Magazine | December 31, 2011, Issue

The Straggler: Nations of the Mind

I have just spent a week in Moscow with Mrs. Straggler at the invitation of a Russian foundation. Neither of us had been in Russia before. It was a working trip, with very little time for sightseeing, and that only in central Moscow. It was, though, in a perfunctory way, an opportunity to compare the Russia that is with the Russia I’ve been carrying in my head all my life.

A nation, certainly a big nation that’s been around for a century or two, is an impossible thing for a non-native to know fully. This is even the case with “cousin” nations such as Britain and America, sharing a common language. After 30 years in the U.S., I am still banging my shins against peculiarities of the American national character. With a nation culturally more remote from the one you grew up in, the case is hopeless. I can only shake my head in wonder at the arrogance of State Department and military types who claim to have fathomed the Afghan or Iraqi national character.

To console our irremediable ignorance we have nations of the mind — comfortable, fairly coherent images of foreign places, assembled from random gossip, travelers’ tales, and literary browsing. I have had a Russia of the mind for as long as I can remember.

In my childhood home there was a book published before WWI, an account of Russia by an English military man who had lived there. The text was interrupted every few pages by lovely colored-ink pictures illustrating aspects of Russian life: a country fair, convicts waiting for transportation to Siberia, droshkies gliding over frozen streets. The one I liked best showed the czar blessing the Neva. It never occurred to me to wonder why Russia’s monarch would want to bless a river: Children accept such things as part of the uniformly mysterious world beyond the family’s front yard.

Later, with a decent education inside me, I knew much more. The horrors of the 1917 revolution, and the nastiness of the subsequent regimes, were open to anyone who cared to inquire.

To the droshkies and palaces were thus added stone-faced commissars, labor camps, and Five-Year Plans. For anyone not keeping up, the 1965 blockbuster movie Doctor Zhivago helped fill some gaps. The color drained out of my mental Russia, leaving gray concrete. Emblematic of late-Soviet Russia was GUM, the landmark department store on the eastern side of Red Square. GUM featured in all Brezhnev-era travelers’ accounts of Moscow: the place where citizens could, after a few hours’ queuing, buy the latest clunky products of Soviet industry. A college classmate of mine in London circa 1965 had been to Moscow and shopped at GUM, bringing back a fearsome mechanical alarm clock that he christened “Lenin.” It woke the entire dormitory.

Then the system disintegrated. We heard of chaos: soldiers selling their equipment, state enterprises privatized for cents on the dollar. There were oligarchs and a great financial crisis; Putin came in; Georgia and Chechnya rumbled in the far distance; Mrs. Clinton called for a “reset.” But the Iron Curtain was gone, China was rising fast, and Russia seemed no longer very important.

#page#And then we were there, practicing our hastily acquired Russian among the crowds on Tverskaya Street, riding the subway (which is wonderfully clean and efficient: I blush to think how the New York subway must appear to visiting Muscovites). It’s like the collapse of the wave function in quantum mechanics: the abstract suddenly concrete, Russia of the mind suddenly a place inhabited by people.

And what an intriguing place! Russia is an outlier of European civilization, even more so than Spain. There are indeed Russians who deny that their country is a part of the West at all. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal Democratic party of Russia, which got 12 percent of the vote in the December 4 elections, is one such. Zhirinovsky has even suggested an alliance with Islamists against the West. (Because he has also suggested flooding Britain by exploding nuclear weapons in the Atlantic, perhaps we should take the Russo-Islamist alliance with a grain of salt.)

Stalin was of the same mind when it served his purposes. Japanese foreign minister Yosuke Matsuoka, making his own visit to Moscow in April 1941, “greatly resented it when, after signing [the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact], Stalin . . . waltzed him round the room saying, ‘We are all Asiatics here — all Asiatics!’” (Paul Johnson, Modern Times.) Lenin would have been scandalized: In the knotty early-20th-century debates about how Marxism was actually to be applied to the revolutionary cause, Lenin was wont to voice fears that revolution in Russia alone might degenerate into an Asiatshchina, a despotic-bureaucratic state on the imperial Chinese model as described, cursorily and inaccurately, by Marx. (“The suffix –ina . . . is extremely productive in the extended forms –shchina and –ovshchina to denote unfavourably a state of mind or a political, social or artistic movement or trend,” according to Unbegaun’s Russian Grammar. The language is rich in these subtly coloring suffixes: Unbegaun has 17 pages on them. We could use something like this in English. “Obamashchina” has a nice ring to it, if you can place the stress right.)

My contractual obligations at last completed, we had a day and a half for sightseeing. We circumambulated the Kremlin, strolled along the river embankment, and took the obligatory photographs in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral and Lenin’s mausoleum. GUM has been turned into an upscale American-style mall filled with designer outlets. The Arbat is a tourist trap, and Gogol’s house is closed on Tuesdays — Tuesday of course being the only day we had.

Something small but quite new has been added to the Russia of my mind, though — something orthogonal, a new dimension. You will hear people scoff at the idea that travel broadens one’s outlook. No, they tell you, it only reinforces our prejudices. (Malcolm Muggeridge was of this school.) They are wrong. The Stragglers have discovered a fine, beautiful city and a distinctive people, and said goodbye to them too soon, with much regret.

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