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Book Review: An American in Leningrad by Logan Robinson

AUGUST 01, 1985 by BILL ANDERSON

(W.W. Norton & Co., New York, New York 10010), 1982 • 320 pages • $17.50 hardback

Logan Robinson, a New York City lawyer and Harvard Law School graduate, has written an enjoyable and informative book on his experiences in the Soviet Union, first as an exchange student at the Civil Law Faculty of Leningrad State University (Lenin’s alma mater) from 1976 to 1977 and later as a tourist returning to the U.S.S.R. in the fall of 1980.

A well-written and fast-paced book, An American in Leningrad gives much insight into daily life in the Soviet Union through a collection of anecdotes detailing the author’s adventures (and misadventures) in dealing with the omnipresent bureaucracy, standing in long lines to purchase shoddy merchandise (when it was available), and making friends with local.citizens despite the KGB and the built-in paranoia of the Russian culture. Robinson’s accounts are laced with humor as he describes his many brushes with Soviet bureaucrats whose main duty, it seems, is to make life as difficult as possible for anyone needing their official approval.

For example, the author cites the difficulties of obtaining the necessary faculty signatures to allow him to travel in other parts of the U.S.S.R., although he admits that his being an American gave him a distinct advantage over his counterparts from the Soviet Union as well as those from Eastern European and Third World nations who were also studying in Leningrad. And part of the reason for his relative success in winning “victories” over the bureaucratic system, Robinson writes, was his determination not to leave his American values and forcefulness at home.

Although he is not an economist, Robinson picks apart the inefficiencies of the Soviet economy with the logical scalpel worthy of a Milton Friedman, pointing out just why the communist system fails. The author gives an excellent example in his account of a small, private industrial goggles factory in Leningrad. Because of the eye injuries occurring in Leningrad factories due to a goggles shortage, some workers fashioned industrial goggles of their own. They recognized the growing demand for their products and were soon filling orders from state factories, an illegal activity in the U.S.S.R. punishable by death. For a while, the state’s desperate need for goggles outweighed the gravity of the workers’ “crimes,” but when the factory became “too” successful, the authorities closed in on the operation, shutting down the enterprise and jailing its owners. The end result, Robinson writes, is that once again goggles came into short supply and eye injuries rose in Leningrad.

The fascinating part of that story, he narrates, is that it was told to him by a Soviet lawyer who herself believed that state crackdowns on private enterprises were wrong-headed at best and harmful at worst. The lawyer’s attitudes, it seems, mirrored the attitudes of others Robinson met in the U.S.S.R. In fact, he writes that he found only one (that’s correct) believing Marxist-Leninist in all his travels in the ideology’s birthplace. Unfortunately, the lone adherent to the Russian civil religion happened to be his faculty advisor.

An American in Leningrad contains many other anecdotes as well, including Robinson’s brief tour with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band as he served as the band’s translator during part of its Soviet tour, a tour made humorous by the bumbling antics of the KGB as it tried, in grade-B movie style to harass the band and its Russian fans.

For those who wish to gain more insight into the U.S.S.R., its economy and its people, this book is must reading.

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August 1985

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