Once upon a time, there were two Americans who decided to go to Russia. One came from the North and he was tall and slender, aquiline-nosed, dark, and erudite. The other was from the South, small and fidgety. They were educated, restless, sane, dissatisfied, neither rich nor poor, and they welcomed discomfort if it meant that they could grow from it. They had theories that were easy to disprove, backed by logic that was easy to refute. They knew that they could conquer anything if they put their minds to it, which simply meant that they were young.
The Americans lived in gloomy, mismatched little apartments whose windows looked out on endless rows of equally uninspiring blocks of buildings. Inside, the splotchy wallpaper peeled back a little more each day with a dry shudder, flapping rhythmically against the wall. Tap-tap goes the wallpaper; vroom-vroom goes the drill; clang-clang goes the garbage chute; “fuck you, you fucking bitch,” go the neighbors.
The American from the South had never seen them, but all day and all night she heard them. She heard the husband, whose hoarse, drunken tirade ricocheted through the plumbing and ping-ponged down the furnace pipes. His father had eaten horse feed and pig feed during the war and his teenage son is now eating dog food, because it’s funny. Six years ago, his younger brother overdosed on a potent mix of pain killers and paint thinners called “krokodyl.” It’s called that because it rots the skin to the bone, revealing nothing but green scales where the flesh once was.
The neighbor had married a girl when he was twenty-two and she was twenty. That same year she was pregnant, and again the next year, and then one more time, until his parents’ communist-rationed apartment could no longer hold the seven of them. His parents passed away conveniently and rather enthusiastically and left their son and his wife alone. At twenty-nine and twenty-seven, they were no longer young.
It’s not to say that that’s when the drinking began, but it did change in character somewhere around the time that Vladik, the second son, was born. The neighbor’s mother had never allowed drinking in the house, and the neighbor could enjoy his 50-to-500 grams, pickles, cursing, singing, and melancholy only with his boys and only on designated nights. Now it was an everyday affair: an after-work affair, a vacation affair, a breakfast affair, a pre-affair affair. Over time, his throat acquired the texture of something that had been sanded down and filled with nails and sealing putty and syringes. The cursing came in thunderclaps, out of nowhere, seemingly.
“Idiiiiooot! Leave me alooooone!”
“Biiiiiitch! Shut your fuuuuuuucking mouth! I’m tired!”
But the bitch never once opened her fucking mouth, not even in protest, which gave the impression—not altogether implausible—that his wife had left him years ago and he lived alone, tormented by an imaginary woman whose maddening existence was more comforting than his solitude.
The Southerner had grown accustomed to these ambient noises. If it wasn’t pneumatic drilling or obscene cursing, it was the quiet, continuous hum of some mysterious machinery. And when jolted awake in the middle of the night by shrieks, she did not know where she was and how she had gotten there, and why things were the way they were, and who, in His infinite kindness and wisdom and generosity, invented this place.
It was her father, however, that invented for the Southerner the splendid illusion that took her to the frozen landmass. Decades ago, when his compatriots were young Russian Jews plowing through medical school because their parents had plowed fields, her father fell in with a bohemian crowd. He was the baby of the family and it was his brother that initiated him into a sort of Soviet Algonquin Roundtable where they discussed Akhmatova and Blok, hurling witticisms and shuffling lovers. One day he became obsessed with an older married woman. As luck would have it, she was also the wife of their commune’s benefactor. Later, he would describe the touch of morbid pleasure he got from splaying himself on the linoleum floor behind the kitchen’s closed door, listening to the couple make love.
The story had a distinguished pedigree, being from a long line of anecdotes that were true and false in equal proportions. It fit comfortably with the other stories dreamt up for the sake of a philosophical chestnut as much as for the hand-rubbing glee of misleading someone. It had actually happened, of course, but her father had supplanted himself for Mayakovsky.
After years of chasing her birthright in books and talks, the Southerner finally set off to hunt down those specters of her biology, the hollows in her own story. She conjured up shawl-sheathed grandmothers foisting borscht and black bread, friends gathered in cramped, smoky kitchens-cum-intellectual sparring arenas, heartfelt emotion unmarred by political correctness and honesty unheeding of civility. These things seemed owed to her.
The grandmothers she found were not baking bread and darning socks. They were prostrate on sidewalks, begging for change. They were accompanied by unremarkable mutts who limped around them, silent and dull-eyed and frequently, three-legged. She saw an old woman in greasy, black rags sitting on a cardboard box, a raggedy puppy at her side. The dog angled its scrappy, deft nose into her bag of odds and ends and pulled out an empty plastic container. He dragged it to the side and began to dart his tongue around the corners, attempting to lick out invisible crumbs of food. The puppy’s tail had been cut off, the stump wrapped in dirty gauze. The old woman did not have enough strength in her legs to get to her feet, so she remained seated like a lint-covered amoeba, making guttural sounds at the thief that was already out of sight.
The tiny, smoke-filled kitchens, too, had long been vacated in favor of fashionable nightclubs, on the one hand, and piss-covered alleyways, on the other. It was no wonder that the older generations looked back fondly on Soviet days, and no surprise, either, that the Americans had come several decades too late. The one naïve conception that still remained was the honesty, but there was nothing romantic about it. It came in the form of a shove in the subway and an elbow to the solar plexus on the street – a rude name from a bank teller and an indecent proposal from a cashier.
The American from the North had his reasons for going, too. His interactions with Western women had scarred him with a deep misogynistic streak – a quiet resentment for the feminism that he felt robbed him of homemade dinners served by loving child-brides in heels and pearls. Like any reasonable man, he knew that the fantasy of the dazzling yet subservient woman was the first casualty of equality. It was alright to dream about the buxom slave-girl, but if he dared say that she was a god-send denied the Western world, he would find himself a pariah.
But he had heard that these mythical creatures still existed in other countries – in China, in Thailand, in Bulgaria and Ukraine. After his older brother returned from a business trip to Krasnodar with a suitcase full of nesting dolls for his coworkers and a painted doll that purred my darrrleeng hahzbend for himself, the younger brother perked up. The slinky sliver of a blonde scrubbing pans in the kitchen was enough to confirm the existence of his kind of women. The American became convinced that, in the land of primitive honesty and unapologetic patriarchy, he would finally get what the world owed him. It was a vision of how things ought to be.
He arrived in Moscow in the summer, when the clouds hung ominously low over the city in heavy rolls of silver and white, shot through with flashes of piercingly-bright sun. The sky was more pink than blue. Tattered smoke clouds billowed upwards and onward where they disappeared above the cupcake domes.
Now, it must be said that for over a half-century, Russia has suffered from a gaping gender disparity. War killed their peacocks, so the peahens were forced to be all the more beautiful – to be stunning, to be educated, to be wives and mothers and professionals, to patiently deal with their drunken, good-for-nothing husbands when they stumbled into the apartment in the dead of night to breath noxious clouds of vodka and cigarettes on their infant children. These women strutted about, played timid when necessary, heroic when left no recourse, and childlike when the opportunity presented itself.
This fact was not lost upon the American. He prowled the streets and shops, bought drinks for towering blondes in dimly-lit clubs. He polished his shoes and his Russian. He danced and he complimented, told tales of the West, asked pointed questions about tsars and serfs and forsaken Siberian mining towns, all the while patting himself on the back for his magnanimity of mind when it came to these brutes; and the girls merely stamped out their cigarettes with an alligator-skin stiletto and scowled.
The scowl could not be lifted but with the arrival of the cash cow in designer jeans. The man that they looked for was bald and barrel-chested, with a belly that peeked out from under his ill-fitting, flagrantly expensive T-shirt. He wasn’t so much romantic as efficient. He knew exactly how many roses a kiss would cost him and how many Tuscan villas it would take to turn that kiss into a wife. He understood their needs.
Their needs consisted mostly of little green and blue slips of paper called rubles. It would be unfair to say that it was these slips that made the women beautiful, but they certainly served to accent what Slavic heritage had so benevolently bestowed upon them.
When the American did find a smile that was not held taut by purse strings, an equally risible phenomenon seemed to occur. Over and over he found himself defending his native land, arguing in favor of the very notions that sent him scurrying abroad in search of different ones. He did not want these conversations. All he wanted was to wake up to gray eyes and gold curls and breakfast, but the girls laughed at him. They hated America – spit on its ideals, ridiculed its people, grew red in indignation at its policies – and took him at face value as its appointed ambassador. And yet! And yet, after the requisite unpleasantries were churned out, they embraced him. Not metaphorically, but quite literally, and as they did, they made sure to photograph themselves with him. He was a stupid American alright, but what a sight to show the girls at work. What a status symbol! It is a complicated relationship with the West that Russia has, inundated with its pop culture, emulating its capitalism, and all the while loathing it for chipping away at tradition and patriotism.
After some time he gave up. Always in his encounters, someone was left looking pathetic and he found himself walking the same streets, peering in the same windows, muttering, “Damn you, Nastya and Nadya, damn you, Olga and Anya.” No one was waiting to be wrapped in his American arms. He felt swindled.
The summer turned to autumn, the birches bending and swaying, their white bark peeling in mysterious patterns, the broad streets swept with golden leaves. The Americans began to work. They worked with children – privileged children with parents of plenty, children who wore mink coats by age eight and diamonds by puberty. They grew up in Russia having no idea that what happened around them was fantastic, surreal. Old men that were made only of a torso wheeled about on planks of wood, children kicked at frozen birds in the snow, mangled dogs lay in the middle of busy intersections, ancient women bent in 90 degree angles sold fish heads and pickled cabbage out of cardboard crates.
These children lived in Moscow, but they knew only the ruddy beaches of Cyprus and the bite of Swiss air as they zig-zagged the Alps on Olympic skis. They knew ballet classes and chess tournaments, swimming and sunbathing, and lavish praise. They learned how to jeer at the West while enjoying its gifts.
The Americans worked with children, yes, but they answered to a harem of women: starched, raw-boned boss-ladies, fleshy matrons with bulbous noses and wilting jowls, leathery, unembellished autocrats who clucked disapprovingly, not with a hyperbolized flick of the tongue, but an actual hen’s cluck. Over decades of meticulous fault-finding, their lips had narrowed into beaks and, perched atop their chairs, they stared over their glasses with darting blue eyes. In rages, some flew from their chairs with a squawk while those with corkscrew tails interjected with high-pitched squeals. Still others brayed “hee-haw” when vexed.
Soon the real winter came, pounding the Americans into Russians: as wretched as Dostoevsky’s antiheroes, as trampled as the politically-useful proletariat, as sorrowful and proudly-suffering as those who had survived the war, as disillusioned as the youth, as resigned as the middle-aged. Russia was giving them cancer – cancer and herpes, herpes and arthritis, contagious schizophrenia, ocular vertigo, alpine blindness, secondhand sadness, crawling impotence, creeping envy, faceless faces, double penetration of the ego, gangrene, and lice. They squeezed between rumbling Soviet Ladas and filth-covered trucks parked on the sidewalks, slipping on black ice, slogging through brown sludge, burning their tongues on instant coffee poured into plastic cups with plastic straws, and they wondered if, in other places, there were scientists inventing cures for what they were contracting.
Then, one day in late April, they awoke to find everything outside their windows melting and dripping and cascading. Heavy chunks of porous snow tumbled from rooftops and a cheerful tinkle of water echoed through the neighborhoods. The streets became oily rivulets whose rapids carried the stockpile of cigarette butts lodged beneath the snow since November. The crush of winter gave way to the blush of spring. Of course by this time, the Americans had fallen in love with their misery.