Hell is Your People


I got an invitation in the mail the other day to the annual “Russian Festival” at the San Francisco Russian Center, an event I attended regularly as a child. I remember tables of cherry pastries and pierogi, game stands where you could play for a quarter and win tiny plastic toys, and rather thrillingly athletic dance performances by local professional Russian and Ukrainian folk dance troupes. I also remember the weirdness of seeing my classmates from the Russian Orthodox school I attended part time in this other context, outside of school and with their families. At that age, the people in your life fit neatly into categories: there were my mother’s friends who ushered with her at the opera and always wore black, my father’s friends from Vesuvio’s, who grew their hair long and argued about poetry, his models, who were always naked and very sweet to me despite my frequent interruptions of their sittings, my friends from my regular school, who wore their hair in dookie braids and played football with me, and my classmates from Russian school, who wore navy blue skirts or pants and white blouses and were generally terrors. It was strange seeing them in normal clothing with nice grown-ups who resembled them and who didn’t seem aware of their awfulness. I assume I was awful then too, for at that age I would do anything to fit in. I even played along when they’d flip their bottom lips down and their upper lips up, a “game” we called “n***** lips”.

As she handed me the invitation (a print of a smiling Matryoshka, of course), she said that it had always been a regret of my American father’s that they had not worked harder to insert me into that world, the Russian immigrant community. This had been a platitude of my growing years, the importance of ensconcing oneself in the culture of one’s ancestry. For my parents, especially my mother, this importance had several bases, one being that one had to look outside the American mainstream for culture worthy of the name, and she had me watching Russian childrens’ shows, Russian opera and ballet, studying art, math, and chess, with teachers from institutes in St. Petersburg and Moscow (all of which I still believe are leagues superior to their American counterparts). The other was a belief that in order to assess the virtues of whatever world one lives in, and even to gain respect within that world, one has to be able to stand aloof from it somewhat, to know things, have experienced things from a different world. I still like to be a little different from whatever circles I’m moving in at the moment, and find myself emphasizing what foreignness I can lay claim to when I’m with Americans, and acting the unrepentant ugly American amongst foreigners.

Of course the modern, western affection for multiculturalism reinforced these notions, and I never thought much about them. But when my mother mentioned this the other day, that even my Midwestern American father genuinely wished he had made more of a Ruskie out of me, for the first time I considered whether I shared the same wish, now that I’m an adult. I realized that it was no longer a given that I shared the same regret. I wasn’t sure, as my parents had been, that closer ties to the Slavic community here would have been a boon to my life. How, exactly?

A couple of days after that, I went to the Russian deli in the Outer Richmond and ran into an older male acquaintance—I say acquaintance although he was as good as a stranger to me, but seemed to know my mother. He spoke to me in Russian and I had to tell him in the few broken words at my disposal that I only understand a little, and speak badly. He looked crestfallen, stunned, bewildered at both my ignorance and my willingness to admit to it. He had a friend of his own with him, who was definitely a stranger to me, and who asked,

“Don’t you speak any other languages??”

“French.”

He looked off into the pickle shelves and then down at the floor, as if he might find the reason for my having wasted my life like this spelled out in the squashed caviar along the linoleum.

He looked back up at me, a scowling acheiropoietos, and said,

“It would be good to have….something else.”

I’m never as offensive as I want to be in the moment, so I replied with a curt, “Yes, it would” and walked off wondering how much more connection to my people I could stand. This incident on its own is of course unimportant; who cares what these alter kakers think? Let them wear their Texas cowboy hats and vote Republican and believe themselves more erudite than the spoiled layabout natives of their adopted country. But the incident is not unusual; all my life our Russian friends, and not only friends but strangers we met for the first time, like this man, have felt it’s ok to criticize as insufficient the education I was and was not getting from my parents. They felt it was ok to interrogate me as a child, and to criticize my mother to her face for not making it easier for gems like them to talk to me. The arrogance, the bald-faced rudeness, the presumption, but more than that, the supernatural patience and decency of my mother to refrain from telling them (in English) to fuck off back to bloody Odessa, or Novro-piss-sick, or Nouveau, New-Mafia Moscow, to go shoot a journalist or neglect a nuclear plant or bomb an orphanage or do fuck-all about sex trafficking or whatever our people are up to these days besides berating second-generations for not wanting to be more like them.


When I was younger, it always bothered me, but only as a well-aimed accusation. I felt they were right, their accusations righteous, and was ashamed of myself for not having tried harder to become more like them. But now I see that I can go ahead and be ashamed of them instead. Ruder and drunker than the British, more racist than the Confederacy, more arrogant than the French, more maternally-smothering than the Jews or the Chinese, tackier dressers than new-moneyed Italians, as untrustworthy as any souk pickpocket, as superstitious as Gorky’s peasants. And how do we explain the utter lack of regard for their own? There are Russians, millions of them even, who still mourn the death of Stalin, the outperforming autogenocide. When Moscow has money, it builds new towers and embellishes its squares and lets orphanages, hospitals, and asylums rot.

This is the work of Ukrainian photographer and documenter of post-Soviet wretchedness, Boris Mikhailov. Go ahead, do a google image search. I fucking dare you.

There’s a quotation from Dostoevsky that has been bastardized to read, “It’s easy to love mankind. It’s hard to love a man.” I think I can further bastardize it to say, “It’s easy to love your culture, but hard to love the people in it.” I’m thought a Russophile by everyone who knows me, and to an extent, it’s true. Most of my favorite works of art, in every medium, are Russian in origin. And the more I learn, the more I see that to get training of any seriousness in so many of these art forms, you need a Russian teacher. How sad it was to visit the great Pinacoteca in Milan, and study the art projects of its graduating students, and see that they haven’t learned even the basics of rendering the human skeleton, something I had mastered by age eleven with my teacher from Petersburg. Watch the Kirov do Swan Lake and then watch any American company do it; there is no question of the superiority of the training dancers receive at the Vaganova School. Sorry, ABT. The few weeks I spent in Moscow I still consider to be the best and most concentrated theatre training of my life. My favorite movies, my favorite operas, my favorite painters, actors, writers, poets, my favorite cities with my favorite architecture, my favorite pastries and soups and wines and garlic zakousky, my favorite sacred music and dirty jokes, all Russian. Yet I don’t perceive a connection between any of this and the gauche, heavy-handed, heavy-bottomed, boorish examples of this people that I meet and interact with in my day-to-day life. Have you ever been hit on by a Russian man in his twenties? Have you ever had to do business with a Russian? Did you ever get your money back?

This is all very grim for me to be thinking and saying. I will leave you with a video from my favorite cartoon series from my childhood. It’s called “Nu Pogodi!” or “Well, just you wait!” The wolf (the bad guy, not only morally bad but ill-kempt and uncouth) always pursues the rabbit (good and neat and classy). I watched this incessantly as a child. I cite it as an example of superlative Russian children’s television programming because along with being hilariously entertaining, it always slipped in high-cultural references, thereby sneakily teaching us about art while we thought we were just goofing off. My first exposure to Swan Lake was in this episode (around 4:30). Later, around minute 9, the wolf does a brilliant impression of the great subversive singer Vladimir Vysotsky, so beloved of the people that even the Soviet government couldn’t touch him. The second video down is just damn funny.


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7 Responses to Hell is Your People

  1. Juliana says:

    A lot of converts to Orthodoxy meet with the attitude you so well describe. A friend of ours who attended the cathedral in Seattle, after her first year, was asked "why do you no speak Russian yet?". I always felt she should have said "And how is your English coming along?".Yet, I encounter a divided Mexican culture when I go home to Texas. My mother's family calls recent immigrants "wet backs" and isn't bothered by the lack of Spanish-speakers in our family. My father's family, who are immigrants, all speak to me in Spanish and are surprised I cannot conjugate verbs with lightening speed. And yet, my grandfather was fond of saying "Viva Bush!" during the 90s in support of George the first and second. Oh, and I am to love Mexico with all of its drug and human trafficking. Straddling cultures is too weird — it seems better to be a well educated American (oxymoron though it may seem) than try to be something else.

  2. Steve Bodio says:

    Interesting to me as a non- ethnic Russophile who can just about use a Cyrillic alphabet dictionary and point to nouns, and has travelled in the wreckage of the empire. One thought– older ethnic Russians in the Stans seem far more likely to exhibit bigotry (I wonder why some stay in Kazakhstan) than people your age.My own ethnic sorta- Italian paternal side is too far back for any heavy cultural tug, and my schooling and "other language" like yours was French. On the balance I think Juliana sums it up well in her last sentence.

  3. Natalia says:

    "Have you ever been hit on by a Russian man in his twenties?"I married one. Well, he's 36, to be precise – but might as well be in his 20's. "Have you ever had to do business with a Russian? Did you ever get your money back?"But isn't that like saying – "Ever hang out with black dudes? They offer you any crack?""It’s easy to love your culture, but hard to love the people in it.”I find it helps when your life allows you to experience firsthand the notion that it's people who make up a culture. When I get to work in the theater, I'm surrounded by people who are all in the process of doing something, usually something cool, but also in the process of just going about their lives. There's no crowbar separation between their lives and what they do. Though it's easier when you're in a place like Moscow (or Kiev, for me). Most diasporas tend to be claustrophobic in general, imho. I wasn't part of a disapora in the States, and I'm not part of a diaspora now in Russia – I think it can help keep one sane.

  4. Larissa says:

    Natalia,It might be that diaspora culture is by nature claustrophobic…Perhaps the stress of landing in a totally different place, with different mores and values (and one that by and large does not respect the culture of the place one came) can have a warping effect on the personality, which comes across as intolerance and rudeness. I'm not sure about the analogy to asking if black dudes offered you crack…that is based on a cultural stereotype perpetuated by an often propagandistic media. Most people I know who consider Russians to be untrustworthy in business feel so because they themselves have been repeatedly burned. You can't expect people to choose political correctness over safety. I guess the gist of my story was, as you pointed out, that it is difficult to appreciate a people when you don't experience firsthand that it is the people who make up a culture. And when the culture you love is imported to you, but you are not immersed in it yourself (how lucky you are to be able to work in the theatre in Kiev, by the way), and the people from that culture that you actually can interact with seem so different from the culture you've fallen in love with,…than you end up feeling as I do.You have a great blog, by the way.

  5. Natalia says:

    You know, something rubs me the wrong way about a statement wrt "appreciating a people." It's no wonder the people you meet are so different from whatever idealized version a phenomenon such as cultural appreciation ultimately implies. I really like modern-day London, for example – my version of it, however, is centered on the high-end areas, on morning strolls to the bakery on Fulham Road, on shopping at Penhaligon's, lying on the grass in the park, etc. It's not how most of the city (or the rest of England) lives, though. It's not how I would live if I actually moved there. And that's fine. I accept my version for what it is – a touristy escapade I get to have every few years, when I'm lucky. The Western media perpetuates stereotypes about Russians just as willingly and gleefully as it does in regard to African-Americans. All those times I've had people, both men and women, try to humiliate me for being a Slavic woman (read: sexually available) have everything to do with stereotypes. All of those times people have assumed that my father, an engineer by profession, is in the mob – was not fine. When a stereotype is aimed at you specifically, and is doing you specific harm, the injustice of it completely outweighs the notion of political correctness. And I'll be the first to say that Russian business culture sucks – but this doesn't just affect nice Western folks, and I believe that framing it that way merely reinforces the concept of Russians as the Other.

  6. Larissa says:

    Natalia, yes, the notion of "appreciating a people" should rub one the wrong way. And yet I doubt it would rub one the wrong way if I were saying how the cultural heritage of Russia (or any people) has made me appreciate the people themselves, in other words, if I weren't using it as a contrast to my first hand experience of the people who came out of that culture. As for the idealized version that cultural appreciation implies–I never based my russophilia on the image of the people portrayed in the novels, plays, movies, etc. (that image can be as grim as anything), but rather the fact that so much great stuff is done at such a high level there, with such nuance and sensitivity, made for a striking contrast with the impression I've had of the people who came from there, which is heavy-handed and insensitive.Of course this is not a nice way to talk, but it is also silly to pretend one doesn't recognize patterns, and perplexing contrasts in one's experience. Of course I know that not every Russian, and not every diaspora immigrant Russian, is the way I've described. But I'm not going to pretend not to have noticed what I've noticed over thirty years of contact with them.

  7. Natalia says:

    A perplexing contrast of my experience has been interacting with people who are tangentially or not-so-tangentially related to a group perceived as "foreign", and differentiate themselves by drawing certain lines in the sand. "I'm [insert particular identity here]. We're part of a civilized society. We're not like [insert group of barbarians of choice here]." It's like carving out a very specific space for yourself – as opposed to the very fluid identity that so many people adopt when they hop countries quite a bit/intermarry/etc. I could walk into any Cracker Barrel in the South, see the people eating there, and express surprise at the fact that they don't strike me as the direct inheritors of the works of T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor or, for that matter, Reynolds Price. But since I already *own* that part of me which is American, and, to be even more specific, Southern American – I won't be moved to do that. If you're comfortable with looking at people from within as opposed to without, you more readily judge them on individual characteristics. You're looking at Russia from without – while at the same time claiming ownership of a particular identity ("Hell is your people", is the title of your post – so you do associate with Russia on one level or another, no?), and that can be difficult to do. You want to recognize societal patterns (be they homelessness or something as mundane as the amount of Russians who smoke), but it's far too easy to slip into caricature. Because – after all, who gets to represent Russia? The choice in all of these discussion is either someone unfortunate (like in the picture you posted), or else someone very glamorous – neither image is one that I quite get as a journalist in particular – as someone who writes about what's happening in Russia almost every day. On a personal note, I don't like *most* people, regardless of which passport they carry. I'm a bit of a misanthrope, truth be told (something I'm trying to move away from, because it can be exhausting). I rather liked my life in the States (I've also found gallivanting about in places like Dubai to be pleasant) – I find Russia is a rougher place to live. But I'm not surprised by that, and don't ascribe it to any particular "hell" that's been put in place to torture anyone's sensibilities. To me, it's a matter of everything from geo-political history to good old political apathy. So when I see a post like yours referencing something I had written – I naturally become surprised.

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