Where Bears Roam the Streets
by Jeff Parker
Harper Collins (2014)
Reviewed by Lizy Mostowski
Jeff Parker captures post-Soviet, pre-Sochi Olympics Russia through the lens of both an outsider and an insider—he is not Russian-born—Parker was raised in Florida—yet he isn’t the Western journalist who coined the hashtag #sochiproblems either. He began travelling with an international writing program—Summer Literary Seminars, founded by Concordia University Professor Mikhail Iossel—to St. Petersburg in 1998, and has had a taste for Russia ever since.
This book is the fruit of ten summers’ (and a couple of winters’) worth of travelling through Russia with his friend Igor, Where Bears Roam the Streets shows two perspectives on the same experience: Parker’s own American perspective as well as Igor’s Russian perspective. Parker’s lens transitions from that of an investigative reporter, to that of a tourist, and finally to that of a writer, all while giving readers simultaneously a tour of and a guide to Russia that is both humourous and practical, allowing for lighthearted yet weighty insights, for example the difference between how Russians and Americans use the metric system: “Russian bartenders measure alcohol in the units North Americans reserve for cocaine and saturated fat.”
In writing Where the Bears Roam the Streets: A Russia Journal, Jeff Parker himself inhabits a characteristic that he recognizes in his Russian friends—what he calls “the Duality”, or put simply, the tendency to contradict yourself—he is an insider to Western readers and an outsider to Russian readers—his take of Russia is at once honest and critical. First Parker calls Bruce Hopper’s accusation that Russians are “a contradictory animal” politically incorrect and soon echoes the idea: “Russians are known simultaneously for their great capacity for hospitality to strangers and for hard-core xenophobia.” His narrative voice is always aware of itself, unafraid to reveal the spaces where he is unable to guide his reader. “Much of this performance is either beyond my Russian or untranslatable”, Parker admits when transcribing a conversation. This model of duality is used to discuss various aspects of Russian society: “I do not know any poetry by heart, and I am an English professor,” the beauty of a Russian education is allowed to shine through when Parker notes that you cannot expect an American farmer to know Whitman, but can expect a Russian farmer to pick his favourite among the Russian greats. Though memorization is not acclaimed as the best method to teach literature, Parker still allows the old model a nostalgic place in his commentary. Concurrently, Parker critiques American society and culture while drawing a realistic portrait of contemporary Russia. Both his perspective and his character as it appears throughout the book have a certain contradictory quality: he admits to being perceived as a spy to some and to others a celebrity while travelling through Russia.
Though he is not perfectly fluent in Russian, he is mistaken for a Russian by fellow Americans visiting St. Petersburg for Summer Literary Seminars: “You hardly have an accent,” they told him. Parker admits to never having mastered the Russian slang called mat, however is proud of master speaking English with a Russian accent. Whether through meticulous research, experience, or personal knowledge, Parker is a perfect translator from his Russian experience to written English, explaining linguistic nuances in Russian language as well as he explains the politics of cultural rituals in Russia. He explains krolik is “domesticated rabbit, not hare” and diminutive forms mean not only that we are friends, but “My fish are cuter.” The physical and psychological benefits of the Russian banya—the steam room, the birch beatings, the cold bath—are recognized as well as humourized in the book, “There were Russian jokes during World War II suggesting that if they could only get Hitler into a banya, they could end the war.”
Russia is portrayed in a light that is neither condemning nor valourizing—the encounters with the types of cops my parents remember from Communist Poland, the beauty of the Eastern European belief that vodka cures everything, and the shadow that is domestic abuse are all equally explored with careful attention. Parker is able to smoothly transition between serious and whimsical aspects of contemporary Russian culture. His comments on Russian society are both overt and subtle: “The problem is people have nothing to live for,” he writes in his examination of Russian “democracy”. “I saw a theatre-beggar at the coat check retrieving a mink coat,” Parker notes of a beggar that spent his earnings on a theatre ticket. “Russians confuse power with sexiness,” Parker cleverly states, noting that the post-Soviet, pre-Putin desire to escape that resulted in the stereotype of the Russian mail-order bride diminished after Putin’s election along with the desire to escape Russia. This is the book that should have been (if only it came out a year earlier) on the required reading list of every Western reporter who travelled to Sochi to cover the 2014 Winter Olympics. If the reporters who tweeted #sochiproblems had read of Igor’s experience staying in a hotel in Britain, I doubt that we would have so many photos of Russian bathrooms with sarcastic taglines archived on the internet. Igor’s reaction to Western luxury would allow Westerners a new perspective: “‘Everyday, we were sitting and wondering why she is giving us every day two rolls,’ Igor says. ‘Like we were shitting all day.’” The culture shock that Igor experienced is well conveyed by Parker: “Did the cleaning lady imagine Russian men like them went through two rolls of toilet paper per day? Was it some kind of insult?” Through Igor and his experience, Parker is able to tell Russia’s truth that some of these journalists were not able to perforate. Cultural symbols and phenomena that seem familiar to a Western audience are translated to the reader to a Russian perspective: “McDonald’s is popular here because of its bathroom,” Igor tells Parker, “People all over the city go there to pee.” Where the Bears Roam the Streets allows Western readers to read Russian society through a lens that is neither entirely foreign nor entirely familiar to them, allowing them to experience Russia without the pretention of Western expectation.