Review

Beyond Siberia
Two Years In A Forgotten Place
by Sharon Dirlam (Russia Far East 1996–98)
McSeas Books,
363 pages
April 2004
$14.00

    Reviewed by Ken Hill (Turkey 1965–67)

    MY LAST FLIGHT from Vladivostok departed in June 1996 — my assignment as Country Director for the Peace Corps program in the Russian Far East completed. The nine-hour Alaska Airlines flight to Anchorage also carried several Russian teachers on their way to an interim Peace Corps training site in West Virginia. Although training is now normally held in-country, there were conflicts between the Russian Ministry of Education and the Federal Security Bureau (the successor to the KGB which was convinced that PCVs were spies), and the FSN was holding hostage the visas for this new group of trainees. These Peace Corps teachers feature prominently in Sharon Dirlam’s new book, Beyond Siberia: Two Years in a Forgotten Place. Sharon and her husband John were part of this training group.
         I admit that I am not a dispassionate reviewer; my wife and I lived and worked in the Russian Far East for thirty months preceding the arrival of Sharon Dirlam’s group. Being a Peace Corps Volunteer or staff member in the Russian Far East, I am convinced, is incomparable to any other Peace Corps experience — my own service as a 60s Volunteer in a remote and seemingly primitive Turkish village included. I cannot begin to express the respect I have for the Volunteers who served there!
         The Russian Far East is truly unique; mysterious, cold and often threatening. It is — as Sharon Dirlam expresses it — a forgotten place. Nearly twice the size of the United States — but only about a third of Russia — it spans five time zones, four of them east of China. Much of it lies within the Artic Circle yet it’s southern anchor, Vladivostok, is just over an hour flight from Japan and lies in a monsoon climate zone. Barely twelve million Russians populate this vast region and they are quite distinct from other Russians. Beyond Siberia captures the ironies of life in this strangely beautiful place.
         Told in chronological style, Sharon Dirlam’s book avoids the pitfalls of many chronicles. The pieces fit together in a mesmerizing way. Shades and textures interplay as vignettes unfold from paragraph to paragraph. Characters move in and out as in real life and their stories unfold throughout the book. Emotions tumble and twist as in most Volunteer experiences, but Ms. Dirlam’s insights and descriptions make her narrative special. The book captures the extraordinary challenges of being the first volunteers in a unique territory of Russia, an isolated place, deep and forgotten.
         A glimpse . . . (The conversation occurs, of course, in Russian)

           Boris talked about his father. We had heard that his father spent time in prison, but we hadn’t heard why. “He was an actor,” Boris said. “. . . he was much in demand. But in 1951, my father made a terrible mistake. Maybe it’s not fair to say so, because he didn’t know at the time that it was a mistake. My father starred in a film about a man who escaped from prison. The script had been approved; everything was without problem until the film began playing in the Moscow theaters. Then charges were brought against him. Two policemen came to the house, pushed my mother into the kitchen, and waited for my father to come home. When he arrived, they arrested him and took him away. According to the KGB, starring in this film was a political act against the state. He was sentenced to ten years in prison.”
           No one spoke.
           I wanted to hear more. “Why was your father blamed?” I asked.
           Boris swallowed the rest of the vodka in his glass and poured another, gesturing around the room with the bottle. People put their glasses out for refills. That done, Boris lit a cigarette and continued.
           “As it turned out, after the film was released, the part my father played seemed to inspire people in a way no one had predicted,” he said. “The blame was placed directly on the head of my father because it was his part that inspired people. My father played the role of an anti-Leninist.”
           Boris leaned forward, waving his cigarette in our faces. “Even though the film portrayed him as the villain, the censors said he played his part — how can I say? — too sympathetically. You see, it made trouble for them — the censors — because they had approved the script.”
           “Ah, kaneshna! (of course!),” said one of the other Russians.
           “Even after he was released from prison, my father was not allowed to return to Moscow. That is how I happened to be born in this far corner of the world. . . . The fact is, it’s very clear — my father was sent to prison for ten years because he was a great actor!”

          The first account I read of the Peace Corps experience was Moritz Thompson’s, Living Poor. I have since read many fine Peace Corps chronicles but I have yet to read a better one. Beyond Siberia comes close. A professional writer, Ms. Dirlam’s narrative is skilled, intriguing and memorable. To me, it read like a good novel — her adventure makes a great story!

      After his Peace Corps service Ken Hill was a staff member who left the Peace Corps in 1975 to pursue his own business interests. In the mid-90’s he and his wife Winnie (Nepal 1966-68) returned to Peace Corps where Ken was Country Director first for the Russian Far East, then Bulgaria and Macedonia. In 1999 he was made Chief of Operations for Peace Corps programs in Europe, Asia and the Middle East and was appointed Chief of Staff of Peace Corps during 2001.
           Ken is now an independent consultant, and semi-retired. Ken is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Peace Corps Association.