America through Russian eyes

Tatiana Shcherbina
15 December 2008

I'm flying to New York. On the immigration cards they hand out one of the questions is about what you're bringing into the USA and what its value is. "I'm bringing in books", I tell the steward. "Should I write it down?"

"Your own books?"


"Don't write it. They're not worth anything".

"I've got other books too that I'm bringing as gifts".

"Are they old books?"


"Modern books aren't worth anything", he says.  

Many of us have it deeply embedded in our consciousness that modernity is worthless and everything of value is in the past. But in America it's different. Today's intellectual efforts are the most valuable thing around. They're the soil from which the future will grow. This is why intellectuals from Russia go there. Here, they are just selling air, but there, air is the most important investment ...

"Why do you still have these old planes flying?" I ask the steward.

"What do you mean old planes?" he objects.

"Well, it's at least 20 years old", I say.

"You're right", he says. "But that's not old. You should see what planes the Americans fly on! Real old junk!"

The Russian steward's head was so full of propaganda that he was hallucinating: I flew on goodness knows how many planes round America and they were all quite newish. True, there were problems on one. They got us off, we had to take other flights, I ended up taking three different planes to get from Albequerque (New Mexico) to Boston and taking longer than it would to fly to Moscow. I'd heard all about these American lawsuits claiming millions of dollars for moral damage, and I asked my publisher and translator Jim Kates, at whose invitation I was in America if we could screw tons of gold out of them for all the inconvenience.

"Not a cent", he said. "All you'll get is another ticket".

These kinds of disruptions and inconveniences are easy enough to find in America. But if you want compensation for small problems (and I encountered several over the course of my two-week trip) you've got to be prepared for long battles in the courts. Americans have little love for these litigious characters because in the end the millions of dollars they get for their trouble come out of taxpayers' pockets.

Americans have a sense of social responsibility in their blood, though only a century ago they were little different from us Russians. Andy, a university professor specialising in American Indian folklore, said that racism in America originally targeted not the blacks but the Irish. Old cartoons still exist depicting the Irish as pig-like monsters. Today, they just look like WASP Americans, but a century ago they were regarded as belonging to another race. Racism was the rejection of immigrants who had different habits. Imagine the culture shock when 30 million immigrants arrived in the country between 1870-1920. The blacks were just slaves back then. And now the Americans have elected a black president. Foreigners, including most Russians living in America, find the delight at this victory hard to understand. The slaves have finally become free people - it was a long process.

A people who were living outside civilisation (Africa, the simple life, heat, food growing and running round all year round, not much incentive for development) have been integrated into civilisation. It took a lot of effort. There are always two options: rejection or integration. Rejection's the easy way, the simple life of tropics or poles (igloos, reindeer, bitter cold): we don't want anything of yours, go away and leave us alone. However poor they are, the ‘rejectionists' hang onto two principles: 1 don't make waves, as in the old Soviet joke about offering a hand to help someone who's fallen into a cesspool, and 2 the ‘reindeer are better' notion.

Jim Kates cried all day when Obama was elected. When he was young he'd fought for black rights. Victory at last. But the real colour's not skin colour, but the fact that they don't know how to live a free and independent life. Crime hangs over a place where the answer to any difficult question is: wipe ‘em out. Here you have to be prepared to teach ‘higher mathematics' to people whose answer to everything is ‘don't tell me how to live my life'. Last time I came to America, in 1990, the streets were full with homeless people living in cardboard boxes. I didn't see them this time. My old friend, the cultural studies guru and philosopher Mikhail Yampolsky, now a professor at New York University, said, "America really is a great country if it can elect a man as president whose forebears were slaves not so long ago". In other words, what makes America great is not that they elected a black president, but that there is no longer any difference. The masters have left behind their assumptions of absolute ownership. The slaves have realised that the world is not made up just of comrades in misfortune and hated masters from whom there's no escape, but of free individuals, many of whom are helpless, and if you do not learn to help them, to love them, they become ferocious, and that makes everyone else respond the same. That's what life's like. Lots of people in Russia don't understand that.

Political correctness is a discipline that teaches us to treat others in the way we'd like to be treated ourselves. To call someone an ‘idiot' is to put them in a different category altogether, but to call them ‘intellectually challenged' suggests that they're no different to you, but you have limitations in one area, and they in another. Being politically correct is about not letting yourself think of people as ‘dogs', ‘swine' or ‘rats'. This requires a mental effort. It doesn't happen overnight. But once it becomes part of your mentality the concept of what is ‘normal' fades away. There are no norms, only laws. A young handsome blond heterosexual and a grey-haired disabled homosexual Indian-American are equally normal in American eyes.

True, the Indians have their own issues. The European conquerors took their land from them several centuries ago and the state is paying them compensation to this day. I saw the Indians' life in New Mexico, where they live on reservations and run casinos, something other ethnic groups in the state are prohibited from doing. They keep all the revenues themselves, have their own local government, and are allowed to trade in the central square in Santa Fe. They're always fighting for places there and the police have to keep an eye on them to make sure they don't kill one another. Politically correctly, the Indians call themselves ‘native Americans', and they like to think of themselves as an ‘independent nation'. 

Once upon a time, the Americans fought the Apaches. Andy, the specialist on Indians, took me to the museum at Fort Selden not far from Las Cruzes. This was where MacArthur, the World War II general, began his career. In the 19th century the troops there were rather like the French foreign legion: for the new immigrants, including blacks, who signed up it was the best way of being broken into their new homeland. The Apaches are one of the Indian tribes. The tribes used to fight amongst themselves, and for several centuries the Apaches killed the conquistadors and their descendents, which is why the valley of the Rio Grande River was called the Valley of Death. The settlers wanted to stop the warlike Indians from penetrating deeper into the country and that was how Fort Selden came to be built in this desert with its wizened cactuses and low red hills rising up around. Now the fort is in ruins. It sounds funny to think of ruins dating from the nineteenth century. The fierce sandstorms have destroyed all of the buildings, which is hardly surprising when you know that the traditional building material in New Mexico is called ‘adobe', which means literally ‘mud'. Houses here were made of mud, poured into moulds, dried, then used like bricks. It was mixed with a little straw. Later more robust building materials were used, but the style stayed the same: low brown cottages with rounded walls and jagged edges on top. They're exceptionally beautiful. The jagged edges are lit up in the evenings and on holidays.

In the desert, where the fort used to stand, you find cougars, Mexican wolves, tarantulas, scorpions and poisonous snakes. When I heard this I was really scared. You see these posters with warnings at the petrol stations along the road. There was a time when the poor soldiers at the fort, trying to protect themselves from all of these lethal dangers, decided to replace their horses with camels, as you're meant to do in the desert. But it wasn't easy coping with the Apaches from the back of a camel. Now the Apaches live peacefully in the southern part of the state, and the Navaho live in the north. But still the Indians are a minority. There are many more Mexicans (whom the Indians don't get on with), and cowboy-farmers. All around the old fort is farmland - cotton fields and pecan groves, the state's two speciality crops.

On the way to the fort, Andy and his Russian wife Olga decide to drop by their house. Olga's a specialist in Siberian folklore; they winter in Las Cruzes, spend the summer in Moscow, and Olga goes to Siberia on expeditions. Olga wants to give her ten-year-old son soup and take him to the fort with us. He says his friends are coming over. His father looks stern and says his friends can only come around when the parents are home. The boy starts crying, refuses his food, and won't come with us either, though it's clear he's not going to be able to see his friends now. His father's word is law. Olga and I go outside. "I don't want to get involved because I don't agree", Olga says. In Moscow, particularly at the dacha, the boy brings home anyone he wants and is completely free. But over here he's being brought up in the protestant way. Order is order. As a result, the boy is obedient in Las Cruzes and not in Moscow.

The Indians gave the world a number of words: chocolate, tomato, avocado, maize, chilli. Chilli peppers in New Mexico are as common as salt in Russia. Dishes are either hot (indicated on menus by the absence of a pepper), very hot (one pepper), very, very hot (two peppers), and positively fiery (three peppers). The Indians might be fiery from all the peppers they eat, but they are pale from alcoholism. The settlers' descendents feel guilty towards them for conquering them and forcing civilisation on them, but on the other hand, if they had not done so, the next spiral of civilisation would not have taken place. It was an act that determined the country's future. America is defined by the coming of Christopher Columbus, for better or worse.

In Mexico there's this story about when the Jews fled the Spanish inquisition in the fifteenth century. Many of them made their way to the place the Americans now know as New Mexico. Afraid of persecution, the Jews hid their nationality. Their descendents didn't know they were Jewish, but kept acting out their rituals, assuming they were just Mexican village traditions. One such tradition was to marry only within one's own village, and in this way they remained Jewish, though they only found this out much later. They took the sabra cactus that grows in New Mexico to Israel, where it has come to symbolize all who are born in the Holy Land.

What's amazing in America is the way people interact. Everyone seems to be friends. We buy train tickets and the cashier smiles. She and Jim discuss Obama as if they knew each other. It's like this everywhere. Politics seems to be what divides people most of all. Someone has a ‘2008 McCain' sticker on their car, and a ‘Bush 2004' sticker next to it, and is not entirely friends with those who have ‘Obama' on their cars. Americans like to display their political preferences. You see stickers on people's front doors and posters up on their fences.

This demonstrative streak has led to every state adopting an identity of its own. Number plates in New Hampshire say ‘Live free or die'. Number plates in Massachusetts say ‘The spirit of America'. But this is just a bit of fun, whereas what party you support represents an important decision. The republicans stand for the interests of the defence industry, oil sector and big business, and those who don't agree with them they consider ‘Indians' and will acknowledge them in so far as they're obliged to by the Constitution, the holy cow. The democrats are more free and easy, for freedom and justice.

My Jim's a good example, but this does not stop him from being a successful publisher, president of the American Association of Translators, and an exemplary family man. "The Russians won the Cold War", Jim says. "Just look at how the Russians have occupied America. You'll find Russian immigrants even in the deepest darkest corners of the country now". But Jim likes this. He's given up championing rights himself, but he actively supports those whom others try and deprive of their freedom and justice. In his native Boston he shows me Scully Square, right in the centre of town. "This was the pits", he says, "the place where you had prostitutes, drug addicts and gangsters. It was the Scully family who built the area. It belonged to them. Gradually it went downhill. The state government rebuilt everything and renamed it Government Square, so as to get rid of the bad associations of the old name. The Scullys went to court: so it was alright to call the place Scully Square when it was a slum, but as soon as it's become fashionable it got renamed Government Square, is that it? And the Scully family won the case. "You see", Jim said, "that's what America's all about".

Poem One - 1997

Как может жизнь на столь протяжный срок
из сносной стать совсем невыносимой,
когда - ну всё не то, товарищ Бог,
погода, экология, мужчины.
И даже лай собак - не тех собак,
ласкавших слух бетховенно, шопенно,
трава в себя влекла любовный акт,
но то ж была трава - не листья сенны!
Мой Бог, ты как не мой, ты за хазар
что ль задним стал числом, а не за наших,
которым - отвечаю за базар -
чем дальше в лес, тем волки воют чаще.

Tell me, Comrade God, how can life, over this stretch,
go from tolerable to such a pain,
when everything is not as it should be,
weather, ecology, men.
And even the barking of dogs, it's not the s
ame dogs
that beethovenly, chopinly tickled the hearing.
The grass
invited the act of love
but that was grass, not senna lea
My God, it's like you're not mine, because
ally even you went over to the Khazars
abandoned our side, for whom
and I'm speaking for the market place -
the deeper into the forest you go, the more the wolves howl.

Poem Two - 1998

Диктатура ли, демократия,
хоть по выбору, хоть насильно -
результат все равно отрицательный,
если речь идет о России.

Если жизнь сикось-накось-выкуси,
набекрень, на бровях, на спуске,
всё погибло и цикл зациклился -
значит, ты - настоящий русский.

Здесь фонтан вместо чаш терпения,
нам последнюю каплю - вычли.

В точке взлета, паденья, кипения -
очи козочьи, шеи бычьи.

Dictatorship, democracy,
voted in or seized the nation,
the result is still a mockery
where Russia rules the conversation.

If life's all half-arsed, get arsed,
pear-shaped, half baked, gone to pot,
everything lost, the wheel spinning fast -
you are a Russian, like as not.

We've a fountain, not a cup, of patience,
but they've taken back the dregs.

At the point of incidence, boiling, take-off,
you'll find goats'eyes and bulls'necks.

Poem Three - 1995

Мне отключили горячую воду,
жидкость любви и словесный поток.

Мне бы пожаловаться народу,
но накинут платок на роток.

Так без живительной влаги и сохну,
с грязной посудой вдвоем.

Мхом порастаю, а может, и мохом,
может, и вовсе быльем.

They cut off my hot water
love's juice, the verbal flow
I'd like to complain to the nation,
but they'll shut me up, too, long before.

Without moisture, I'll dry out,
along with the dirty dishes and the washing.

I'll get mouldy, gather moss,
I may even graduate to long forgotten!

From: Russian Women Poets, Modern Poetry in Translation New Series no 20, Translations by Daniel Weissbort

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