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Black Earth City by Charlotte Hobson

A year spent in Russia at the climax of Perestroika – funny, poignant and tragic, a gem of travel writing

Black Earth City is one of the most delightful traveler tales you’re likely to come across. By turns funny, poignant and tragic, Charlotte Hobson records her year spent in Russia as a student with light brush strokes that delineate the overall picture of Russia in 1991, perestroika delivering the final death blow to communism.

Our first window into changing Russia is in the overcrowded hostel where the students struggle with a diet of limited food, excessive vodka and a lack of privacy as the Russian sexual revolution gets into full swing. The rooms at the hostel are all too full and it’s too cold outside to make out. Ah, the agony of young love in sub-zero Russia…

And this is, perhaps, Hobson’s gift, that she can tell a weighty tale with the chatty tone of a teenager and her love affair with a Russian boy called Mitya accompanies the reader throughout Black earth City. When learning Russian, she tells us:

Those snowy mornings. I began to gain a sense of the language;its soft, sliding rhythms that seemed to follow a patten of their own until you reached the noun at the end of the sentence. Mitya teased me with strings of participles.

‘Hello, pink-cheeked, having-walked-through-the-cold-morning-air, still-sleepy-girl,’ he greeted me.

‘Mitya’

‘Come in and taste the having-been-smelt-in-the-hallway-coffee.’

Incredibly, the KGB call some of the students in and are up to date on the love lives of the students at the hostel, prompting everyone to wonder just who is an informant and after a few bottles of vodka just about everyone takes on the aspect of a spy.

Maybe Charlotte Hobson got lucky in spending a year in Russia at such a historical time, more likely we’re the lucky ones that she was there to describe it. When New Year arrives and the Soviet Union officially disbands, she catches the mood perfectly. As the Hammer and Sickle flag comes down:

We cheered and then a pang of nostalgia silenced everyone. The imagery of their childhood was being laid aside and the socialist ideals that had been taught along with it were now obsolete… no one felt any sadness at the end of Party hegemony. The ideals, though, were different. It was as though the government had suddenly announced that love did not conquer all.

Each chapter of Black Earth City takes us deeper into the Russian winter, into the months of hyper-inflation when everyone became a dealer in something to survive, the arrival of hoodlums on the streets and the first mafiosa types who start running local protection rackets and scams. Through the characters she meets we learn about the savage beatings Russian boy take in the first few months of military service, the tattooed tears on the faces of weaker convicts in the jails that doom them to prison servitude and the deaths of those simply not cut out to survive in the New Russia.

But Black Earth City is also just the tale of a teenage English girl coming of age in a strange country, still open and naïve enough to receive the impressions of Russian life without prejudice or sophistication. Charlotte Hobson is insightful, honest and charming throughout.

Black Earth City is required reading for anyone wanting to catch a snapshot of modern Russia.