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.