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Vodka, Tears and Lenin’s Angel: My Adventures in the Wild and Woolly Former Soviet Union

by Jennifer Gould

Immediately following the collapse of communism in the former Soviet Union, newspapers and television news overflowed with the “firsts” of Russian capitalism – the well-stocked outdoor markets, McDonald’s restaurants, a “free” press, outstanding jazz, the new entrepreneurs. In the travels documented in Vodka, Tears and Lenin’s Angel, Jennifer Gould sees these, but she also witnesses stagnant poverty, smuggling, inflation, and “humiliation feeding on national humiliation.”

Gould, a 28-year-old, Toronto-born freelance journalist who now lives in New York City, quit her job at the Philadelphia Inquirer in February 1992, lured to the former Soviet Union by the euphoria – however chaotic – unleashed by the collapse of communism. It was a time for beginnings, both for Russia and for Gould. “Nothing much” happens in Canada, she writes, whereas her Russia is “an empty journal waiting to be filled.”

She’s not there two weeks when she lands a job at the Moscow Times. This venue, along with freelance assignments for Canadian and American publications, brings on her adventures: night clubs, the opening of the once-top-secret Communist Party archives, cab rides through the Kara Kum desert, a near-death robbery, and the horror of Chechnya, to name but a few.

She investigates the world of “sexpionage,” interviewing the women who work as “swallows” – secret agents who use sex to gather military intelligence. One of these women (allegedly) is Lee Harvey Oswald’s Russian widow, Marina Porter.

For Playboy magazine, Gould sails the Volga River for eight days chasing neo-fascist nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Of this, she writes: “I become journalist, priest-psychoanalyst, and woman, a symbol of all Zhirinovsky is attracted to and repelled by.” Whatever the case, Gould displays a keen political insight throughout the voyage, able to compare, for example, his sadistic personality to Russia’s political disarray.

In fact, throughout her travels and talks, Gould’s sensitive political antennae are ever-present and her mission is clear: to discover if Russia’s experiment with democracy is going to work. And this is the book’s main merit – along with rich and animated details in her descriptions, Gould writes intelligent commentary on the metamorphosis Russia is currently undergoing; her observations are such that serious political readers interested in the former Soviet Union will greatly benefit from her narrative.

The book’s title hints at Gould’s conclusion. “Lenin’s Angel” was Gould’s nickname at the Moscow Times, and stemmed from her belief that communism “in theory wasn’t so bad,” and that “Lenin’s spirit still hovers over Russia.” As for the vodka and tears, these sum up the Russia she came to know. Russians drink, rich or poor, no matter if they have something better to do. “After drinking, Russians cry. Tears of laughter, tears of sadness, of what might have been for the poor, of how many have been tortured and murdered for the rich, for those left with any tears left to give.” Perhaps Gould is overly pessimistic. Readers may decide otherwise.