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Reviewed by:
  • Russia’s Carnival: The Smells, Sights, and Sounds of Transition
  • Robert Owen Krikorian
Christoph Neidhart , Russia’s Carnival: The Smells, Sights, and Sounds of Transition. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2003. 264 pp. $26.95.

Today's Russia smells different from the Soviet Union, and different from Russia any previous time. Russia looks different—as do the other post- Communist societies compared to before the fall of Communism. Russia sounds different, her touch is different, the food tastes as never before. People dress differently from the way they used to.

(p. 1, emphasis in original)

Thus begins a fascinating and unorthodox account of Russia's post-Soviet transition. Christoph Neidhart—a senior columnist for Die Weltwoche, Switzerland's leading newsmagazine, and a distinguished journalist with many years of experience observing firsthand the Soviet Union and its successor states—has written an innovative and provocative book detailing the unprecedented changes experienced by the people of Russia. Using the carnival metaphor of the Russian writer and philosopher, Mikhail Bakhtin, Neidhart chronicles the everyday transformations and adaptations of a people [End Page 190] and society as they attempt to cope with the many uncertainties of life in post- Soviet Russia. By focusing on the five senses of sight, sound, scent, taste, and touch, Neidhart shows how all aspects of life in Russia have changed. He also explores how time and money have come to be redefined in the post-Soviet era, as well as what he calls the new role models for Russians; namely, Mafiosi and prostitutes.

Unlike many first-hand accounts of Russia, which are often based on insufficient background information and little in-country experience, Neidhart's work is the result of many years of living in Russia. But it is much more than that; it is the intellectual culmination of a serious attempt to understand and experience for himself the nearly incomprehensible changes in the daily lives of average citizens. As he explains,

Soviet life required very special skills, avoidance strategies, and tricks. No school could have taught these skills: one learned them by being part of the system. Only a few people were familiar with both the Soviet reality and the outside world. Hence, hardly anyone was "fluent" in both the Soviet and a Western nonverbal code and thus able to "translate" the Soviets' nonverbal language to foreigners.

(p. 8)

Neidhart is one of the few foreigners able to "translate" between cultures and societies. He does this with a critical eye, while maintaining respect and empathy for the trials and tribulations of the people he is studying. Neidhart convincingly shows the Potemkin village–like nature of Soviet society and the astounding extent to which the Communist Party apparatchiks would go to convince Soviet citizens otherwise. Although most Soviet citizens were not deceived, many outside the USSR were, including a large proportion of supposed experts on the Soviet Union. Neidhart also demonstrates the resiliency of the people and their striving for some sort of normality in their lives, after years of uncertainty and upheaval. Those who have lived or worked in the Soviet Union or its successor states will find themselves nodding in agreement at Neidhart's insights and observations, as well as his descriptions of the contrasts between Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. For example, the dullness and monotony of Soviet-era buildings, devoid of commercial advertisements yet replete with Party slogans and exhortations, are contrasted with the multicolored reality of today's urban life in Russia. The seemingly common, everyday aspects of life are imbued with a significance and meaning not always apparent to the untrained eye. What many observers of Russia dismiss as trivial, such as smell, taste, or perception, are in fact important markers in the shift in Russian identity. This ongoing process of defining and redefining the new Russia and one's place in it has implications far beyond the "mere" study of society. It also touches on core aspects of Russia's economic and political development, as well as the ways Russians view their role in world affairs.

Russia's Carnival is a well-researched work that combines theoretical sophistication with penetrating insight. Neidhart has done a considerable amount of research...