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My Midwestern Soviet Childhood

An American Family’s Curious Bond With Russia

ISSUE:  Winter 2015

Victoria Semykina

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 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, by the staggering inflation, and by the new need for self-sufficiency. Still, Boris Yeltsin was in power, and the reformist energy of Perestroika and Glasnost was in full flutter. A mood of possibility floated above Moscow; and the fledgling market economy meant that kiosks popped up along major thoroughfares and in subway underpasses, where entrepreneurs sold batteries, sneakers, Estonian fruit juice, Snickers bars, and CDs—coveted objects that ordinary citizens previously had been unable to get. In 1993, the warmheartedness my parents had found in the Soviet people they met lived on. Americans who have little personal connection with Russia may not be aware of the extraordinary affection that Russians extended—and still extend—to friends, visitors, and colleagues. Bonds between acquaintances quickly come to feel familial in intensity: The most casual invitation carries an expectation of reciprocity; a spontaneous evening of joyous feasting and tearful singing cannot be refused without guilt (even if you’re busy); and any Russian grandmother feels free to scold a stranger who commits the gaffe of whistling indoors or sitting on concrete, which they regard as unhealthy.

Returning to Moscow briefly in December 2012, I was bewildered by the new prosperity I found in the city I’d known in humbler times. The kiosks were mostly gone, replaced by glittering luxury boutiques and malls. A high-end, landscaped shopping zone had popped up on Stoleshnikov Lane, near Tverskaya Street (known as Gorky Street in Soviet days), where in 1993 I’d lined up to buy pickles at the palatial Eliseevsky Gastronom, which at the time was a rare outpost of tsarist abundance in Moscow. Now, chic Russians and foreign jet-setters shopped on Stoleshnikov Lane at Hermès and Jimmy Choo, or idled over coffee and cocktails at the bar-boutique of the Russian fashion designer Denis Simachëv, smoking and eating pastries amid Dadaist wall-mounted bathroom fixtures and curtains of beads. Moscow outwardly appeared “arrived” and “cool”—too cool, perhaps. Fashionable restaurants had oligarch prices; traffic was horrendous since so many more people had cars. Yet the thousands who continued to commute on the metro, clomping through slush, crossing broad boulevards, looked as harried and bundled up as before.

During my 2012 visit to Moscow, Russia was in the news because the US Senate had just passed the Magnitsky Act. This act refused American visas to Russians connected to the death of Sergei Magnitsky, an auditor who had died in prison after accusing the state of corruption. In retaliation, the Russian Parliament had started working up a ban on American adoption of Russian children. Earlier that fall, two members of the punk activist group Pussy Riot had been sent to penal colonies, which made it look like wealth and freedom of expression were not going hand in hand in the new Russia. But I did not quiz the Muscovites I met about Pussy Riot or orphans or the Magnitsky Act, nor did I bring up Putin’s support of Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad, in that country’s brutal civil war. I was in Moscow solely for literary purposes, and only for a few days. I visited the old Izmailovksy Park bazaar, had tea with friends, and attended a book-awards ceremony. I wondered if I had stayed longer, as I had done in 1993, and as my parents did in the seventies, eighties, and nineties, if I would have found the same old nezhnost’ (tenderness) among the Muscovites I came to know—that sensitive, demonstrative spirit the Russians call dusha (soul). I imagine I would have, refrozen Cold War or not.

This last year, as geopolitics and the Sochi Olympics thrust a new, emboldened, martial Russia into the headlines, my work as a book critic drew me into older Soviet- and Yeltsin-era reflections. I reviewed a new suspense novel with Russian villains, and I moderated talks on two books by Soviet émigrés. One, the novel A Replacement Life, by Boris Fishman, reached back into Second World War (and postwar) Soviet lives in Belorussia. The other, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, by Anya von Bremzen, who moved to America with her mother from the USSR in 1974, was a social history disguised as a food memoir. In the authors’ evocations of the troubled, repressive Soviet past, intermingled with memories of conviviality, food, and dusha, I found my own youthful memories of taste and place revived. Fishman’s and von Bremzen’s sentimental touchstones were mine, too.

I have no idea what it was that, separately and serendipitously, induced both of my parents to fall in love with their idea of Russia. My father grew up in the tiny rural town of Viola, Illinois, on a Christmas-tree and Suffolk-sheep farm. He liked to hunt—rabbits with his friends; quail and pheasant with his dad. My grandparents were gregarious, pinochle- and golf-playing Republicans, and my dad was an Eagle Scout. One of his summer jobs as a teenager was scaling utility poles as a lineman for the county, like the working-class hero Glen Campbell made famous with the song “The Wichita Lineman.” He was valedictorian of his high-school class in 1959 and was accepted to West Point on the condition that he defer entry by one year and take a chemistry course at a nearby college, since his tiny high school hadn’t offered it. Dutifully, my father enrolled at Monmouth College, where he sidled up to the Bunsen burners, joined the choir and a fraternity, and liked his surroundings so much that he ditched his West Point dreams and became a chem major. Then, during his senior year, he took a fateful Russian class. Succumbing instantly to the thrill of Cyrillic, he resolved to become a Russian professor, not a chemist. After Monmouth, compelled by the lure of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, he entered graduate school at the University of Illinois to study Russian language and literature and never looked back.

My mother, who grew up in comparatively cosmopolitan Springfield, Illinois, was the daughter of a homemaker and an IRS man who had been raised on nearby corn and soybean farms. Her parents had a passion for FDR, Adlai Stevenson, and middle-class convention, and they were fond of bridge, gardening, birding, and the Methodist church. Tall, impulsive, dark-haired and olive-skinned, with glowing ice-blue eyes, my mother bewildered them with her intensity and ambition. In 1957, when she was in high school, the Soviets launched Sputnik, and she became obsessed with the USSR, as did the rest of the country. Proactive by nature, she persuaded the Russian janitor at the Methodist church to give her lessons in his native tongue, simply because, as she later explained to me, “I wanted to know more about the people who had done this.” A few years later, seeking a Soviet pen pal, she sent letters to Russian newspapers (something that was practically seditious in those duck-and-cover days), and found one, named Volodya, in Odessa. She met my father during her senior year at the University of Illinois (he was her language-lab teaching assistant in German, not Russian, but never mind). My father had graduated from high school at seventeen, so even though he was two years into his masters in Russian, he was only twenty-one to her twenty. The first time he called my mother at her sorority to ask her out, he said to her, “What are you doing this Friday night, and every Friday night for the rest of your life?” They like to joke, with mock Dostoevskian (or maybe it’s Woody Allenian) bitterness, “He found out.”

While other American kids of my generation grew up haunted by the fear of global thermonuclear war, an apocalyptic battle between the superpowers, my brothers and I grew up believing there was nothing to fear. “The Sovs suffered so much in the Second World War that they have an absolute horror of war,” our parents assured us. “Besides,” my mother would add, “they can’t even get lightbulbs into people’s houses.” She and my father had first visited Moscow in 1970, and traveled frequently to the Soviet Union throughout their careers. In Moscow and Leningrad, she explained, there was a lively black market in burnt-out lightbulbs—apartment dwellers stockpiled them so that whenever a fresh bulb was screwed into a communal entryway, enterprising tenants could unscrew it and replace it with a black-market dud, stealing the working bulb for private use. (When I lived in post-Gorbachev Moscow, this was still true.) Since the Soviet Union didn’t have Osco’s, Kmarts, or A&Ps, my mother reasoned, they were hardly equipped to put America out of commission.

And so, for my brothers and me, the Cold War wasn’t a time of nail-biting anxiety about the arms race and Mutually Assured Destruction; and when Sting sang that the Russians loved their children, too, we shrugged—of course they did. Our Cold War was the scent of softening onions, ground beef, and dill, which my mother, stylish in strappy sandals and a silk wrap dress after a day at the office, would push through the hand-cranked metal myasorubka (meat grinder), which clamped onto the kitchen counter with a vise, as she prepared meat-filled yeast buns (pirozhki) in our sunny kitchen. Our Cold War was the dense, sweet, nutty-tasting poppyseed cake she baked every year for my birthday; and the fragrant, savory, purple-red borscht she made from a Ukrainian recipe when Russian guests dropped by. (Back then, the umbrella terms Russia and Russians enfolded the whole Soyuz.) My Cold War was a visiting poet, Andrei Voznesensky, dramatically declaiming his poems in our yellow and blue living room to a throng of rapt, long-haired Indiana college students, as I looked on in white nylon kneesocks and a demure light-blue dress, munching a pirozhok, and resentfully sporting a floppy Soviet-style cabbage bow in my hair to please my parents. In those days, the Soviet Union made me think of food, singing, dancing, and the sweet, trusting immigrant neighbor kid, Yura, whom I taught to ride a bike when he was six. It was also inextricably tied in my mind, as in my parents’ minds, I suppose, to Russian literature. At our dinner table some wintry nights, over London broil with sauce Béarnaise and spinach casserole, I remember my parents, still young, reciting Pushkin verses to each other: “Ya vas lyubil: lyubov eshcho, byt mozhet, V dushe moyei ugasla ni sovsem” “I loved you once, nor can this heart be quiet; For it would seem that love still lingers there …”

And yet, apart from romantic recitations in Russian, my family wasn’t that different from the Cold War-era American families we knew. We were profoundly middle class; my brothers, Justin and Nat, and I had paper routes and played on a dozen sports teams. I was in Brownies. Justin and Nat were in Cub Scouts and Indian Guides (Papa was a chief). Papa taught, worked on articles and committees, coached Little League, basketball, and soccer, did yard work, and got tenure. Mama bounced from one creative and tension-filled position in public relations to the next, until she entered academia and started teaching journalism and sociology—all of this while cooking a full meal every night that even our ultra-traditional Granny could not fault. Mama sewed us Halloween costumes, knit Christmas stockings, played violin, embroidered samplers. She and Papa entertained frequently—and not only Russian-themed parties. They also hosted a gourmet club and more casual dinners and potlucks—Linda Ronstadt playing in the background, mustached or hoop-earringed adults laughing, clinking glasses of Gallo.

My family was not weird, the shade of my adolescent self wants to shout. Mostly, we were like everyone else, though we did incorporate a few Slavic traditions into our all-American holidays and family rituals. When my brothers and I visit at Christmas, the tree is thickly dotted with hand-painted Russian wooden ornaments of Grandfather Frost and Slavic peasant girls with braids, which my parents scored in post-Soviet Moscow at the Izmailovsky Park market. And Easter is not Easter if I don’t spend part of the holiday with my father, brothers, friends, and family painting Ukrainian Easter eggs, known as pysanki—a process that involves dipping a funnel-tipped stylus into a flame, then beeswax, then drawing precise patterns on a raw, white egg, with molten wax that the flame has turned black as ink. As the decoration progresses, the egg is dipped successively into brighter, deeper colors of dye. When, at the end, you melt off all the black wax and polish the egg, you’re left with a glossy ovoid whose surface is as intricately patterned as a Persian carpet. Kept on a shelf out of children’s reach, a pysanka can last forever, vivid and intricate as it first was. Over time, the insides dry up, and if you shake a pysanka gently, five years on, you will hear the seedlike rattle of dried-up yolk within. 

Recently I started watching, with bemusement, the television series The Americans, which is set in the 1980s and feeds on the same Cold War memories I know—revived, I assume, by our renewed interest in the former Soviet Union as nefarious rival. Watching the characters’ wily subterfuges and stealth assassinations, I find no glimmers of my parallel midwestern Soviet history—though it’s true that in the Nixon years, when they were cash-strapped graduate students with a baby, my parents were audited twice (which to them felt like harassment). And once, years later, the FBI dropped by our house in Stillwater, Oklahoma, to quiz my parents about two Soviet journalists with suspected KGB ties whom my mother had invited to speak at Oklahoma State University. (My parents team-taught a popular course at OSU that contrasted the development of the US and the USSR in the twentieth century.) Before the agents showed up, Mama made us park our cars in the driveway so that the men would be sure to park near the road and enter the house through the front door—past the spinet piano and into the innocuous, be-chintzed living room—rather than walk in through the real entrance at the back of the house, a high-ceilinged breezeway on whose walls loomed a five-foot-tall poster of Lenin brandishing a copy of Pravda.

If a TV show had been made of my parents’  midwestern Cold War, it might have featured a little bit of meddling from on high, maybe. But corpses in car trunks? Not so much. Then again, my parents weren’t Soviets, or Communists. They were fire-breathing Democrats, and so am I (at five, I sent my tooth-fairy money to George McGovern’s campaign, the first of many doomed acts of political conscience). My mother was tickled when Soviet friends began calling her a burzhuaznaya marksistka—a bourgeois Marxist—and adopted the label with glee; but judging from her unending online purchases and home improvements, the emphasis belongs on the burzhuaznaya. Still, when I watch The Americans, seduced by its cloak-and-dagger frisson, or read disturbing headlines from Ukraine, absorbing them with dismay but not exactly surprise, I’m reassured, in a way. To me it seems like proof that my parents’ fascination with the Russian nation, culture, and people has been rational all along; as justified and important as it first appeared in a child’s lionizing eyes. Indeed, it seems to me that the recent reemergence of a bellicose Russia has been helped along by those in diplomatic and media circles who turned their focus away from the former Soviet Union once they stopped regarding it as a superpower—forgetting that a nation does not disappear from the map when it retreats from the news cycle. Area specialists, of course, never stopped scrutinizing the continent; they continued to weigh in with analyses and pulse-takings, tracked the erosion of press freedom and civil liberties, charted the spread of corruption, and vigilantly reported attacks on whistle-blowers and entrepreneurs. For nonspecialists, though, Russia stopped commanding front-page urgency the way it had back when it was the USSR.

It is difficult to pinpoint the precise moment when recognition started to sink in that the Russian Federation had regained muscle and intended to flex it, not only domestically but internationally. The G20 summit in Saint Petersburg in September 2013—when Putin vocally and resolutely opposed US airstrikes against Syria—was one marker. (China backed him, as did Pope Francis.) In the lead-up to the Sochi Olympics, scoffers tweeted embarrassing photos of shoddy infrastructure, but during the dazzling opening ceremonies, anyone who had failed to notice Putin’s message—that “Russia is back”—suddenly received that news flash. David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lenin’s Tomb, served as an Olympics commentator for NBC and explained that Putin saw the games as a way to “assert Russia on the modern stage.” When the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, he said, “this place collapsed. It collapsed as an ideology, it collapsed as an empire, and its self-confidence was shot.” The country was “humiliated by the end of the Cold War,” he added. “Putin is the reaction to that.”

As February advanced, newly attentive observers saw the delayed impact of that reaction as pageantry in Sochi was supplanted by stealthy troop mobilization on the Crimean Peninsula. Putin maintained that Crimeans wanted to be part of Russia, not Ukraine. A referendum was held on March 16, 2014, that overwhelmingly supported his claim, though the European Union, the United States, and Ukraine condemned it. Two days later, a treaty reabsorbed Crimea into the Russian Federation.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea marked the most aggressive territorial landgrab in Europe since the Second World War and swiftly brought a gust of Cold War chill into NATO discussions. As troop movements have spread to Eastern Ukraine, the chill has deepened; and some voices argue that NATO itself bears some blame for Russia’s expansionist mood. In a controversial speech in the German Bundestag on the eve of the Crimean referendum, Gregor Gysi, an influential member of the democratic-socialist German party Die Linke, accused NATO of overreach, implying that “winning the Cold War” had made Western diplomats insensitive, provoking Russian belligerence. After the Cold War ended, Gysi charged, “There was an expansion of NATO in Russia’s direction.” Could sustained, thoughtful diplomacy have averted the Ukrainian crisis? Should everyone have seen it coming? Have Americans underestimated all along the nostalgic allure a take-charge leader like Putin might hold for those in the Russian Federation who yearned for order and security, even at the cost of freedom?

For my family, the turbulence in Ukraine brings another, personal question: How will Russia’s new clout affect our friends who live there? My parents have many friends from the former Soviet Union who are Ukrainian. They live in Odessa, in Kharkov, or in Luhansk (formerly Voroshilovgrad), near Donetsk, where fighting continued all summer, and where in September, Ukraine’s president, Petro Poro-shenko, concluded a disadvantageous cease-fire with Ukrainian rebel forces (Russia loyalists). Ukrainian reformers did well in an election in late October; but separatists had their own election in early November, and the future of Ukraine remains unclear. These days, I worry about identifying my parents’ friends, even by city. I hope I exaggerate the risk. In this internet age, when any Ukrainian, Uzbek, or Russian can talk with any foreigner via Skype; when Russia has its own version of Facebook, called VK (formerly known as VKontakte), and as Russian bloggers vociferously air strong opinions, the genie seems to be out of the bottle.

Still, last spring, VK’s young founder was fired, and Putin cronies took over the site. And, among other ill omens, the Moscow-based lawyer and activist Alexey Navalny, one of Russia’s most outspoken pro-democracy and anticorruption bloggers, was held under house arrest for nearly all of 2014. Navalny is of mixed Russian and Ukrainian background and calls himself a “nationalist democrat.” His attitude toward Ukraine, vis-à-vis Russia, is ambiguous; while he has opposed the means by which Crimea was annexed, he has also said, “We’re one nation. We should enhance integration”—meaning with Russia, not with Western Europe. Recently he commissioned a poll of Kharkov and Odessa residents that showed that nearly half the respondents opposed joining NATO, while only a quarter favored it. Last summer, when my parents’ oldest friends from Odessa (my mother’s pen pal, Volodya, and his wife) visited, they did not talk politics. They talked about family matters and economic uncertainty. As had happened in the Soviet era, when they first met, they avoided hot-button topics. Back then, Odessans were Soviets; for twenty years they have been Ukrainians. Their fates once again are subject to the choices of the leadership in Moscow, which looks more and more Soviet in style.

The return of the diplomatic frost between the United States and Russia sobers the American soul and the Slavic dusha, but it has one consequence that can lift the spirit: It reminds us of the unerodable value of cultivating a deep and abiding understanding of other nations and peoples. For two decades, Kremlinologists were “out” and Beijing watchers were “in,” to a degree. American diplomatic strategists turned their attention to China, compelled by its rising global influence. But nations aren’t fads. Superpower or not, Russia remained newsworthy, even if it has taken saber-rattling and multi-billion-dollar displays to remind Western media to bring back its spotlight.

When I think of the Cold War these days, I remember the sincerity of the idealistic, shaggy, protest-and-war-buffeted adults of the 1970s—their teach-the-world-to-sing Coca-Cola ethos—and I miss it. Sometimes I think that capitalism was on better behavior when it was competing with Soviet Communism. My parents’ unjaded curiosity led them to study the Soviet Union, to travel there and meet its citizens, and to teach scores of classes to students who, like them, wanted to explore the question, How are the Russians like us, and how are they different? It’s a question I wish more Americans had kept asking once Russia stopped being perceived as an existential threat. Too often, American attention to the priorities and character of foreign nations emerges only after we begin to see those nations as enemies. But a deeper, more organic understanding grows out of consistent, objective study unclouded by invidious backdrop. Russians like to say, when they meet with friends after a long absence: Skol’ko let, skol’ko zim … So many summers, so many winters … The ellipses stand for the thought that is so deeply known that it need not be spoken: “… and yet we recognize each other, still.”



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Ben D. Shiriak's picture
Ben D. Shiriak · 9 years ago
"I welcome the refreeze." The author must be kidding. Putin is a combination of Rasputin and Stalin, with a little Beria thrown in. This is not a "refreeze" but a prelude to a ground war. Just wait until Putin tries to take over the Baltics.

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