George Feifer, who chronicled mushroom hunting, ballet, prostitution, black-market sweetmeats and other fixtures of daily life in the Soviet Union, and who drew on his own encounters with Russian intellectuals and a fuming KGB agent for a pair of semi-autobiographical novels, died Nov. 12 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 85.
The cause was complications from diabetes and congestive heart failure, said his son, Gregory Feifer, a former Moscow correspondent for NPR.
A onetime piano student at Juilliard in New York, Feifer dropped out of school to work on a farm, only to abandon the rural life, graduate from Harvard University, learn Russian in the Navy and serve as a guide for the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow, where he fielded questions about U.S. automakers and race relations from thousands of Soviet citizens.
Feifer returned to Russia as an exchange student in 1961, taking classes at Moscow State University and sitting in on civil cases that provided material for his first book, “Justice in Moscow” (1964), a widely praised account of the inner workings of Soviet courtrooms.
He went on to abandon a Ph.D. at Columbia University to devote himself to “writing about real life,” as his son put it, including in stories about taxi drivers who functioned as pimps, debates over how to address a Russian (was it “comrade,” “citizeness,” “girl” or simply “you”?) and “the ordeal of a Russian winter.”
“It is not a season of the year like other seasons,” Feifer wrote in a 1982 article for Harper’s magazine, “not merely a longer, darker, crueller span of time than that which annually slows the countries of northern Europe and America. It is a life sentence to hardship that prowls near the center of the Russian consciousness, whatever the time of year. As a prime cause and a symbol of Russia’s fate, it molds a state of mind, an attitude toward life.”
Early in his career, Feifer worked briefly for CBS News alongside foreign correspondent Marvin Kalb, who recalled that Feifer was “deeply absorbed in the people and the culture of the country.” Another veteran Moscow journalist, Bruce Nelan of Time magazine, was more blunt: “He actually liked Russia and Russians. This was a contrast to the rest of us Cold War Soviet watchers.”
Feifer also wrote more than a dozen books, including “Message From Moscow” (1969), released in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, and — with David Burg — wrote one of the earliest biographies of Nobel Prize-winning author and dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was then living in the Soviet Union.