August 2004

Colleen Mondor

nonfiction

Amerika by Mikhail Iossel

I was honestly very excited to receive a review copy of Amerika: Russian Writers View the United States. Like many Americans I am curious to know how the world looks at us, what they think of us. I particularly find the Russian view of America to be interesting as I grew up under the fear of communism. Russians were the ultimate degree of foreignness to a child of the seventies; we never even considered the Middle East or Africa. All we worried about was the USSR. Even as I write this, I can’t help but hear an old Sting lyric float through my head: “The only hope for me and you is if the Russians love their children too.” Reading Amerika has brought all of these memories back, reminding me of what it was like to boycott the Olympics and watch Red Dawn. In many ways, this book was the perfect choice for me.

Amerika is a collection of essays by contemporary Russian writers who have a variety of things to say about the U.S. The collection includes authors from all aspects of Russian literary life from Aleksey Tsvetkov, Jr. who was born in 1975 and writes political and cultural essays while maintaining a web project, to Dmitry Prigov, an artist born in Moscow in 1940 and Andrey Zorin, an Associate Professor of Russian Literature at the Russian State University for the Humanities who was born in 1956. Many of the authors have studied or taught at American universities while others have translated American works or been published in American magazines.

The authors are not really interested in writing about American politics, or political differences between the U.S. and Russia. Although the events of September 11th are mentioned in several of the essays, they are always in the context of cultural impact, and not as diatribes for or against the U.S. government. Mostly this is a book about the inherent differentness and sameness of the Russian and American peoples. There is much discussion here of the myth of America, of perceived enormous wealth, plentiful guns, cowboys and Indians, the hugeness of the oceans and, of course, Hollywood. One suspects a similar list would exist if American authors wrote about Russia and similar surprises as those myths were quickly and easily dispelled.

Each writer brings something completely unique to his essay, raising points and sharing experiences that are wholly original. Grigori Kruzhkov recounts the words of poet John Keats, who received bad news in 1819 about a brother who had emigrated to America and then wrote about “that hated land” in a poem decrying all that America had used to lure his brother away. Arkadii Dragomoschenko winds his way across contemporary and historical America with forays into the life of Sarah Pardee Winchester (who built the Winchester House in California), the writer Paul Bowles and his life in North Africa and the availability of Chilean wine in New York City. Honestly, I am still unsure what narrative thread ties all of this together, but it was an enjoyable essay to read and sent me in Bowles’s direction, a place I have not been to before.

Other essayists are more direct such as Arthur Kudashev who notes that America is the country of cars and that baseball is interesting although incomprehensible the first time around. (He also mentions that Detroit Stadium is staggering in size.) Kudashev, who has a degree in psychiatry, further comments on difference direction his life might have taken if he was born in the U.S, writing: “With the same amount of education and experience as I had in that country [Russia], in this country [America], I would have earned (God help me!) somewhere in the neighborhood of two-hundred-thousand dollars a year, and my friends, now alcoholic Soviet surgeons and anesthesiologists, would have made in the neighborhood of ‘four hundred,’ ‘five hundred,’ ‘six hundred’... That’s all -- I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

Several of the authors mention growing up reading American literature -- Ray Bradbury seems to be a recurring favorite -- listening to American music and watching American movies. They are more familiar with who Americans are, have a better idea of what to expect from us. I doubt that the average American can even name a contemporary Russian author, let alone a Russian musician and I will confess that I am as guilty as everyone else in this respect. When Oprah chose Anna Karenina this summer I applauded her commitment, but did not even think about running out to get a copy. I don’t like my literature quite that dark. But clearly reading Russian does not mean reading only the Russian classics and while I think the Russian composers wrote some beautiful music it wasn’t until I saw Bering Strait on “60 Minutes” that I could name any contemporary Russian musician. What is happening today in Russia seems to be eluding us, we keep seeing the Russia we knew, the Russia of history and forget to look for what is new and exciting in their world of arts and music.

There is something very uneven about that, something not right. Russians speak English more than Americans speak Russian, they want to learn about us, they are curious to know about us. And although I can be just as arrogant as the next person it is impossible for me to believe that the U.S. is just so much more damned fascinating than anywhere else. Russians just seem willing to make the effort to know, while Americans seem inclined to let others tell them what they should believe. It is ironic, but as the only remaining “Superpower,” I think we are intellectually more passive than our former foes. They are curious, at least, about us. Can we say the same thing about ourselves in regards to them?

Finally, Dmitry Vedenyapin, whose son was accepted to Harvard in 2001, considered the enormity of the September 11th attacks in his essay. “With regard to the events of 9/11,” he writes, “I can only say one thing: not only America, but the world as a whole became a less comfortable and fortunate place, because for a while America (it so happened) remained the last bastion of relative comfort. Today it is no longer so, which is very sad.” And Artur Kudashev echoes the universality of that day when he writes, “America, my friends, is common property, the property of all intelligent, thinking human beings. And cosmopolitanism is the newest patriotism, the patriotism of inhabitants of the planet Earth.” They are friends, these men, caring and concerned friends. It seems we should take the time to get to know them a little better, as they so kindly have taken the time to get to know us.

As a last word, I have to admit that my initial reaction to the collection was disappointment, because I think it could have been much better. In reflection though I have to consider that I have read relatively little literature in translation and part of my confusion over some of the pieces was clearly due to that. Also, the book is organized alphabetically by author, which I think was a poor decision by the editors. Few of the essays stand comfortably together in this order, while several would clearly be good companions. I also think that some of the works are more reader friendly, more “familiar” in form or content and they should have been placed at the beginning. Having said all of this I still would recommend the book however. Even with its shortcomings, it has some lovely moments of brilliance and most importantly, gives the Western reader a look into the minds of people far away, something we all should be doing more of in the 21st century.

Amerika edited by Mikhail Iossel
Dalkey Archive Press
ISBN 1564783561
174 pages