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What Is a Russian's Highest Priority? : USTINOV IN RUSSIA by Peter Ustinov; drawings by Peter Ustinov; photographs by Peter Ustinov and John McGreevy (Summit Books: $22.95; 155 pp.)

February 21, 1988|Edward Condren | A professor at UCLA, Condren has taught courses on Cold War literature

"Glasnost," which really means publicity rather than openness, seems the best possible atmosphere for Peter Ustinov, a talented man with Russian ancestry and international outlook, to produce this very satisfying little book about the Russian soul. A collection of dazzling photos, as well as an essay debunking the differences between Russians and Westerners, the book grew out of a four-month tour through Russia, while Ustinov was preparing a series for Canadian television. Neither a vehicle for advertising Ustinov himself nor a vapid account of his difficulties in a primitive land--how refreshing from a celebrity!--the book reveals the beauty of Russia's architecture, especially its magnificent churches, and of its children, while its text places Russia in a historical context, noting that the freedom of its soul has withstood tyrants, suffering and the detractions of those who often lack souls themselves.

Although the book appears to have a dual nature--a picture book on the one hand, an essay on the other--its two intertwined parts are closely related. The photographs demonstrate what the text argues, that a Russian's highest priority is to enrich his interior life.

Ustinov does an excellent job of presenting the case for Russia. For nearly a century, he tells us, it has suffered from the illogical opinions of others. We judged the whole in terms of a particular that aroused our ire. The word Russian came to mean morally inferior, duplicitous, "Evil Empire" in President Reagan's phrase, as if the Russian people as a species were wholly different from us, while we were ironically giving our hearts to preposterous Hollywood extraterrestrials who seemed so like us.

But the evident facts make clear an entirely different Russia, one rather more put upon than most countries. Its history has been the story of a continuing battle between the soul of the people--intensely passionate, indomitable, linked to a personalized land no Russian can comfortably leave--and countless external forces imposing themselves on it. Some impositions were beneficial, as when Saints Cyril and Methodius invented an alphabet to give the Russians a means of writing. Most were not. Constantly invaded from all sides--from the north by Swedes and Poles, the south by Turks, the east by Mongols, and the west by Gallic and Teutonic conquerors--Russia was forced to take refuge in its very size, yielding when it had to, reclaiming when its invaders retreated. Western ways were imposed on it by Peter the Great; its current political philosophy was developed by two Germans. Even some of its recent rulers came from areas remote from the traditions of central Russia, like Armenia and Georgia. And through it all, the Russian soul has changed little--constantly involved with art, literature, music, and the theater, intensely spiritual in a way that may transcend religions, and deeply respectful of its suffering past.

Ustinov is, of course, not unaware of the primitive awkwardness of many Russian facilities, some of which led to humorous situations, for example, when an officious-looking woman on a train used an enema bag to draw hot water from the heating system to make tea, or when it was impossible in one hotel to run the television and the refrigerator at the same time, or in another hotel to take a bath without having to plug the drain with a heel. But these are small matters, according to Ustinov, perhaps even irrelevant, compared to Russia's greater interest in the inner life of its people.

The book suffers slightly from some overly simplistic parallels. For example, Ustinov suggests that the loss of artistic freedom in the West, because art must sell, is little different from its loss in the Soviet bloc because of state censorship. He is right about the result, but the difference in motive and reprisal cannot be ignored. Elsewhere he claims that England, too, had its own Siberia, called Australia, neglecting to note the very different crimes for which people were sent to these places. Nevertheless, Ustinov's charming style softens the polemical nature of what he says. Moreover, the beauty of Russian architecture, in particular its glorious clusters of onion domes visually reminding one of Christ surrounded by the four evangelists, make it difficult for those who would challenge Ustinov's thesis to point to something peculiarly Western that captures our past, embodies our spirit, and presents our face to the world in as beautiful a form as Ustinov gives us in these pages.

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