Let's help the Russians and buy Siberia

MAGAZINES

March 06, 1994|By Jan Freeman | Jan Freeman,Boston Globe

As if to make amends for last month's inane cover package -- a thumb-sucker on that perennial puzzler, What Women Really Want -- GQ sends us a March issue full of goodies, starting with Walter Russell Mead's immodest proposal: "Let's buy Siberia." Or, if not buy it outright, then lease it: Only cash, says Mr. Mead, will strengthen the Russian government's feeble grip on capitalism. Meanwhile, access to Eastern Siberia's reserves would free us from bondage to Mideast oil, and we're better equipped than the Russians for the job of policing the neighborhood.

Mr. Mead, a policy analyst, has made the proposal before, in the Los Angeles Times and World Policy Journal, but a magazine piece gives him room to lay out his case anecdote-by-telling-anecdote: When his flight from Vladivostok to Irkutsk is delayed because the Irkutsk airport goes temporarily bankrupt, or a translator, struggling with the Spanish word "manana," complains that no Russian expression can convey "the same kind of terrible urgency," it's all part of the argument. Russia is far too weak to reform its economy, and escape the clutches of its Zhirinovskys, without help.

We can invest $3 trillion (Mr. Mead's guess), or we can face a Russia that may soon look like "Yugoslavia with nukes." Policy aside, do we want Eastern Siberia? Absolutely, Mr. Mead says. ** It's not all frozen tundra: In fact, he reassures us, Vladivostok has a climate "comparable to Boston's." Not the most persuasive recommendation, this particular winter, for the future Athens of Siberia.

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In the same issue, two pieces for magazine mavens: Bob Drury gives us the Time-Newsweek wars as a grudge match between their editors -- Time's Jim Gaines, the People veteran who took over a year ago, and Newsweek's Maynard Parker, who fired Mr. Gaines from that magazine 19 years ago. Lucy Kaylin also looks at how the gay press is handling its newfound respectability (ambivalently). All this, plus Michael Jordan's father, Tommy Lee Jones and overnights in English castles -- OK, guys, all is forgiven. This month, anyway.

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At the very least, People's 20th anniversary issue (March 7-14) should be a guilty pleasure. So why does it feel like a chore instead? First, there's the depressing sense of the milestones speeding by -- and what milestones! Four years since Edith Fore fell down and couldn't get up, a full decade since Clara Peller asked "Where's the beef?" -- weren't we better off when we measured out our lives with coffee spoons?

As for the profiles, a full eight pages, including a triple foldout, are devoted to Charlie's Angels; need we say more? But there is one truly riveting tidbit, though it gets no special play: It seems that Jessica Hahn, PTL's fallen woman, murdered her mom by fleeing Jim Bakker's church for the Playboy Mansion. "Though Hahn surmounted the headlines, her mother did not," goes the shockproof, freeze-dried prose. "In 1989, Jessica Moylan died at age 54 from anorexia."

Aside from that, it's hard to think of an item here that you'd bother to point out to a friend. Maybe People shouldn't bother playing the retrospective game. Its fast-food journalism can be irresistible when it's fresh and hot; warmed over, it's about as appealing as yesterday's French fries.

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A friend steered me toward the Feb. 28 Sports Illustrated with the promise that Gary Smith's piece on Temple University basketball coach John Chaney would reward even the non-college basketball fan. He was right, and then some: the account of Mr. Chaney's long haul -- from a Jacksonville shack to success as the first black coach in the Big Five -- is a tub-thumping tour de force. The issue is off the stands as of Wednesday, but well worth digging up. . . . Equally rewarding, for some of the same reasons, is novelist Mary Gaitskill's essay in the March Harper's magazine on feminism, date rape and "victimhood" in general. Ms. Gaitskill hopes we'll learn to resist polarization on these issues, fight the urge to plant a flag at one pole of an argument, honor in other people the complexity and confusion we know from our own lives. Both she and Gary Smith show us human experience in all its fluid contradictoriness -- and manage to make it more thrilling than sloganeering.

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