review by Steve Kaffen (Russia 1994-96)
St. Petersburg Bay Blues is a lively and engaging account of the author’s experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Russia, and a member of Russia 9, the last Western Russia (Moscow-based) group before the program closed.
Of note is the author’s impressive recall, without notes, of people, places, and events. He tells us, “Everywhere I went I carried a composition book, which I titled St. Petersburg Bay Blues. In it I wrote songs, poems, and the odd note or observation.” Unfortunately, the notebook was stolen. “I scrambled to write what I could remember. That’s what I have here, my attempt to document an experience that seems simultaneously alien and essential to my life.”
Expectations are dangerous for a book reviewer, and I was looking forward to a discussion, by an eyewitness, of the politics of the period and the particulars that led to Peace Corps’ being expelled from Russia, and the author’s group being early terminated. My Russia 2 group, which served about a decade before, shared a hopeful optimism that Russia’s transformation and Western engagement would succeed. The author covers this, but lightly and in conjunction with his personal experiences.
Interestingly, the author specifically requested Russia. “Moving to Russia as a Peace Corps Volunteer was the culmination of an obsession with the place I had developed towards the end of my undergraduate studies, although its roots stretched back even further.” In the eighth grade, he had visited the Soviet Union on a school trip, and that experience, which included Russian language lessons, helped him get the posting. Throughout the book, the author expresses his pleasure at being in Russia.
In my opinion, the author achieved, and articulately, what he set out to do: describe his experiences as a teacher trainer and language facilitator; as a member of Russia 9; as an American living in Russia; and as a resident of two distinctly different cities: Vladimir in Russia’s “Golden Ring” of historic towns and villages and not too far from Moscow, and after being required to leave when Vladimir no longer wished to host a Peace Corps Volunteer, huge and industrial Ekaterinburg in the Ural mountains on Siberia’s western border. The author describes his travels within and outside these regions including to Siberia and its stunning Lake Baikal and to the Baltics.
He details his group’s attrition, both voluntary and by request of the Russian authorities, from 56 at the outset to 19 at close of service. He relates to us the official reasons for termination and non-extension of visas as presented in a statement by the Director of the FSB (Russia’s Federal Security Service), that some Volunteers were “engaged in collecting information . . . ,” and in addition, that the Volunteers’ skill level did not meet the country’s needs. The question of “what are you really doing here” shadowed, to one degree or another, the Volunteers and the program throughout its 11-year tenure. Regarding skill level, the author informs us that “Most of us were young, recently out of college or just a couple of years removed.” The age symmetry did facilitate group cohesion in sharing the “culture shock, nerves, and excitement all of us were feeling. We had each other in common.”
The last pages describe the confusion and uncertainties of the group during the winding down of the program. There was an ongoing dribble of departures resulting from the requests of Russian officials, generally without explanation. The author describes a situation in which a group was traveling in neighboring Estonia when some were informed by e-mail that they had 30 days to depart Russia. They returned to their sites to say their goodbyes and pack their belongings while those avoiding the cut stayed on in Estonia. Ongoing, he learns of the departure of colleagues with whom he had become particularly close to, and whom he felt were doing good work. The author sensitively presents the unfolding events in such a way that the reader cannot help but empathize with the difficulties and frustrations of Volunteers trying to perform their teaching-related assignments while enduring the possibility of curtailed tenure at any time.
Throughout the book, we are treated to the author’s opinions on his project, his colleagues, the program, and Russia. The author has a wonderful way of sprinkling humor into his writing as he makes his points. An example is the way he describes the other Peace Corps program in Russia’s Far East: “They may as well have been on another planet.” The author’s selection and use of words is one of the book’s strengths.
To conclude, St. Petersburg Bay Blues is a well-written, informative, and interesting account of the author’s experiences, and observations as a Volunteer during a unique time in Peace Corps/Russia history. Read the book several times to gain an understanding of the author’s and his group’s experiences and emotions against the backdrop of Russia’s politics of the time. I think you will find the book engaging, absorbing, and enlightening.
Reviewer Steve Kaffen (Russia 1994-96) has explored most countries and has authored over a dozen related books including two that were named Best Travel Book by Peace Corps Worldwide. As the Peace Corps’ Assistant Inspector General for Auditing and Senior Auditor (2003–11), he personally reviewed about half (35) of its posts and made recommendations to strengthen their operations.
Steve has worked in public accounting (Deloite and Ernst & Young), corporate (Levi Strauss and Pathe Films), and government including the SEC and USAID, and he currently serves on the D.C. Metro’s advisory committees on Accessibility and on Bus & Rail transport. He grew up in New York City and has also lived in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Paris, and now Washington, DC.