Soon after Charlotte Hobson decided to leave England to spend a year studying Russian in the sleepy provincial city of Voronezh, 500 kilometers southeast of Moscow, the Soviet Union collapsed, creating in its wake a society rife with petty crime, profiteering and staggering inflation. But the turmoil transpiring in the streets outside International Hostel No. 4, where Hobson lived, accounted for only a small part of the electric excitement of her Russian experience.
Inside the squalid, overcrowded dorm rooms, Hobson and her friends amused themselves by consuming prodigious amounts of vodka and indulging in passionate and histrionic love affairs. Hobson's immensely lively and engaging new book, Black Earth City (Metropolitan), chronicles the doldrums and drama of her stay in Voronezh: the punishing winter, the saving distractions of holiday celebrations, the challenges of a new language and a new culture—and of finding a place to be alone with her charming, dreamy and alcoholic boyfriend, Mitya.
Together with a sharply and sensitively drawn cast of characters, Hobson attends a country wedding, observes International Women's Day, and picnics in a pleasant forest spot that turns out to have been built over a mass grave of Stalin's victims. As she shares the privations and pressures her classmates have long endured—food shortages, poverty, the lingering shadow of the KGB—she comes to know and admire the inventiveness, resilience and courage of the young men living with traumatic memories of military service, the young women who turn to casual prostitution to survive.
Black Earth City is a remarkable account of the ways its author not only adapted to but fell in love with a radically foreign environment—and the ways in which the human spirit continues to assert itself in the face of bewildering and cataclysmic historic change.