Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
-William Butler Yeats.
After visiting the eye clinic to pick up my new eyeglasses, (my first pair ever), I paid a visit to the public library which luckily for me just happened to be located a mere stone’s throw away. As I bumbled blurry-eyed through the shelves a pair of books happened to grab my attention. One of them was 8 Pieces of Empire: A 20-Year Journey Through the Former Soviet Union. Remembering how much I enjoyed Ian Frazier’s 2010 book Travels in Siberia, I decided to take a chance on it. In retrospect, while I tempted to say that I found Lawrence Scott Sheets’ book to be very good, but not outstanding, nevertheless I must have enjoyed reading his collection of intimate and eye-witness accounts of life in the former lands of the Soviet Union because it took me only a few days to read 8 Pieces of Empire. Therefore, in the end I must have been fairly pleased with it.
It some ways it’s a bit of an odd book. While technically a memoir, it lacks a complete narrative arc with beginning, middle and end. Also, he refuses to offer any grand thesis or explanation of why or how the USSR imploded. But honestly, that’s all irrelevant since Sheets does an admirable job serving up street-level reporting of the chaotic, painful and sometimes bloody events that followed the Soviet Union’s collapse starting in the late 1980s. Thanks to years of interviews conducted while serving as a reporter for NPR and Reuters, countless Russians, Ukrainians, Chechens, Uzbeks and Armenians are able to speak for themselves and therefore give expert testimony to sweeping changes that have occurred across the old Soviet empire. Likewise, his firsthand accounts of wars, local revolutions, ethnic strife and political instability causes one to ask not why the USSR eventually collapsed but why didn’t it happen sooner.
Another sign that I liked this book is like any good writing, it’s inspired me to read more. Christopher Aslan Alexander’s A Carpet Ride to Khiva: Seven Years on the Silk Road has been sitting unread on my desk for several months and I think it’s high time I finally read it. I also think it’s time I checked out David Remnick’s Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire. Lastly, maybe 2012 will be the year I finally read Hedrick Smith’s The Russians and The New Russians. Only time will tell.