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Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia

Lisa Dickey

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jan 31, 2017
Category: Non Fiction

In 1948, John Steinbeck and photographer Robert Capa traveled across Russia. “In the papers every day there were thousands of words about Russia — what Stalin was thinking about, the plans of the Russian General Staff, the dispositions of troops, experiments with atomic weapons and guided missiles, all of this by people who had not been there, and whose source were not above reproach,” Steinbeck wrote in A Russian Journal. “And it occurred to us that there were some things that nobody wrote about Russia, and they were the things that interested us most of all…There must be a private life of the Russian people, and that we could not read about because no one wrote about it, and no one photographed it.”

Such a good idea! And now Lisa Dickey has done Steinbeck one better. No, two better, because in “Bears in the Streets,” she travels across Russia three times in 20 years, each time visiting the same people.

The first time, in 1995, she was 27 years old and living in St. Petersburg. She wrote many articles. She sold very few. But her rent was $100 a month. If she reduced her diet to potatoes, carrots, cabbage, and beer, she could make it in Russia for a year. Then she saw a photographer’s ad:

I have a project that I am in the early stages of planning… The basic idea is a trip across Russia by car, St. Petersburg to Vladivostok (maybe the other way around). I plan to take two to three months to complete the journey, stopping in big cities, small towns and villages. I want to shoot a very personal b&w photo essay, a sort of photo journal that documents the people, places and experiences that will make up the trip…

Over 12 weeks, the photographer and his young writer traveled 5,000 miles and had “several screaming fights and approximately 6,000 vodka shots.” They met lighthouse keepers 100 miles from the border of North Korea, Jews in the “Autonomous Region” created by Stalin, a couple in Siberia, had a sheep slaughtered for a barbeque in their honor in a village untouched by time, boated with mollusk scientists on Lake Baikal, were the only guests at a private drag show in Novosibirsk — they found exactly what Steinbeck had, a sprinkling of humanity. [To read an excerpt, click here. To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

[Disclosure: I met Lisa Dickey in 1997. I was working at AOL, she was the researcher for a book on AOL. We met for burgers at a biker bar across the street from the police station in Leesburg, Virginia. The bikers were no threat. Lisa was. She peppered me with uncomfortable questions, and when the check came, had no money. As a ghostwriter, she helped write 17 nonfiction books, including eight New York Times bestsellers, and yet, for 20 years, she has owed me $9.25. Despite this, we are friends.]

In 2005, she returned to Russia, this time with money and an assignment from the Washington Post. “I didn’t tell the Russians I’d met in 1995 that I was coming back, opting instead to surprise them,” she writes “Miraculously, through a combination of decade-old hand-scribbled notes, Google, manic perseverance, and stupid luck, I found almost everybody we’d done stories about on that first trip.”

Ten years later, she’s got an iPhone and Skype. And again, she surprises everyone. Almost all of her subjects — now her old friends — are happy to see her. Only this time, she’s the one who’s surprised. Several are prosperous. Lake Baikal — perhaps the most important freshwater lake on the planet — is troubled. And then there’s politics.

Who loves Putin? Who distrusts Obama? Who hates American support for a “free” Ukraine? Who knows only what state-ruled media tells them? Who’s kind of like a mirror image of… us?

“Bears in the streets?” She hears it often in Russia — it’s what many Russians seem to think we think about Russia. So, yes, “Bears in the Streets” is a delightful travelogue. But then there’s the book tucked quietly inside it, the study of a culture and its values, and how people come to believe the truths they live by.