After having lived in the United States for almost 20 years, I’m used to answering questions about Russia.
Questions, of course, vary but the most popular overall has been: Why do Russians not celebrate Thanksgiving? My explanation that history of Russia doesn’t include interactions between the Pilgrims and the Indians doesn’t sound too convincing. People seem to question my knowledge of the past and, perhaps, even my Russianness. So one day I tried something different. Why do Russians not celebrate Thanksgiving? Because they can’t produce enough turkeys for every Russian family. My interlocutor nodded approvingly at my thoughtfulness.
Some questions are so puzzling that I’m not even sure that I understand them correctly. A young lady from Kansas asked me if Russians buried their dead. Excuse me, reacted I incredulously, but of course, how else? Apparently sensing that something was wrong, she murmured “Never mind” and changed the subject.
Yet my absolutely favorite question – asked only once but I still remember it – is this: Was your last czar (Nicolas II) also president?
Boldly considering myself not only bilingual, but truly bicultural, I take it as my civic duty to answer questions about America every time I visit Russia. Back in 2000s, the most popular question my friends were asking me was: How much does it cost in America to buy a…? Usually, it was a house. I used to explain patiently that the price of real estate varied widely between different U.S. states, cities and even locations in the same city and that the extent of this variation could be as huge as the difference between the price for a one-room apartment in a provincial Russian town and the one for a mansion on Rublevka.
Then, I remember this old lady, a friend of my Mom, whose knowledge of America tracked back to the glorious times of the Cold War. Having apparently decided to ask me an “educated” question, she soberly inquired: Well, how do ordinary Americans live these days? (The miserable life of “ordinary Americans” was a regular concern raised by the Soviet media.) I didn’t want to lie, but I didn’t want to disappoint her, either. So I said: They are still struggling. By her reaction, I knew this was something she wanted to hear.
Times change, and as my Russian friends freely travel around the world, they don’t need me anymore to acquire knowledge of foreign countries. These days, the most frequent question I hear in Russia is: Did you see…? The title of the newest Hollywood blockbuster follows. Embarrassed, I defend myself by babbling that I don’t like going to the movies and usually wait until Hollywood masterpieces appear on Netflix. Ouch.
Curiously, over all these years, I’ve never faced a hostile question. No one ever asked me why Russia (America) wanted to destroy America (Russia). True, I’m not a man who can give an order to destroy another country – and my interlocutors knew that. However, I prefer to believe that the lack of such questions reflects the sense of quiet respect Americans and Russians hold towards each other.
Incidentally, measurements of public sentiments in both countries support this notion. In Russia, 50% of those surveyed in a recent poll expressed positive attitude towards the U.S.; only 35% held negative views. In the U.S., similar 50% of Americans held favorable views of Russia; this number was unsurprisingly higher among younger Americans. So when politicians in both countries make stupid statements – that Russia is the United States’ “number one geopolitical foe” or that “the United States was keenly interested in destabilizing Russia” – they should know: they speak for themselves rather than for their constituents.
The way forward, as I see it, is to keep discovering each other, one question at a time. So when you spot my unmistakably Russian accent, do shoot me a question about Russia. Any question. The only question I’ll refuse to answer is: This next president of yours. Will he also be czar?