The Soviet Union was a fearful place, but after its 1991 collapse it became an unpredictable one. Where there was order there is chaos. Where there was a shambling, aging, shot-and-a-beer leadership with dependable behavior patterns, there is a new, shots-in-the-air zeitgeist without dependable leaders or behavior.
The place once was a morass of bureaucrats. Now it is simply a mess.
Not that Lawrence Scott Sheets, an accomplished Reuters and National Public Radio correspondent and bureau chief, provides order in “8 Pieces of Empire,’’ his unforgettable memoir and travelogue of a period and a place most of us would prefer to forget. That is too much of a task for one man with a mere microphone and word processor. But he does give meaning, and perspective, to the rocky transition of the past two decades, and infuses it with drama and despair.
All that plus a lesson for us all, one of the many that emerged from the Soviet Union and the disillusion that accompanied its welcome dissolution.
“Westerners viewed it as a monolith,’’ Sheets says of the fallen superpower. “We largely failed to predict its demise - an object lesson about the ephemeral and perhaps our own sense of morality, as nations and as human beings.’’
In a volume both vital and vivid, Sheets describes living in cramped quarters, sharing a communal toilet (everyone had his own portable seat to fit over the commode), cooking in shifts (and here there is little to set the taste buds a-watering), going to the bathhouse (beating one another with birch branches to open up the pores), meeting Soviet authorities (including KGB agents with whom he shared caviar and vodka), talking with members of the old Soviet criminal underground (“Living a life of crime really isn’t easy,’’ he is told) and listening to Mikhail Gorbachev saying it was impossible after 69 years to save the old beast of the Soviet Union (he ended his speech with the meek and measly “I wish you all the best’’).
Through travels in Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Moldova, Chechnya, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, and other intoxicating venues to witness what he calls “the pathology of upheaval,’’ Sheets finds both pathology and upheaval aplenty: battlefields without fronts, commercial airlines without pilots, roads without automobiles, showers without hot water, confusion without end.
Here is his description of an airport in Georgia just after the great collapse of the great workers’ paradise:
“When one of the planes would land, near-riots ensued. Screaming women fought with the paramilitaries, themselves trying to escape. The fighters waved Kalashnikovs and barged their way into the planes. The power of their weapons determined who would get on. The battles were nonsensical. The planes landed and took off until everyone who wanted out was out. Then the fighting would die down again. Ethics held little sway. It was often women and children last.’’
Georgia, for example, became engulfed in four wars in its first two years of post-Soviet independence, going, as Sheets puts it, “[f]rom the empire’s crown jewel to failed state.’’ He witnessed Eduard Shevardnadze, once a respected Soviet statesman and later the Georgian president forced to relinquish power in the Rose Revolution, flee a battle scene in a “ravaged, jet-fuel-dripping plane’’ with wings perforated with bullet holes. What prevailed in Georgia was not order but anarchy, where “extreme behavior was the norm’’ and where the national parliament had signs urging lawmakers to leave their weapons outside.
Everywhere the citizens of the former Soviet Union celebrated their liberation by fighting others, sometimes over ancient ethnic resentments, more often in disputes whose roots, rhythms, and reasons were long forgotten, prompting gunfire, huge movements of refugees, senseless deaths, apartment bombings, torched schools, airborne assaults, torture, hopeless drug addiction, random killings, rampant kidnappings, untold destruction, and depression in what Sheets calls “previously unheard-of [dots] on the map.’’
How did Sheets stand it? Covering war and tragedy “is a bit like exposing oneself to radiation,’’ he writes. “In carefully measured doses, it often poses few well-established health risks . . . Unlimited exposure over very long periods, however, is unwise for the mind and soul.’’ It is a miracle he, and the people he writes so passionately about, survived.
David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.