Bear necessities

5th May 1995 at 01:00
THE CAMBRIDGE ENCYCLPEDIA OF RUSSIA AND THE FORMER SOVIET UNION. Edited by Archie Brown, Michael Kaser and Gerald Smith. Cambridge University Press Pounds 40. 0 521 35593 1. Mark Almond keeps up with changes in Russia.

The tumultuous changes in Russia and the former Soviet Union continue apace and threaten to make every received wisdom obsolete even before the ink in which it is written has dried. Any attempt at a comprehensive survey of the Commonwealth of Independent states runs great risks of galloping obsolescence. But the wealth of information and illustration in the new Cambridge encyclopedia is probably as close to providing this volume with the basis for a long shelf-life as any such endeavour can hope for.

Using a formidable array of specialists, this encyclopedia replaces an edition made obsolete almost overnight by Gorbachev and glasnost. Some historical, geographical and ethnographical information could be carried over, but most of the entries of contemporary interest are new. For any student coming new to Russia and her neighbours the readable essay-format should make this one of the most attractive reference works.

Any volume covering such a vast range of topics is bound to raise the odd hackle from specialists in specific fields. By trying to come up to date and summarise the post-Soviet situation, hostages to fortune and rapidly changing events abound. Perspectives change even over five years. Some conclusions about the political and economic evolution in the CIS as a whole seem over-optimistic, but only time will tell.

Debatable points aside, the only serious quibble about this volume is its cost. It certainly is bulky (more than 600 pages) and has many fine photographs (my favourite is a fag-smoker extracting caviar from sturgeon in less than sanitised surroundings) but at Pounds 40 will still be too expensive for many schools, not to mention students.CUP is in danger of pricing itself out of the reach of school and public library budgets where this book might find most readers. That would be a great pity, since despite the extensive media coverage of change in the former Soviet Union there is still a dearth of informed teaching on the subject, which in turn might encourgae more students to go to study its languages, culture or history at university. This encylopedia might help to spur such an interest.

Mark Almond is a fellow of the Institute for European Defence and Strategic Studies, London.

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