"The border held mystery for me;"
"You young people have one America
on your mind," my elderly relative was saying, letting me know that
there was no sense in wasting his breath on a nursling like me.
The conversation could have moved, by the way, into the advantage
of a multiparty system or the true author of Quiet Flows the
Don--but it didn't change the issue: the America in my
mind was a total fairy tale . My relative was not a caricatured
Soviet pensioner. Not at all. But from the altitude of his age he
counted all who appeared in the world noticeably after him as part
of the same tribe of "youth." (These days I commit the exact same
Most likely, he didn't mean us, but
the previous generation--the Stilyagi of the Sixties generation
. In contrast to the model images of that highly-gifted generation,
we didn't "make life" from America, harkening to jazz under the
photograph of Hemingway and calling each other "old man." We devoted
all our free time (and it was all free) to Scythian drunkenness,
with the inevitability of one who has in mind seditious speech--actually,
in fact, rebellion sold by a certain brand of foul vodka, or "Volga
Dawns," or cheap portwine in half-liter bottles with dirty blind
etiquette. And in the profession of our group of drunken anticommunist
cavemen, the United States of America came in handy.
America represented a kind of anti-country
to the U.S.S.R., a government in reverse, and we, malcontents and
insolents, cracked jokes listlessly, wandered around Moscow half-drunk
and spent the night in the capital as if we were "over the ocean"--at
the Regressive Theater, War Boulevard, the Anti-Soviet Hotel. 
(Subconsciously, probably many of
our fellow countrymen actively hoped that the world's laws--including
the transatlantic and material ones--were not written for the
New World at all, and would diminish, perhaps, with the rotation
of the globe counterclockwise, and almost peter out in America,
that ultimate development of the West. How else to explain the childishly
carefree attitude of those gray-haired, more or less respectable
and prudent people at the end of the 1980s, when "The West" kicked
open the door of the Country of Soviets? How they hastened to lend
money for a fantastic percent to fly-by-night banks and even to
the first Tom-Dick-or-Harry, as if we were never taught the laws
of conservation of matter and energy! Personally well-versed in
these laws, Yury Karabchievsky, an engineer by trade, troubled the
delight of some neophyte investors who yesterday were more detestable
than bohemians: "Things must be pretty bad in the economy if money
is coming to punks like us." He really saw into the crystal ball.
Now, it turns out that in some deep sense, my surly relative was
in part right about the "America of the mind.")
All of us 1980s generation counted
on Uncle Sam the way we had on Uncle Steve, the Soviet version of
"Officer Friendly." We thought: yeah, he'll definitely mete out
justice for the hooligan pranks of the "Evil Empire." And, some
years later, high above the Adirondacks, I saw a ring of planes
that read "U.S. Air Force," I thought, mockingly, for old times
sake: "one of ours!" It was natural that during this time Ronald
Reagan became an idol of our group. Like Nikolay Rostov with the
tsar in War and Peace, we fell in love with the American
president. It is true that this comical feeling more than irked
American intellectuals who from time to time visited our circle,
but we heatedly based their reaction on snobbism and the "childish
illness of the Left." (Now I wouldn't judge them that severely).
To my taste, the best monument of
the ancient game of bowing low before the West was the "Ode to the
Seizure of St. Georges, October 25, 1983," written by Alexander
Soprovsky, regarding the landing of American armies on the Island
of Grenada. Due to lack of space I cite selected strophes and the
final chord of this excellent poem:
I drink a lot of vodka,
And don't neglect portwine
Even on an empty stomach.
I grab the charming ladies,
Now and then, in different places.
And now in the White House
You press against the morning news
Democracy in stirrups,
Not knowing other concerns
Other than the rights of one man.
The dawn shines over the Potomac.
Under the stars and stripes
Of McDonald's, the victorious fleet
Flies like a bird over a ravine,
A predatory fish swimming--
And lo! the bulwark of Marxism was
And over the waves of the Caribbean
By the green of Manzanita
The sons of an international power--
O you, young MacFarlane,
O you, intransigient Weinberger--
Thunder to doomed Havana!
For whom, amid wild drunkenness
Do I sing, jumping from the table?
Who, taking up arms against the powers
Casting aside the Kremlin tanks?
In whom has honor not yet died?
Whose legendary dealings
Will Yankees for ages never forget?
The Californian eagle's!
The reality, as usual, did not slow
down to respond to the fantasy, taking everything subsequent into
itself. And the author's own words were phrased in keeping with
the stylized genre, in the spirit of the adventurous 18th century.
By some miracle a short time later, the panegyric of a Moscow parasite
was declaimed in the White House before the president of the United
States of America. And what is more, the heavens saw fit to remove
the poet and the hero of the ode. But since Soprovsky has not been
among the living for twelve years, and ex-president Ronald Reagan
is gravely and incurably ill and has even made arrangements, according
to mass media, from the moment it was known, in order to avoid misunderstandings
to let slip by his ears, my solitary witness is doomed against attention
;One morning, we were overcome by
the shakes--and a good third of a bottle of warm champagne
foamed out, staining our hands, shirts and chins. Taking turns,
straight from the bottle, we emptied a second and final one. And
started to feel better. To mark the occasion, we set out aimlessly
into the depths of Moscow. Only now did it catch our eye that the
capital seemed dead, and only black government motorcades prowled
here and there, turning on their flashing lights and chirps. "The
satraps are heading home--good riddance," we decided and left
Smolensky Square for the Arbat. We immediately fell into a crush
of people. The crowd pitched from side to side exactly as if it
were pursuing someone. Inside, the service personnel of the nearby
cafés and restaurants in the formal old Russian headdresses and
tall chef caps drew towards the windows of the establishment eatery,
flattening their noses from curiosity. Neither Soprovsky nor I understood
at all what this ruckus was about, when the crowd suddenly exhaled
a noise like a swordsman-butcher. Here, into a stage-prop cabriolet
of some enterprising street photographer in the middle of the Arbat,
Nancy Reagan, first lady of America, lightly rose, and, in the next
moment, the "California eagle"--the man himself--loomed.
And we, in a comradely choir, with bad voices, through two armed
cordons (an outer ring of American persecutors and an inner ring
of Soviet), said hellos in bad English to the President of the U.S.A.
The next morning, we squabbled over a photograph in Moscow News:
whose hand salutes in the right corner of the frame--the odewriter's
Fifteen years ago, societal events
in our 1/6th of the globe began to develop with head-spinning rapidity,
and already by the end of the 1980s I was hanging out in Montreal
at the house of a second comrade from my youth. Together we dropped
in on the local American consular office in order to straighten
out our passports and roll into the "real America"--and visit
a third buddy.
A white-haired black bureaucrat wearing
inconceivable silver rings, who very much reminded me of someone
else, gave me a blank questionnaire. Before I sat down to write,
I strained to my memory;That's who! He reminded me of the Uncle
Remus from the paperback cover--a North American version of
Pushkin's nanny, Arina Rodionovna.
I understood the questionnaire immediately,
which graphically confirmed to me the rightness of my traditional
naive picture of the U.S., as a country where everything is topsy-turvy
from ours. Answers, fraught with unpleasantness in the homeland,
here were obvious and welcoming. I was a little annoyed that in
the column "membership in the Communist organizations," I could
only put a small expressive dash in place of a beautiful definition:
"I was expelled because of personal convictions incompatible with
being in the ranks of the All-Soviet Leninist Youth Communist League."
I was expelled in grand style--in
a tall building in Lenin Hills at the committee meeting of the Youth
Communist League of Moscow State University, equivalent to a district
committee. But within a month or two of my citizen execution, I
let my parents know that in place of a diploma I would get a scarlet
letter. They sounded the alarm. A friend of my parents, an invalid
from the war, a violinist and director of a privileged music school,
drank a bottle of cognac with the high-ranking daddy of one of his
students, who softened the blow prepared for a freethinker of Soviet
fate. Thus my banishment from the "ranks" ended without much of
a bang, as it would twenty years later, when filling out consular
On the appointed day I came for the
visa. With much disapproval Uncle Remus extended to me my papers:
"You are allowed to enter the country,
even though you concealed from us your affiliation with the Communist
"How is that possible?"
"The computer showed it."
Then, I really got behind the looking
In the morning, I, a freshly baked
Bolshevik with a jar of beer in his hand, was pulling up in an express
bus to the Canada-American border.
"If they get interested at passport
control, whoever you are, don't get it in your head to characterize
yourself as a 'poet,'" a Russian traveler warned me just in time,
"they can put you away just like they do with their own nutcases."
The officer of border service translated
the visage of Mr. Gandlevsky in the photo as "hammer and sickle" and returned it to the Mister. Uttering some inarticulate American
sounds, he smacked the stamp down, and I found myself in America.
"I have never seen another country
yet. The border held mystery for me. Ever since I was a child, I
dreamt of traveling most of all." Precisely.
They called us to board. Before climbing
into the bus, I lingered in order to say my own dumb "hi" to this
unlikely America, and take a good look into the long-awaited foreign
land. But visibility had suddenly worsened; a heavy snow was falling
at an angle. Through an absolutely empty area to the control-admission
point, a short file of people drew near. In front was a man in a
long black coat and black bowler hat, and behind him, as if his
copies, stood five boys, uniformly decreasing in a flattering mirror,
small-smaller-smallest, in little coats and bowler hats of the same
unchildish cut and color. The wind mercilessly blew the sidelocks
of the six.
Why was he wandering from country
to country on foot? Was it a Saturday? In an overflow of emotion,
I memorized this picture postcard of an exodus.
1. For his entire life, Mikhail Shokholov
dodged accusations of having plagiarized in his novel.
2. The "Stilyagi," or "style hunters," began appearing in Moscow by 1949, adopting an American sensibility
that included zoot suits, chewing gum, greased hair, and jazz.
3. In Moscow, there is a Progress
Theater, a Prospekt of Peace, and a "Soviet" Hotel.