Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana by Stephanie Elizondo Griest

Villard Books 2004  399 pp. 13.95 PB original

Copyright © Steven E. Alford  


Bump into Stephanie Elizondo Griest in Whole Foods and it would be easy to conclude that she is who she appears to be: a twenty-ish Austin hippie chick, living in communal vegetarian splendor.  What might escape your notice is that she’s a Russian-speaking Phi Beta Kappa journalist who has compiled an impressive memoir of her journey through three lands whose political landscape was, and continues to be, dominated by a history of Communist rule.

Beginning in 1996, Griest began an intermittent four-year set of travels that sent her to Moscow as a student, Beijing as a journalist, and Cuba as a tourist.  In Moscow, she finds that the former Soviet Union reminds her of something much closer to home.

“The only thing I could remotely compare to the mysterious world I studied in my post-Soviet classes at UT was the old King Ranch of South Texas.  Like the Soviet Union, it was once a vast empire that promised housing, health care, education, and subsistence to its workers in exchange for loyalty and labor.  And it too had recently abandoned its principles for reasons that ultimately boiled down to greed.”      

While there she “wanted to learn … the toll that the dissolution of the Soviet Union had taken on its youth.”  We learn the range of effects from a series of Griest’s friends and acquaintances, discovering the seductive and destructive pull of illegal biznes.

In China Griest worked as a native-speaking editor for an English language newspaper, and found herself having to revise her preconceived notions of the horrors of living where the state suppressed free expression. “China had caused me to question so much about myself and what it meant to be a journalist, a human rights advocate, a citizen of a democracy, and an American that it was frightening me.”

Her journey to Cuba was unsponsored, a tourist hop from Mexico that lasted only ten days, which allowed for only “the most topical of observations.”  As in China, she is torn in her assessment of Fidel’s achievements.  While not ignoring the value of universal health care and literacy (as well as the handsome men), she remarks that “the Cuban Revolution was supposed to teach people to sacrifice so that someday, everyone would stand on equal footing.  Yet Fidel’s ruthless policies had turned his people into second-class citizens, forcing many to depend on the tourists who not only showed them what they lacked (Nikes and Nikons), but took away what little their country actually did produce.”

Much of the charm of this narrative springs from the narrative voice: thoughtful, empathetic, informed, and disarmingly candid (we are in the room during her deflowering).  As with all travel literature, the tale follows a geographical trek that simultaneously traces the transformation of her inner world.  Biracial (Anglo and Mexican), lacking knowledge of Spanish, Griest longs for an established identity.

“Not that you have to be victimized to be a ‘real minority,’ but when you’re already insecure about your authenticity—like many light-skinned biracials—you often feel as though you’ve got something to prove. … But deep down, you wish your skin were darker and accent stronger so that you could understand—not empathize—when another person of color told you nobody wanted them on stage.”

Her conclusions about the countries she’s visited are impressively even-handed, despite their potential to offend her fellow citizens.  As she suggests, “The Soviets revered mass murderers; we honor presidents who kept slaves, sent indigenous people on death marches, and waged brutal wars on developing nations.” For Griest, “rather than point out the holes in others’ truths, we should be investigating the ones in our own.”

Like a growing number of Americans, she sees in our response to Communism a model for our future foreign policy. “By early 2000, it was painfully apparent that the Red Scare that had terrorized our nation for half a century had been replaced by the Green Scare of Islam.”

Griest’s book is definitely a young person’s book, chronicling as it does boyfriends, nights of drunkenness, and lots of dancing.  Readers may be also struck by Griest’s capacity to empathize with peoples who we’ve been instructed to hate.  But therein lies the charm of the story: a smart, daring, accomplished young single woman ready to thoughtfully explore other countries and draw her own independent conclusions.