As is habit, the forthcoming Russia trip is already affecting my reading choices. The last book I read was by one of the country's great novelists; the next book I'll read is a travelogue through the former Soviet states of Central Asia. Add in a St. Petersburg article in the latest New Yorker, the Lonely Planet guide, and Sidearm Delivery, and most of my reading these days is Russo-themed.
Including, of course, the just-finished book:
#16 - "The Hidden War" by Artyom Borovik
Not at all what I expected -- I'd figured that this was a straightforward chronicle of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Instead it's more focused -- Borovik speaks to soldiers, officials, deserters, family members, rebels -- taking down their impressions. The overall effect is that no one on any level really knew why they were there.
Borovik spends considerable time with the grunts, but avoids the temptation to start seeing the war through a romantic prism of the self. There's a tendency (Hemingway-fueled?) among many contemporary war reporters to treat conflict as a personal rite of passage: "I went away to cover this war, and came back a man." This isn't always bad; Anthony Loyd's "My War Gone By I Miss It So" is great. And to be honest, when I was directionless and jobless after college, I entertained daydreams of heading off to some remote field of unrest and inflicting my insights upon it.
Back to Borovik -- while he's a presence in the book, he's largely a narrator rather than a character, an observer in the mold of the great Ryszard Kapuściński. At times, in fact, he's too withdrawn for my tastes. I would've liked to see a bit more of his reactions to some hairy situations.
Some of the book presupposes a knowledge of late '80s Soviet internal events, and so parts were a bit lost on me. Overall, though, a solid book -- perhaps not up to the level of Michael Herr's "Dispatches" or Kapuściński's "The Soccer War," but very good nonetheless.
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Borovik died in a 2000 plane crash; "The Hidden War" is, apparently, his only book translated into English, though I've seen references to other books. Read more about "The Hidden War" here.