Tuesday, March 22, 2016

8 Pieces of Empire

Just like an old Fixx song one book leads to another. In the case of this book, 8 Pieces of Empire: A 20-Year Journey Through the Soviet Collapse by Lawrence Scott Sheets, I found out about it looking through the bibliography of another book. (It ain't easy finding and reading every book printed about Post-Soviet Wars in English!) The author's name was familiar to me because he was mentioned in several other books I read. I knew he was a reporter working in the Caucasus region in the 90's. I found out he was also a long time reporter of Russian news on NPR. If you've listened to NPR in the last decade or two you've certainly heard him report from Russia or thereabouts.

8 Pieces of Empire tells the tale of the demise of the Soviet Union in eight vignettes (the seventh is a bit Hodge-podge and the last is more like a conclusion). Sheets first visited the Soviet Union in the late eighties and spent the better part of two decades there reporting for Reuters and then NPR. The book first describes his experiences in a communal apartment in Leningrad as a student and running into petty criminals/aspiring free market entrepreneurs. Sheets then describes his time in Sukhumi during the fall of the city to Abkhazians, his witness to the refugee crisis in Azerbaijan and his time reporting on the Chechen Wars. The reemergence of Orthodox Christianity and the situation in Uzbekistan/Afghanistan are also recorded. Additionally, he includes bits on Chernobyl, Eduard Shevardnadze's downfall, the Russian Far East and the attack on School No. 1 in Beslan. He concludes the book with a return to his communal apartment in St. Petersburg. The book succeeds in impressing upon its readers the magnitude of the Soviet downfall. It reads very quickly. The conclusion is a bit of a letdown. After stating his reluctance to do so, Sheets reveals a bit of what it was like to report on a single topic for twenty years and the toll it took on his mental health, but this part was far too short. Despite this small complaint, the book is definitely worth checking out. If you're like me you'll finish it quickly, wishing Sheets wrote eight books instead of one and realizing he probably never will.

Lawrence Sheets

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