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.
right", he says. "But that's
not old. You
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.
a cent", he said. "All you'll get is another ticket".
America. But if
you want compensation
got to be prepared for long battles
have little love
litigious characters because
in the end the millions of dollars they get
for their trouble come out of taxpayers' pockets.
different from us
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.
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.
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
correctness is a discipline that teaches us to treat others in the
way we'd like to be treated ourselves. 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'.
upon a time, the
Andy, the specialist on Indians, took me to the museum at Fort Selden
not far from Las Cruzes. This was
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
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
The jagged edges are lit up in the evenings and on holidays.
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
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
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.
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
America is defined by the coming of Christopher Columbus, for better
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
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.
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.
demonstrative streak has
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
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.
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 same dogs
that beethovenly, chopinly tickled the hearing.
The grass invited the act of love
but that was grass, not senna leaves.
My God, it's like you're not mine, because
finally 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
хоть по выбору, хоть насильно -
результат все равно отрицательный,
если речь идет о России.
набекрень, на бровях, на спуске,
всё погибло и цикл зациклился -
значит, ты - настоящий русский.
фонтан вместо чаш терпения,
нам последнюю каплю - вычли.
точке взлета, паденья, кипения -
очи козочьи, шеи бычьи.
voted in or seized the nation,
the result is still a mockery
where Russia rules the conversation.
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.
a fountain, not a cup, of patience,
but they've taken back the dregs.
the point of incidence, boiling, take-off,
you'll find goats'eyes and bulls'necks.
Poem Three - 1995
отключили горячую воду,
жидкость любви и словесный поток.
бы пожаловаться народу,
но накинут платок на роток.
без живительной влаги и сохну,
с грязной посудой вдвоем.
порастаю, а может, и мохом,
может, и вовсе быльем.
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.
moisture, I'll dry out,
along with the dirty dishes and the washing.
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
Get our weekly email