Amerika – The Beginning

Before I went to Leningrad during my junior year of college, I suppose I thought mostly that Russians saw America and Americans through nuclear-colored glasses.  Cold War propaganda wasn’t about subtlety or nuance (shocker? should I have broken this to you more gently, reader?), and it was still the Cold War, for at least a little while longer. I’d decided to major in Russian because I’d always loved learning languages and, through them, learning about other cultures. Plus, Russian was just a little bit dangerous, or so it seemed to me — I was learning the language of the “Evil Empire,” after all — and just a little bit dangerous is about as far as I seem to ever be capable of going. (Sigh.)  It also appealed to my romantic and youthful idealism: if ordinary Americans (like I hoped I was) could just talk with ordinary Russians (and I was determined to meet some), I was sure we had more in common than our governments led us to believe. Sting’s “Russians” was the soundtrack, and this was the double-page spread from Time magazine I had taped above my bed:




I spent the winter break before I headed to Leningrad knitting a fuzzy, pallidly purple scarf that grew in proportion to my anxieties, and also scrupulously stocking up on all of the items recommended by my program to bring: soap, toilet paper (tip: remove the cardboard core to save room in suitcase), swiss army knife, duct tape, peanut butter, deodorant, batteries, blank cassette tapes, water purification tablets, bandaids, twine, clean syringes, powdered soup mix, hairspray (this was the late 80s — I needed a lot of hairspray). By the time I left for the USSR I could wrap that scarf several times around my neck and still have to keep a vigilant eye out for the ends dragging on the ground, and I was pretty sure I could survive out on even the most barren steppes for at least three months.

My group — all of us students from various University of California campuses — arrived in Leningrad in the depths of winter, and I remember riding in a bus from the airport to the dormitory in pitch darkness, except for the occasional neon slogans glowing on the tops of suburban buildings: “Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live.” “May. Peace. Labor.” “Proletarians of the World Unite.” Our dorm was the one where Leningrad University housed (quarantined?) foreigners, on the edge of Vasilevskii Island, exposed to raw winds from the Gulf of Finland (a lot of my duct tape went quickly toward sealing bedroom windows shut), and next to the Pribaltiskaia Hotel. Most foreign students who visited Leningrad in those days have some memories of that classically ugly Soviet building on Ulitsa Korablestroitelei. (My Russian is quite decent, but I still have a hard time pronouncing “Korablestroitelei” ["of the ship-builders"] without pausing. I’ve never gotten over my suspicions that we were housed on that street at least partly because only a native could pronounce the name smoothly, and all of us foreign students would immediately give ourselves away to any official [so we were easier to keep track of] or taxi driver [so we were easier to swindle] who asked for our address.)

Even though the entrance to the dorm was monitored twenty-four hours a day by uniformed security and we had to show ID’s to get in and out, it was only a day or two before a group of friendly Russian kids showed up on our corridor. Grisha and Vitia and Vadim and Maks had all been great friends with the previous group of UC students. In fact, Maks was engaged to one of them and waiting for a fiancé visa to go be with her in America. They were charming, they spoke English, they invited us to their apartments and introduced us to their friends.  It all felt pretty good, inheriting a pre-fabbed kompania who shared their Russian food and music with us and kept us busy and entertained.  Until things got to get a little strange. They really disapproved of us making friends they didn’t know, and, eventually, they started dropping hints about which of our things they’d like to have.  Maks seemed to be actively cultivating a back-up fiancee who was part of another group of Americans upstairs, and sometimes I got the distinct feeling that he was considering me as a potential Plan C.

It was that growing realization that it was less about me for those Russian kids and more about my stuff, what I could give them (from a pitiful pair of off-brand jeans to a more practiced, American-style accent, to maybe even a green card) that forced me to think about how Russians looked at America in newer, more material, and very positive terms.  Even the paltry material goods I had, the ones that my friends considered “genuinely American” — including my fair, half-Greek hand in marriage — were things they deeply, ardently desired.  And it wasn’t just them.  Fartstovshchiki, the young, petty black-market traders who roved the streets  (we called them “farts” for short, of course) could identify Americans and other Westerners from a hundred meters away by the way we walked, by our shoes, our clothes, our watches, our teeth.  Just to confirm, they’d ask us, in Russian, what time it was. Expressing time correctly is notoriously hard for beginning Russian speakers to get their heads around, and the farts knew it. A stumbling, accented response brought on a barrage of offers to exchange dollars for rubles at black-market rates, to sell us “rebbit hets, lekker boks, keviyar” or to buy the jeans, jackets, and tennis shoes right off our bodies.

Looking back on it, I guess that was the first and only time I was treated sort of like a celebrity. At least the kind of “celebrity” like Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian that doesn’t do or make anything worthwhile and yet still manages to be in the spotlight for a while.  And it freaked. Me. Out.

I spent two days in bed, covers over my head, refusing to leave my room, as the painful process of paradigm shifting took place.  What I did to try to find new friends who didn’t want anything from me is another story for another time. (I did find my “little bit dangerous” but not how I was expecting it, and it got awfully close to being a lot more than a little.)

The huge disconnect between Soviet official rhetoric about the soaring achievements of their centralized, socialist economy despite the opposition of America, their “enemy number one” on the one hand, and the obsession regular people I met had for American booze and music and jeans and magazines on the other was revelatory. And then there was the fascination they had with American history and culture. I can’t tell you how many times I was relentlessly quizzed about American authors I’d never heard of (whether because they were obscure writers deemed politically acceptable for translation, or because one of their books just randomly happened to be given them by a friend lucky enough to have gone abroad), or about exactly how tall certain skyscrapers in Cleveland or Oklahoma City were. Or told with great authority how deep the Grand Canyon is at its deepest point, or recited the names of all of the American presidents in order.  Something, I have to admit, I don’t think I could do.

This everyday Russian fascination with all things American was all the more striking to me because it didn’t work the other way.  I didn’t spend my time as an American teenager wishing I could get my hands on some genuine Soviet roknrol or a pair of whatever pants Trouser Factory No. 37 was producing that year. And I don’t think my friends at home did, either.  I still can’t tell you how tall Moscow State University’s tower is, and even though I do think I could recite the names of the General Secretaries in order, if you want me to go back to tsars, it gets very, very dubious.

A lot of things have changed since then. Not long after I returned from that first trip, the Berlin Wall came down and then the Soviet Union collapsed.  Russians are no longer cut off from western popular culture and commodities, and, as long as I’m not in their way, nobody cares or gives me a second glance when I walk down Nevskii Prospekt.  But the fascination lingers:  America is still a frequent object of the uniquely Russian admixture of curiosity/envy/contempt. America still serves as a yardstick for a Russia assessing its own identity.

And I am still fascinated by the whole question, because we have so much to gain by considering why Russians see America and Americans the way they do. They can help us understand ourselves, if only we are curious enough to let them.