Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email


We recently reviewed a wonderful and unique memoir/travelogue/history/sociology by Sharon Hudgins, The Other Side of Russia: A Slice of Life in Siberia and the Russian Far East. Ms Hudgins also graciously agreed to the following e-mail interview:

Orrin Judd: First, let me congratulate you on a marvelous book about a fascinating region of the world.  I wondered if you could tell us how you became interested in Russia, Siberia, and beyond?

Sharon Hudgins: When I was growing up in a small Texas town during the 1950s and 1960s, I dreamed of traveling and living in someplace different, someplace more interesting and exotic than my home town. At the same time, a new communications medium was bringing the distant world into the living room of everyone in America who could afford a television set. Unlike most children my age, I enjoyed watching television documentaries about the history, culture, and politics of foreign countries, ­one of which was the Soviet Union. This was during the height of the Cold War, and the Soviet Union was not only an enemy of the United States but also one of the least accessible parts of the world for travel. So it held a special, intrinsic interest to me, as a kind of geographic "forbidden fruit."

I also had a cousin who went to the Soviet Union on private business trips several times in the late 1950s and early 1960s. And he returned to America with a wealth of stories about what life was like behind the Iron Curtain. His stories just whetted my appetite to learn more about the world's largest country on the other side of the globe. So when I went the University of Texas at Austin, I specialized in Soviet and Eastern European studies, ­and after that I focused on U. S —Soviet strategic relations as a graduate student in political science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

To make a long story a bit shorter, I took a 23-year detour between graduate school in political science and finally going to Russia myself. I became a professor of film and communications for an American university program that gave me the opportunity to work and travel in many countries of Europe and Asia for almost two decades, living the dream of my childhood wanderlust. So when I was offered a job to teach in Russia in 1993, I naturally jumped at the chance.

OJ:  In your book you hint at the possibility that your cousin who shared stories of Russia was some kind of intelligence operative, even if an informal one. Do you think he was?

Sharon Hudgins: I wouldn't be surprised if he had been asked by the U. S. government to collect information while in Russia. (He passed away several years ago, before I had an opportunity to ask him about this, so I can't say for certain.) During the Cold War, many American visitors to the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact countries ­-- professors, students, journalists, businessmen -- ­were "debriefed" by U. S. intelligence personnel after returning from trips to the East Bloc, even if they didn't specifically go there to gather intelligence information for the government. (And of course Soviet officials likewise asked the same questions of Soviet citizens who had traveled to the West.) I surmise that even if my cousin hadn't been sent to the Soviet Union as an intelligence operative, he would still have willingly reported his observations after he returned to the U. S.

I never experienced such a debriefing myself, even during the six years that I traveled frequently to Eastern European countries before the "revolutions of 1989" toppled communist governments from Poland to Romania. Nor was I interviewed by anyone from the U. S. government after I returned from Siberia in 1995, most likely because they could now go to Russia and see it for themselves. Almost everything I experienced there is detailed in The Other Side of Russia, so if anyone were interested in my personal observations and analysis, they could simply read the book.

OJ: How did the opportunity arise for you to go and live there?

Sharon Hudgins: During the early 1990s, the University of Maryland University College established a new education program at two major universities in Asian Russia -- ­in Vladivostok, Russia's primary port in the Russian Far East, and in Irkutsk, the capital of Eastern Siberia. My husband (an economics professor) and I were hired to teach in that program and to serve as administrators there. To my knowledge, the University of Maryland programs was the first, ­and only, ­American-accredited bachelor's degree program offered in the new Russian Federation, taught entirely on Russian soil. In The Other Side of Russia I described in detail how this program worked, why it was so unusual, and how it benefited the hundreds of Russian students who enrolled in it.

We worked in both Vladivostok and Irkutsk, over a period of sixteen months, and traveled more than 6,000 miles in southern Siberia during that time. Working in Russia for that length of time gave me the opportunity to experience daily life like the Russians did, not merely like a short-term visitor there. I think that's one of the things that makes The Other Side of Russia different from the travel narratives of people who have only visited Russia for a few weeks or a couple of months.

OJ: Did you have some sense of how rare this opportunity was for an American, especially for an American woman?

Sharon Hudgins: Absolutely. I knew that, except for a very few locations, most of the Asian side of Russia had been off-limits to foreign travelers (especially those from the West) during my own lifetime and for several decades before. Vladivostok, where we were first sent to teach in 1993, had been a "closed" military city from 1948 to 1992. Even Soviet citizens had had to obtain special governmental permission to visit there. So I certainly knew that it was a rare opportunity for me, as an American, to live in Vladivostok in the early 1990s, shortly after the city was officially "opened."

I also realized that I was one of the first American women sent to Siberia (no irony intended) after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I don't usually bother with making gender distinctions, ­but once I arrived in Asian Russia it was apparent to me that only a few American women were living or working there. And I thought it would be important to document the experience of daily life in Asian Russia ­from an American's  point of view ­during that historic period of political, social, and economic transformation when the country was in the early stages of transition to a democratic government and a market economy. I think the fact that I'm the first American woman to write such a book about early post-Soviet Siberia is one of the reasons that The Other Side of Russia has been so interesting to many readers.

OJ: Your book is full of stories about the difficulties of daily life there--the ­electrical power outages, polluted drinking water, criminal activities, the lack of many consumer goods. But it's also filled with positive stories about the meals (even Tex-Mex) that you cooked for your Russian friends and the dinner parties they invited you to. Why did you put so much emphasis on the foods of Siberia, a region of the world that we think of as having a not-very-interesting cuisine?

Sharon Hudgins: Food is one of the essential components of daily life for everyone on earth, so of course I wanted to document the variety of foods and dishes I encountered in Asian Russia. And I also wanted readers to realize that Siberia is not the gastronomic wasteland that many people believe it to be.

I have a particular interest in the cuisines of other countries, because I think food is a defining aspect of most cultures. And I also like to eat! While working as a university professor in Europe and Asia, I developed a parallel career as a food-and-travel writer for magazines and newspapers around the world. My first book was a cookbook about the regional cuisines of Spain, and I've published more than 600 articles on food and travel during the past twenty years. So I of course I wanted to report on the new foods that I encountered in Siberia and the Russian Far East, as well as the hospitality of the Russians and other friends who cooked for us there.

OJ: Is there a literature of the region that you could refer to, written by travelers from the West?

Sharon Hudgins: Yes, several travelers from the West have published accounts of their own visits to Russia ­from explorers who mapped uncharted areas of Siberia in the early 18th century to American journalists assigned to Moscow in the late 20th century. But most of the books about Russia focus primarily on the European side of the country, west of the Ural Mountains, not on the eastern, Asian side that has always been less accessible to travelers. In the Bibliographic Essay at the end of my own book, I discuss many of these previously published travelers' tales, including two of my favorites that do focus on Asian Russia, George Kennan's 19th-century classics, Tent Life in Siberia (1870) and Siberia and the Exile System (1891).

OJ: One of the unusual things about the book is how many different forms you combine between the covers: memoir, travelogue, history, and social observation.  Did you have a model in mind or were you winging it?  One author I thought of, who likewise gave us complex portraits of entire regions, was John Gunther, who I think you mention in passing.  Did you read his books, like Inside Russia Today, when you were growing up?  Were you consciously trying to do for the Russia you visited what he had done in the past?

Sharon Hudgins: I knew I wanted to write a book about daily life in Asian Russia, but I didn't have a specific model in mind when I went there. The structure of the book took shape only after I returned to the United States and began organizing the huge amount of material (books, notes, interviews, maps, etc.) that I'd brought back from Siberia and the Russian Far East. But I did know that I wanted The Other Side of Russia to be more than just another travel memoir. I thought it was important to put my own experiences and observations into context by providing readers with some of the historical, political, social, economic, and geographic background of the regions that I was writing about.

I think most writers are influenced to some degree, consciously or subconsciously, by the books they've read and liked in the past. Yes, I did read John Gunther's Inside Russia Today (1957), as well as Irving R. Levine's Main Street U.S.S.R. (1959) and other similar books about Russia, when I was a young girl in Texas. In fact I read every book about Russia in the public library of the small town where I lived. And later I especially enjoyed reading Hedrick Smith's best-seller, The Russians (1976). I didn't consciously try to model my book on those authors' works, but it's certainly possible that their approach to explaining Russia to Americans did influence my own writing to some extent.

OJ: One of the things you talk about right off the bat in the book is your perception of the real continental divide between "European Russia" and "Asian Russia." Is that a divide that the people themselves recognize, and are they vocal about it?  How does this division express itself, as a sense of inferiority, superiority, or simple alienation?

Sharon Hudgins: Those questions were a topic of intense discussion at an international conference about Siberia that I recently attended, ­which tells you something about how important this matter is to Russians' own perceptions of themselves within their country. In the introduction to my book, I explained that "I chose to title it The Other Side of Russia because, from my first days in both European and Asian Russia, it was clear to me that Russians had not only a geographical but also a psychological 'them and us' attitude toward their fellow citizens living on opposite sides of that immense country."

European Russians do make the distinction between themselves and other ethnic Russians living on the Asian side of the Ural Mountains. And residents of Asian Russia often refer to their particular parts of the country as "Siberia," "Sakha," or "the Russian Far East," while calling the European side "Russia," or even "the mainland" or "the continent."

I'm not sure to what extent this psychological "continental divide" is manifested as a sense of inferiority, superiority, or alienation among Russian citizens on either side of the Urals. That's a question that could be answered better by Russian sociologists or social psychologists. However, I do know that many native-born Siberians of European Slavic ancestry have a strong sense of themselves as a people separate from, or different from, European Russians. They're proud to be Siberians -- ­like some people in the U. S. are proud to be descended from ancestors who came to America on the Mayflower, or to be tenth-generation Alabamans or seventh-generation Texans.

I did observe that many ethnic Russians and other Slavic people -- ­living on either side of Russia -- ­do tend to feel superior to indigenous Siberian peoples such as Buriats, Evenks, Chukchi, etc. (whose ancestors, by the way, were also the ancestors of Native Americans in the Western Hemisphere). And many non-Jewish Russians also tend to look down on their fellow citizens who are Jews. To use a geologic analogy, these are all cultural "fault lines" that have a long history in Russia and that will probably continue well into the future.

OJ: Another dichotomy that seems to emerge is between the public face of the people and their private face.  Interactions in the public sphere seem to be rather abrasive, even rude, but behind the doors of someone's apartment they seem far more warm and friendly.  Is that an accurate representation of what you found?  Is that a function of the mutual distrust bred by decades of communism? Or is there a deeper cultural source?  Have you given any thought to how, or whether, they'll get past that kind of outward hostility?

Sharon Hudgins: Trying to answer those questions could keep a group of historians, psychologists, and sociologists busy for years! I can only describe the public-versus-private behavior that I observed during my time in Russia, but I'm not certain that I can provide an adequate explanation for it. Mutual distrust (stemming from several historical and cultural sources) might be one part of the complex answer about why Russians appear so dour, and sometimes act so abrasively, in public, especially in crowds. And it's certainly true that Russia is a very family-and-friends oriented society, where people feel most comfortable in their own homes, in the company of others whom they know well and believe they can trust.

However, I wouldn't go so far as to describe Russians' less friendly public behavior as "outward hostility," which seems too strong a term for it. I think much of what appears to be rude or abrasive behavior, to Western eyes, is possibly a result of how Russians deal with, or react to, urban crowding (especially in apartment buildings and on public transportation), low living standards, and the difficulties of daily life in a country that in many ways is still decades behind the more developed West. This is obviously an area ripe for research among social scientists both within Russia and abroad.

OJ: How were you treated as an American in Russia? Did the Russians ever indicate any hostility toward you as a citizen of their country's former number-one enemy, the United States? 

Sharon Hudgins: I was surprised the first time I was asked that question by an American, because it had never occurred to me before. Our Russian colleagues and students treated us very well, and most of the other Russians we met did not exhibit any overt anti-Americanism. (I think many of them were even surprised at how outspokenly critical we, as Americans, could be about certain aspects of our own American politics and society.) In public my husband and I were always treated like other Russians, possibly because we blended in so well with the local populace. We had lived in Western Europe for 17 years before moving to Russia, so all of our clothes, even shoes and eyeglasses, were European. Hence we didn't stand out in the crowds like the American tourists outfitted in sneakers and brand-new clothes from Land's End or L. L. Bean. However, as resident foreigners we were subject to covert surveillance by the Russians, which I described in detail in my book. Many of our American colleagues found that to be a particularly distasteful aspect of daily life in the supposedly "new" and "more open" Russia.

OJ:  One final contradiction about Asian Russia--­the region is the oddest combination of genuine wilderness and decrepit industrialism.  On the one hand you've got some Siberian tigers still wandering around in lands that are untamed and on the other you've got people living in decay and pollution and squalor.  There seems to be a missing middle step in the region's development--­a settler stage when people homesteaded on their own.  And now there's a phase that can't seem to get going where you have kind of an organic modernization, with infrastructure arising based on needs and wants of the people, rather than being imposed from above. Are there these kinds of alien worlds living in conjunction with each other?  Do sections of the East seem trapped in amber or something like that?

Sharon Hudgins: Again, the answers to those very good questions would fill several library shelves. The short answer is that, historically, the settlement and development of Siberia was very much planned and directed by the government ­from the tsarist era through the Soviet period. Especially under the Soviet government, there wasn't the kind of open society and market-oriented economy in which businesses could locate in the most favorable places for them to prosper and where people were basically free to choose where they wanted to live and what kind of work they wanted to do. For a number of reasons, state planning resulted in many of the problems that Siberians face today, including poor living conditions and environmental pollution. I don't mean to imply that a market economy will necessarily solve these problems, but the contrast between Siberia's natural environment and its "modern" man-made environment left over from Soviet era is stark indeed.

Think about the implications of these facts: Asian Russia -- the largest geographic entity on the globe -- ­comprises 75% of the total land mass of the Russian Federation. But only 20% of the Russian population lives in Siberia and the Russian Far East. And 80% of those people in Asian Russia live in the southern 15% of the country, mainly along the Trans-Siberian Railroad Route. Seventy-five percent of the population in Russian Asia lives in urban areas -- ­from major cities more than 300 years old to towns and settlements dating only from the post-World War II era (including former "exile villages"). Although Asian Russia has more than 70 cities with populations over 100,000, most of it is still a vast region of virgin forest and empty tundra, some of which is being increasingly exploited by timber, oil, and mining companies that (just like in the Soviet past) have little or no regard for the natural environment. And in the southern part of the country, endangered animal species such as the Siberian tiger and the Amur leopard are unfortunately losing their habitat to logging and industrial pollution -- ­and tragically losing their lives to poachers who can sell contraband pelts and body parts for high prices.

OJ: This isn't a particularly political text and I don't want to force out your political views, but you do such a good job of showing the enduring damage that the communist era did to the fabric of Russian society and in particular you mention more than once that the absence of protections for private property or of an ethos of ownership seems to have rendered a society in which people do not take responsibility for their surroundings. Is that a connection you were trying to draw?  Is there a prevailing attitude that problems should either be addressed by a central authority or that they are just an inevitable aspect of Russian life?  Is this changing at all?   Would privatization, for instance of the apartment buildings so many folks live in, do anything to remedy that, do you think?

Sharon Hudgins: The lack of private ownership, especially of land and buildings, has often been cited as a reason why apartment dwellers (the majority of people in Russia) so poorly maintained their communal areas despite putting much effort into making their individual apartments comfortable and attractive. That situation was obvious when I lived in Russia, but I think it will eventually change as more Russians begin to own their own homes and feel a personal responsibility for taking care of them. At the time I was there, people could already buy their own apartments or even build single-family dwellings, if they had enough money, but they still couldn't purchase the land on which those dwellings sat. So there wasn't an incentive for them to commit a lot of time and money on maintaining property that later could be taken away from them by the state or by changes in laws regarding property ownership.

Soviet-era housing conditions certainly contributed to Russians' attitudes toward communal areas, but I think there might be deeper cultural factors, too. I don't want to go too far out on a limb about this, but I thought it interesting that several well-educated ethnic Russians commented to me about the cleanliness and neatness of Russian towns that had been settled by Germans who had chosen to move to Russia during the tsarist era (for a number of reasons) and even those who had been sent there as exiles under the tsars and the Soviets. And when those same Russian friends of mine had an opportunity to travel abroad, they expressed admiration bordering on awe for the "cleanliness and order" of cities in northern Europe -- ­which of course says something about their own perception of the condition of cities in Russia.

On the other hand, Russians do take very good care of their little dachas and the surrounding gardens where they grow many of their own foods. And I've been in several Siberian villages -- ­populated by different ethnic groups living side by side -- ­which were clean and neat, despite the residents' low incomes, the muddy unpaved streets outside their front doors, and the bleak economic prospects for the future. So I think it would be misleading to generalize too much in answering your questions about this complicated social, cultural, and economic issue.

However, I do think that a good many Russian citizens feel that current problems of housing, infrastructure, utilities, pensions, and health care should be addressed by a central authority, as they have been in the past, for better or for worse. Vladimir Putin embodies many Russians' desire for a strong, sober, and stable central authority, which is probably one reason why Putin received 71% of the vote in this year's presidential election in Russia.

OJ: Out of all this and from your experiences and reading, what kind of future do you see for Eastern Russia?  Does it have sufficient natural advantages that it must someday thrive, even if not as part of Russia?  Or is there something peculiar to it that keeps it backwards?

Sharon Hudgins: At the conference about Siberia that I recently attended, many of the speakers were Russian, American, and European experts who addressed several aspects of this same question. They pointed out that Siberia is losing population at an even faster rate than the Russian Federation as a whole, and that economic and environmental problems are worsening in many parts of the region. Despite Siberia's wealth of natural resources, prospects for the people living there will probably become worse before they get better. But Siberia is not a "backward" region. Its people are literate and, for the most part, well educated. Siberia today is better described as a "misdeveloped" region, because of both tsarist and Soviet policies in the past, as well as current corruption, mismanagement, and environmental degradation. It could take decades for Siberia to overcome the damage that has already been done. Still, I have hope for the future of Siberia and the Russian Far East ­-- based in part on the university students that we taught there in the mid-1990s, many of whom genuinely wanted to improve the regions where they lived, and some of whom are now in high positions in government, industry, and education. The potential for Siberia's future lies with people like them who have a stake in the region and who are willing to work hard to make it succeed.

OJ: Your book was published only a year ago and has already received excellent critical acclaim. And now the publisher has issued a paperback edition, too. What has been the most satisfying, or the most gratifying, thing about having written The Other Side of Russia?

Sharon Hudgins: Every author appreciates good reviews, but I have to admit how pleased I've been at the positive response to this book from a diverse range of readers, from armchair travelers to experts on Russia. I wrote the book to give readers an idea of what it's like to live in a part of the world seldom seen by most Westerners. And I also wanted to answer many of the questions that I've been asked about Siberia. So I was especially pleased when an academic reviewer described The Other Side of Russia as a book "destined to become a key primary description of social change in an often forgotten region of the world." And several university professors have told me they're planning to use my book in their courses on Russian Life and Culture.

But even more gratifying have been all the letters I've received from readers -- people whom I don't know personally -- ­who have said how much they enjoyed the book and how accurately it described their own experiences of working, living, or traveling in Russia. One letter, in particular, stands out from all the rest. It was handwritten by a 94-year-old woman who lives in Hawaii. She wrote to say that after reading my book she concluded that little seems to have changed during the 85 years after she had lived in the Russian Far East herself, from 1917 to 1919. Can you imagine? She was there at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution and Russia's civil war! She went on to describe living conditions in Vladivostok when she was a young girl and travels with her family on the Trans-Siberian Railroad more than eight decades ago. When I read that letter, I felt like I was holding a piece of history in my hands!

OJ: Now that you've completed this project, would you ever consider writing another book about Russia?

Sharon Hudgins: I'd really like to go back to Siberia and the Russian Far East to see the changes that have occurred after I left. But I don't think I want to tackle writing another book similar to The Other Side of Russia. Right now, I'm halfway through writing a narrative cookbook about traditional and contemporary foods in Siberia. It consists of recipes for most of the dishes described in The Other Side of Russia, along with other Siberian culinary stories (and their recipes) that were too long to include in the first book. And when that project is finished, I've set my sights on writing about another northern region of the world. I'm a cold-weather person who loves ice and snow!

OJ: Thank you so very much for your time and your consideration and best of luck with the book.