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??”
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.