A few years ago I watched a documentary about Andrei Chikatilo, the most famous Soviet serial killer. I'm not sure why, because I remember it being stA few years ago I watched a documentary about Andrei Chikatilo, the most famous Soviet serial killer. I'm not sure why, because I remember it being stomach-turning. Initially I'd heard of him after reading the popular thriller Child 44, which has a plot line inspired by these notorious crimes. What I learned from the novel was that part of the difficulty in catching the killer was that the Soviet Union denied the possibility of a serial killer's existence, and so missed the opportunity to link many of the obviously-related murders.
Chikatilo's crimes, many against children and adolescents, are incredibly disturbing. What's interesting about this story is the connection to the Soviet culture of the time (late 1970s-1990) and how the Communist government and police investigators dropped the ball so many times, in so many ways, on this investigation. There shouldn't have been any possibility for this man to kill 50+ people, especially because he wasn't entirely unknown to police, especially at the beginning of his serial killing career. He was even let go from his teaching work for creeping out and trying to molest the children, and around the same time happened to be in the vicinity of child murders. He was arrested too, and let go. But with a lot of factors at play, like his job's travel requirement, the vastness of the territory including very secluded areas, Soviet indoctrination and prevailing culture, lack of initial publicity about the murders, and the aforementioned inability to accept a serial killer, he was able to get away with being very prolific and very disgusting.
The highlight of the writing is this weaving in of the culture and happenings in the Soviet state that contributed to both the murders playing out as they did and to the murderer's own unhinged mentality. I really liked reading about that, and that's what I remember made me even watch something about this previously. Reading the gory details of even a handful of the murders is really hard, however. They're ghastly. I had to take a break and I wasn't sure I could finish even though I already knew some of this from seeing the documentary. Still, it's well-researched and written. I hesitate to call it a true crime guilty pleasure, but I'm not sure what other category it falls under. Definitely should appeal to those interested in Soviet history as the whole ordeal was a byproduct of this broken system, as well as to anyone interested in the real story behind this plot line from Child 44. Truth is definitely stranger than fiction in this case.
I received an advance copy of the new ebook edition courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for review....more
Almost Home is the memoir of Filipp Velgach, an American of Ukrainian heritage. He was recruited to translate in the Ukraine for a group of documentarAlmost Home is the memoir of Filipp Velgach, an American of Ukrainian heritage. He was recruited to translate in the Ukraine for a group of documentary filmmakers in 2013, at the time of major unrest and protests revolving around then-president Yanukovych and Ukraine’s relationship with Russia. These are complicated politics, and even while following the news, I found it difficult to always understand exactly what was going on. One of this book’s strongest points is how Velgach explains the protests, their political and cultural background, and their effects. He has a matter-of-fact tone and clear, easy to follow narration. He’s also thorough in exploring important geopolitical connections relevant to the region and major events of the war. “Russia was losing its collective mind,” he writes, and considering headlines of recent years, I had to smile.
But back to the story of the documentary, Almost Holy. It follows a vigilante priest, Gennadiy Mokhnenko, who’s made it his mission to tackle the problem of child drug use and homelessness in Ukraine (a difficult topic to read and learn about, no doubt, but equally strongly one that we shouldn’t try to look away from.) He runs a rehabilitation center in the city of Mariupol that helps kids off of drugs and the streets. While he’s at it, he fights against the dealers exploiting children’s addictions in this post-Soviet economically ravaged city (hilariously described as the Baltimore of the Ukraine). He’s an incredibly dynamic, if complicated, character.
On a personal note, I loved one passage about Gennadiy’s argument that prayer is never enough, action is also required to make change. At a time when every global or personal tragedy triggers an outpouring of offerings and requests for prayers, this was refreshing and exciting. More of that, please. Reading about his passion and works made me really want to see this film. (As a side note, the trailer looks hauntingly awesome and it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and garnered a ton of accolades; seems like a good one.)
Filipp is at one of those quarter life crisis times, teaching but seeming unsatisfied, considering a PhD, curious to learn more about the country his family left behind, and why they did that while still holding on to so much of its culture. He goes to Ukraine against his parents’ wishes, especially his father’s, who is near furious that his son would want to return to a country that they risked a lot to flee when he was a child. But Filipp is very interested in his family’s identity, and how that fits into his identity as an American, among other Americans both with and without recent immigrant backgrounds. I find these topics and issues completely fascinating, and they were written about beautifully here – with a light sense of humor and a relatable tone.
My issue is that the book is a little short for all of the things that it wanted to be – just as I have to skip between topics for a review, the book itself skips between topics very often. All of them were related and important and fascinating, but it seemed for the sake of making a readable narrative, certain issues were skimmed over or not examined as deeply as they could’ve been to produce a really satisfying story. It felt unresolved at the end, despite this massive journey, the soul-searching the author had done, and what he’d learned about his family history and some deep, dark secrets.
There just seemed like so much more to be said, including how his experiences working on this gut-wrenching documentary affected his own choices. He often compares his life to those of the children who ended up addicted to narcotics and living on the streets, wondering how he would’ve turned out if his family hadn’t emigrated when they did. That’s a very valid question, and I would’ve liked to know more about how his recognition of his privilege shaped him. But all of this is still very fresh, considerably, so maybe it’s still in process. Based on the quality of his writing and his knack for telling engaging, funny, emotionally compelling stories, I can’t wait to see what he writes in the future.
One last beautiful theme running throughout the narrative is that of the Soviet cartoon Cheburashka, and its character Crocodile Gena, who’s likened to the documentary subject Gennadiy. It ties in with the rich sense of nostalgia and melancholy that accompanies so much Russian and Soviet literature, including modern ones like this, of children who have grown up in another world and slip into their parents’ and grandparents’ pasts. This nostalgia is usually judged as misplaced, including here, and Velgach and his family give plenty of reasons why. But I loved the inclusion of references to this cartoon, and I dare anyone to not be moved by some of its all-too-adult melancholy of the everyday, even when it’s trying to teach optimism....more
For some reason, despite not particularly liking The Russian Debutante's Handbook or being able to get into Absurdistan, I'd decided that I liked GaryFor some reason, despite not particularly liking The Russian Debutante's Handbook or being able to get into Absurdistan, I'd decided that I liked Gary Shteyngart. I think because he's also a graduate of Hunter College's Creative Writing program...I felt some weird kinship.
So I was beyond excited when I heard he wrote a memoir, and that a big focus of it was on St. Petersburg, his upbringing there and subsequent immigration to Queens. For the most part, it didn't disappoint. I laughed out loud so often, but at times his anecdotes are overwhelmingly emotional too - reading the sections taking place in his grade school unearthed difficult memories. His loneliness, insecurity and unsureness are pretty universally relatable, there's a personal aspect to it all that goes beyond another person's memoir. The positive side is that he examines events with a sense of humor, as well as poignancy, and fits all those happenings together into the person and artist that he became.
My favorite part of his storytelling is how he was able to describe his child immigrant's perception of Americana. Like his mentions of the Emergency Broadcasting System, American junk food, and Harriet Tubman rescuing slaves from a terrible place called Maryland. Finally, it all wins him over, as he seems to eventually feel himself more American than Russian. I loved his descriptive scenes of Soviet St. Petersburg, his wry take on his beginnings there is worth the entire book: the same mix of silliness yet seriousness - look what was happening here, and how we coped.
My complaint, and this might sound weird for a memoir, is that there's a portion around the time of his college years through early adulthood that's way too self-obsessed. He writes like he knows he's a self-absorbed jerk, but the humor and clarity of passed time with which he examines his childhood is missing. It improves before the end and in fact ends beautifully, as he gains new insights and realizations into his parents, portrayed as fairly negative yet loved characters, while on a trip together back in St. Petersburg.
I hope this won't be his only story about himself....more
Although this book is wonderfully researched on an extremely personal level, it is far too bleak to be enjoyable. Obviously there were and continue toAlthough this book is wonderfully researched on an extremely personal level, it is far too bleak to be enjoyable. Obviously there were and continue to be major problems in Russia, culturally, politically and economically. That doesn't mean that those should be the primary focus. There are instances in the book where he does provide glimpses into more positive elements in juxtaposition to the bad ones, but they were too few and far between (and I'm not talking about the section detailing the war in Chechnya which did not have a bright side to consider.) But it almost seemed mocking whenever he told an anecdote about someone from a small town who said that they enjoyed their way of life. Like these were presented in a "Can you believe this?" kind of way alongside the evidence as to why this was completely ridiculous. But a lot of it was extremely meaningful, I just wish there had been a little less of a focus on the bleakness. I love St. Petersburg and the section relating to it was so depressing, being almost entirely about the HIV epidemic and the murder of a prominent liberal politician. Both of these are extremely important and the information about them was eye opening and appreciated, but there was nothing positive to counter it. As in everything, balance is essential and this book weighs a little too heavily on one side....more
The Illustrious Dead is well written and completely absorbing, but somewhere along the line I missed the thesis of typhus being responsible for all ofThe Illustrious Dead is well written and completely absorbing, but somewhere along the line I missed the thesis of typhus being responsible for all of the devastation that was wrought. The author even says at one point that Napoleon seemed bored and tired during his Russian campaign, so I sort of had difficulty buying his later assertion that typhus changed the course of world history forever, Russian Revolution wouldn't have happened in the same way, France would still be in charge, etc etc. This is actually a better account of Napoleon's Russian ambitions in general, with a little typhus thrown in. The historical background of the disease and epilogue about how it was studied and used later were interesting, but it seemed strange to play it up as the book's main premise without getting into more detail, aside from disease symptoms and glimpses into army hospitals. Otherwise it's a really interesting read, it just might be a little disappointing depending on how strongly you were in it for the typhus....more