Some years back, I happened upon Transit Point Moscow in a used bookstore. Synopsis: an American, on the spur of the moment and with great impulsive idiocy, agrees to try and smuggle heroin through Soviet-era Moscow–and it doesn’t go well. I guess that’s in the category of “young, dumbass stunts we pull that cost us ten years of our lives.”
Why it’s great: the writing style is clear, often funny, and skillfully descriptive of the transition from arrest to imprisonment. The book also offers a lot of cues to Russian culture. I wouldn’t describe Amster and his cronies as sympathetic characters, but there’s a sense of honesty in that. One does pose the question of how much of Amster’s story we believe. I’m more inclined to believe someone who paints himself as a complete ass than as a dashing hero, and there isn’t much glory in Amster’s self-portrait. The book is better for it.
What got me thinking about it was a more recent read, Alexander Dolgun’s Story. I got turned on to this in a strange way, for it was on the guest room nightstand at some friends’ home. I didn’t read it, just glanced at it, but noted the title and ordered a copy. Dolgun was in the Gulag in the late forties and early fifties, when life was a lot harder there. Even accounting for the temporal separation (Amster did his Gulagging over a generation later), there was enough in common between the two accounts for me to recognize terms, prison subcultures and practices.
You can learn things about a country’s mentality from its prison system. For example, from the sheer magnitude of ours, one begins to suspect that our national mentality is that we should all be incarcerated in it. From its deep division between country club pokies for those who steal billions, and PMITA hard time for people who grow dope, one suspects that we consider having a good time (or relieving pain) without buying the drug from a corporation a horrific crime, but that if you steal a few bill, hey, that’s how we roll, shouldn’t have gotten caught. I still haven’t figured out what the Gulag says about Russia’s mentality, honestly.