Born in Siberia by Tamara Astafieva, Michael Darlow and Debbie Slater

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Born in Siberia by Tamara Astafieva, Michael Darlow and Debbie Slater

Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Don't assume this wide-reaching volume will only introduce you to one unknown lady, as it tells the story of one woman under the USSR, and shines a light on life in Soviet days in general.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 216 Date: January 2014
Publisher: Quarter
ISBN: 9780704373341

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I tend to shy away from reviewing book titles, but this time it seems appropriate – here it's a title that doesn't tell you the half of the story. As much as Tamara Astafieva was born in Siberia, and returned there several times, for many different reasons and with many very different outcomes, this is much more of a picture of the Soviet Union as we in Britain think of it – Moscow, a bit of Saint Petersburg, and little else. That's not a fault – and again it's not half of the story. The story here is so complex, so rich with detail and incident, and itself came about in such an unusual way, that any summary of the book has its work cut out in defining its many qualities.

Tamara, to repeat, was born in Siberia, but didn't stay there very long, as her childhood schooling took place in more western corners of the USSR due to her father moving around for work. The family eventually settled in Moscow, where she grew up to work in one of the (very KGB-friendly) media organisations, from time to time assisting European film companies in creating documentaries about Soviet life and history. Her love life, career and other factors in her days created many a subject for an autobiography, and are all here, present and correct. But there are also other names on the front cover of this book…

If anything, while Tamara is the author of this volume, its creator is Michael Darlow. Back in the 1960s he was part of one of those film crews, responsible for two of the definitive British collaborative documentaries made by Soviet and Granada TV. When the usual hidden bureaucracy puts a kybosh on their working relationship, it takes forty years or so for contact to be regained and for Tamara's full story to be known to Darlow. He gets sent a self-published collection of her poetry, and enough letters, essays and biographical fragments for him to piece them all together into one flowing, chronological, and very effective work.

As such it's very much a labour of love, but one you really can't begrudge. It starts a little awkwardly, with repetition and too much over-caring clarity from the foot-notes and explanations, but quickly settles into what it intends to be. Therefore we get a very successful book, that introduces her life in intimate detail to us, and has enough content about the Soviet life we may recognise to make it a kind of collective social history.

It is a little too intimate later on – a passing love affair resonates with Tamara too much for her own health, you think, but elsewhere is perfectly readable. I did approach it thinking that with that amount of personal archive photography inside it would be too private, intimate and one-note, but it isn't. From her life details you can easily extrapolate to see the reality for Soviet womanhood of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. This is the main reason for recommending this volume – it is constructed in some fashion out of what she wrote as a vision-impaired pensioner, but it rings with precise clarity when talking of her own life, and swags back the Iron Curtain afresh to show many parallels with other lives of the same era.

Darlow could in fact allow for a greater presence of his name on the cover, for he contributes much fine journalism from his working life in Russia when he met Tamara. Some of the galling details about a trip they shared to memorial grave sites outside St Petersburg will stay with you a long time, I am sure. As will Tamara herself – someone who seems to face up to life now with faith, stoicism, memories of loves lost, and not too much else. It would hearten me, and I'm sure the book's many creators, and her herself, to know that it received a wide audience (especially in the months when the world's media turns to Sochi – a city that means something completely different for her). The clarity of the writing (not, unfortunately, helped by many dropped articles no proof-reader picked up) allow us to befriend this lady, and her remarkable story, pieced together in this fashion, is well worth recommending.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

For a recent fictional read set in a similar corner of the world, you might enjoy All That is Solid Melts into Air by Darragh McKeon.

Buy Born in Siberia by Tamara Astafieva, Michael Darlow and Debbie Slater at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Born in Siberia by Tamara Astafieva, Michael Darlow and Debbie Slater at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Born in Siberia by Tamara Astafieva, Michael Darlow and Debbie Slater at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Born in Siberia by Tamara Astafieva, Michael Darlow and Debbie Slater at Amazon.com.


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