Is it odd that the most famous Frenchman in India is a journalist? I guess not – after all, Dominique Lapierre wrote City of Joy, a book that forever christened Kolkatta as such. And that’s not counting some of his other books like Freedom at Midnight (with Larry Collins) and Five Past Midnight in Bhopal (with Javier Moro) or the charities supported by the royalties from those books. In addition to those, Lapierre and Collins have written two of my personal favorites, O Jerusalem and Is Paris Burning?
Lapierre’s latest book (published in 2006) is Once Upon a Time in the Soviet Union, the story of an extraordinary road trip through Nikita Khrushchev’s USSR.
In 1956, Lapierre – then a young reporter with Paris Match – had a wild idea as he sped along a foggy road in the company of his colleague, Jean Pierre Pedrazzini: what if they spent their next vacation motoring through China? It would be an adventure in the grand tradition: two intrepid explorers (and their wives) in a car, traveling across a fabled land, stopping every now and then to knock on the door of the ordinary citizen, finding out how the Chinese live at home, without any official slant to color their perception. Pedrazzini, whom Lapierre describes as a demigod of the photojournalism world, swerved, narrowly avoided an accident and asked Lapierre to grow up. There was no way in hell Red China was going to throw its doors open for a couple of capitalist Western journalists.
Okay, said Lapierre, it doesn’t have to be China. The USSR would do me just fine. Pedrazzini drove on.
And there matters would have rested, had it not been for a series of coincidences, including a chance to join a delegation led by a former French President and his wife to the Soviet Union. Within a year of making hazy plans to take a tour behind the Iron Curtain, Lapierre and Pedrazzini unexpectedly found themselves standing at the border with their wives in tow.
Perhaps it’s because my father fed me plenty of horror stories about getting into the USSR, even as a citizen of a “friendly” nation, and getting tailed by the KGB (very partial to French brandy I hear, but then who isn’t?), but I needed no convincing that this was an extraordinary achievement. Of course, Lapierre & Co. were accompanied (by their own request) on their journey by an “approved” Soviet journalist and his wife.
Precisely one page into the book, I was convinced that this was not going to end well. Somehow, this wide-eyed quartet of eager explorers was going to end up positively buried in trouble. In fact, I was a little surprised Lapierre was alive to write this story. Anybody who drips the amount of idealism he does at the beginning of this book, is inevitably marked by fate to end up somewhere deep, dark, cold and life threatening if not dead.
But I suppose, for the Russians, it was rather like being confronted by a puppy who loves to shred your slippers. You don’t much care for this sort of behavior but it’s only a helpless little puppy, after all. They came armed with perfume sachets and little Eiffel Towers, French newspapers and a car that jetted water onto the windshield for wipers to clean. They were liable to ask questions like, why do the Russian people have a problem with Khrushchev acknowledging the fact that Stalin basically went cuckoo in his later years and went about putting people to death like they were pesky mosquitoes? But there’s no question that they were genuinely happy to be where they were. I suspect the Russians really didn’t know what to do with these crazy young French people, butting into their everyday lives (railway workers, peasants, waiters, surgeons, random people off the street who come up in the crowd around the ‘exotic’ foreign car to shake their Western hand) with such enthusiasm.
Which would also explain why their minder, a journalist and a loyal Communist Party member, wasn’t more draconian about their access to ordinary citizens. Had the four of them been on a fault-finding mission or trying to poke their nose into some forbidden nook of Soviet life, perhaps he would have reacted differently. But here they were, gamboling about Russia and her satellite countries, trying to see what it meant to be a Soviet citizen. It wouldn’t please his superiors but what, exactly, could he guard against? People talking?
And this forms the secondary focus: what does it mean to be a journalist? For Pedrazzini, the dashing photographer, it was a matter of serving on the front line; for Slava, the Communist, it was about reaffirming the Party truth, which he saw as the only truth; for Lapierre, it was a grand adventure. Each of them, in their own way, contributes to this book from their point of view.
What you read in Once Upon a Time in the Soviet Union is remarkable not just for the fact that it records a period in time when a vast area of the planet was effectively cut off from the rest of humanity, but also in that it shows you the Soviet Union as it saw itself while giving you an outsider’s perspective at the same time. It’s a fine line to tread for any narrative, especially when it concerns such a delicate and volatile period of history – Lapierre navigates with the help of Slava, who speaks for the USSR.
The book ends with several tragedies that stand in stark contrast to how it began: lives are lost, some are shattered, dreams end and people grow up. The triumphant return to Paris, the kind that normally marks a rousing end to a grand adventure, is summarily disposed of in the manner of reality – politics and violence play spoilsport, road trip camaraderie gives way to real world compulsions, and the idealistic bubble bursts.
If you’re in the mood for a political memoir -cum- road trip -cum- coming of age story, then Once Upon a Time in the Soviet Union is for you.