Life in the Hills: My summer of Russia

I didn’t plan it this way. First, back in January, began some rumbling about Russia tampering with the U.S. election. In the wake of President Donald Trump’s executive orders dismantling all traces of former President Barack Obama’s legislation and impulsive, inflammatory tweets, we were all temporarily distracted. Then came the firing of FBI Director James Comey and the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller to further investigate Trump’s ties to Russia.

Amid all of this, my book group read the novel “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles. Years ago, I had read “Rules of Civility” by the same author and enjoyed it immensely. I was not, however, prepared for how much I would thoroughly appreciate his next beautifully written, well-researched book. Dense and lyrical, it reminded me of a classic Russian novel written by Dostoevsky or Tolstoy.

“A Gentleman in Moscow” begins with the house arrest of a nobleman right at the cusp of the Russian Revolution. His sentence is to live out his days in the Hotel Metropol, which has a front seat to the events of 20th-century Russian history through the characters that enter and depart through its doors. You feel his despair and then acceptance at how small his life has become. And slowly, through his relationships with others, this refined, kind, educated gentleman builds a rich life for himself within the confines of his “prison.”

Be patient with “A Gentleman in Moscow” and let the characters reveal themselves. It will be a gift you give yourself, not to mention a refresher course on the police state and Communist ideals that preceded Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rule.

Many more tweets and leaks later, the Russia news still front and center, a friend recommended that I read “Red Notice” by Bill Browder. I had no idea just how timely this nonfiction book would be. Browder’s grandfather was head of the Communist Party in the United States. In true rebellious fashion, Browder, a graduate of Stanford Business School, set out to become the biggest capitalist in the former Soviet Union. Along the way, he learned about the lawlessness and ruthlessness of those in power in Russia, including Putin.

When Browder’s Russian assets were seized and he was given a heads-up that false tax-evasion charges would be filed against him, he and his employees were able to flee unharmed to London. The lawyer Browder hired to uncover the truth and represent him in the Russian courts, Sergei Magnitsky, was not nearly as fortunate. Imprisoned and tortured, refusing to corroborate the false charges against Browder and his firm, Magnitsky ultimately died at the young age of 37, leaving behind a grief-stricken family.

Wanting to avenge his lawyer’s death and honor his work, Browder lobbied the U.S. Congress to pass the Magnitsky Act, which limits the ability of corrupt Russian oligarchs and their accomplices to travel outside of Russia. In response to the legislation, Putin placed a moratorium on adoptions of Russian children by U.S. citizens. It becomes downright fascinating when tied to the recent revelation of Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with Russian representatives last year.

And of course, I needed to binge-watch something, so “The Americans” it was. I feel a little late to the game on this one. Now in its sixth season, the FX series starring Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys chronicles the lives of two Russian spies operating in the U.S. at the height of the Cold War.

Now, I just have to go watch “Dr. Zhivago” and my summer of Russia will be complete!


Julie Arnheim is a Los Altos Hills resident and Town Crier contributor.

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