It almost goes without saying: nations are extraordinarily powerful things. Whether or not we are conscious of their presence in everyday life, whether or not we ever pause to think about the relationships we have to them, we are always caught up in the fabric constituted by their relations. No country is immune to or outside of this process. America, with its European and colonial origins, its own later colonial desires and actions, and its enormous wealth, is near the heart of these entangled relationships. But the problem is general; how to live as members of such complex and contradictory entities?
Scholars of culture and history rarely think about the sites of their interests as places, that is, as environing totalities of life, buildings, plants, people, gestures, sounds, words, vehicles and color, etc., because place is too big and loose an idea to be really “known.” It is better to break off pieces of places and study them in depth: architecture, political philosophy, stream ecology, and to ignore everything else. So it is necessary to say something about the place that these newspapers are from.
Every researcher has a story about how they have come to know what they study, and my relationship to Russia has nothing particular or special about it. I have no family connections there. I did not fall in love with a Russian, or become captivated by the Russian language at an early age. I did not approach Russia as the source of anything, as having or containing a secret of any sort that a lifetime of going-native would uncover; it was not the site of a lifestyle or a personality that I wanted to emulate or imitate.
Before age 16, awareness of Russia came from my father. He told us how his intermediate level study of the Russian language during college helped him find more interesting–and safer–jobs to do in the US army during World War II. And as a curious and ecumenical Catholic, he found orthodox spirituality fascinating, and at some point–I can’t remember when–he purchased several icons that occupied conspicuous places in our living room. I can’t say that I ever saw him studying them or showing them any reverence, but it was clear that having them was a part of who he imagined himself to be. These small pieces of peeling, painted wood sat on a small shelf of books dedicated to Russia’s history and culture that he had acquired in college, in the late 1930s and early 40s.
Inevitably, teenage questions appeared. How did I relate to the world, where did I want to go in the world, what did I want to do in the world? What was the world? And in the course of trying to address these questions I began to notice the conspicuous place that Russia held within the world that was in the process of picking me up, tossing me about, and deciding where I should drop. I realized along with everyone else that I had been born into a world where something dangerous and dramatic was happening, something that involved both death and life, fear and triumph, but on a vague and unthinkably vast scale. This thing took up many people’s time and attention; it was being managed by people in suits and ties whose job was to protect me and everyone around me. My family knew some of these people who worked in the institutions dedicated to managing this thing. And curiously, this thing existed and it didn’t exist. It was far away, and yet it was also somehow here, in this place. Our family, too, was fighting, but we had a comfortable life and were planning for the future. The vast world was somehow “divided”; some parts of it were actually impossible to get to, which was odd, because as the richest, most powerful nation on earth, the world was somehow “ours.” And yet people also travelled to places that were supposedly off limits, out of bounds. The Cold War would suddenly appear, but then disappear.
This division of the world had something to do with the division in our own country that I watched unfold on our Sony Trinitron color television during the second half of the 1960s, something to do with a “left” and a “right,” between students and police, between democrats and republicans, between rich and poor, between a whole host of pairs locked in opposition. These oppositions spilled out across the world, for there was a place called Vietnam where a real war was going on, a war whose progress was charted on the evening news through the day’s reckoning of dead and wounded. Communists were the enemy in this war, and even as children Americans like me constructed for themselves a crude geopolitical map to carry around in our heads, one that identified two worlds, “communist” and “free.” It was the most natural thing that my friends and I, on the bus to school in 7th grade, debated the advantages and disadvantages of capitalism vs. communism, planned vs. market economies, discussions that were enabled by watching with our parents after dinner that new tool, television, that was creating a global village.
It was not that I knew nothing about this thing, I knew what was typical for a middle class person from Pittsburgh who was born in one of the Cold War’s busier years, 1957. The more I read, the more I realized that the world of my childhood was a world in which the Soviet Union took up a lot of room. In the background of my and millions of childhoods was the story that my country was in a conflict with another country, both of which were pointing nuclear weapons at each other; we heard that these guns could destroy the world and all its life several times over. Several times over. This was a phrase that burrowed into my mind in the course of passage into adolescence.
In America, college is often where the world begins to assemble itself as a collection of places, not simply as references in books and images in films and television, but as real places, that is, as worlds experienced deeply by very different others. After graduating, there were many other things that my friends and acquaintances were pursuing; in the “go-go” years of the late 1970s and 80s, they grasped the opportunities that were opening up at that time to make a lot of money. And yet the predicament stayed on the news, the one about these powerful nations, the Soviet Union, Communist China, the East Bloc, North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, etc. In the course of doing odd jobs, exploring the United States in brief forays, it dawned on me that Americans didn’t know very much about “communism” or about those places where communists ruled. I decided that it was important to actually see and experience these places that meant so much to America, and so in the summer of 1987 took an extended trip around the Soviet Union just as Gorbachev began to push perestroika on an uncertain party, and around China, as the Communist Party there lit the fuse of market competition that would soon transform China and the world.
I was in one sense responding to what the infrastructure of global travel had enabled, the steady and ever wider circulation of Americans and everyone else who could afford it around the world. The world was in fact becoming more village-like. For at the same time as our government was fighting the Cold War, curious, agitated people like me had been taking advantage of this easy mobility and all the globe spanning, time and space controlling, technologies that it demanded, in order to encounter the places in the “east” that were being confronted in our name. No matter where we went during the Cold War, locals took these curious Americans, Canadians, and west Europeans as metonyms of different ways of life, and the traces we left behind made an impact.
But the real impact was upon us: these were places of such depth and complexity, places embedded in such different paths of historical becoming, with people orienting themselves within other ways of being, that there were no keys for sudden understanding. As we heard speech of different shapes and flows, carrying different amalgams of sense and emotion; as we conversed, or tried to converse, with people who carried with them histories of events and figures that carried an utterly different kind of weight, previous understandings began to flicker and go out.
The China through which I traveled was an overwhelmingly poor, agricultural country, one that was trying to transform revolution into development. For twenty-five years, between the communist victory in 1949 and the middle of the 1970s, the anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, revolutionary struggle continued thanks to the grip that Mao Ze-Dong had on the party. In 1987, the reformers who carefully gathered power after Mao’s death in 1976 wanted to end the ideological obsessions that had led to the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Deng Xiao-Ping’s four modernizations were to reorient the entire society towards the future, and shards of this future were beginning to appear here and there, a western hotel here, a western fast food chain there, places where getting rich was beautiful. Westerners, with their special currency, special stores, special hotels, were the first guests of these new spaces, visitors modeling that modern future.
The Soviet Union seemed in a very different situation. Unlike China, whose elderly leaders were grappling with a revolution, one that they had participated in and were still in the grips of, most of the Soviet leadership had come of age in the 1930s and spent their entire lives both defending and building socialism. The Soviet Union was, as their ideologists put it, “a mature socialist society,” and hence people took for granted that this world their parents had built, this was simply what the country was like. On the one hand, and compared with pre-revolutionary Russian society, this was indeed a world of wonder: cities, avenues, cars, universities, movie theaters, art, culture, nuclear weapons, universities, hospitals, an impoverished rural society transformed into a superpower. On the other hand, progress was slowing, parceled out in ever smaller doses, cultivated in fewer and fewer places, creating both absolute and comparative deprivation. The mechanisms of progress were losing energy. By the mid-1980s, when sparse shelves revealed the party’s inability to organize the production and distribution of basic commodities, there was the sense that the story people were living had become suspended, the author lifting his pen, unsure of where to go.
And yet there was immense pride in what had been created. Soviet mass culture had been based on a selective filtering, sorting and cultivating of Russian high culture, and thus had produced legions of musicians and composers, writers, and film makers of immense talent. And in all areas of endeavor, from opera to Arctic exploration to nuclear engineering, educated elites built on the cultural foundations laid down in the 19th century to produce myriad instances of progress. These cultural, material achievements were claimed by its leaders to be the product of a society moving from socialism to communism, and they were promoted by a system of mass media and mass publicity that created fans, audiences, and followers, who consumed events and celebrities as avidly as any westerner. This was all evidence of the new, Soviet society, which was its own world-historical achievement.
The absence of overt injustice and inequality had come, however, at the cost of the existence of a public life. There was no public because the revolution had done away with it; there was no longer a need for citizens to come together to discuss a better design of their society. Communism was that better design, and socialism was the means to that end. And since the public was something that the party had overcome in the course of developing socialism, this also meant there were also no unclaimed spaces for unscripted interactions, there was nothing left to chance. All this meant that what in the West was so vital–the constant noise produced by dissatisfaction and frustration, the constant public conflict between groups, the formation of alliances and their spectacular collapse and reformation, the endless public chirping and chatter of experts–was simply absent. Where it did appear to exist, it was an empty, formulaic performance.
For a traveler in 1987, sensing this was odd and fascinating. Both the bubble we existed within and what was beyond it felt somehow fragile. Structures were shifting, to what end and at what cost, was not at all clear. People carried the consciousness of a wider world that was pushing in on their own, creating pressures that posed a host of new problems and possibilities. And in the course of finding their bearings many Russians felt that they had no choice but navigate with general reference to the pole star offered by the “American Way of Life,” since there was nowhere on earth where people had created so much and seemed so fluid and powerful. This could never provide them with an end point, but it did provide a book of patterns, a collection of models.
Graduate school meant encountering the Soviet Union as an academic object, and cautiously entering the overlapping, adjacent and parallel networks of people interested in Russia and the Soviet Union. It meant trying to understand what three generations of scholars, diplomats, and journalists had written about the Soviet Union, people who had produced a vast library of texts and writing. It also meant trying to make sense of what this knowledge was, how it was made, where these feelings that animated this study came from. It required confronting the styles of disciplines, coming to understand what animated them, and what animated the scholars that added to them. Why were so few anthropologists virulently anti-Soviet, while so many political scientists were? It meant reading texts by a multitude of experts of different kinds, experts who constructed very different Soviet Unions.
For example, some of these people were aged emigré professors born in the 1920s, scholars with shocks of bright white hair for whom Yalta was yesterday. It meant hearing about, reading the articles of, and occasionally listening to the stories of elderly Russian aristocrats who had fled Russia during the Civil War as children seventy years earlier. There were British scholars whose fathers, uncles, or grandfathers, had married into the networks of exiled Russian nobility, who told stories of Princess X and Gand Duke Y, people who were not so distant cousins of the last Tsar. These were the people who constituted the world that the Bolsheviks had shattered and outlawed, people who had been scattered over Europe, a few of whom eventually found thoroughly middle class lives in and around the American academy. The place, Russia, was thus embodied in these people who carried with them memories of a lost world, a world that had been swept away in the course of the revolution and Civil War. For them it was a matter of scrapping away the Soviet surface to find again the Russia that had been lost.
It went without saying that these were people who had nothing whatsoever to do with the places that I was from, that I inhabited and that I was also trying to make sense of in my crude way–this absurd, vast, democratic vista of the United States. I was only just beginning to realize that I was from a place as peculiar, unique, and unprecedented for others, as the Eurasian steppes were to me.
But at the very same time that I was confronting those who organized the implacable opposition on this side of the Iron Curtain, I was also encountering another set of people who continued to steer by another set of coordinates, ones created by the ornate geometries of Marxism. I met people for whom the debates of the 1920s in the Soviet Union were still urgent and compelling. I read articles by scholars who discussed whether the purges were necessary, and if so, had there been any ways to limit their regrettably broad scope.
Many on the intellectual left were avidly discussing the newly rediscovered the Italian Marxist writer, Antonio Gramsci, and saw hegemony everywhere, especially in the conduct of the Cold War. I read historians sympathetic to and supportive of the Soviet version of progress, scholars who wrote articles about things like the teaching of ballet in Uzbek schools in the 1930s, and about the militancy of printers in guarding the revolution in the 1920s, histories that stressed the breadth of the communist party’s progressive agenda. These were people who still wanted to maintain that thread of connection for which the Soviet Union was a worker’s state, and not a nuclear adversary. These were people drawn to the political tradition on the Left for which the Soviet Union had a massive, world historical presence, whose existence needed to be cautiously supported rather than destroyed. In a general way, they saw scholarship as their way of supporting “The Left,” there, in academia during the Presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. They thought we needed to read Bukharin and Kollontai, and it almost goes without saying, Lenin, to really understand the world.
This world of the American left was as layered as any phyllo pastry, and if we occasionally were excited by sensing (or thought we sensed) the very last, faint, barely perceptible puff of air produced by the Russian revolution seventy years earlier, we also could not help but notice the same chronic leftist absurdities enacted on our small terrain: that same deaf vehemence, the same intolerance, the same oppressive sophistry that led to the string of exiles, expulsions, assassinations (targeting both character and body), schisms, splits, and everything else that the European Left has engaged in for the past century or more. Judgments of brilliance and ignorance spun off of every word and glance. Traces of literary terror: he knows his early Marx; she has never read Plekhanov. Imagine! Of course everyone on the left, or nearly everyone, understood that the Soviet Union was not exactly a worker’s paradise, and that the real struggles were now taking place in what was then called the Third World. Nevertheless it was vital to know the inner histories of all the parties, and to come down on the correct side. This was clearly a way that people glimpsed the distant realities of the Soviet Union as a real place.
In the course of my graduate education, through 1988, 1989 and 1990, it became clear that something was happening in the Soviet Union. In what seemed a very short time, the Soviet Union ceased being different in that familiar off-limits way of a distant, different and politically exotic world, notable for scientists, soldiers, and ballerinas; travel back and forth was becoming easier, our professors were off to conferences in Moscow, Leningrad, and Gorky; our small town was visited more and more frequently by Soviet delegations who had been sent on “study trips” to America. The first one I remember to come through was a group of journalists who had been sent to learn how western journalists gathered and wrote news, since this was one of the necessary features of the media system that Gorbachev wanted to establish. Part of the Soviet Union was making an effort to reform itself, and this seemed to have nothing to do with emigres and exiles, or labor activists and intellectuals on the Left. We watched through the prisms of the New York Times and CNN, and we had no idea how it would all turn out. In 1991 I applied for a fellowship to do fieldwork in Russia in order to make sense of it all. My question was: what happens to a society that is suddenly free of proscribed speech?
So this was the situation: Russia was a world in my imagination; it possessed only the rudiments of place in my understanding, and it began to take form as an object of interpretive study in the course of connecting to the world of scholars and scholarship. The pace of connections between these enemies were quickening. By the time I was funded and “ready” for fieldwork in 1992, the Soviet Union had collapsed. Gorbachev left history’s stage, and nine months after the collapse a researcher from America arrived with his wife and young daughter. I had the basics of Russian; I was far from fluent, and yet I was completely seduced by the language’s beauty and complexity. It also helped that nearly every assumed I was better at the language than I really was.
Researchers who leave their homes to do fieldwork in an unfamiliar place, and/or a distant country, often experience a period of intense disorientation. The work of actually establishing a “household” in Moscow in the fall of 1992 I will leave mostly unexamined, but I will say that things like finding a pre-school for our daughter, figuring out the food situation, the heating situation, the phone situation, and even dial-up modem situation so that we could keep in touch with our families via that novel technology of electronic mail, were all fascinating, if exhausting, challenges. It required a non-stop process of navigating bureaucratic situations whose outcomes were often still ambiguous after completing many conversations that promised to solve the problem.
My work was to make a sampling of the ways that Russians were taking the measure of their society, ways they were projecting their society back out through a medium that was familiar and infinitely flexible, the press. New journalists were everywhere, and old journalists tried to make themselves new. People across Moscow and all of Russia, were jotting, writing, typing, mimeographing, drawing, cutting, gluing, inking, photographing, and doing all of this at a pace demanded by urgent times. For several years already they had been funneling their ideas, plans, judgments, desires, through the narrow channel of this many centuries’ old medium. They were also placing their ideas into new kinds of images that made readers feel a certain way as they looked at their pages. Some journalists taught about normal life, some announced states of emergency day after day. It felt as if the old regime had collapsed under the weight of the society’s curiosity about itself, and of course it was not clear where all this curiosity was leading.
I collected books and papers, and interviewed journalists and editors, people who believed all sorts of things about the world. Some of them scared me, others saw me as a friend and potential subscriber or correspondent. I did in fact subscribe to a dozen papers, largely because it was so cheap. I visited many government buildings, formerly holding offices of the gorkom and raikom (city or regional committee of the Communist Party), because it was there that old official newspapers were in the process of becoming new. I enjoyed many conversations, sympathized with nearly everyone, and every scene was in some way interesting. Some offices were utterly Soviet, vast and thickly varnished, and others cramped, cracked, and dissident. Some papers shared rooms with other new organizations of civil society, like a Society for the Preservation of Palekh Art, the wispy miniature figures painted on small, black jewelry boxes. Some publishers, editors, and journalists were trying to coax The New York Times up from the Soviet depths, while others extended the games of truth into new and profitable realms: the Devil was caught on film in Sao Paolo! Fears, hopes, desires, fantasies, nightmares, the unthinkable. The everyday, the geopolitical, the psychological, the material, the spiritual, the prurient. Every paper was a set of spectacles affording another view. What did this add up to? The views were dizzying, the contradictions legion. The end of the Soviet Union was a victory and a defeat, it was a calamity and salvation, it was shameful and vindicating. The future was bleak and brilliant, savage and stupendous, amoral and astonishing. And the present was all of these things.
As to our own everyday life, we were on the one hand, small, invisible, irrelevant; people on the street looked through me from the midst of their troubles, even as I looked carefully at them. But on the other hand, we were clearly marked. When I spoke Russian, I was taken for an Estonian, so they might have given a brief thought as to why this Estonian was in Moscow when “we Estonians” again had our own country. Clothing, carriage, voice, gestures announced loud and clear: here is someone from the West. I think that my handful of connections, all anti-Soviet members of the intelligentsia, saw me as a general ally in the work of transformation that was underway, and hence tried to include me in various activities that would be made more fun with an American presence, and through these connections, we gradually entered into some social networks. We were invited to apartments and dachas to eat, drink, and converse; we shared plates of zakuski and bread, and many bottles of vodka. For our Russian friends and acquaintances, I was a researcher, a role they understood completely, although they didn’t know exactly what I was researching. Their silence on this matter was an act of pure generosity, since I couldn’t explain what I was researching either. We were also privileged because we spoke English, that language that was appearing in more and more places as Russians discovered a pressing need for words like no-khao and nite-klub. Everyone was studying English because it was such a wonderful language for efficient transmission, the 5G network of linguistic systems.
“Fieldwork” involved slowly realizing that here was a new and different ocean, and realizing that this new realm possessed unfathomable depths that everyone around us took for granted, a vastness that only slowly and very partially revealed itself to outsiders. It was as if I was a snorkeler, swimming in the highest two feet of water in a sea hundreds or thousands of feet deep. With goggles on and breathing air given a plastic odor by traveling through a rubber tube, we encountered things that looked familiar but weren’t. Objects and moments, like Ded Moroz, a de-Christianized Santa Claus who ushered in the the new year with an exchange of gifts. The sounds of bells ringing in a monastery in Vladimir in the gloom of a late afternoon in March. Mercedes limousines sending up geysers of slush as they cruised through traffic lights in the center of the city, past the red stars that were still fixed to hats, buildings, jackets, stars quickly turning into kitsch. The postures and looks of young couples gliding up and down the endless escalators of the Moscow metro, arm in arm, glance in glance, taking advantage of having nothing to do by just leaning into each other.
I kept returning to used bookshops where old volumes sold for pennies. I tried to pay attention to the arts and artists. On my way to the Academy of Sciences, I would pass drunks in the underground and stop to listen to accordion music, before ascending to street level and slosh my way through brown snow and gray snow and black snow and occasionally white snow. Taking visitors to the Kremlin, showing them the high red walls, walls with the Kremlin theme park of museums inside, Stalin’s bust, visiting too the mausoleum with the body of the man with the pointed beard above which two soldiers still stood at attention. I overheard women’s voices talking about God, spirits, evil eyes, and the price of bread, and men’s voices talking about the invasion of Kuwait, the problem of Israel, and the American geopolitical strategy of draining Russia of all its talent. My eyes caught sight in shop windows of embroidery, Soviet and post-Soviet hairstyles, new hats, old hats, new cars, old cars, new cigarettes, old cigarettes. There was a lot of smoking and smoke, the kind that curled from dacha chimneys, where inside there was the simplest pleasures of eating cucumbers, tomatoes and parsley, from plots in the city outskirts that had been cultivated for generations, while the Civil War, the purges, the patriotic war raged. And many versions, instances, embodiments of that beauty that once resided in the faces of icons but that now found a place in glossy magazines, porcelain skin surrounded by haloes and furs.
Lists like these emerged from scanning just a few feet of depth, for below all these things, I knew, was the opaque unity of the place-world. I knew that all this–whatever I had happened upon–existed in one seamless, connected field to what was below, from the stubbly fields of former collective farms and the high rises in satellite cities to what everyone referred to as the Russian soul with its tragic myth-histories. The myths of ancient founding, myths of tsars, evil, flawed, uncouth, gigantic; myths of revolutionaries, myths of generals and of one brutal generalissimo. The myths of wars and particularly of the most recent war. Myths materialized in sites of memory like the tank traps to the west of Moscow, marking the closest the Nazis came to the city, and all the plaques to scientists, researchers, men with bushy eyebrows and patched, wool jackets, brilliant achievers across the spectrum of knowledge whose profiles were framed and affixed to the sides of buildings, achievement that made possible the myth of progress.
There were also playgrounds with supervisors who seemed to express their unconditional love and concern for the children via disapproval, playgrounds with equipment that worked and did not work, the bent pipes of a see-saw, lopsided merry-go-rounds that would not spin but were put to other uses by ever inventive children. Sounds emerged from depths. Like the sounds of the names of children on the playgrounds, so many names, generations and generations of names, Volodya, Mischa, Katya, Dima, nicknames that could be shortened even more: Vol, Misch, Kat, Dim, and on and on. The graying light already inhabited by darkness, like that of the city in late fall and in the depth of winter and the distant feel of early spring in those poorly lit streets, darkness that made every trip to the store for a few staples an expedition, and not just the darkness of winter, but that of the entire society with its centuries-old State poised to pluck at any moment a citizen from their everyday, send them far away, and even extinguish them, for reasons of state.
Down there, deep down, were the endless streams of people pondering the eternal questions of Moscow life–not only the question what is to be done? but, where to live? Which apartment, near what stop, how many square meters, shared or not, what kind of building, how old, what floor, tradable? This was the preoccupation of those people in those streets both in the center but also here, beyond the ring road, by that closed theater, by that empty Gastronom food store. But also everyone else, in the buses and trams–banyas–baths–in which the steam rose solid from sweaty, layered bodies, bodies in overcoats and scarves who stared at nothing but had a good grip on their string bags that carried a cube of dark bread, where to live? How to live? Questions that tugged at people standing in long lines, women young and old, occasionally men, standing above a box of fuses, some dishes, magazines, some childrens’ toys, all for sale, because they had no money to live on, were broke, had lost their savings in the course of privatization because they didn’t understand what a voucher was, being something explained everywhere and nowhere. Some sold cigarettes and others screws and nails. All were abject. Lives turned inside out, the contents of dining room cupboards put into circulation, to be exchanged for calories.
All was connected. Even Russia’s newest form of dwelling, the “kiosk,” the metal boxes with tiny sliding windows that were the means for the market’s reproduction on the cellular level, rows of metal boxes selling identical things: cigarettes, toothpaste, plastic toys, the detritus of low-tech, high-polluting factories from all around the world. Goods were hard for people to understand. In one kiosk we noticed a bottle of Johnson’s floor wax being advertised as shampoo, an unbelievable accidental borrowoing of an old “Saturday Night Live” skit. Young men in leather jackets, accompanied by their dozing girlfriends/business partners, in charge of funneling the world’s goods through that small opening to buyers who approached cautiously, uncertainly, wondering what the swindle was, how much the speculators were making. Objects whose labels were written in different alphabets, but every one signifying abundance, things procured in expensive, risky deals, requiring pay offs of multiple gatekeepers–from the gang who supervised the placement of the kiosks on one of Moscow’s new commercial strips to the Belorussian border guard who did not like the two enormous cardboard boxes filled with packs of cigarettes wedged precariously on a rack above the wooden benches in a long distance train, and whose frown produced a bribe. Goods slowly starting up in the sclerotic veins of the command economy, goods injected like some statin drug that would eventually unclog and open up the arteries of capitalism’s frustrated circulation.
We were slowly gliding above these deep, deep senses of Russia, of being Russian, of dealing with Russian history, and language, with Russia’s Soviet history and now Russia’s post-Soviet present, a past that held such viciousness and such overwhelming love for this place, this place where Russians have lived at home since when? Since forever.
In this suspension I also came to that other staple feeling of fieldwork, an intense sense of strangeness about where I came from, especially as America was a place that so many in Russia had praised and were praising and so many derided. Floating near the surface of this Russian world-sea, I saw myself clearly as just another opportunistic American using the currency of scholarship to turn a buck at the Other’s expense. But I also saw myself as a kind of emigre, someone who had left home temporarily but for good, and who only had access to the place I was from memories. Like that of walking as a child with my father on a forest path in the Alleghenies in the summer, and he stopped and said with a kind of spooky mystery calibrated to my six year old self, that where we were right then had probably never been seen before by a white man in the history of the world. This lead to all sorts of other reflections and images whose common thread was America’s newness, the sense that it was a place fresh, unprocessed, unhistoried, in comparison to this ancient city in its vast, ancient setting.
Far from possessing endless depths, I understood that Americans resided in shallows, without much art or grace to speak of, without the art and artifice that slowly bubbles up from sustained, eternal seeming settlement. There, in Russia, looking back at America, it was a matter of wondering, what had we done to that place on the North American continent to make it both so weak and so powerful? How had we made it so new, and made it so quickly into a land of flat, fast, tasteless hurry? Trudging through the snow in Moscow streets and alleys, images of the Green Mountains and the Virginia tidewater popped into my mind for no ostensible reason, just traces of an inner identity-processing. Two different countries on different historical trajectories that had ended up in this strange, implacable antagonism, this strange unimaginable oppositional embrace. Obsessed with each other. This Russian world was full of hard, reflective surfaces against which I bounced, feeling only once or twice the briefest of insights into just what it might really feel like to descend and see that undersea world from the perspective of a depth and thanks to the illumination of a new kind of light.