The back cover of Michelle Carter’s From Under the Russian Snow promises a “memoir from Russia’s bubble of freedom in the pre-Putin era,” written by a fifty-year-old woman who left a position as managing editor of a daily newspaper to spend a year as a United States Information Agency Journalist-in-Residence in 1995 Russia.
Carter’s book certainly delivers the promised depiction of her professional efforts in a dramatically changing country at an extraordinary historical time; however, it does much more than that. It also intertwines details of the ordinary life—a loving marriage of twenty-eight years, young-adult children, friends, church, and work—that she left behind. The two worlds collide when Carter’s “Great Adventure in Russia” is interrupted by a personal tragedy. Her skillful rendering of both foreign (Russia) and familiar (family, love, and loss) terrains makes for an engaging narrative.
During her year in Russia, Carter’s task is to “work with newspaper editors across Russia to ease their rough transition from a controlled media to a free and independent press.” The descriptions of the successes and glitches in that process are interesting and informative.
But it is Carter’s depictions of the curiosities and frustrations of daily life that amuse and entertain. She struggles with the phone, the Internet, the overwhelming cold, and treacherous sidewalks. Her neighbors admonish her to avoid contacting firemen or the police because of their propensity to “steal everything.” The grocery shopping practices seem straight out of a Marx Brothers movie. The omnipresent babushkas dispense unsolicited advice and loud commentary. Stunned by the absence of taxis, Carter adopts the peculiar practice (to a 1995 American) of soliciting a ride from a stranger by stopping a passing car, negotiating a price, and hoping that the driver is trustworthy enough to get her where she wants to go. She braves Russian air travel and encounters some bizarre practices, such as cramming planks to cover the aisle in order to squeeze in more passengers than the plane can safely carry. Carter’s descriptions underscore the fact that she is a keen observer who often sees life through a humorous lens.
While the memoir offers clear portrayals of the Russians and fellow Americans whom Carter encounters in her job, it also includes glimpses into her family and friends at home. I surmised early on what was going to happen but not how; finding the “how” added another dimension to the book.
It wasn’t the suspense, however, that primarily held my attention. From the outset, I was engaged Carter’s realistic portrait of her marriage and family dynamics. I felt that I knew these ordinary people; more importantly, I cared about what happened to them.
A few extras in the book enhance its readability. One is the map which simultaneously locates the many cities Carter visited during her Great Adventure in Russia and underscores how vast this country of eleven time zones is. Another: the copies of some of the articles she wrote for the newspaper at home and of emails written to her husband.
From Under the Russian Snow provides insights into a different culture and into people like ourselves, with families, friends, jobs, struggles, losses, and resilience. The book is short (223 pages), well-written, and satisfying.