Timed with the 25th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s collapse, in December 2016 North Bend author Joseph Fjelstad’s book “In Our Own Words,” was re-published. The book contains a series of 59 interviews with Russian citizens just after the the Soviet Union dissolved.
Fjelstad lived in Russia from 1991 to 1993 while working at the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Research in the city of Troitsk outside of Moscow. On Dec. 25, 1991, soon after Fjelstad arrived, Mikhail Gorbachev announced the end of the Soviet Union. The economic collapse that followed was what motivated Fjelstad to create the book.
“I went to work in the Soviet Union and when I left, it was Russia, but I don’t get to take any credit,” he said.
The lab Fjelstad was working at shut down fairly quickly after he began, but he stayed in the country and watched how the people were affected by the change in government. It was then that he got the idea to capture the feelings and thoughts of the people around him for a book.
“I thought to myself, these people are standing on a shore and about to get on a boat going to a new place. They have no idea where they are going. They know what they are leaving, but they don’t know where they are going. This is uncharted territory,” he said. “I know how memory fades, we tend to remember the good things and not the bad things. So I thought it would be worthwhile to capture the thoughts of a spectrum of people.”
In a new preface for the reprinting of the book, Fjelstad recalls the story of the massive value increase of his U.S. dollars, further showing him how much of a difference the economic downshift had made.
“I was made rich not by personal effort, but by currency exchange rates,” he wrote. “At one point I took seven friends with me to the Moscow Hotel for dinner. It was a multi-course affair including appetizers, salads, main course, dessert, a couple bottles of Champagne and a liter of good Russian vodka with the bill tallying something around $7.”
Through a friend who had connections to a press company, Fjelstad was able to hire two journalists, Rimma Volkova and Valentina Zaitzeva, to conduct interviews with people across the country in 1992. The two interviewers were given complete freedom to choose who they interviewed with only one request from Fjelstad, to obtain a wide diversity in age and socioeconomic background as they could. They even answered the questions themselves and appear in the book as two of the 59 interviews.
Volkova and Zaitzeva used a common set of guidelines and questions to maintain continuity through their interviews. The interviews range in topic from questions about their likes and dislikes about the current (in 1992) and former government, as well as questions about religion, politics, and daily life.
Fjelstad worked with translators to get the interviews translated into English and edited the transcripts himself to get the book into a publishable state.
He also worked with his two interviewers, Volkova and Zaitzeva, to publish the book in Russian. He gave them the rights to the Russian-language version so they could publish it themselves.
In addition to the two forewords written by Fjelstad, one written in 1993 and the other in 2017, “In Our Own Words” has an introduction written by Alexander Kabakov, the deputy chief editor of the Moscow News, in 1993.
As he prepared the book for republication, Fjelstad found a new appreciation for the history his team was able to capture at that point in history and even saw some similar themes pop up that remain relevant today.
“In the process of re-editing this and reorganizing, to a slight extent, I thought this could have been about our (Presidential) election. They were echoing from the past the same kinds of thoughts,” he said.
“It was a current-events book and now it’s a history book. It’s always of interest to go and see what people said, especially one on one. What did they say? What were they thinking? It’s fascinating to go back and read what the ancients had to say.”