Under my byline

Road trip to history

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 29 November 2007

How two young French journalists motored through Khrushchev’s Soviet Union

Once Upon a Time in the Soviet Union
Dominique Lapierre
trans. Kathryn Spink
Full Circle
pp 240

Perhaps it isn’t wise for a reviewer to shoot his bolt in the first paragraph. Still, here’s my conclusion: this is a delightful, charming and entertaining book. In reverse order. First it is entertaining, then charming, and finally delightful. The last stage is attained when Lapierre describes himself exploring the beach at Yalta, the Soviet equivalent of Cannes, “picking my way between bellies and buttocks”. Suddenly, “a young man in his underpants” accosts him roughly and tries to seize his Leica. A crowd instantly gathers, of course, and the young man loudly accuses Lapierre of photographing “only the ugliest people”, saying that as a simple Soviet citizen he cannot tolerate this disgrace.

The obligatory lone policeman on the scene sizes things up, drapes an arm across Lapierre’s shoulders and scolds the poor young patriot for disrespecting a tovarich foreigner and guest. Onlookers apologise to Lapierre on behalf of their rude countryman, who by now is blushing and stammering, and one urges him to go on doing whatever he wants.

Could any but a Frenchman tell a story like this? Summary: the star Paris Match reporter casts his assessing eye and is amused and incredulous, sympathetic yet unapologetic, and unshaken in his certainties. None of that awkward Anglo-Saxon post-colonial cultural relativity.

The road trip about which this book is written was unique in its time. Lapierre and his friend, the photographer Jean-Pierre Pedrazzini, along with their wives Aliette and Annie, won extraordinary permission from Khrushchev himself in 1956 to drive through the USSR as a gesture of friendship. The Iron Curtain was still impenetrable — but Stalin had recently died, and Khrushchev’s denunciation of his regime was fresh and heralded big changes.

They won their entry by being good journalists — that is, imaginative, persistent and resourceful, but also likeable. Lapierre and Pedrazzini were in their mid-20s, and their youthfulness clearly both helped and protected them. Without it, they would never have had the audacity to demand such unprecedented access, nor enjoy the trip so unabashedly and have such a thoroughly good time driving at top speed in a handsome capitalist automobile across post-Stalinist Russia.

Now, however, 50 years have passed, and Pedrazzini and Slava Petoukhov, the Pravda journalist who accompanied (and kept an eye on) them and eventually became their friend, are long dead. Yet Lapierre, the survivor, writes as if through the eyes of his 25-year-old self. This is both an accomplishment and a bit odd. In the first place, it makes this record of their journey much lighter and simpler than it ought to be. Who’d have thought that a three-month and 13,000-km trip through the postwar USSR could be covered in 200 big-print pages?

Lapierre does it by thinking like a journalist and highlighting the scoops. The prime scoop, once they were in the USSR, was their unmediated access to ordinary Soviet citizens. Their car, a two-tone Simca Marly, drew admiring crowds wherever they stopped. Often all they had to do was stop at the right place and pick a candidate. So the book contains affectionate profiles of a railway worker, a sales assistant, a collective farm peasant, a surgeon and a car-factory worker. To the journalists’ great surprise, although they lacked many comforts, most people seemed happy.

There’s not much, then, of certain topics that would have interested an Anglo-Saxon traveller. It’s all ends, no means. We learn little about the travel itself, or the travellers. No monologues through which the traveller observes himself assimilating and reconciling to his experiences. Not enough about living in a surveilled society. No long conversations with Russians reconstructed as illustrative set pieces. Nothing that enables the reader to really partake of the journey.

Nonetheless, and despite Lapierre’s relentless charm, this is a profound book. It carries, somehow, a 1950s air, the vigour and joie de vivre of the protagonists, a hint of tragedy, and what I can only think of as a modernist notion of the individual as exemplar, as shining standard: The Westerner, The Journalist, The Worker, The Peasant. If the reader knows his history, he cannot fail to be moved.

If only the book were better presented! The translation is inexpert, the proofing careless, the photographs badly laid out, and the print quality truly appalling.

(Read an interview with Dominique Lapierre here.)

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