- American Letters from Khrushchev’s Russia: Surprising Impressions of Life Behind the Iron Curtain, 1961–1962 by Douglas M. Bowden
Comprising letters sent to friends, colleagues, and relatives during a single academic year at Moscow State University, Bowden’s collection preserves the impressions of a young American medical student living and working in the Soviet Union during the early 1960s. Due to both a prolonged fascination with Russian language and culture and the prompting of his supervisor, Bowden temporarily suspended his studies at Stanford for training in psychophysiology under E. N. Sokolov in Moscow. The author set out on his journey with three goals: reaching fluency in Russian, gaining a “nontheoretical, nonpolitical personal sense of how the majority of more than 200 million people could maintain normal psychological function under a government intent on controlling every significant economic, political, philosophical, and spiritual institution in society,” as well as engaging in scientific research (P. 5). The letters that follow chart his progress in attainment.
Western journalists and travelers frequently recorded and published their impressions of the Soviet “other” during the Cold War. Books of this nature served as popular sources of knowledge for mass consumption regarding the operation of the party-state, popular attitudes, and everyday realities. Bowden’s observations fit within this genre of writing and exhibit many of the conventional commonplaces of the era (such as continual bewilderment at bureaucratic red tape). However, the author also provides glimpses into less readily familiar settings for American readers—the dorm room, the research laboratory, and the halls of the academy.
Where Bowden’s letters depart from similar memoirs is in his experience as a neuroscience researcher in Soviet labs. Indeed, Bowden’s language abilities allowed him to function as an intermediary between American and Soviet neuroscience communities as a translator and interpreter. These scientific exchanges facilitated the spread of Soviet work on perception and cognition overlooked by Western researchers. Unlike his colleagues in the humanities, Bowden found his work to be largely free of political hurdles due to the nonpolitical nature of his work. He portrays this time as one of comparative freedom from some of the strictures of the Stalinist past. “The Thaw,” by his estimation, allowed [End Page 304] for greater advances outside of the previously mandated confines of Pavlovian models in the scientific realm. Cold War politics arise in the form of shadowy discussions between scientists and “visitors in tailored black suits” regarding the application of computers to analyzing aerial photography (P. 98). Otherwise, Bowden remained far from the fray.
His prose generally avoids ideological sloganeering (aside from a few references to “human nature”) and describes interactions with Soviet citizens with sympathy. Critical passages reflect an attempt to intellectually engage with perceived systemic flaws and hypocrisies. In keeping with his initial goals, gradual acclimation to academic life in Moscow inspired a change in Bowden’s perception of the Soviet project. Upon arrival he was favorably impressed with the constructive energy buzzing around him, remarking, “here’s a people who are really on the move, and nothing’s stopping them!” (P. 66). This attitude shifted after a matter of weeks to the opposite: “I just couldn’t see how these people ever got anything done… People put up with great inconveniences in everyday life that would take far less than a full-blown Capitalist revolution or free elections to remedy—just minimal common sense on the part of the guys who make the rules” (Pp. 68–69). Rather than a comment on the quality of academic life (indeed, he praises aspects of Soviet psychophysiological work), Bowden sees intelligent people impeded by the weight of bureaucratic inefficiency.
Readers are provided a log of his travels, as he takes in the sights of Yaroslavl, Kiev, Sukhumi, and Tbilisi—experiences that broadened his perspective on the Soviet Union. Yet, on the other hand, dealings with students (expected in an academic setting) outside his lab make only a few appearances in the text. Bowden admits that contact even with...