Author Lisa Dickey trekked across Russia through 11 cities, from Vladivostok in Siberia all the way to St. Petersburg, in 1995, 2005, and 2015, In Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia (2017), she documented the last trip while comparing it to what she saw and experienced during the first two trips. She tried to visit the same places and people each time, so it is a fascinating look at what has changed and what has stayed the same, including herself.
The title comes from something several of the Russian people she visited told her about what they believe Americans think about Russia–“What, do they think we have bears running around in the streets?” In 2015, many Russians seemed to be very sensitive about how their country is viewed in the United States–Dickey hears the “bears in the streets” line over and over, but had not heard the expression on either of the previous two trips.
In 1995, she accompanied a photojournalist with a digital camera, and posted photos and stories to a brand-new World Wide Web. In 2005, she did the trip again, this time with a different photographer, posting updates to a daily blog through the Washington Post. In 2015, she went alone with the intention of writing this book. Something that makes her 2015 journey especially interesting is that she has a wife back in the United States. On her previous trips, she had avoided any discussion of her orientation with the Russians she met, and as a young single person, she could easily change the subject. But in 2013, Russia had passed a law outlawing the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors,” which reportedly resulted in increasing anti-gay attitudes. She wasn’t willing to lie but was afraid that for her own safety she might have to.
I love reading travel memoirs, reading about the author’s experiences in and learning about places I will likely never get to see, and this one is no exception. Did you know that Vladivostok is less than 100 miles from the border with North Korea and even closer to China? That in the 1920’s, more than 20 years before Israel was established, Stalin created a Jewish homeland in Russia? It’s 4000 miles away from Moscow, in Birobidzhan. Dickey visits a farm near Galtai where when a sheep is slaughtered for dinner, is told “This is how Genghis Khan taught us to kill sheep.” She joins an expedition on Lake Baikal, the oldest, deepest, and largest freshwater lake in the world–it holds the combined volume of all of North America’s Great Lakes put together. In Novosibirsk, she reunites with a group of gay friends she met in 1995 and 2005. In Chelyabinsk, she reunites with a wealthy industrialist family and has some political conversations about Presidents Obama and Putin and the American media.
There is virtually no anti-fat bias, except for a single joke where one friend notes that since the last time she saw them, his wife lost ten kilos but he found them. And Dickey very carefully comes out to many of the friends she’s now known for twenty years.
I highly recommend Bears in the Streets; it’s a wonderful exploration of a hugely diverse place that most Americans won’t get to experience, written with insight and humor.