ANDREA LEE is in her twenties, a former graduate student in English with no particular knowledge of or understanding for Russia. She and her husband, a Russian history scholar, went to the Soviet Union for 10 months in 1978-79. Lee took notes about their adventures, their friends and her impressions. She sent an unsolicited manuscript to The New Yorker magazine, which published it in two lengthy installments (about as common an occurrence, I suspect, as being discovered in a Hollywood drugstore). And now comes the expanded version, excerpted in Vogue and The New York Times Magazine. A career is well launched--which is as it should be.
Lee writes very well. There is a warmth and freshness about her style that makes reading her book effortless. She takes us wherever she is, conveying a feeling of place and atmosphere that is the mark of real talent. "I wrote many of these pages," she says in her opening, "sitting in the musty chill of a reading room in the Lenin Library of Moscow, as Soviet and foreign academicians studied texts all around me. Very often I would stare out the window at the domes of the Kremlin cathedrals and then glance at the research in progress at other desks, thinking how comical it was that I, a foreigner who had never studied the Soviet Union, should sit here in a forest of scholars and write descriptions of shops and apartments and the person I'd drunk tea with the day before."
In fact, it was probably Lee's innocence that gave her the gall to undertake a work like this in the first place. An aspiring Sovietologist would be daunted by the need to draw conclusions and make judgments. Knowing how much one doesn't know can be debilitating when it comes to taking on a subject as broad as Soviet life today.
Yet, in most respects, Lee succeeds. Her descriptions of what it is like to be Russian are right on technical details and sensitive to cultural patterns. Her visits to the public baths and farmers' markets, her accounts of Sundays spent with friends or of an encounter with Soviet- style hippies strike responsive chords in someone, like me, who has the same memories. Moreover, humanizing the Russian people is especially important in politically tense times such as these.
What is best about the book--what distinguishes it from other books about the Soviet Union published in recent years--is her accounts of friendships with young people. Lee and her husband obviously took advantage of the opportunity to get around the country, and made many and varied contacts. Her insights into the materialism of Russian youth, the conservatism of some, the nihilism of others, tell us a lot about the coming generation of Soviets. This is valuable because the people she met include leaders of the next generation, who are Muscovites, many of them enrolled at Moscow University. A certain selectivity is at work in her sample. Lee's friends are people either authorized to mingle with foreigners or daring enough to do so. Foreigners tend to meet a preponderance of disenchanted or rebellious Soviets; that, evidently, was Lee's experience too.
There is one slightly awkward problem with the book. Andrea Lee, it turns out, is black. The only indication of this comes in a single sentence describing her meeting with an Ethiopian student. "Toward me," she writes, "he showed the absolute lack of interest with which many Africans greet American blacks." Later she quotes the student as saying that the Russian "masses call us black devils and spit at us in the street." There is nothing else in the book about Lee's experiences as a black. She writes in considerable and intimate detail about Russians, but tells us nothing about the part race may have played in her relationships with them.
Lee's husband is white. Interracial couples in the Soviet Union are extremely rare. That this did not lead her into some interesting encounters is hard to believe. Apparently, she feels that her blackness has nothing to do with her time in the Soviet Union. That is her business. But she never even says as much. Discovering that Andrea Lee is black gave me the feeling that, for all of its candor, Russian Journal is holding some things back.
Lee's reticence in other respects may be a cover for her naivet,e. For instance, she describes in a particularly entertaining chapter how she and her husband, Tom Fallows, spent Christmas Day at the home of Victor and Jennifer Louis. He is a special case, a Russian with well- known KGB credentials who works as a journalist and has been allowed to amass Western-style wealth. Her tale of his cars, gadgets and servants is fascinating. The idea of meeting Louis always gave me the creeps and for three years in Moscow I made a point of not making his acquaintance. The question is how this character came upon these two young graduate students. Why were they invited to his home on Christmas? Lee doesn't tell us, but one possibility is that Tom Fallows' brother, James, was President Carter's chief speechwriter. And in the world of the KGB, every contact counts.
Lee, in other words, is not a trained observer and did not--nor was she really equipped to--delve as deeply into the circumstances of her time in Moscow as, say, a conscientious journalist would.
For all its charm, Russian Journal is no more than it self-effacingly claims to be: a gifted young writer's impressions of a relatively short time in a new and very different world. That she got as far as she did in that world is a tribute to Andrea Lee.