About a year ago, I was required to give an oral presentation to my Dostoevsky section. I talked about Dostoevsky’s ideas about America. They were not great. In Crime and Punishment, a particularly sinful character famously announces his suicide with the words, “I am going to America.” At the end of The Brothers Karamazov, the protagonist is faced with a choice between prison in Siberia and escaping to America with his beloved. It’s not an easy choice for him to make.
For Dostoevsky, America was something between purgatory and inferno. It was the anti-Russia. You could not have both.
I did get both. I was born less than five years after the Berlin Wall came down, to parents who had spent their lives on either side of it. By the time I was growing up, the Cold War already seemed like a long strip of cartoonish history.
To my friends, there was something inherently humorous about my Russianness. I didn’t mind when they made references to bears or Brosef Stalin, or jokingly called me out for being a communist. I get why, too. Most of world history is just too sad to make good nerd humor. But there is something fundamentally ridiculous about the Cold War (the spies! the acronyms! those green Soviet hats!).
But mostly, the Cold War seemed over, something to make powerpoints about.
When I meet Professor Constantine Muravnik GRD ’02 GRD ’10 in his office in the Hall of Graduate Studies he hands me a newspaper clipping from the Washington Post March 16, 2014, in which the headline “The Cold War is Cool Again” is splashed across a background soaked in classic communist red, the outline of a yellow star below it. The red takes up almost the entirely of the page.
Muravnik said he had it up on the door of his office for a while, but has since taken it down.
“The Cold War is back,” he says. “Beyond any doubt. Cold peace or warm peace or cold war or whatever you want to call it.”
Most of the other Russians-in-America I spoke with were adamant that no matter what, things can never get back to the way they were before. It’s hard to close doors that have once been opened. You can’t turn back history. We have the internet now. We don’t have communism, or the Berlin Wall.
But the signs aren’t good. If you haven’t been paying attention, here are a few of them. In January 2013, the Russian government imposed a ban on adoptions of Russian orphans by American families. Later that year Russia granted asylum to Edward Snowden, enraging U.S. government officials. Prompted by the Ukraine crisis, the United States has imposed several separate kinds of sanctions against Russia since March including on the country’s largest oil companies. In response, Russia has introduced sanctions on a number of food products from the United States.
During the official Cold War, most Yale students looking at current events could not have shared in my awkward confusion of allegiances. After all, being Russian-American could not be a problem when being Russian-American was practically impossible.
No one is sure what will happen next. But if the curtain does go down again, what happens to those on both sides?
America might have been synonymous with damnation for Dostoevsky, writing in the 1860s and 1880s. But to Russians a century later, “the word America itself was like heavenly Jerusalem,” Muravnik remembers with a laugh. “It was something special that you wanted to see, to hear, to touch.”
Not-love of the Soviet Union automatically translated into love for the United States. Muravnik jokes that one of the greatest disappointments of Soviet dissidents in coming to the United States was learning that half of what was printed about America in the infamous Communist Party newspaper Pravda (“Truth”) was, in fact, pravda.
Professor Irina Dolgova remembers the United States as “officially enemy number one.” But the enmity was just that — official.
“I always tell my students, ‘Who did we love most of all?’” Dolgova says. “We loved Salinger. Mark Twain. We all knew Tom Sawyer as though he was a neighbor of ours … On the level of the people, it never took the form of a real cold war. America was the most popular country.”
Dmitriy Shimanko GRD ’15, a current Fox Fellow, dismisses the idea that recent events have changed things between Russians and Americans. It’s simple he says: if you follow the news you’ll feel it. If you don’t (and he doesn’t), you won’t.
“If we’re talking about some imagined Russians and imagined Americans on TV, maybe,” he says. “But not between real people.”
Muravnik left the Soviet Union in 1991, but for the past 14 years he has lead Yale students on the “Yale in St. Petersburg” summer program. This returns him to the same places in Russia at the same time of year, every year. And while this might give him a narrow glimpse of the country, in a way he thinks it allows him to see changes permanent residents might not. A bit like watching someone else’s kids grow up, he explains.
And one of the changes he has noticed is that America has entirely lost its Soviet-era mystique.
“Russian tourists planning their vacation now don’t even think of America,” he says. “They’ll say, ‘Oh what’s there to do there? It’s stopped being attractive. I think there are political roots in that.’”
American and Russian leaders playing war games is nothing new. What is, and what Dolgova says she fails to understand, is that the polarization now also seems to be coming from below. She has sometimes even avoided showing her students certain links to Russian news sources because she does not want them to see the outpouring of anti-American vitriol in the comment boards below.
When I visited Russia with my mother last June, I mostly got to masquerade as a native. Speaking Russian was all it took to get the cheaper, citizen-only tickets at the Mariinksy Theatre. Once, I was interviewed by a local news station after spontaneously joining a dance party outside the Red Square, and was proud when they seemed to take me for a local. As long as I didn’t talk to anyone for too long, they didn’t seem to notice that my Russian was a little too halting, a little too formal and entirely missing the vocabulary and speech patterns that a normal Russian 20-year-old would have.
My mom and I were walking down Nevsky Prospect one day when we stumbled across a group of demonstrators, mostly holding flags and signs expressing solidarity with the Donbass region of Ukraine. Others had slogans like “The west is sparking a civil war in Ukraine.”
There were maybe 30 people. There were cameras. We later heard conflicting views about whether all of the protesters had been paid to stand there by the government or not.
I remember feeling completely disoriented. At that point I had just finished finals, and I hadn’t been reading the news for weeks. I had no idea how I was supposed to feel. Defensive? Outraged? Supportive? But as we walked away, I thought again that I was glad my mom and I weren’t speaking English.
Muravnik does not consider himself particularly involved in politics: he’s a language teacher, he says. But even before the events in Crimea, before any clear escalation, he began to notice what he described as “signs” in the tone the Western media took in covering the Olympic Games.
“It sounded like it was 1980 and not 2014. The connection between those two Olympics was very noticeable and very disturbing” he said, referring to the summer Olympics held in Moscow that were boycotted by 65 nations, including the United States.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” he said.
When professor Julia Titus trained to be a journalist in the Soviet Union, she remembers, she was told that the freedom of the press was an illusion. But she imagined that though what they had in Russia was propaganda, in the West they had the free press.
In the past year Titus says she has found herself dumbfounded by how one-sided the coverage of the Ukraine crisis was, even in what she considered liberal sources, such as NPR and The New York Times — a paper she used to particularly love.
What worries Titus is that she thinks most Russians are used to reading their own news sources through a heavy filter. She’s not sure Americans are the same way.
“Now I realize that the propaganda is both here and there, and that was a big disappointment, a big disillusionment for me,” she says. “We always thought propaganda was something only the communists had.”
The internet means that there will never again be a time when propaganda is all there is. But the endless proliferation of sources and opinions presents its own problem. When the propaganda is coming from both sides, the best we can hope for is that if we read a lot of different sources and read them a lot we will get an impression that is something like the truth.
As Muravnik puts it, we should “trust no one — and trust everyone in some sense.”
I have never felt much in the way of love for current Russian president Vladimir Putin. But I was still confused and angry to read that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had prominently compared Putin’s actions to Adolf Hitler’s in the lead-up to World War II (not least because I have spent my life being frequently reminded of the fact that the Soviet Union lost over 20 million in the fight to bring Hitler down, my relatives among them).
If Putin is the new Hitler, then Russia is back to being the evil empire. And the correct moral response to evil is to fight, contain and crush it.
Moscow-born Fedor Andrienko ’18 says that in his experience, students just don’t care much. “Who is following that?” he asks. “Mostly they’ll say something about Putin, how bad he is, what a tyrant he is and that’s where it ends.”
His description is pretty true to my own glancing conversations: no one is very clear on the specifics of the situation. What they know is that Putin is bad.
Nevertheless, when I ask Shimanko if he has had many conversations about Russian politics since he came here, he responds that he has only had one.
“I talked to the barber,” he said. “He said he liked Putin, actually. Or more precisely he said he wouldn’t comment on the dealings but said that he likes Putin’s character. Or, well, he said that he had balls of steel.”
Roman Utkin GRD ’15, whose family still lives in the Russian city of Kazan, says his nightmare would be if Russia and America were ever to actually go to war.
He currently holds two passports, which as of last August, brought him under the umbrella of a new law that requires him to register with the Federal Migration Service — essentially mandating a trip back to Russia. It’s far from the Iron Curtain, but “it’s the kind of move that seems to preface something bigger,” he says. Utkin would keep the American passport if he were being forced to choose. He feels a great attachment to Russia, he says, but he has never had to function there as a working adult. He isn’t sure he could do it.
“Maybe in some remote village, living the Tolstoyan dream,” he jokes. “I’m too inept, too Americanized by now.”
Among others who left the Soviet Union, Dolgova says she mostly tries not to talk about current politics. It’s a boleznenaya subject, Dolgova says — boleznenaya literally meaning sick, or diseased.
The crisis is drawing lines among family members, and friends, Utkin says. He recalls seeing two faculty members almost break out into a fight after a concert in Sprague Hall (a big hangout for the New Haven Russian community). One was yelling at the other, calling Putin a monster, the other saying ‘you need to have a more balanced view of these events,’ he remembers.
There’s a tension around the subject, Dolgova feels. No one wants to ask. And as soon as you realize someone’s stance is far from your own, you just try to avoid talking about it. Everyone left at different times, for different reasons: it might make them see the same events differently.
“People get stuck in time in the moment they leave the country,” Dolgova says. “I don’t want to turn into one of the generation of babushkas that say, ‘Well, in our time.’”
I realize now that I got stuck too. I have only been to Russia twice — once when I was seven, and again this summer, when I was 20. The Russia I think I know doesn’t exist anymore except in the memories of the people who raised me. The only Russian actors and singers I know are from the Soviet era. My vocabulary and cultural knowledge remain frozen in 1977. My mom laughed the first time I came back from paying 25 rubles to an extremely grouchy lady in order to use a toilet that turned out to just be a hole in the ground. “Now you have had the real Soviet bathroom experience,” she said happily.
Going back last June, it felt like a curtain had been pulled back on the world. It was everything I knew from home, just more of it, unfiltered by the encroachment of America all around it. It was like being in a foreign country, but one where all the streets have familiar names, and the strangers don’t look quite like strangers, as though you might have seen them in a dream. And no matter how many articles I read, I don’t know how to come to terms with the fact that I live in a country that I love and that may or may not be going back to cold-warring with another country I love.
Still, it’s a relief to go home. I came back clutching a copy of Dostoevsky’s Demons, which I purchased in Moscow. I’d spend the rest of the summer in Connecticut reading it. Two of its characters travel to America and return to Russia. They talk about it often; it was a lot like hell. I would like to tell Dostoevsky he was wrong about America. But then again, he never visited. He might have written differently if he had.