Writer Alexander Genis discusses American views of Russia

by Alexandra Ilyina, Moskovskiye Novosti at 31/05/2013 18:33

Russian stands at BookExpo America book fair

The popular Soviet writer, critic and radio presenter Alexander Genis emigrated to the United States in 1977, neatly dividing his life into two chapters, Soviet and Western.

Moskovskiye Novosti interviewed Genis about Russia and Moscow as seen from America: what's changed and what's stayed the same over the decades.

America is a major topic of conversation in Russia. But do Americans think about us? Is Russia on the US agenda?

I'm not sure I am fit to play a foreigner, unless it is the tailor in Gogol who put up a sign that said "Foreigner Vasily Fedorov." Besides, no one has authorized me to speak on behalf of America. But I have lived there for 36 years and I've seen a lot.

Russia has always had a place in the American consciousness, but its image has undergone constant change. Periods of inactivity in the Cold War were followed by periods of aggravation like the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. Negative attitudes peaked, if I remember correctly, when the Soviet military shot down a Korean passenger airliner. The first signs of sympathy for the "Evil Empire" came after Chernobyl. An enemy's weakness tends to evoke sympathy.

The number of college students learning Russian is a good indicator of shifts in Russia's place on the US agenda. Young people in America today are learning Arabic and Chinese. The last surge of interest in things Russian was during the war with Georgia.

On the whole, however, America is by nature an isolationist power and only takes an interest in countries it is at war with.

Who are Russian-Americans today?

There are quite a lot of Russians in America. On the whole, it's been a rather successful wave of immigration. People in Russia often think that all their compatriots live in Brighton Beach, but in reality you can meet Russians in every American office. There is no particular attitude toward them, with just one exception: almost every Russian knows at least one American who tried to adopt a child from Russia. We are often asked to help write a letter or choose gifts (including for bribes). As for the rest, immigrants from Russia in no way differ from others. In the past, however, we had to take the rap for Soviet mischief. When the USSR shot down the Korean Boeing, all Russian taxi drivers - and we speak English with an accent that you can't mistake - said they were Bulgarians.

You collect Russian myths about America. Can you give us an example? Many believe, for example, that American high-school students are unable to point out Russia on the map.

That's not even a myth, it's just stupid. There is a map of the world in every classroom in every American school. Do you know how big Russia is? Any American student can find it easily...

...Russians think about the USA the way they would like to be thought of. In this respect, America is both the symptom and the diagnosis for Russia. Once someone I know in Russia told me that America wants to conquer the world - not because it's bad, but because any country would want to conquer the world. I asked whether America wanted to conquer Canada? He nodded yes. What about Mexico? 113 million people, drug cartels, welfare, millions of unemployed, but in exchange it's USA all the way to the Panama Canal! See how wonderful? My friend said nothing, but didn't change his mind.

But what is most frightening is that these myths are believed by the head of state. Putin once came to America at the height of a scandal: a TV journalist publicly accused Bush of something that wasn't true. The journalist had to resign under pressure from the network. But Putin said: You see, the president of the United States can fire any journalist. If it were so, there wouldn't have been scandals under Clinton and Nixon. Presumably, Putin doesn't know that the president of the United States can't just fire any journalist, but he has advisers. That's what scares me. And it's that way in all things. Anti-Americanism is not new, but in the past people just didn't believe the official propaganda.

Today they don't either.

I'm not so sure. In my time, television was a machine that showed figure skating and Stirlitz. It wouldn't cross anyone's mind to listen to Brezhnev speaking on TV, but they do listen to Putin. One day I was talking to [director] Alexei German, who said: "In Russia, people pity the Americans because in America everyone is shooting each other all the time and you can't even go out. A lot of people don't really understand that this is just in the movies."

Modern Russian culture hasn't had an influence on America. "Doctor Zhivago" was the last Russian novel that was a bestseller there.

Ignorance grows every day. When the Iron Curtain was down, the window to Europe was behind bars, but it was a stained-glass window: we got only the best - Faulkner, Salinger, jazz... Today Russia is being inundated by an endless stream of pop culture - Justin Bieber and all that. In the age of the Internet, the information scrap heap is so huge that it is much more difficult to find a pearl in it.

If we are not a Kulturtrager, we are perhaps a tourist destination, aren't we? Is Russia interesting in this sense?

I've just seen the statistics: Russia is currently 63rd out of 140 countries as an attractive tourist destination. India is eighth.

If Americans come to Russia, they mostly go to St. Petersburg, although really St. Petersburg is just Russia's vestibule, a European city in the Russian style. Moscow is much more interesting for foreigners, because there is nothing like St. Basil's anywhere else in the world. But Russia did everything it could to make the whole thing expensive and inconvenient for tourists.

Everyone who comes back from Russia always has something bad to say: "The people are nice but the government is bad." One day I saw two Americans at Sheremetyevo Airport waiting in line. One moved too close and was shouted at. "Why not draw a line on the floor to wait behind until your turn?" he asked his more experienced friend. The man replied that if a line were drawn, it would be a law for everyone; as it is, they have the law "in their heads." Maybe the line has been drawn, but the [overall] situation remains the same. 

© 2009 The Moscow News