October 26, 2015
In Russia, two distinct, completely dissimilar peoples live side by side, and these peoples have long been bitterly hostile towards each other. (May the Byzantine double-headed eagle that Ivan the Third selected as the country’s emblem go to hell in a hand basket.)
There is Us and there is Them.
We have our own heroes: Chekhov, Mandelstam, Pasternak, and Sakharov.
They have their own heroes: Ivan the Terrible, Stalin, Dzerzhinsky, and now Putin.
Members of the two nations recognize each other at first glance and experience a pang of acute dislike that selfsame second. We do not like anything about Them: the way They look, talk, carry themselves, rejoice and grieve, dress and undress. Their favorite singers, films, and TV shows make us sick. They pay Us in kind, and with interest.
Apart from Us and Them, there are just plain folk, who make up the majority of the population. We and They are constantly trying to win over this neither-fish-nor-fowl, to introduce them to our values.
What do you think should be done with this reality? Should we kill each other?
—Excerpted from Boris Akunin and Mikhail Shishkin, “Conversation between a Novelist and a Writer,” July 30, 2013
While there seems to be a fair amount of self-irony, in the comments, above, by the famed Russian detective novel writer Boris Akunin, I cannot help laughing when I read such exercises in self-praise by the so-called Russian intelligentsia and, at the same time, recall something that happened to me several years ago when I was running a summer study program in Petrograd for an American university.
Our students lived with Russian host families, and fitting student to host family was not always a snap, but it was mostly doable. That particular summer, however, more students had signed up for the program than ever before, and our limited resources were stretched thin. So I was taking recommendations from whomever I could get them, rather than relying only on the list of potential host families provided by our partners at the state university here in town.
That is how found myself visiting a couple in their flat somewhere in the city’s Central District. It was in a Stalin-era building, but the couple proudly informed me right away that Oleg Basilashvili, a well-known screen and stage actor and liberal intelligentsia icon, was a neighbor. They, too, were members of the creative intelligentsia. One of them was a theater critic, while the other had something to do with the Conservatory, I seem to remember.
The point, as I had already told them over the phone, was that I had one student left to place with a family, a male student. They, it transpired, had a teenage daughter. Would it be a problem for them to have a male student living in the same flat as their daughter? No, it would not be a problem, they told me.
Given the reputation of the university I was representing, they might have imagined I would be setting them up with a blond scion of a New England old money, so if their daughter was whisked off her feet over the summer or merely made useful connections in high places, what could be the harm?
As we were wrapping our conversation at their flat, having ironed out almost all the practical details, the couple thought to ask me what the young man’s name was.
“Diego,” I said.
My answer literally sent their eyes spinning in circles and smoke shooting from their ears. All it took was the “wrong” name for them to imagine a summer of their daughter basking in the glow of old American money with a patina of academic respectability turning into the constant threat of rape and ravishment at the hands of a “hot-blooded Latino.”
And they told me that in so many words, all the while denying that they were what they were—racists.
The funny thing was that Diego was gay in every sense of the word: fun to be around, a kind, sweet-hearted young man, and no “threat” to their precious daughter. But since Oleg Basilashvili’s neighbors had already outed themselves as racists, I did not want to hang around and find out whether they were homophobes as well.
I was more naïve than I am now. Although I had already had many encounters with “casual” racism and anti-Semitism Russian style, Petrograd had not yet arrived at the bad part of its mid noughties, when more proactive racists than my intelligentsia couple would ever want to be began assaulting and murdering immigrants, foreigners, anti-fascists, and members of Russian ethnic minorities in especially large numbers.
But I was not naïve enough to try and plead Diego’s case to these assholes. I immediately left their precious den of culture-vulturehood and hit the streets, cursing them out loud while also trying to think of a back-up plan.
To read the whole article, please, visit TheRussianReader.