The Vodka Diaries: A Peace Corps Volunteer’s Adventures in Russia
Richard Sayette (Russian Far East 1994–95)
Peace Corps Writers
$16.00 (paperback), $9,99 (Kindle)
Reviewed by James W. Skelton, Jr. (Ethiopia 1970–72)
I jumped at the chance to review Richard Sayette’s Vodka Diaries: a Peace Corps Volunteer’s Adventures in Russia because I made well over 120 business trips to Russia between 1989 and 2007, working on various international transactions as a lawyer, plus I served in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia in the early 1970s. Since the time I spent in Russia was almost totally dedicated to working on oil and gas deals while residing in hotels in Western Russia, I was fascinated by the prospect of finding out what it was like for Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) to live and work in Eastern Russia in the mid-1990s.
I was surprised when I took my first look inside the book because there weren’t any maps or photos to assist the reader in getting a feel for the place and the people. In addition, instead of organizing the stories into separate chapters, the author uses dates (August 3, 1994 to October 2, 1995) as headings to separate the book into small sections. This journal-like approach to the stories, which is written mostly in the present tense, put me off at first, but I learned to accept it due to the author’s clear and engaging style of writing.
Although the vodka drinking stories struck me as the dominant theme of the book, the author’s relationship with his Russian “family,” his Russian coworkers and friends, as well as his PCV friends is what this book is all about.During training in Eastern Russia at that time, the Peace Corps provided language and cultural instruction at the local university in Vladivostok during the day. In the evenings, however, the PCVs were assigned to live with Russian families in that city. Richard was paired with a small family, and established a very close relationship with the adults, Uri and Jenya, but not so much with their university-aged son, Timofey. Almost immediately, he gives his Russian parents the nicknames “Mama” and “Papa,” and they are very much charmed by the American.
Richard describes some disturbing scenes, such as during training on September 4, 1994, when he and his PCV friend, John, were walking along a street in Vladivostok while a boy riding a bicycle passed them and stopped to stare at them. Out of nowhere, the boy is hit by a car and he and his bike go sprawling into the street where the boy ends up in a pool of his own blood and lies there motionless. The two PCVs then “stood up and hustled away” and nothing further is said about the injured boy. Granted, it was a short passage in the book, but it leaves the wrong impression with the reader, who fully expects the PCVs to help the boy, regardless of their lack of Russian language speaking abilities at the time.
Eventually, Richard is assigned to work in the business center in the city of Artyom, which is about 20 miles north of Vladivostok. This provides him the opportunity to make frequent trips back to visit some PCV friends and his adopted Russian family in Vladivostok. In Artyom, he quickly gains a certain level of celebrity as the only American in town, and unashamedly admits that he enjoys being the center of attention. His Russian language abilities are very good by then.
It appears that the mafia is an accepted part of life in Artyom, and citizens there appear to work around the mafia in a way that seems artificial. On January 8, 1995, however, Richard and his PCV friend, Gary, venture into a so-called mafia bar, called Vladimir, and proceed to get drunk, dance with the prostitutes and get into a very bloody and nearly fatal fight with some of the mafia patrons. Richard is so badly injured that he is sent home to the States for 45 days to recover from his injuries. Although he probably had doubts about returning to Russia, to his credit, Richard is determined to go back and continue his service. He seems to do so seamlessly and proceeds to get even more famous through his interaction with his fellow Artyom business center employees, his social activities with his Russian friends, and his involvement in making arrangements for training the new group of Peace Corps trainees in Artyom.
One gets the feeling during certain scenes, however, that Richard is simply too honest and open and provides too much information about his encounters with women and bottles of vodka. It would be unfair to accuse him of debauchery, but there are times when his escapades seem to exceed the bounds of reasonableness by quite a wide margin.
His decision to terminate early is painful for both Richard and his friends. He is held in high esteem by everyone except, inexplicably, the woman who is to become the next Peace Corps country director in Russia. The last good byes are described in detail, making it clear that there was a great deal of sadness on both sides in connection with the end of Richard’s great adventure.
This book is a very good read and provides numerous interesting, insightful and amusing stories about the lives of Russians families and individuals, as well as the lives of PCVs who were engaged in the early stages of the existence of the Peace Corps in Eastern Russia.
Jim Skelton served in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia from 1970-72, and worked in the Smallpox Eradication Program there. He is the lead editor and a coauthor of a book entitled Eradicating Smallpox in Ethiopia: Peace Corps Volunteers’ Accounts of Their Adventures, Challenges and Achievements, which will be published by Peace Corps Writers in 2019. He has also published a memoir about his life as a PCV in Ethiopia, Volunteering In Ethiopia: A Peace Corps Odyssey
Jim has practiced law for more than 43 years, specializing in upstream international petroleum transactions in emerging markets. His work has taken him to over 35 countries in Europe, the Former Soviet Union, the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America.
He served as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Houston Law Center from 2008 to 2016, teaching the course in “Energy Law: Doing Business in Emerging Markets,” and is a coauthor of the second edition of the textbook Doing Business in Emerging Markets: A Transactional Course. He has published 23 articles for legal periodicals and books, and has made 18 presentations at international conferences in Houston, Dallas, London and Moscow.