To Russia With Love

For 20 beautiful years, my homeland was open and (kind of) free. Now, I fear, it’s closing back up.

ALMOST EXACTLY FOUR YEARS AGO I WAS SITTING IN A TINY kitchen in Kyiv with two guys named Sasha, drinking beer and taking bong hits of some very weak Ukrainian pot. The tiny kitchen was attached to a tiny apartment that the Sashas shared with yet another guy, Sergei; all of them had jobs, in IT or media, but the jobs didn’t pay very well, and because the city was the center of government and media and finance in Ukraine (such as these were), prices even in the outer bedroom communities were high. Still, the Sashas were having a good time; they spent hours on their bulky laptops, surfing the internet, and recently, led by Sergei, they’d been making funny sketch comedy videos and posting them on YouTube.

It was three in the morning and we were discussing the fragile state of Ukraine. From afar, it always seemed like Ukraine was in danger of falling apart; western Ukraine looked to Poland, and beyond Poland Europe, while eastern Ukraine looked to Russia. In Lviv, in western Ukraine, everyone spoke Ukrainian; in Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, everyone spoke Russian. The languages were close together, yet separate. And the Russian-speaking residents of the Crimea, a beautiful resort area that had once been the summer destination of the Tsars, were always making noises about seceding.

But the Sashas weren’t worried. Ukraine, as a country, had lasted almost twenty years. Gradually it was beginning to find a modus vivendi, a way to live. On television, for example, it was perfectly normal for someone to ask a question in Ukrainian and receive an answer in Russian. It was understood that everyone understood. And even Crimea, the Sashas said, smiling, would eventually come around. They were not willing to give up Crimea. “There are nice beaches there,” they said.

In retrospect it seems to me that we were all being a little lehkomyslennye, as the Russians say—“light-thoughted,” or thoughtless—about Crimea. But who could blame us? I had arrived in Kyiv by train from Moscow. I can’t remember if there was a border post between Russia and Ukraine, because it didn’t concern me; as an American citizen, I didn’t need a visa to visit Ukraine (and neither did Russians). I did need a visa to visit Russia, but the visa was easy to get. And once in Russia I could travel around and pretty much do whatever I wanted—like for example get on a train and go to Ukraine.

It hadn’t always been like this. In 1981, when my family left the USSR, all our friends and relatives came to the airport, at six in the morning, to see us off, a crowd of thirty people, it must have been, because they thought they’d never see us again. There was no going to America for decent people in the USSR (as opposed to Party functionaries), and there was no going back to the USSR once you’d left. They came to say goodbye and then we left and it was over. We arrived in Boston. A couple of years later, a Korean Air flight was shot down after accidentally wandering into Soviet airspace. Ronald Reagan declared the country we’d just escaped from the “evil empire.” My parents were thrilled; they were vindicated. My father, a computer programmer, quickly got a job, and we settled down, to live in America.

And then, just like that, Gorbachev proclaimed his perestroika—rebuilding. He hoped to rejuvenate the Soviet Union, bring it back to its revolutionary roots. This was impossible, as it turned out, the tree had rotted, but he didn’t know that, and gradually the country opened up. In 1988, our family made a visit to Moscow, of the sort that just a few years earlier we thought would be impossible. At the time my parents were convinced that our weeks in Moscow were stolen time—that, like Khrushchev’s brief “thaw,” the Gorbachev era wouldn’t last. They were right about it not lasting, but what came after it was even greater freedom.

The USSR collapsed, literally ceased to exist; factories closed; people’s savings disappeared overnight. But for us emigres it was a bonanza. We returned to Russia en masse—as journalists, historians, economists, investment bankers, heroes. The great bearded Solzhenitsyn came back and for all his troubles was handed a television show, during which for a year he harangued his audience (what did the producers think was going to happen? Solzhenitsyn was going to invite celebrity guests?) about how to fix Russia, until finally, mercifully, the show was canceled and Solzhenitsyn went back to his little house on the outskirts of Moscow to write. The scandalous emigre poet Eduard Limonov came back and started a political party. My father reconnected with a few of his old computer programmer friends still in Russia and started a business; for their office they rented an old mansion near Belarussky Vokzal. My sister, a young editor at the Los Angeles gay magazine The Advocate, quit her job and went to work as a journalist in Moscow (she was hailed, in a relatively friendly way, in the tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets as “American lesbian Masha Gessen”).

And not just recent emigres like us—even the grandchildren of White emigres came back. Paul Klebnikov, a strikingly handsome journalist for Forbes whose grandparents had come to the US after the Bolshevik Revolution, came to Moscow; so did Boris Jordan, a young investment banker, also from the White emigration, who would go on to found Renaissance Capital, one of the first investment funds specializing in Russia. And then there was William Browder, grandson of the former longtime head of the American Communist Party, back when it was a real force: he also returned, for Salomon Brothers, and eventually founded Hermitage, another big Russia-dedicated fund.

And it wasn’t just emigres. Lots of Americans and Brits and Germans and others came over to visit Russia and see what it was like. Just a few years before you had to be some kind of eminence, or have paid thousands of dollars for a special Intourist-approved visit, to see all this; now you could walk over to the Kremlin, look in on frozen Lenin, get drunk at the Hungry Duck, and take a Russian girl home for $50. There were so many expats in Moscow in the mid-’90s that there were not one but two English-language dailies, the Moscow Times and the Moscow Tribune, and even an alternative paper (it was the ’90s, after all) dedicated to making fun of the establishment papers. In fact there were so many expats that at one point the alternative paper, called Living Here, experienced a schism, and yet another alternative paper, The eXile, was launched—that’s how many expats there were in Moscow.

OF COURSE IT WASN’T JUST FOREIGNERS COMING TO RUSSIA; Russians themselves were going to foreign lands. Many of them left and never came back, but many others, who were merely curious or entrepreneurial, were able to go abroad for the first time in their lives. To be sure they saw a level of material prosperity incomparably higher than anything they’d seen back home, and a level of technological progress, too. But there were other things. They saw that things in the West were complicated; that in the US, for example, Democrats and Republicans hated one another, and lived in different parts of the country, and felt that their differences were irreconcilable. They saw that the work day, or week, or year, never seemed to end—a frequent complaint of visitors from Russia was that Americans seemed always to be working. Another complaint was that we had no manners, didn’t even know our own literature (much less Russia’s!), and, savagely ignorant of the incredible invention of slippers, simply walked around our houses barefoot.

What did Russian culture make of all this? It’s hard to say. For nearly a decade, Russians didn’t need any culture—or no new culture, anyway. Not only was there a great deal of Western culture to translate and discover, from the best to the worst (though the best of Western culture had for the most part been available in the USSR; it was the worst of it that had been forbidden, and now, whether in the form of Hollywood blockbusters or pulp fiction, it was eagerly assimilated), but also a great deal of Russian culture that had been suppressed. Not only Solzhenitsyn, but Nabokov, and Vasily Grossman, and Sergei Dovlatov were published in Russia for the first time.

It’s possible that new writers were writing new things, but who had time to read them? And so those years of infatuation, excitement, and exchange were not recorded. They just happened. People were too busy with life.

In retrospect it was the film Brat-2, by Alexei Balabanov, that heralded a new turn in Russia’s relations with the world. In the original Brat (“Brother”), a sweet-faced young guy named Danila, just back from Chechnya (where, it eventually becomes clear, he was some kind of special forces operative), comes to Petersburg to visit his brother and ends up getting involved in a war with the local mafia. Brat-2 follows Danila to America, where he must help a fellow Russian in need. The first images of the United States in the film are charming: Danila is picked up at the airport by a Russian cab driver who yells at him in the exact same way as a Moscow cab driver, and, arriving at Brighton Beach, Danila can’t help but smile to see all the Russian-language signs. Is this what he’s come all this way to see? But he is sold a dud car by a Jewish shyster, and from then on America reveals its nightmare aspect: it is a violent, sick country, filled with vicious blacks, lying whites, and incomprehensible rules. Danila’s only option, by the end, is to shoot everyone he sees and get back on a plane for Moscow. The film was shot in 1999; by the time it came out, Vladimir Putin was president.

For others, the West became a place to push away from or renounce. There’s a passage in an essay by the young poet Kirill Medvedev in which he talks about going to a poetry festival in Rome:

I remember walking around that city, absolutely happy, a kind of successful poet on tour, half-Bukowski, half-Yevtushenko, a real VIP (and at the same time a child), sipping at a gigantic bottle of beer, which seemed to terrify the woman I was walking with, a young Swiss poet, and I remember thinking—or, no, at the time I couldn’t think it, but I felt it—that nothing better than this would ever happen to me, not, anyway, in this sense, and so I should probably not do it again.

Alternately, travel out of Russia became a source of ennui, exhaustion. Here is the poet Stanislav Lvovsky, sitting in a café (itself a post-Soviet innovation) near the Belarus train station in Moscow (near my father’s office!), and thinking about his life:

The train for Berlin leaves from here.
Samarina lived in Berlin.
You should remember her….
She turned up somewhere
in New Haven.
These American
they’re straight out of the Bible.
New Sky.
New Land.
We lost touch,
as usual.

It was clearly a kind of privilege, a mark of worldliness, to be able to lose touch; the guys who stayed in their same old neighborhood, living with their parents, waiting for them to die so they could take over their apartments, never visiting a café near the Belarus train station—those guys never lost touch with anyone.

What about in the other direction? The interaction of the West, or at least of American culture, with Russia, was much more copiously recorded. Some pretty bad things came out of this (I’ll get to that in a moment), but some great things came out of it, too. A short and partial list: Ken Kalfus’s story collection Pu-239, all set in Russia; Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, about a graduate student (the author) who travels around Russia (and Uzbekistan!) searching for literary truth; Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia, about his trip all across Russia in a car that was falling apart. My sister Masha wrote a deeply researched, challenging book about our grandmothers, Ester and Ruzya, which was the product of many hours of interviews but also, more important, just living in the same place as they were—something none of us had been able to do for some time. Russia had opened up. It was not without its problems—anarchy, in its first ten years of independence, and then anarchy plus abuse of power by the police and the state, in its second ten. But you could go there. You could simply get on a plane and go there, and for many of us this was an incredible thing.


In 2010, I published an article in The New Yorker about Moscow traffic. For me the traffic in Moscow was interesting as a kind of puzzle. There, the Russian state had inherited from the USSR an efficient, world-famous metro and absurdly wide streets—as many as 18 lanes across in some parts of central Moscow. And yet traffic was perpetually snarled. No one could figure out what to do. Part of the problem was political (the mayor of Moscow was corrupt and stubborn, insisting on building roads instead of public transport); part of it was social (Russians refused to take public transport if they could drive, no matter how inconvenient, and they were shitty drivers); part of it was economic (the commodities boom in the 2000s meant more cars for Russians). Anyway, it was an interesting story, and like most stories that I wrote about Russia for American magazines, I didn’t expect anyone in Russia but the people to whom I sent copies to read it. That’s how it had always been.

But a few months after it came out, I Googled my Russian name, just for fun, and found a remarkable article in, of all places, the official newspaper of the Moscow Mayor’s office. It was a hatchet job against me. I’d never read anything like it. The author claimed to know all about me, and claimed to have spoken to my “colleagues,” all of whom, the author went on, were surprised at my vehement anti-Russianism. I never had a good thing to say about the country where I had been born. What if, the author asked, a journalist from Moscow came to New York and wrote a whole lot of guff about how Mayor Bloomberg was doing a terrible job—would that journalist receive a visa to visit the country, next time he asked?

My first reaction to the article was: why would my colleagues say that about me? Then I realized that this person had never spoken to any of my colleagues. My next reaction was:

How cool that I have been smeared in such a Soviet way! And how funny that he thinks anyone would care what a Russian journalist wrote about Mayor Bloomberg. Ha ha. But my final reaction was: I hope I don’t have visa problems because of this.

Luckily, I never got to find out, because the Moscow mayor was removed shortly after the article came out, and I continued traveling to Russia without any problem.

And yet this strange lying article did raise a legitimate concern. Didn’t a lot of us go over there—and make fun of the Russians? For every sympathetic, deeply informed book like The Possessed, that actually made you want to go to or study Russia, there were four or five books with titles like Comrade Criminal, Red Mafiya, Godfather of the Kremlin, Sale of the Century, The Oligarchs. Some of these were good and useful and necessary books, which simply reported in detail what was happening in Russia. All of them took advantage of the ability to travel around, to talk to people openly, to read the (relatively) free press—that is, to do things that were impossible to do just a decade earlier. Most of them painted a very grim picture of Russia: in the 1990s they depicted a society overrun by crime and corruption (“the mafia”), and in the 2000s they depicted a society under the vengeful thumb of Vladimir Putin. One Putin-era book managed to combine these two themes into one: it was called Mafia State.

It’s hard to know where exactly the impetus for this kind of treatment of Russia came from. Part of it is just the nature of journalism—no one is going to want a book called Things Are Going Great in Russia. Part of it is the difficulty of doing more historically informed work: the plain truth is, not everyone is capable of the kind of observational and intellectual work that went into The Possessed or Travels in Siberia. And part of it is that these negative stories were, at least in large part, true: Russia in the ’90s really was overrun by crime and corruption, and Russia in the 2000s really did slip back into authoritarianism, if not for the reason that most of these books suggest.

But there was something else at work, too. I felt it every time I wrote about Russia: there just wasn’t any downside, ever, to saying something derogatory or snide about Russia, whereas it was complicated, fraught, and difficult to say something positive. I never felt this more clearly than when we published the writings of Kirill Medvedev at n+1. Medvedev was, and is, a unique phenomenon—a poet, born in 1975, who’d experienced the traumas of the Russian ’90s, and had gradually turned into a socialist, not out of any nostalgia for the Soviet past, but simply through his analysis of the situation in Russia and the world. His poems and essays and statements had been a revelation to me; one of the things that he’d said, about Putin, back when I first met him in 2007, kept coming up in my mind. He said, “Our liberals think that everything was going fine under Yeltsin, and then this bad man came to power and undid everything. But he didn’t undo anything. Putin has continued the reforms. And the fact that he’s become authoritarian while doing so is because the reforms are unpopular. This is what capitalism looks like on the periphery of the world-system.”

There it all was, and it was true. And it didn’t mean that Medvedev did not oppose Putin. He was protesting against Putin, and being beaten up by supporters of Putin, long before anti-Putinism became the default position of the Russian “creative class.” But he was also entirely committed to Russia, to remaining in Russia no matter what happened, and he had what was, to my mind, a very different analysis of the situation from most of what appeared in the English-language opinion-sphere (or the Russian one, for that matter).

And yet when it came time to promote our book, this was just too long a story to tell. I mean, I tried to tell it, but I always also made sure that people knew that Medvedev was constantly being arrested; that he had become somewhat famous for singing one of his translations in the back of a police van after a protest in support of Pussy Riot (someone recorded him with an iPhone, then posted the clip on YouTube). And when the book got written up, this was what people focused on: Medvedev became another in a long line of anti-authoritarian dissidents from Russia, alongside Nabokov, Brodsky, et al. Not bad company, but it served to erase his distinctiveness—and reinforce the main story, which was that Russia was bad.

AS FOR ALL THE EMIGRES WHO FIRST RUSHED BACK TO RUSSIA in the early ’90s, most of them are gone now. Paul Klebnikov was shot to death on a Moscow street in 2004. Boris Jordan, after making a lot of money on Russian investments, entered into a weird alliance with Putin’s Kremlin and oversaw the dismantling of Russian independent media (he has since returned to the States and endowed the Boris Jordan Center for Russian Studies at NYU). William Browder, now a very rich man, was barred entry into Russia in 2011; one of his lawyers, Sergei Magnitsky, was arrested and died in jail under cloudy circumstances. Solzhenitsyn died in 2008, but only after endorsing the former KGB agent Putin; Limonov remains alive and controversial, the head of a cultish political party. He has cheered the Russian invasion of Crimea. My sister, after two decades of work in Moscow, was forced by its new anti-gay laws to leave the country late last year. My father’s business with his old computer programmer partners had collapsed long before, with the economic crash of 1998.

If what seems to be happening right now, as the United States and European Union impose sanctions in the wake of the Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and Russia, as it always does, responds (absurdly, self-destructively, but pridefully) in kind, and the door that suddenly opened 25 years ago is about to close—which I really, really hope it doesn’t, but if it does—I will say, for myself, that I wish I had taken the opportunity to see more of Russia while I still had it; that I wish I had tried harder to tell a counter-story, of some kind, to the story about Russia that was being told; and, really, simply, that I’d just met more people, talked about more things, hung around a bit more. I wish I’d gone to the beautiful Crimea one more time! I spent an entire month in Ukraine back in 2010, traveling to various places where political events were happening, but not to the one place I really wanted to go; I had thought, sitting with the Sashas in Kyiv, taking bong hits in their kitchen, that I had all the time in the world.