Discovering each other, one question at a time

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?

About Eugene

My name is Eugene Ivanov. I was born in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, when Estonia was still part of the Soviet Union. In 1981, I received a Ph.D. in Genetics from St. Petersburg State University and for the next 20 years, I’ve been working in research labs in Russia, France, and the U.S. In 2003, I decided that I was done with science and went to work for a company specializing in open innovation and crowdsourcing. I live in Massachusetts and believe that one must protect the environment and Massachusetts Republicans. Politics has always been my passion, and after splitting my adult life almost evenly between Russia and America, I’m keenly interested in how political decisions are made in both countries. Naturally, I’m concerned about the state of U.S.-Russia relations and want to see them improved. Many men of my age go through what is routinely called a “mid-life crisis.” For some, it appears as acute interest in sport cars; for others, in young women. My mid-life crisis emerged as a realization that it wasn’t enough for me to just read, think and talk (to my wife) about politics. I felt that I must share my thoughts with other people. Hence this blog.
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11 Responses to Discovering each other, one question at a time

  1. AK says:

    My most common question is: “Is it really cold in Russia?” No kidding. Also, “Where do you come from in Russia?”

    A few times I’ve also been asked, “Do you support Putin?” or “Do you consider Putin a dictator?” I either respond Yes/No (if the questioner is genuinely interested in my viewpoints) or “I’m not into politics” (to people who frame it in a hostile manner and expect the PC response).

    Also, “Do you like life in Russia or the US more?” is a popular question. I respond that “Of the places I’ve been to, I like California most.”

  2. Eugene says:

    “Where do you come from in Russia?” and “Do you like it here [in the US]?” are indeed among the most frequent. The question “Do you drink vodka every day?” was asked a few times. Once I responded “No, every other day” and the person who asked the question looked offended by my rudeness.

    Living in MA prevents me from using your last line :)

  3. PTI says:

    Typical Q. to me is – “Is Ukraine in Russia”?

  4. Dear Eugene,

    Sadly I think you would find more hostility to Russia here in Britain. Even during the Cold War I remember noticing the difference between British and American attitudes to Russia, with British attitudes being consistently more hostile. Of course I am talking about the middle class with which I have contact rather than the working class where attitudes towards the so called “workers’ state” were doubtless different.

    I have always been puzzled by British hostility to Russia, which seems to me to have no real reason behind it but which goes back very far. I recently read a book by the British historian Orlando Figes about the Crimean War. Whilst I disagreed strongly with much that I read in the book it did have a very interesting chapter discussing the way in which Russia was coveredby the British press in the early and mid nineteenth century. As Figes himself noted the similarities between British press coverage of Russia then and British press coverage of Russia now are startling.

    • rkka says:

      My suspicion is that right after the Napoleonic Wars, with the Russian Army having gotten to Paris, the greatest sea power in the world looked at the greatest land power in the world and decided it was a menace that had to be undermined and defeated at any cost.

      I have had discussions with people from various parts of the Commonwealth about whether Hitler or Stalin were the greatest menace to the British Empire in the 1930s. They profess to find them indistinguishable. When I mention that Stalin never bombed
      London, nor tried to starve Great Britain our by unrestricted submarine warfare, they reply “They were both out to dominate Europe.” When I reply that Stalin seemed to have been satisfied with the Eastern half of it, and hardly lifted a finger to acquire the rest, they reply “We made a guarantee to Poland.” When I mention that His Majesty’s Government made no effort whatsoever to assist Poland under German attack, not even with financial aid, they mutter darkly and remain unconvinced.

      What is weird is that 1939 public opinion polling in GB showed a majority in favor of a Brit-French-Soviet alliance, so popular hostility to Russia wasn’t that severe at the time. But PM Chamberlain was opposed, enamored with his notion of “Germany and England as two pillars of European peace and buttresses against Communism.” and HMG talked the Soviet alliance offer of 17 April 1939 into the ground. I suspect the long Cold War, and the anticommunist attitude of even Labour leaders like Atlee and Bevin, has sunk deep roots of Russophobia into the UK working class.

  5. Eugene says:

    Dear Alexander,

    I’d agree that the distant past is to be blamed. I’m afraid, however, that the present doesn’t help, either. Take only the recent Berezovsky vs. Abramovich spat — what a nice way to showcase the “mysterious Russian soul.” Or the whole Litvinenko story — regardless of who or what “killed” him.

    Let me put it this way: you guys have too many Russians living in London to hold “positive attitude” towards Russians. I know this from experience: I was born and grew up in Estonia — at a time which is now called there “Soviet occupation.” Being “a bad Russian” by association is something I know first-hand.

    Best,
    Eugene

  6. Alex says:

    Eugene, I wonder if there is statistics splitting the American attitudes to Russia by the the skin color? Broadly, colored vs WAS(P)?
    Cheers

  7. Eugene says:

    Alex,

    I think that statistics is out of the question: Russians is not such an important demographic group to elicit serious sociological studies. My own experience is too limited to make any conclusions.

    However, I’d say that you can expect warmer feelings toward Russians among (recent) immigrants: an “immigrant” solidarity of sorts. (Nicely compensates often nasty relations between Russians themselves; you know what I mean).

    Cheers,
    Eugene

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