A very interesting and truthful account of life within a 'closed' society by an Author who lived the lives of the ordinary people. This book is about real people, their lives, fears and aspirations in a society that robbed them of just about everything but their dignity. Whilst others have attempted to document life in the Soviet Union, they have not even come close to portray the characters of those who would eventually contribute to the Post Soviet era. Helen's courage is indisputable. From her travel with Soviet Forces out of Afghanistan to her forays into the wilds of the 'Empire on which the sun never sets' while documenting a society that feared those who would dare to probe its inner secrets. A story about real people, real lives, personal triumphs and disasters, A thoroughly good book that does what it says on the tin, and I recommend it to anyone with an interest and following in true journalism.
Books for Sale by Helen Womack
Absolutely First Class
A review written by Anthony Green on 18 Oct 2013 for The Ice Walk
A Moving, Honest, Decent Book -The Ice Walk
Sometimes I’m lucky enough to meet one of the small band of Western journalists who were in Moscow when I was, an incredible 22 years ago now, just as the old Evil Empire was melting and cracking. Usually it’s as if we’d never been apart. The experience of that place in those times has bound us very closely together, and given us something in common that allows us to finish each other’s thoughts, if not each other’s sentences. It doesn’t matter if we have completely different opinions and world views (as is often the case. I must be one of the few conservative-minded ex-Moscow correspondents, oddly enough. Most still treasure leftish ideals of one sort or another). We’re a band of brothers and sisters who know something most people can’t ever know, which we can collectively remember, but which we can’t ever fully describe. Some time ago I recommended here a book by Conor O’ Clery, the Irish Times’s man in Moscow (and later in Washington , New York and Peking too) ‘Moscow, December 25 1991: The Last day of the Soviet Union’ , a beautifully-told and revelatory account of Boris Yeltsin’s elbowing aside of Mikhail Gorbachev and all that went with it. Now I’d like to recommend a very different book by another survivor of those strange times. Helen Womack (who would never say this of herself) is a courageous and enterprising Yorkshirewoman who found her way to Moscow as an agency reporter in the mid-1980s, and – thanks to her open and adventurous nature – plunged far deeper into Soviet and Russian life than most of us ever did. Her book ‘The Ice Walk - Surviving the Soviet Break-up and the new Russia’ (Melrose Books) is particularly captivating because Helen, a very English person who comes from Filey, fell in love with and married a Russian, the delightful Costya Gagarin. I got to know Costya because he is a very fine carpenter, and he put the cupboards and shelves in my second Moscow Flat , the official, less sinister one which I was allotted just before the 1991 putsch. He is living proof of the fact (much obscured by the Soviet system) that the words ‘Russian craftsmanship’ are not a contradiction in terms. After a while in Moscow you could be excused for thinking so. Almost nothing worked properly or fitted properly. All plumbing was invariably crooked. All wiring was overloaded. All pointing was squidgy and badly finished. And so on. One of the commonest ways to die was being burned to death in your flat when your Soviet-made TV exploded and set fire to the furniture. But Costya’s carpentry was a joy to watch and a delight to see and use. It actually gave me hope that something would eventually arise out of all the wreckage, mess and sloth of the USSR. Helen’s story of how she met Costya (he was looking for vodka and instead found her, and her first words to him were ‘You leave me alone! I am a British correspondent!’, because she assumed she was some sort of KGB provocateur) is funny, touching and illuminating. By marrying this troublemaking, talented outsider, she found her way through a low door in the wall, deep into the real lives of actual Russians. She got to know what it was really like to live in the privacy-free communal flats that were still home to millions. She found out just how much despair and disappointment faced the nonconformist individual. She spent weekends and summer weeks in tottering country shacks surounded by cucumbers. She also saw the hard face of the KGB, a face not normally turned towards privileged foreigners. For by marrying a Russian she had put herself, if not at their mercy, within their reach. They thought they had real power over her and on one occasion they sought, very nastily to use it. There’s much more in this charming, original memoir. Helen has collected a lot of her accounts of small but telling corners of Moscow life. They’re all full of a disarming honesty . I thought Helen’s Russian was pretty good, but she still had her problems, as she beautifully puts it, in 'judging the weight of words’ in that vast, expressive language. Demonstrating her western car to friends in a Russian village, she offered to let an old peasant try out the joys of the heated driver’s seat. But what she actually said to him (as she realised too late) was ‘Anatoly Sergeyevich – would you like me to give you a hot a***?’ (For American readers ‘ a hot a**’ ). Of course, as was so often the case in Russia, any awkwardness was readily dissolved in laughter. I can’t say how many times that seemingly serious problems I had in that grim-seeming country were eventually ended by jokes and friendliness. The outward grimness concealed a wholly different world, but you didn’t find it unless you looked for it). I could spend pages giving examples of little anecdotes which illuminate the real Russia more than a thousand political tracts (I was pleased to see that Helen’s interest in the place, like mine, had been much stimulated by Hedrick Smith’s extraordinary 1976 book ‘The Russians’ , one of the first attempts by a Western reporter to explain how real Russians actually lived, rather than waste space on tedious Kremlinology). If you’re at all interested, I do urge you to get hold of the whole thing, which I read almost continuously in two sittings, as one would read a story. For a story is really what it is. But there are also some moments of great seriousness, and I feel I ought to mention them. The first concerns her brave decision to accompany the retreating Soviet Army on its final convoy out of Afghanistan on the stage between Jalalabad and Kabul (she insisted on going, despite her own grave misgivings and the severe doubts of the officer in charge, who didn’t want women in or on his armoured cars for rather basic reasons she amusingly explains later). Thanks to this, she was able to record from personal experience that the bouquets of flowers flung by Afghans at the departing Soviet soldiers were not all that they seemed. ‘Among the flowers’ she recalls ‘were other small gifts. ‘As we set off, I was hit in the mouth by a piece of dried camel dung’ . Now, that’s reporting. And so is this, a sort of mirror image of the same event at the other end of the journey: ‘We journalists stood to the side and at quite a distance from the men, who were lined up with their vehicles. One young man on top of an armoured personnel carrier cheekily caught my eye and threw a bouquet of flowers in my direction. He must have been nearly the length of a cricket pitch away from me (Note for American readers : that’s 22 yards. One chain, 66 feet). ‘Normally I am clumsy, myopic and hopeless at sport but because of lack of sleep and the joy of still being alive, I was in such a state of flow that I stretched out my right arm and caught the bouquet in one hand, like an ace cricketer. The convoy erupted in applause. It was a moment with a poster-like quality – the returning soldier and the girl, a symbol of life and hope’. Of course, it could all have been quite different. As we were all to discover in the final years of the Soviet empire, really bad things could happen in our sight, especially in those countries seeking to leave Moscow’s dominions. Helen describes being taken to see the aftermath of a massacre of Azerbaijanis by Armenians , a story that flew in the face of a lot of preconceptions most of us had about Armenians as eternal victims. It was horrible, and involved exposure to real fear, something her Azerbaijani escorts noticed and exploited ‘Are you scared? Now you know how our women feel’, one snarled at her. She then writes : ‘I did my job, went home and unravelled’. I won’t quote what she says next because I feel you should be intimately involved in the book, and in her whole story, to read such an honest account of pardonable, indeed laudable, human weakness and decency in which I learned something I had not previously known. All I’ll say is that not all journalists are war junkies. Not all can harden themselves to the bitter sights they sometimes have to see. I am very glad that this is so, or who would be left to cry when it was necessary to cry? One last thing I feel I must quote, and then I must just leave it to you to find and read this engaging, modest but powerful little book. Helen took a Russian friend, Vitaly, abroad to Finland, his first trip outside Soviet territory. While there, he saw some of his newly rich countrymen flaunting their wealth. ‘They make me sick, my fellow countrymen’, hissed Vitaly. ‘They come abroad and learn nothing. When will they understand that the difference between East and West is not about material things, but attitudes, ethics, relations between people?’. When will they? When will we? Helen Womack has certainly done her best to communicate this important truth. Oh, and as for what the Ice Walk is, you’ll have to read the book. I never saw it, but I wish I had and I rather hope that one day I will, but in a Russia better and cleaner than it is now.
A review written by Peter Hitchens, Daily Mail on 09 Oct 2013 for The Ice Walk
I met Helen Womack and obtained a copy of her recent book at Scarboroughs Annual Literary Festival during April, where Helen gave a talk. I could not easily put her book down until finished! I have always had a great interest in all things Russian and Russia, and her book left me with so much more. The country and the people she has met just came to life and I thoroughly urge anyone to read "The Ice Walk" they will love it as much as I do!
A review written by Jenny Dowling on 03 Sep 2013 for The Ice Walk