Robert Service, twice biographer of Lenin, reveals himself in this volume to be a writer of small things: of the anekdot, or joke, which larded Russian conversation in the Communist era, and does so still; of the revealing characteristics of leaders, such as Boris Yeltsin’s habit of playing spoons on the pates of bald underlings; of the rankings of authors borrowed from Russian public libraries (James Hadley Chase first, Dostoevsky fifth, and Mickey Spillane, Arthur Conan Doyle and Maxim Gorky sharing nineteenth spot).
Great buildings are made of small bricks, and post - Communist Russia is revealed in these and a myriad other facts, held together by Service’s slightly staccato but always clear narrative. He reveals himself, too, as one who likes, even loves Russia (not invariably the case, with Russianists), because of, as well as in spite of, its messiness, its frustrations, its tantrums, and the overwhelming emotional power of its people.
In the game that everyone who writes about contemporary Russia feels compelled to play, Service presents himself as a cautious pessimist, having been, when the Soviet Union ended, a cautious optimist. He says he ‘did not foresee the full scale of the ensuing disappointment’. The book is a chronicle,