got the only novel I could find in English.  Georgians, like Russians, are really invested in their literature.)

We spend some time in Azerbaijan and Armenia--also at war, partly civilly and partly with each other.  Then it's Chechnya, which is easily the most depressing and awful part.  It lurches from a secular independence movement into Islamist terrorism, partly thanks to the Russian determination to bungle everything as badly as possible.  After that, there's some really fascinating stuff about the Orthodox Church, so now I'd like to investigate that.

Sheets also goes to Central Asia, but is mostly focused on the US invasion of Afghanistan.  He talks about Uzbekistan, but is unable to really see the other Central Asian countries.  He finishes off with a visit to the area around Chernobyl--another intriguing interlude.

So this is not a description or history of what happened in each former Soviet republic.  Some places barely get a mention.  It's a personal travel/reporting memoir, and a very good one.  I'll be reading more about the Soviet collapse, and this is a pretty reasonable place to start.

A sample bit:
The Chechen government television station blared from a screen plopped onto the bar, offering a wild mix of local music videos, self-help programming, and battle cries.  One segment featured a commander in fatigues giving lessons, using a poiting stick and a diagram of a tank, calmly instructing fighters-to-be about the most vulnerable places on a tank's armor for an RPG or grenade launcher and how to go about this very possibly suicidal mission.
Later in the broadcasting evening were battle scenes of a Russian-language version of the Peter O'Toole classic Lawrence of Arabia.

2 comments:

Jenny @ Reading the End said...

That's a gorgeous cover! And the book sounds interesting. I don't know very much about this or any period in Soviet history. One of these days I'll get around to Russia in my nonfiction reading business!

Jean said...

Yeah, the cover alone grabbed me!