- My Midwestern Soviet ChildhoodAn American Family’s Curious Bond With Russia
Click for larger view
View full resolution
[End Page 70]
It may sound incomprehensible—”senseless,” Constance Garnett would have put it, as she did in her translation of The Brothers Karamazov—but while the rest of the world may dread the return of the prolonged hostile stare-down known in the last half of the last century as the Cold War, in some ways, I welcome the refreeze. It plunges me into nostalgia for my 1970s and 1980s childhood in Michigan, Indiana, and Oklahoma, when my professor parents threw incessant pirozhki-and-samovar parties for Russian Club students and for the peaceable, intellectual Soviet émigrés who were landing in American college towns in those years, bringing news from behind the Iron Curtain and beet-and-mayonnaise salads. I suspect that writers of James Bond-type thrillers feel much the same way I do, though for different reasons. Since the demise of the USSR—and the KGB—in 1991, it’s been a stretch for them to keep roping Soviet-era villains into their plots; now they can breathe easy. In the 1990s and well into the aughts, during the post-Soviet thaw, I sometimes wondered if my parents’ obsession with the culture and history of the Soviet Union had been a mistake, a generational fluke. But now that bare-chested, border-crashing Vladimir Putin has brought back the jangling tensions of the good-old bad-old days, I am feeling some vindication. So, I imagine, are the dozens of midwestern students who fell under the spell of my parents’ Slavophilia, getting doctorates in Russian just before Americans stopped caring about the “Evil Empire” and Russian-language enrollments plummeted.
Unlike my parents, I did not become a professor, nor have I taught courses on Russian language or literature, or on the history of the Soviet Union. And though I studied Russian in college, just so I would know what my parents were talking about with their Russian-speaking friends, my command of the language was never elegant.
Still, my parents’ passion for Slavic culture flavored my journalism career. It was in part because I spoke Russian that I got my first job after college, at the New Yorker, fact-checking articles about Russia and Western Europe after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The first time I made a checking call to Russia (in Russian), I looked up from my phone to find that the magazine’s loftiest editors had formed a semi-circle around my desk, mesmerized by the unusual sounds coming from my mouth. The first article I published, in 1991, grew directly out of my parents’ habit of befriending visiting Sovs (as they and their colleagues called them). They had put up a Russian friend from Odessa (at the time we didn’t mark the difference between Russia and Ukraine) at their home in Virginia that summer, and on his way back to the Soviet Union, he visited me in New York—a trip cut short when he learned that a coup had been attempted against Mikhail Gorbachev, in Crimea. Hardline opponents had put the Soviet president under house arrest. Our friend returned [End Page 71] home at once. I called him in Odessa a few days later to make sure he was all right, asked what he thought Gorbachev’s detention might augur, then called a few other of my parents’ Soviet friends for the same purpose. Later, I turned those conversations into an op-ed. Eventually, in a roundabout way, that story led me to take a four-month leave to work in Moscow, where I edited the English section of a Russian publication called Moscow Magazine (now-defunct) and filed dispatches for the American press.
The window of time in which I alighted in that capital city—the spring and summer of 1993—was an unparalleled moment of change and optimism in a culture that had been characterized immemorially by dour but proud resignation. Older and less adaptable Russians did not share in this spirit; many were panicked by the evaporation of Soviet subsidies and pensions...