Black Earth City (by Charlotte Hobson)

I had never heard of Charlotte Hobson, and I doubt if I would even have looked at this book in a shop. However, I was given it by a friend a few years ago. Then it sat on my to-be-read shelf waiting patiently to be chosen. I finally picked it up about a week ago, and have just finished reading it.

I had mistakenly assumed, at first, that ‘Black Earth City’ is fiction. I quickly realised as I started to read that it’s a biographical account of the author’s first year in Russia, in the early 1990s. She went to a small town called Voronezh with a fellow student as part of her Russian Studies university course. Names have been changed, as we’re told at the beginning of the account, and the details of some places and incidents also changed. But the bulk of the account is - I presume - factual and honest.

The author arrived shortly after the coup that began the fall of Communism, and spent her year amongst locals, learning the language and culture as part of the student community. So the account is a mixture of her personal life, the people she got to know, and comments on politics and the dissolution of the USSR from the point of view of someone living through it.

The writing is good, the pace works well. I’m no history buff and knew very little about the situation in Russia; I feel a little more educated about it now, with a great deal more awareness of the abject poverty and rampant inflation that made survival increasingly difficult for many.

However, it didn’t ever feel like a coherent whole. Some biographies tell stories, some tell facts. I prefer the story-telling ones, and there are elements of this; it begins very well with the story of how Charlotte came to be studying Russian, and why she decided to go to Voronezh rather than the much bigger faculty in Moscow. But it doesn’t really mention what she expected, or indeed much about her feelings at all. It’s told in the first person, through her eyes, and there are some interesting detours into other people’s story-telling or anecdotes.

But the characters all merged together in my mind. Evidently the author knew them all as individuals, but I found it impossible to remember who was whom. Maybe it was deliberate that they all melded into one, a relic of the Communist ‘proletariat’, but as one who prefers character-driven fiction, it didn’t make for very interesting reading, even though some of the stories told, by themselves, were fascinating.

I also found the endless vodka-drinking and joint-rolling to be tedious in the extreme. Perhaps this is what some students do; perhaps it’s what all Russian students did in the early 1990s. But it seemed to occupy far too much of the narrative, when I’m sure there must have been many interesting things left out.

Worth reading once; could be of interest to anyone who would like to know what Russia was like from an outsider’s perspective in this significant year. But I doubt if I’ll be reading it again.

Review copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

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