“’I remembered that in Russian, you can’t simply say ‘I’m married.’ It’s a gendered construction, meaning you either say ‘I am wifed,’ or ‘I am husbanded’ (technically, ‘I am behind husband,’ which deserves a dissertation of its own). So I looked Sofia in the eye and said, in Russian, ‘I am wifed.’
She smiled indulgently. ‘No, you are husbanded.’ She figured I’d misspoken.
‘Actually,’ I said, ‘I am wifed.'”
Lisa Dickey’s Bears in the Streets is a memoir of three journeys across Russia in 1995, 2005 and 2015. Dickey visits the same locations and in most cases stays with the same hosts each time, tracking changes for individual Russians along with the country’s politics and fortunes. That human interest alone makes it a fascinating read; with the current, constant news about how deeply the Trump campaign seems to have been entwined with Vladimir Putin’s political machine, the book could not be more timely.
There is an extra level of interest added by the fact that Russian culture (as clumsy a generalization for me to make as to suggest that there is a monolithic American culture) is generally less tolerant of the LGBT community and Dickey is out, gay and married. By her 2015 trip, the Russian Duma had passed a law against spreading gay propaganda. The roughly translated term “propaganda” is deliberately kept vague: one could theoretically be prosecuted for wearing a rainbow bracelet outside, or for being seen by a child while walking down the street holding hands with a same-sex partner.
If you’ve traveled across rural or red-state U.S. — or even if you’ve suddenly found yourself deeper in chitchat with your big-liberal-city supermarket cashier or Lyft driver than you meant to go — you have probably had to make a rapid calculation: Can I stay as out as I usually am? Or should I put one foot into a travel closet?
Dickey makes that calculation over and over again in Bears in the Streets. She visits ordinary Russian citizens who share their lives and homes and, in one memorable case, their sheep with her. By her third journey, Dickey has known her hosts for twenty years and feels deceptive for hiding something as significant as her marriage. Even something as simple and normal as connecting on Facebook becomes tricky — accepting the friend request means opening up Dickey’s album of big gay wedding photos. Dickey’s case-by-case decisions to risk these friendships in the name of deepening them will be familiar to American LGBT folks who don’t live in islands of tolerance: Carefully tell the contemporaries who love you, but maybe don’t trouble grandma.
Interestingly, the most frequent answer Dickey gets when she mentions her marriage is some variation on “I’m OK with it, but you should be careful about telling anyone else,” another moment which will resonate with LGBT travelers across certain parts of the U.S.
These moments of larger policy and culture made intensely personal make Bears in the Streets a compelling read. When Dickey makes her first trip in 1995, Russia is still reeling from the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Her hosts are chafing at the idea that their country is no longer a feared and respected superpower and making the adjustment from at least knowing they would always have basic staples under Communism to a wildly unpredictable economy. In 2005, the country is flush with oil money and enjoying a capitalist boom. But in 2015, the ruble has collapsed and United State sanctions have been causing an economic sting. Russia is flexing its political muscle again and Dickey’s Russian hosts sometimes show a distinctly nationalistic hostility to the U.S.
Dickey gives the book a location-by-location structure rather trip-by-trip to give the reader a focused, sometimes heart-wrenching look at how each family’s lives are affected by these larger turns of fate. Scientists studying Russia’s enormous Lake Baikal see their research funds grow, shift, and pinch — as the lake itself sees an influx of tourists and money that in turn ushers in a worrying sponge die-off and possible ecological catastrophe. A Buryat “gentleman farmer” in a remote village starts out working government grants to his advantage but ends up scraping through the grinding hardship of the country’s agricultural decline. A shy 11-year-old grows into a stunning young woman with an easy embrace of designer fashions. Along the way, Dickey shares the magic of poker, enjoys a private living room drag show in Novosibirsk, attends a Hare Krishna ceremony with a Muscovite rap star, and is offered quantities of alcohol that would stagger a grizzly bear.
About those bears. The book’s title comes from the now-prevalent Russian assumption that Americans think Russians are such backwards rubes that there are bears roaming the streets. That assumption that they don’t get enough respect from the U.S. is just one of the reasons that Putin turns out to be astonishingly popular. Honestly, the sections in which Dickey’s hosts explain why they like — even literally worship — Putin helped me understand why so many Americans love Donald Trump. The Russians Dickey talks to, no matter how seemingly Westernized, tend to feel resentful because they feel they’ve pushed aside from a prominent place in world affairs to which their country is naturally entitled. They’re fed a steady diet of media that is mostly controlled by Putin and loathe Barack Obama for all the damage they believe he has done to their country and, by extension, to them personally. Putin’s strongman moves on the world stage have made them feel feared and thus respected again — and, worryingly, it makes them willing to brush off little things like a few murdered journalists.
Dickey’s hosts are always careful to emphasize that their dislike of America’s politics don’t translate to a dislike of her personally. Even after openly hostile exchanges about international relations, including an infuriating accusation that the U.S. itself engineered the 9/11 attacks, Dickey’s hosts easily separate policies from people. They don’t like the U.S., but they like Americans just fine. As Putin’s meddling in our 2016 election becomes more apparent, that’s a worthwhile attitude to adopt ourselves.
Bears in the Streets would be a fascinating and pleasurable read in any era. Today, as Putin makes moves to support fascists across Europe and we find out how deep the Trump administration’s ties to his government go, the layered understanding the book offers of Russia and its people is vital.