Lost in Translation

for Portland Press Herald (Maine) February 19, 2017

Food Court at Novosibirsk Mall

Throughout the 25 years I have lived in Siberia people have turned to me as a translator, not of English, but of America. Never more so than now, from my University students to the Kazakh fast food cashier at the mall, “Trump?”. I know they ask hoping I can provide a translation of the meaning of Trump that will reinforce their desire for something positive to happen in the US-Russia relationship.

For many Americans, 2008 was the “hope” election. The unexpected Trump victory turned 2016 into the “hope” election for many Russians. Not because they like Trump, I have not met anyone who is confident this is a good thing. Still, the alternative was frightening. Increasing demonization of Russia reached a crescendo when Hilary Clinton compared Putin to Hitler. The majority of Russians think of Putin as the man who stopped the social chaos and economic devastation that characterized newly democratic Russia in the 1990’s.

Equating their President with the man responsible for killing 27 million of their relatives and friends (including Putin’s older brother) was the step too far. Especially since it was said in the midst of NATO movements best explained by Russian history scholar Stephen Cohen, “This military buildup on Russia’s Western frontiers is absolutely unprecedented. There has never been such an amassing of hostile military force on Russia’s Western frontiers since June 1941 when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and that’s the way the Russians see it.”

The hope that Trump represents came with his simple question, “Wouldn’t it be good if we could get along with Russia?”. Although as the tweets go beyond grudges and domestic affairs, concerns are growing. One colleague was particularly disturbed by Trump’s comments on international institutions , “This is very dangerous, you cannot rebuild these institutions in a day”. Still, it appears Russians have more faith in American democracy than Americans do these days. Rhetoric, policies and the mystifying electoral college system aside, the outsider defeated the establishment candidate. To Russians that possibility is the heart of the democratic promise and something to be celebrated.

Recent protest against polluting a local river in Novosibirsk

My worries are greater and started long before Trump rode down the escalator into history. For several years now the disconnect between the reality and the impression people in America have about life in Russia has gone from surprising to troubling and has now reached the stage of alarming. Of course, bad things happen here and there is injustice, but, these co-exist with my work as a teacher at a top University where I have total freedom in my classroom. Similar to schools in America, my 8th grader was taught how to protest in her civics class, she was against animal cruelty, her best friend was pro feminism and a boy was against movies because they are too expensive. Last week thousands of people in my City applied those skills in -20 temperatures to protest an increase in utility rates. 25 years into one of the newest democracies and it is not perfect, but more people are active than ever before pushing for the same things that people in America are fighting for, access to good healthcare, education and jobs.

Recent protest against utility hikes in Novosibirsk

Equally disorienting and dangerous is the tone and certainty that defines discourse on all sides of all issues in America today. The anger, sarcasm and meanness expressed by everyone towards anyone they don’t agree with, or who has made choices they don’t understand, is as shocking to me as the title President before the name Trump. Our ability to listen, respect differences and work with people we don’t agree with, that is what made America special. Take that away and the meaning of America is lost because intolerance contradicts everything developing democracies believe to be part of the essential idea, something to strive for.

“Vera”

Sometimes being an American here is a burden. Especially on trains when I would like to rest but people hear the accent and want me to tell them about America. My sense of responsibility to live up to their image of America and chat has never gone unrewarded. Not long ago I shared a coupe with a woman, Vera, who was only 59 but had no teeth, a bad heart and was a cancer survivor. Born in a village, she spent her life working in a factory. The Doctor said the 30 hour train ride was too dangerous, but she had to do it because her son wanted her to take care of her grandson so his wife could go back to work. As we neared the station, Vera’s cell phone rang. It was her son confirming they would meet her and asking how she felt. She answered, “I have lived to spend time with an American, I never dreamed that would happen, I am fine.” We need to remember that our great burden as Americans is to live up to the idealized image that many people around the world still have of us. They are watching and hoping.