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Plumbing the Soviet puzzle

EPICS OF EVERYDAY LIFEEncounters in A Changing Russia

By Susan Richards

Viking, $22.95

It's often said in the Soviet Union that you can't understand Russia with your mind, only your soul. Russians like to think of their culture as a spiritual puzzle, incomprehensible to outsiders. But why, against all evidence to the contrary, do they always insist it's so holy?

"It would take years of study to comprehend the way our minds work," a Russian woman once told me. "Why?" I asked. After thinking for a moment, she said, "I suppose because life has made us all crazy."

A large percentage of the Soviet population thinks that 70 years of communism has, in fact, damaged them genetically, or at least that it will take generations to eliminate the effects of communist brainwashing and several more to become civilized.

Except for occasional glimpses of logic, kindness and other virtues often associated with reasonable behavior, Susan Richards, in her new book Epics of Everyday Life , finds little to contradict the idea that Soviets are their own worst enemies. Whether this is a condition brought on by centuries of unrelenting hardship or the last seven decades under Marxism is a question left up in the air. But whatever the cause, the outcome speaks for itself. Soviets live in a society where normal reality is upside-down.

"I tried to explain what had been happening; how every day I seemed to understand less and less of what went on around me," writes Richards. "

"Understand!' this mild-mannered man broke in, incensed at the word. "You are speaking like a Westerner! Logically! But life here is not logical! Understanding immobilizes! Once you understand the problem here, you know that it is irremediable. It is better not to understand too much if you want to remain free to act!' "

These days, everyone, it seems, wants to know what's going on in the Soviet Union, not in the Kremlin so much as in ordinary daily life. Richards provides some fascinating answers in this impressionistic study of how people survive in a country that remains largely an enigma for foreigners and a burden for natives.

Richards is a little too willing to believe Russian mumbo-jumbo _ "How then was I to proceed through this looking glass world?" Still, she offers an unblinking account of the mess Communists have made of people's lives, particularly women's lives. Walking down the street in Moscow one day, she comes across the dead body of a woman who has just committed suicide by jumping out of her apartment window. In Baku, she learns that, because of strict local customs, women are virtual prisoners in their homes, and those who do venture out are often kidnapped by men looking for wives.

The worst crime the Soviets have committed, though, has been the destruction of the human imagination. Richards tells the sad story of a Russian woman who dreamed of becoming an artist when her father described the confiscated paintings he was assigned to guard after the revolution.

Richards does a good job in capturing the hopelessness so common in the Soviet Union where most Russians see no way out of their troubles short of emigrating to the West. This is a fascinating portrait of despair, relieved by Richards' obvious sympathy for her subject, although her tendency to be swept away by the Russians' mystical whining detracts from an otherwise interesting and valuable book.

Bill Thomas, a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun, is at work on a book for Dutton about the changing Soviet economy.